Events leading to the publication of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein form the narrative of Creating Monsters, an original play by LAB Theater Project founder and artistic director Owen Robertson. The drama opens Thursday and will run through Sept. 11.
Frankenstein (with its original subtitle Or, the Modern Prometheus) arrived on British bookshelves in 1818, with the author listed as Anonymous.
In its introduction, editor Percy Bysshe Shelley (the Romantic poet, and Mary’s husband) wrote “I found this manuscript.” According to Robertson, “Percy was very afraid that it would not be well-received. He feared for how people would react to her writing it.”
The story of a scientist (Victor Frankenstein) “playing God” by creating new life from scraps of cadavers was an immediate sensation.
When Frankenstein was re-published in 1831, its author was revealed; Mary Shelley was just 18 when she wrote it.
“Frankenstein is considered probably the very first science fiction novel,” says Robertson. “So there’s that side of it. But the other side of it, too, is that here’s the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who’s considered one of the earliest feminists.
“Frankenstein is really this amazing story that comes after the subject of ‘What is beauty?’ ‘What is intelligence and how is it formed?’ ‘What is parenting?’ And it’s all wrapped up into this novel that deeply questions how we are who we are, and how we identify ourselves. And it’s written by this 18-year-old girl!
“We still resonate with these questions today. How does a child gain identity when it has no parents, when it’s rejected by its parents?”
Creating Monsters re-creates the evening in 1817 when Mary, Percy, Dr. John Polidori and Claire Claremont, Mary’s stepsister, were together at Lord Byron’s villa in Switzerland, sitting before a log fire and amusing one another by telling scary stories.
“And one night Byron says ‘Hey, here’s a game we’ll play – let’s see who can tell the best ghost story.’ And that’s how it started. Mary’s was the best.”
A lot went into the writing of Shelley’s masterpiece – including elements from her own life and experiences. “Part of what Mary’s asking is, if we create, what happens when we abandon our creation?” Robertson says.
“In the research I did, reading through her journals, she grappled with this notion of motherhood and children … when Mary was born, her mother died two weeks later. And later, she had horrible nightmares about being a mother.”
Roberston’s own curiosity was piqued in 2013, sitting in a gothic literature class. “I loved the story of Frankenstein,” he explains, “but I was really fascinated by the idea of having Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron sitting in a room together. What would it be like to watch this young woman go through creating this story?
“And so I really started digging into it. What did she go through to find her voice as a writer, to come into her intellectual power?”
LAB Theater Project is located in Ybor City. More information, and tickets, can be found here.