Socialist Worker

Mary Shelley play fuels debate and imagination

Maxine Bowler enjoys the new production that charts the life and revolutionary ideas of the author of Frankenstein

Issue No. 2297

The life and politics of author Mary Shelley are laid out in this great new play—now set for a national tour.

It explores Mary Shelley’s relationships with her father, her sisters and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She would later marry Percy, though at the time the play is set in he was her lover and married to another woman.

The play also draws on the influence of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, a radical advocate of women’s rights, who died soon after giving birth to Mary.

The debates of the day are played out through these relationships—debates over liberty, women’s liberation and sexual freedom. They reflect the turmoil of ideas at the beginning of the 19th century as industrialis­ation transformed the lives of the working poor.

Many emerge through discussions between Mary and her father William Godwin. He was a radical phil­osopher, who wrote about the repressive nature of marriage.

But his ideas did not translate into a liberal attitude towards his daughter. He ostracised Mary for her affair with Percy and later disowned her.

The play also examines other social taboos of the time. Mary’s sister committed suicide—an act that brought disgrace on the family in the eyes of mainstream society.

These discussions reminded me of the debates that come up at times of struggle. It resonated with the discussions we had in the 1960s and 1970s about women’s liberation.

The production is brilliant, with great performances by Kristen Atherton as Mary and William Chubb as her father. And the creative use of props fires up the imagination.

It made me want to re-read Mary Shelley’s great novel Frankenstein. But I disagree with the play’s suggestion that the book was inspired by her relationship with her father.

This is an inspiring and powerful production that raises issues which are important and relevant today.

Mary Shelley, written by Helen Edmundson and directed by Polly Teale, is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 7 April. It then tours venues including Nottingham, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, Oxford and London. For more details go to

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