T. P. Cooke’s Demon:
The First Pop-Culture “Frankenstein”

August 26th, 2022

An explosion. Fire and smoke. Laboratory doors shatter. The Demon appears in a blast of red flame!

That’s how the Frankenstein monster made its entrance in the first dramatic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel.

Loosely adapted by Richard Brinsley Peake and starring actor T. P. Cooke as the monster (referred to as “The Demon” in the stage notes), Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823) became an instant sensation that transformed Shelley’s book (which until then had only been available in a printing of 500 copies) into a cultural phenomenon.

Mary Shelley was in Europe when the play opened at the London Opera House. Widowed and struggling financially, she was on her way back to England with her young son when she received word about the premiere. It was news to her. Back then, print copyrights did not extend to stage adaptations, and the play had been written and staged without her approval. Nevertheless, although she never received a cent from its initial run (nor from any of the numerous revivals and adaptations that followed), she still benefitted from its success. “Lo and behold!” she wrote, reflecting upon her sudden notoriety. “I was famous!”

Attending a performance of Presumption that summer, she reported being “much amused” by Cooke’s portrayal of the creature, as “it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience.” However, she went on to lament that the adaptation “was not well managed.”

That criticism notwithstanding, Shelley was no doubt pleased that the play’s success led to a second printing of her novel, this time with a larger press run and her name on the title page. (The first printing, released five years earlier, had been published anonymously).

Indeed, it’s possible that Presumption has more to do with Shelley’s notoriety than the novel itself.

Consider, not only did the play bring about a second printing of the book, but it also introduced story elements that went on to become part of the Frankenstein universe. For example, it is the play that gives us lab assistant Fritz (later played by Dwight Frye in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and the image of the monster buried in snow and ice (where it would be discovered by Larry Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943).

But the one place where Presumption remains relatively true to Shelley’s book is in the physical appearance of the creature. Rather than a patchwork of dead bodies (see “The Grave Misconception”), Cooke’s monster is an organic whole. Displaying neither stitches, bolts, nor scars—it is apparently the product of organic chemistry. Moreover, Cooke’s make-up recalls the novel’s description of the monster’s long black hair, “shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.”

By contrast, although the creature’s skin is yellow in the novel, Cooke’s performance employed a shade of bluish green that made quite an impression on 19th-century audiences. That was particularly true in Paris, where fashion designers cashed in on the play’s popularity by marketing gloves and dresses in a color known alternately as “monster bleu” and “vert de monster.”

In all, it’s difficult to overestimate the play’s influence on the Frankenstein legacy. Indeed, according to the blog Frankensteinia:

Within a month of Presumption’s release, copycat productions “were hitting London stages [… and], by year’s end, five different versions–including burlesque parodies–had been fielded. Over the next three years, no less than fourteen versions were staged in England, France and America.

Not surprisingly, when film emerged to compete with live theatre, the Frankenstein monster easily made the jump from stage to screen.

In 1910, the Edison Company produced the first film adaptation of Frankenstein, featuring Charles Ogle as a monster that has more in common with Cooke’s interpretation than the patch-work design that would appear in the Universal movies two decades later.

You can learn more about T. P. Cooke and the ways that Presumption made Frankenstein a pop-cultural phenomenon by reading Miranda Seymour’s biography Mary Shelley and the aforementioned blog Frankensteinia, where you’ll find a number of well-researched posts on T.P. Cooke and Presumption. And should you want to experience the play itself, you’ll find the text widely available online. (You might even find one or two amateur productions on YouTube.)

This post is part of a series offering closer looks at some of the Frankenstein adaptations discussed in this month’s episode of the podcast Horror Drafts. Previous installments deal with Warner Brothers Cartoons, Hammer Films, Creepy Magazine, and a strangely confounding arthouse film from Spain titled The Spirit of the Beehive.

The images of T. P. Cooke featured in this post are from his performance in Le Monster et le Magicien (1826), the French adaptation in which the actor reprised his role in Presumption. You can find a picture of his Presumption performance in the earlier post “The Grave Misconception.

Finally, if you haven’t already done so, you might enjoy listening to Prime Stage Mystery Theatre’s “A Trap Full of Monsters,” a who-done-it that takes place during a regional theatre’s rehearsal of Presumption. The five-part mystery describes the operation of a trap door similar to one T. P. Cooke employed in some of his 19th-century performances.

Click the player below to hear the first installment. I’ll meet you there.

  1. This entry was posted on Friday, August 26th, 2022 at 10:20 am and is filed under 21st-Century Scop. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.

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