The Play’s The Thing: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson

Mary Shelley Cover

(image taken from Amazon.com)

Why I Decided To Read It: I first read Frankenstein in high school.  We covered the gist of Mary Shelley: father was William Godwin, mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, ran off with Percy Shelley, Frankenstein was started on a trip to Geneva when Lord Byron suggested they all come up with a scary story.  I found the book interesting, but didn’t necessarily appreciate some of the deeper philosophical issues until later in my academic career. I discovered this play while randomly searching Amazon.  I wanted to learn more about Mary Shelley, so I decided to get it.  Also the playwright is a woman and I’m all for more women playwrights.

Summary:  Before she was author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was Mary Godwin- daughter of political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.  Raised on her father’s radical ideas with her half-sister Fanny and step-sister Jane, Mary Godwin is an unconventional teenager for her time.  She’s educated, opinionated, and fearless.  After coming home from a stay in Scotland, she meets one of her father’s proteges, Percy Shelley.  Sparks immediately fly.  As Mary and Shelley rush into a wild romance, Mary’s relationship with her father becomes strained and society begins to turn on the Godwin family.  As her relationships crumble, Mary begins to question the beliefs she was raised on and begins to write.

Thoughts and Analysis: First things first- and I guess that this is somewhat a spoiler- this play doesn’t show the scary story bet in Geneva that starts Frankenstein.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  While we don’t see the very specific event itself, we do see a lot of what inspired Frankenstein.  Mary Shelley’s book is very much about parenting.  While the Monster does horrible things, Victor Frankenstein’s failed “parenting” is partially at fault.  Mary Shelley has a very difficult relationship with her father in this play.  Part of their problems stem from their different philosophical views.  William Godwin believes that humanity can be perfected, but Mary sees the danger of trying too hard to perfect humanity.  I feel it is very helpful to already understand the story behind Frankenstein and the philosophical views behind the characters.  It isn’t 100% necessary, but it helps.  The views of the Enlightenment period is kind of complicated. 

Speaking of complicated, the Godwin family situation is extremely complicated.  I had no idea prior to this play.  Mary Godwin has two sisters, but they aren’t fully related by blood.  Jane is her step-sister and Fanny is her half-sister.  It took a few minutes to figure out who was a blood relation to who.  Maybe if I saw it I might be able to figure it out faster.  Keeping track of the timeline could also be a little complicated.  There wasn’t many “six months later” in the stage directions except in a few cases, so I had to follow the script itself closely.  The play doesn’t cover her entire life.  It’s essentially from when she meets Percy Shelley to when she finally marries him.

A part of the play I really like was Mary’s dreams.  They were small pieces, but I could see some of the origins of Frankenstein in them.  They also give great indications of Mary’s mental state.  She clearly has issues with depression and regret.

Favorite Character: I don’t know if it’s because she’s similar to characters I’ve played before, but I really liked Fanny.  She’s the only sensible person in the entire family. 

Should You Read This?: If you’ve read Frankenstein and want to know more about the author’s past, it’s an interesting read.  I don’t think it’s for everybody, but people interested in English literature, women in literature, and philosophy should like it.  It would be a great pairing for theaters doing a play version of Frankenstein.

Final Thoughts: Although some parts could be complicated, I liked it overall and found Mary Shelley’s early life fascinating.

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