While the Victorian London of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful may seem to contain more ghouls than chimney sweeps, some of the show’s outlandish plotlines are based in the period’s strangest nonfiction. In particular, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (referred to on the show as The Creature or Caliban) can trace his roots through theatrical and medical history, to developments that led to modern cinematic special effects and life-saving innovations. Played by Rory Kinnear, The Creature speaks from true authority when he hisses, “You have not known horror until I’ve shown it to you.” From the the fake-blood-soaked audiences of the 20th century’s Grand Guignol stages back to the viscera-covered halls of 18th-century operating theaters, this particular monster’s story is wider and deeper than even Mary Shelley’s laudanum-fueled imagination could capture.
The phrase “penny dreadful” itself refers to cheap pulp novels that featured lurid story lines of lust and crime, an affordable diversion for the working class. According to writer and professor Mel Gordon, while this form of sensational entertainment would’ve been widely available to the Londoners of 1891, the Grand Guignol where the Creature is employed as a “stage rat” is a greater stretch of the imagination. A theater by that name certainly existed, and its impact on popular culture is immeasurable. However, the original Le Théâtre Du Grand-Guignol wouldn’t open its doors to Parisian theatergoers until 1897, and despite several attempts, a London location never flourished. While historically inaccurate, the Grand Guignol’s presence is still believable within the context of Penny Dreadful: In a world where naked psychics and ageless dandies are the norm, an evening’s entertainment at this theater of horrors makes perfect sense. Awash in blood, sex, and “ripped from the headlines” subject matter, the real-life history of the Grand Guignol trades in the themes that dominate Penny Dreadful.
Translated from French, Grand Guignol means “big puppet,” and the term originates from the eponymous Parisian theater that provided inexpensive horror shows and lowbrow comedies to standing-room-only crowds during the pre-World War I height of its popularity. According to Gordon—whose book The Grand Guignol: Theater Of Fear And Terror, details the origins and influence of these plays—though the genre is associated with over-the-top displays of gore, it was based in a cultural movement toward naturalism. This movement included scenarios of “real prostitutes and pickpockets playing themselves on stage.” Despite its appeal to voyeuristic audiences, Gordon explains that this setup “was always a disaster, because there was a good opening night and you could never repeat what you were supposed to be doing.” Instead, the winning and sustainable formula turned out to be what the theater owners described as “hot and cold showers”—that is, an evening of several short plays alternating between sex farce and bloody horror.
It’s the latter, however, that the genre became identified with, especially the gruesome special effects like gouged-out eyes, rivers of fake blood, and beheadings. The grotesque spectacle drew eager-to-be-thrilled fans for decades, until the real-life presence of the death and disfigurement of The Great War prompted a change in popular tastes.
While the Grand Guignol was the theater of terror, Gordon is quick to point out that, because of its roots in naturalism, the ghouls it depicted weren’t supernatural in their origins. “It’s monsters and insanity that can be explained,” he says. “It’s about how any one of us could be a monster, so there’s a humanization that’s really interesting.” Among the writers working in this style were doctors and scientists, who wrote stories about nightmarish misuses of science and technology.
“Alfred Binet, the guy who invented the intelligence test, was a Grand Guignol writer,” Gordon says. “There were other French physicians who were interested in this, so the mad scientist thing in the plays actually makes good sense, because it was written by mad scientists. There’s a kind of funny reality to it.”
This link between science and fantasy gave literary life to Mary Shelley’s reanimated Creature. As an avid scholar, the Frankenstein author would have been aware of contemporary electrical experiments conducted by scientist Luigi Galvani, who explored the connection between shock and muscle movement. Shelley then integrated the basics of the process into her narrative of reviving the dead. According to Dr. David Casarett, author of Shocked: Adventures In Bringing Back The Recently Dead, “some form of shocking people back to life dates back to the 1700s.” Far from the lightning-fueled, life-creating laboratory of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, those experiments began a bit more modestly with a Danish veterinarian named Peter Abildgaard, who was exploring the effects of jolts applied to chickens.
“He didn’t really know what he was doing, but he knew that electricity caused the chicken to die and caused the chicken to come back to life,” Casarett says. “And that was kind of the state of the science for a long time.” It wasn’t until doctors had more control over the application of electric shocks in the late 20th century that the modern-day defibrillator emerged, restarting the beating of hearts previously thought lost. Conversely, the electric chair, which works on the same operating principle of sending electricity through the vital organs, was killing prisoners as far back as 1890.
While the science of resuscitation has “come a long way from the days of shocking chickens,” reviving the long dead remains the stuff of fiction. Putting aside the ethical issues of waking the deceased, the natural process of decay—which begins almost immediately after the heart ceases—makes bringing a corpse back to life impractical. (The Creature would not be kidding when he tells his so-called father, “I felt better when I was dead.”) As Casarett explains it, part of the reason has to do with the length of time a person is gone. “All of the examples that we know of bringing people back from the dead happened pretty quickly,” he says. Even in the current medical environment, with the advances made possible by early experiments in CPR and resuscitation, “you’d have better luck reviving a steak” than shocking life into your own modern-day Prometheus.
Obviously, Penny Dreadful is not reality TV. But like reality TV, it does employ a strange amalgamation of truth and fiction to form a story, and that’s what gives its monstrous characters their enduring appeal. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster persists because he (like all truly beloved monsters) straddles the line between the impossible and the everyday. Given his familiarity and his appeal to our dark fears, it’s no wonder The Creature has sprung back to life again and again to command, “Rise and walk with me, creator.”
The Lady Aye appears onstage as “The Sweetheart Of The Sideshow,” writes about pop culture from her native NYC, and would make a charming talk show guest. A thoroughly modern woman, she is also on the twitter at @theladyaye.