Playing God: Richard Brinsley Peake and the Fate of Frankenstein on stage

26 April 2019

Cultural Studies | History | Literature | Theatre

This blog includes temporary free access to a nineteenth century edition of Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: Or the Fate of Frankenstein. The play will be available until 26th May 2019.

Last year marked 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel that has since become one of the premiere titles of Gothic fiction. Rivalled only by Bram Stokers Dracula, it has been adapted for film, television, radio, opera and the theatre.

The first of these adaptations (at least those recorded) however, is perhaps just as influential as the novel which spawned it. Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: Or the Fate of Frankenstein, is a three act play first performed in 1823 and is included in our Victorian Popular Culture collection. What is so astounding about this version however is that it features several elements not included in the novel which have reappeared consistently in subsequent adaptations.

Click above to view the document for free. Frankenstein, n.d., © Senate House Library, University of London

On the surface, Presumption can be seen to be a relatively straightforward take on Mary Shelley’s novel. Like the book, the play follows Victor Frankenstein (played in its initial run by established actor-manager James William Wallack) as he dares to dabble in God’s domain and creates a monster. Unlike the novel however, Presumption is not seen through the eyes of Frankenstein, but rather through a character who would prove a long-lasting addition to the novel’s mythos. The hunchback assistant, ‘Fritz’ would later become immortalised under the name ‘Igor’, no doubt due to Bela Lugosi’s wonderful portrayal of a similar character in the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein. However, the trope of Frankenstein’s assistant appears first here (he works alone in the novel) and this element was deemed successful enough for it to be carried across to the 1931 adaptation, and played, with villainous flare, by Dwight Frye.

Another less obvious, but equally lasting change made by Peake, is his decision to make the creature mute. This is another change that would be carried into the 1931 film, where Whale cast Boris Karloff as the monster with Jack Pierce’s flat-headed bolt-neck make-up, resulting in a tour de force performance which became synonymous with the character.

Director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff on the set of 'Bride of Frankenstein'. Image via: Wikimedia Commons

However, there is evidence to suggest that Peake’s decision was more out of necessity than artistic reason. Charles II only awarded patents for the staging of plays to a select number of theatres (dubbed ‘Theatres Royal’); all other productions had to have musical, pantomime and ‘spectacle’ elements in order to be legally staged. As well as featuring songs, it’s possible the decision to make the creature ‘mute’ was to give an air of pantomime, as his performance would have to be conducted silently.

One of the more recognisable tropes associated with the Frankenstein mythos is the hollering of the phrase “it’s alive!” by Victor upon the awakening of his creation. Of course, no such line appears in Shelley’s original novel and the quote is usually associated with the 1931 film where Colin Clive utters the line. However, in Presumption, the creatures ‘birth’ takes place off stage and is only signified by Frankenstein running on stage uttering; “he’s alive!’.

Peake’s Presumption is a unique version of Shelley’s story, which has managed to stand the test of time. Its script offers a still fresh take on the Frankenstein myth and its availability in Victorian Popular Culture offers historians a fresh look at an immortal story.

Colin Clive and Boris Karloff in 'Frankenstein' (1931) Image Via: Wikimedia Commons

Victorian Popular Culture is avaliable now. For more information or a free trial email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Callum Mckelvie

Callum Mckelvie

I joined the editorial team in March 2018 and since then have had the opportunity to work on several exciting projects including; ‘Research Source’ and ‘American Indian Newspapers’. Having studied at Aberystwyth University, my primary interests lie in the field of Media History with particular attention given to examining 20th century popular culture.

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