A play about Mary Shelley was always going to burst the seams, but who cares when the stuffing is a playwright’s dream, as TAMZIN LEWIS hears
ANYONE up for a literary teaser? Which novel opens with a letter to Mrs Saville, stating: “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings”?
As it turns out, Mrs Saville’s forebodings are accurate and if you guessed Frankenstein, give yourself a sticker (sadly not provided by The Journal).
Playwright Helen Edmundson re-read the 19th Century Gothic masterpiece while considering a new stage adaptation of Frankenstein. But she instead became intrigued by its author, Mary Shelley, who was just 18 when she created Victor Frankenstein and his monster.
Helen says: “Mary was trying to grapple with huge ideas as to how human beings treat each other. She was also concerned about the power of education and the power of respect. I found Frankenstein quite painful to read at times. There is that awful sense of not being able to stop things spiraling out of control. It has the quality of a nightmare, especially as Frankenstein’s loved ones are being picked off.”
She adds: “Mary was able to flip round to the monster’s point of view and it is incredible to have such scope and range. I found it extraordinary that Mary could have written this book.”
Helen’s interest in Mary led her to the writings of her father, the radical political philosopher William Godwin, an early exponent of utilitarianism. His wife, the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died when their daughter was a baby and he subsequently wrote a frank and, at the time, shocking biography of her.
Londoner Helen says: “I found William completely fascinating and I have a huge soft spot for him. His radical beliefs had fallen out of fashion by the time Mary was a teenager. People had latched onto his more extreme and bizarre ideas.
“So when Mary was 16, her father was past his prime, struggling to survive and crushed by debt. He had quite a dysfunctional family.”
William remarried Mary Jane Clairmont, who had two children, and Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay were brought up in an unconventional London household. After extensive research into the family, which meant reading biographies and William Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Helen decided to hang her play on the relationship between Mary and her father.
Helen says: “I made decisions before I started writing the play about what I wanted to focus on. I also wanted to explore how much you have to compromise your ideals.
“The difficulty for me was that Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, step-sister and step-mother were also interesting. They could all have a play of their own. Fanny’s particular plight was very poignant. It did at times feel like it was bursting at the seams. There was so much I could have written.”
In 1814 the married poet Percy Shelley hurtled into the Godwin household and both Fanny (who committed suicide in 1816, aged 22) and Mary fell in love with him. That summer Mary and her step-sister, Claire, ran off to Europe with Percy and over the next two years they faced ostracism from their families.
In 1816 the three spent a summer with Lord Byron near Geneva in Switzerland where Mary conceived the idea for Frankenstein.
Helen says: “The way I look at her affair with Shelley is that it feeds back into the father-daughter relationship. It is the trigger for all the events of the play. I thought about William faced by the energy of Mary and the enormous tidal wave of Shelley’s energy.”
Helen adds that despite being estranged from her father, many of the novel’s themes are indebted to William’s ideas.
Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson is at Northern Stage from tomorrow until Saturday. Box office: 0191 230 5151 or www.northernstage.co.uk