My Great-Great-Aunt Is The Reason We Call The Monster Frankenstein
To all the other Shelley fans out there…our bad?
When I was 15, I was in a show called Murder By the Book. It was a fun murder mystery play based around literature, and I played the part of the young, flirty, slightly mad Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Of course, I was thrilled about this — I loved the book and thought Shelley’s story was wild enough on its own.
In doing research for that part, and because my mother happened to be doing family genealogy at the time, I discovered something astounding: I was related to a playwright! Not just any, playwright though. I was related to the woman behind a Frankenstein fan’s biggest pet peeve.
Meet Peggy Webling
I’ve had a hell of a time finding any information about Peggy. It seems that almost all of her work has been lost to time and that there aren’t many remaining pieces of documentation about her life floating around. What I have found, though, is astounding.
Peggy Webling was born on January 1st, 1871, in Westminster. She had three sisters (all of whom ended up performing at one time or another) and was a remarkable playwright from a relatively early age. She was so well respected, as it turned out, that she rubbed elbows with some of literature’s finest, including Lewis Carroll of all people!
She wrote a few shows over her career but got a special request from actor and producer Hamilton Deane, who’d written an adaptation of Dracula. He asked her to create a stage version of Frankenstein, and she agreed.
The Infamous Show
The show, titled Frankenstein: An Adventure in the Macabre, premiered in December of 1927 alongside Dracula. The double-bill titles were a success and toured the United Kingdom for two years. Frankenstein was eventually transferred to London in 1930, where it ran for a stunning 72 performances.
She made a number of strange changes to the story as well, such as including the use of alchemy and changing the doctor’s first name to Henry. The monster is shown to at first have a childish understanding of the world, growing and maturing as the show goes on and tragically drowning a child whom he was trying only to play with. The show ends amazingly with the monster being killed by a bolt of lightning after violently murdering the doctor. It’s pretty wild and intense, all things considered, but I’m sure it would have made for a great watch.
One thing that really stood out about Peggy’s adaptation was that, in her show, both the monster and the doctor were referred to as Frankenstein. This has led to significant amounts of confusion and much ire in the literary community since. Thanks, Aunt Peggy…
Unfortunately, critics didn’t seem to like the show as much as the sold-out crowds did. According to one account, a London Times reporter said that the show was “as flimsy as a birdcage.” He did, however, say that it “succeeded in bringing the monster to life.”
Still, everyone else seemed to like it. In fact, it was liked so well that Universal Pictures soon got wind of it.
Universal Gets Involved
In 1931, at the end of the show’s London run, Peggy was contacted by Universal Pictures. They wanted to buy the rights to her show and readapt it into a motion picture!
Peggy managed to negotiate a $20,000 advance for the rights, as well as a 1% royalty payment from the gross earnings of all showings of any films based on her play (does that still apply, and where do I collect?). Not bad for a young playwright.
The criticism didn’t necessarily stop there, though. The re-adapter, John L. Balderson, apparently called her show “illiterate” and crude…which seems odd considering how insistent the studio was on securing the rights.
Oh, and the movie they produced with the re-adaptation of Peggy’s work? It was a little number starring Boris Karloff.
The Weblings Remain Invested
Sadly, the majority of Peggy’s original manuscript for Frankenstein is very difficult to find without high-level academic clearance. I desperately want a copy of it someday, if only to say that I have it. I’d love even more to put it on stage again.
How funny that so many years later, a descendent of hers should stumble across her work while working in theater, playing the role of the author who inspired it all. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this relative of mine, who seems to have shared my love of writing, theater, and dark literature. I’m proud to say I’m related to her, even with some small character naming snafus.
Peggy’s contributions to theater and popular culture are amazing, and yet nearly no one knows her name. I hope that I can change that, in even a small way. She deserves to be remembered as who she was: a founding figure of the classic horror genre.