It was 1823 and a monster appeared in London — just as it will in Princeton as McCarter Theater presents the Lookingglass Theater’s production of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” through November 3.
The monster in London appeared at the English Opera House in popular playwright Richard Brinsley Peake’s “Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein.”
Peake’s page-to-stage was an adaptation of a fairly recent novel, “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus,” by an anonymous author,
Published by Lackington & Company in 1818, the 500-copy release received mixed reviews.
While novelist and essayist Sir Walter Scott praised its clear and “forcibly expressed” writing before pointing out that some of the story’s developments were “overstrained,” other critics were less kind.
The public, however, had developed a taste for fantastic — or Gothic — stories and didn’t care.
Neither did Peake. And taking advantage of the era’s lack of laws regarding copyrights, he produced a lowbrow, cheap-seat stage spectacle that inadvertently made the limited-issue novel popular.
Then one night something happened in the audience that would change the literary world and popular entertainment.
The novel’s author, Mary Shelley, arrived and came face to face with her creation made flesh. As she wrote in a letter soon afterwards, “I was much amused, and it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience.”
That eagerness was also a hunger for more Frankenstein, and Shelley and her father, radical journalist and novelist William Godwin, capitalized on the production and reprinted the book.
But this time Mary Shelley’s name was attached to it.
“I found myself famous,” she said about seeing her work appear on stage — not realizing the fame she would eventually achieve.
The book is now one of the most famous novels in the world and never out of fashion.
The same is true for dramatic adaptations that have — like Shelley’s creature — taken on a life of their own.
Shelley’s novel was a moody brew of both a romantic tragedy about a man who dares to become like god and suffers the consequences as well as a tale of existential angst told by a man created by a “god” that spurns him and, like a fallen angel, rebels.
In his play version Peake does away with Shelley’s idea of the suffering Prometheus and replaces him with an allusion to Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil and longs to bite the fruit of forbidden wisdom.
He also changed the story to make it work on the stage.
Here is how Shelley wrote in her novel about the birth of the creature: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs . . . Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.”
Now in the above-mentioned letter she recounts the stage action: “(Actor James William) Wallack looked very well as F (for Frankenstein) — he is at the beginning full of hope & expectation — at the end of the 1st Act. The stage represents a room with a staircase leading to F’s workshop — he goes to it and you see his light at a small window, through which a frightened servant peeps, who runs off in terror when F exclaims ‘It lives!’ — Presently F himself rushes in horror & trepidation from the room and while still expressing his agony & terror (the unnamed creature) throws down the door of the laboratory, leaps the staircase & presents his unearthly & monstrous person on the stage. The story is not well managed — but (T.P.) Cooke played (the creature’s) part extremely well — his seeking as it were for support — his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard — all indeed he does was well imagined & executed.”
Interestingly, she also touches on two embellishments that continue to inform numerous dramatic interpretations as if they were part of Shelley’s novel.
One is Peake’s line “It lives!,” which later becomes “It’s alive!” in the 1931 film version. It is now one of the most quoted lines in film history and a phrase forever associated with the story.
The other is the addition of an assistant named Fritz, who appears in other stage versions, pops up in 1931 film version, and then reappears in various films under different names before morphing into the character Igor.
In addition to several revivals of Peake’s play, there was a series of 19th-century Frankenstein productions in England and the Continent whose portrayal of the scientist and his monster changed to fit the era’s times and mood.
They also show how the plays responded to the audience’s desire for spectacle. Peake’s play ends with an avalanche. In another the creature leaps into a fiery volcano.
Audiences really got an eyeful in 1910 when “Frankenstein” made its first film appearance with the creature actually coming alive through a real electric spark — in a motion picture projector.
Created by the New Jersey-based Edison Film Company and filmed in the Bronx, the 10-minute film resembles Shelley’s novel in name and general plot only. Yet it is distinguished by showing the creature rising from a smoking cauldron, reflecting the dramatic interpretations that connected Victor Frankenstein with alchemy and magic.
Then in the early 1930s stage and screen came together to recreate the story as we imagine it today.
The writing was by another woman, Peggy Webling.
As she recalls in a 1930 London newspaper interview, “I was walking down a street, turning over in my mind the subject for a good play, and suddenly I recalled Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s book, ‘Frankenstein.’ Before I realized it I had arrived at my doorstep and the plot and the various details were all worked out in my mind.”
A London-born writer and stage performer, Webling was connected with producer and actor Hamilton Deane, whose stage version of “Dracula” was a hit.
In 1927 Webling’s “Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre” was added to a double bill that Deane toured through England before premiering it in London in 1930.
Like Deane’s “Dracula,” Webling’s play deviated from the novel and cut out the story’s framing device — the letters from a sea captain with a strange tale — and the creature’s ability to speak.
However the creature does show confusion and frustration, just as the creature did in Peake’s play, as Shelley noted.
The London Times’ assessment was that Webling “has unquestionably succeeded in bringing the monster to life; but the play in which she exhibits this wild beast is as flimsy as a bird cage.”
And then again the negative reviews had no effect. Hollywood’s Universal Pictures bought the rights for the two plays and used them as the basis of two of the most famous horror films in history, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.”
Webling’s “Frankenstein” — on both stage and screen — is also noted for helping audiences to use the name Frankenstein to represent to the creature. That habit had became so ingrained that in a later Universal Picture, “The Son of Frankenstein,” the younger Frankenstein regrets how his name was transferred to the monster.
The 1931 screen version also contains an artistic choice that has come to define the image of Frankenstein’s creature: the neck bolts and flat head.
Designed by Universal Pictures makeup artist Jack Pierce and worn by actor Boris Karloff, the bolts are fairly obvious. They are battery-like connectors that Dr. Frankenstein uses to bring the creature to life.
The head, however, is more enigmatic and grotesque. As Pierce said, it was designed like a lid so the head could be opened easily and a brain added or removed as needed — far different from Shelley’s description of a creature with tight and translucent yellow skin and watery white eyes.
The brain addition is also a key change in the story. In the film Fritz makes the mistake of stealing a criminal brain from a university laboratory and dooms Frankenstein’s grandiose experiment from the start.
Despite the film’s gruesomeness and a warning of such before the credits, the film was a hit and in less than a year earned $1.4 million, proving again the audience’s thirst for the fantastic.
It also launched a series of films in the 1930s and ’40s that made Frankenstein a household name, triggered off a new series of films by the British Hammer Film company in the 1950s, and stimulated more plays and films, including “Andy Warhol’s ‘Frankenstein,’” and Mel Brooks’ film and Broadway show “Young Frankenstein.”
But the success of the Frankenstein productions also resulted in a change of spirit.
And just like the brain transplants in the Frankenstein films, the Universal Studio productions did a type of heart-transplant and replaced Shelley’s philosophical complexities with a simpler formula.
As “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” and “House of Frankenstein” writer Curt Siodmak shared with me in a personal communication in 1999, Universal writers discarded the novel and used a story about another animated figure that becomes a menacing and uncontrollable figure, the Golem.
Rather than the articulate and philosophically astute creature imagined by Shelley, the films generally use a growling, brutish human figure.
Yet despite the look and the heart of the dramatic creatures that appear on stages and screens of all kinds, the dramatic productions continuously tap into a fresh audience and bring attention to a 200-year-old book about the mystery of human existence.
And it goes back to a night when Shelley was sitting in a theater and heard the prophetic line, “It lives!”
And as Lookingglass’s new production — with the company’s love for spectacle —shows that it is still alive and kicking.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Lookingglass Theater Company at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through November 3. $25 to $80. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.