Oxford Playhouse: 29 May — 2 June
Winchester Theatre Royal: 6 June — 9 June
Tricycle Theatre, London: 12 June — 7 July
Who knows what it means to fathom the universe? Who knows its cost? In Shared Experience’s recently concluded production of Helen Edmundson’s Mary Shelley at the Oxford Playhouse (now touring to Winchester Theatre Royal and the Tricycle Theatre), Mary Shelley does. The play explores “the curse of the passion of the mind” that seems to thread its way through the eponymous author’s familiar lines. In the playbook offered to theatregoers, Edmundson explains that she hoped to dramatise the question which initially inspired her interest in Mary (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin): “how did [she], aged only eighteen, come to write a novel of such weight and power as Frankenstein?”
Indeed, in the play, Edmundson and the characters she has so carefully crafted wrestle with the very issues which concerned the historical Mary, as well as those in her immediate circle: the responsibility a creator (or parent) has for his or her works (or children), and the consequences, both immediate and remote, of creating honest art. The Mary Shelley we see before us is as much the creation of our imaginations as she is a being of Edmundson’s making, rendering the onstage interplay between the literary and historical Marys a complex one. As the gargantuan and disheveled bookshelves of the set remind us (they are omnipresent in every scene), the literary woman looms behind the historic one. Yet, both the literary and historic Marys are united as the creator of Frankenstein.
Edmundson could easily have attributed the prodigious genius of Frankenstein to the events, by turns dramatic and traumatic, of Mary’s early life: the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in childbirth, the insolvency and political activism of her father William Godwin, the suicide of her older sister Fanny Godwin, the death of her infant daughter Clara, and the blithe idealism of her lover, husband, and collaborator Percy Bysshe Shelley. Instead, she deftly demonstrates how the novel is the product of her particular philosophical and intellectual upbringing as well as a catalysing series of events. By the end of the play, Mary herself perceives this. When her father asks if he was the inspiration for her “monstrous creator,” she names his ideas about humanity as the genesis for her own dramatisation of the struggle to be human.
Further, Edmundson’s play engages with the zeitgeist of impact, coming a year after Danny Boyle’s award-winning production of Frankenstein (in Nick Dear’s adaptated version for the stage) at the National Theatre. While Boyle’s Frankenstein created tensions between issues of creation and responsibility – particularly by having Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternate the roles of Dr Frankenstein and the Creature – Edmundson delves deeper. She amends and complicates the familiar equation of the visionary self versus the greater good, which often overlooks the impact of creative responsibility on loved ones.
This is particularly evident in the first act, when, upon reading her father’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley is glad to have access to such a frank account of her mother’s politics, philosophies, travels, and love affairs. Godwin, who brought out a heavily revised second edition after negative reviews from the reactionary press struck his family’s reputation, is all too aware of the effects of making public what many would consider private. Mary argues that the benefits to those who read and appreciated the biography far outweighed the consequences of its negative reception to her own family (debt, estrangement). In this moment, before she has forged her own life, has made her own choices, and has lived with the consequences (good or bad), Mary is unable to compromise her desire to create honest and influential works of art. Though her father has come to understand when and why one must sacrifice or compromise the creative impulse, Mary believes that her creative life and love affair with Shelley are and must be the culmination of the philosophical ideals her parents fought to create. Not until she loses her older sister does she realise the necessity of compromise.
Polly Teale’s imaginative and involved staging brings Edmundson’s careful research and vivid dialogue to life. Mary Shelley alternates the darkly and deftly comedic with the tenderness and truthfulness of an honest art that Shelley herself would have been glad to create.
Laura Ludtke is a DPhil candidate at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is working on her dissertation, a study of the influence of electric light on writers in London between 1880-1950.