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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Escaping Shelly's Frame

Drawing of T. P. Cooke as the monster standing over a cowering man from The Monster in 'Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein', 1823. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection.
The Monster in Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, 1823. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection.




In 1823 Mary Shelley's father told her of an English Opera House production of a play entitled Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein. Though inspired by her novel, the play departed from it freely — as playwrights, filmmakers, and political cartoonists have done ever since. Shelley's original novel, memorable for its story and ambitious in the large questions it poses, has invariably been simplified and distorted, sometimes almost beyond recognition.

The actor T.P. Cooke played the monster in this 1823 stage adaptation of Frankenstein. His make-up left him, by one account, with a "shriveled complexion, lips straight and black, and a horrible ghastly grin."

An editorial cartoon featuring an Irishman standing hunched over with a mask over his eyes and holding a pisol in his left hand and a cape around his back with his right hand. An elegantly attired man kneels with his left hand outstretched to hold the monster off. The Irish Frankenstein, 1843. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Irish Frankenstein, 1843. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When nineteenth-century English editorial cartoonists wished to depict some group as brutish, primitive, or inclined to run amok, they routinely invoked the image of the Frankenstein monster. Here, their target was the Irish.

Cover of The Edison Kinetogram film featuring Charles Ogle
as the monster in the center of the cover. The Edison Kinetogram, March 10,1910. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.
The Edison Kinetogram, March 10,1910. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.

The first cinematic version of Frankenstein was a silent film produced by Edison Films; it came two decades before the famous 1931 Universal Studios picture.