Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein
Presumption is a play adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that takes a different approach to the traditional story. The permissions of the 19th century impacted the content of the play, and therefore lends to why there is so much spectacle and flair. In the 19th century, adaptations would fall into “illegitimate” theatres - theaters that were not condoned by the Lord Chamberlain and showed drama versus the comedy or dramatic tragedy of the “legitimate theatre.” In order to fit into this personae, the adaptation had to be inclusive of elements such as music, pantomime, and spectacle, in order to show at these alternative theaters.
Presumption includes characters not in the original text, musical numbers, and comedic intervention. “Frankenstein’s servant,” Fritz, is a character not originally crafted by Shelley and is often the comedic relief in contrast to Frankenstein; he serves as his paradox. Another major character divergence from the original text is Elizabeth’s engagement to Clerval. Rather than her relationship with Frankenstein, she remains his sister but is the love interest of Clerval, Frankstein’s friend, thus transforming the Frankenstein/Elizabeth dichotomy that is integral to the understanding of the original text why Frankenstein is the way he is. Furthermore, the Creature plays a very different role as well; he is portrayed in his monstrosity and called the Demon. This categorizes him as other, something else than the rest of the characters, and vilifies him in a way that is not apparent in the original text. It throws a wrench into the theory of Frankenstein and his creation as a reflection of one another, and instead amplifies his monstrosity and creates an evil/hero dichotomy.
The Role of Fritz and His Cow
Fritz’s role in Presumption I find very interesting, particularly because he does not exist in the original text. The creation of his character has spurn the typical adaption of Frankenstein and Igor, the modernized version of original adaptions. His comedic relief and interjections serve a purpose that the original text does not illustrate, and plays into the role of theatre. His reception of the other characters is evidently of the fool, and his role is to be the paradox of Frankenstein.
Fritz has a few obsessions that he continuously comes back to in conversation, and even in scenes of action and drama. For this purpose, I want to look at the use of his “cow” in dialogue, and what that constitutes to Fritz. We learn early on that Fritz has moved from his home, in the “country,” from his wife, and in that memory we learn of his cow. He states,“Now, when I was in the country, with my cow (she’s no more now, poor thing!) […],” indicating that his cow has passed (1.1). In the conversation with Clerval, he negates the conversation by returning to his cow again, stating, “Nor my cow neither, poor creter. (Wipes his eyes.) Excuse my crying – she’s defunct, and I always whimper a little when I think on her; and my wife lives away from me, but I don’t care so much for that” (1.1). Here we see that his valued his cow over his wife, and still feels an emotional attachment to his cow even in her death.
So what purpose does his cow serve? Of course we can see how the cow serves as a comedic relief alongside Fritz, but I want to say there’s something else occurring here, too. It could be bought off as an “inside joke” between the play and the audience, something that grows in humor each time it is said - and only those that know the joke would understand its comedic tone. But what can we understand about Fritz from his cow kinship?
We can understand that his cow was female, as according to the New World Encyclopedia the term “cow” situates the gender as feminine rather than the masculine “bull” or emasculated “bullock,” “steer,” or “ox.” From this knowledge, we can infer the relationship Fritz had with his cow over the relationship with his wife - one was prided more than the other, one is missed more than the other. We can also look at cows and human culture, as they have been influential since early prehistoric eras (as depicted in drawings and sculptures). However, cows are also economically and religiously critical:
When I see a cow, it is not an animal to eat, it is a poem of pity for me and I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world. (Mahatma Ghandi)
A Symbiotic Kinship
So what is Fritz’s cow to Fritz? Perhaps because Fritz is cast off as such an “other” character, his relationship with his cow stemmed from the pity he feels for her. In feeling pity for the animal, or connecting on an emotional level, he becomes less “othered” and is a necessity for his cow -his cow needs him as much as he needs his cow. They share a symbiotic relationship of mutualism. So what does it mean that he is away from his cow, albeit dead or not? Well, he becomes the “other” once more unless he can mention his cow. The references to his cow are to maintain that sense of personhood that Fritz so easily loses especially in regards to his paradoxical relationship with Frankenstein.
In the scene between Clerval and Fritz, Clerval gives Fritz money as a bribe to tell him what has occurred. However, Fritz automatically associates the money with that of purchasing a cow immediately at the mention of purchasing a cottage, alluding to personhood once more:
CLER. Yes. Would you like to be master of a cottage?
FRITZ. What, and keep a cow? – the very thing. Why, Mr. Clerval, you’re a conjuror, and know my thoughts by art.
CLER. Fritz, I want to discover – but you must be prudent – (Takes out purse and gives a florin to Fritz.) Here’s an earnest of my future intentions touching the cow and cottage.
FRITZ. Bodikins! a florin! (Examining money.) (1.1)
Not only is Fritz associating human cultural demand with his cow, but monetary fulfillment is equally justified in terms of acquiring a cow. Regardless if this is meant to belittle him, as it does in one aspect, it also empowers his character. Regardless of the atrocities that occur, Fritz will always have that symbiotic kinship with his cow.
Peake, Richard Brinsley. Presumption. Romantic Circles, ed. Stephen C. Behrendt, 1823. http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/peake/index.html.