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ALISON GLENNY

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Mary Shelley attends a performance of ‘Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein’

It is the night before her twenty-sixth birthday. She wears a plain black velvet dress cut low to reveal her shoulders, the dark colour her only concession to the outward conventions of mourning. Her father and stepbrother have both seen the play before, and she has been prepared for the story to have been altered beyond her wildest imaginings. She has resolved not to think of certain things and to take all as a matter of course and, by these means, keep herself from the gulph of melancholy. Yet despite their warnings and her resolution it is still a shock to see her own characters rendered in this way, all their subtlety rubbed away. So this, she tells herself, is how a monster is brought into being!

With the removal of the layers of narrative in which she wrapped her creature he seems to have been born anew: a being even more rough-hewn and savage than she created him. It is as if the dramatist had thrust his hand into her novel and removed fistfuls of cobwebby narration, so that a cold wind blows through the gaps she’d filled with philosophy and description. Most startlingly, this scissor-born monster does not speak. In place of language, he communicates by gestures, grunts and groans; his face is a theatre of rapidly shifting emotions. Yet the mere fact of his being embodied by an actor also lends this stage monster a strange humanity. Music soothes him; he listens, clenched hand held against his ear, while rejection causes him to writhe in the agonies of artificial grief. She, who recently described herself to a friend as cold moonshine, finds herself strangely warmed by the performance. She observes with pride how he holds the audience’s attention as if in a spell as he leaps down stairs, smashes doors and windows, and snarls with the ferocity of a mad dog.

Her stepbrother has already recounted the end of the piece, describing with enthusiasm the avalanche which annihilates both the monster and his creator.

She regrets the entire removal of the polar regions, but appreciates that in the transition from novel to stage, the sublime might need to be confined to a smaller compass.

Now the monster is being pursued by his creator across the wild shores of a lake. As the play moves towards its climax his gesticulations grow more violent and extreme, while the audience betrays a breathless and excited eagerness. Yet even as her attention is absorbed by the spectacle, another scene impresses itself upon her vision. She seems to glimpse a far-off shore, a house on a strand and through the window, a figure that resembles herself, outlined in grey, walking backwards and forwards in a darkened room.

 

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