From left to right, Tyler Costigan as Percy Shelley, Marie Stewart Harmon as Mary Shelley and Sean Ramey as The Creature in Kevin O’Leary’s “Anonymous: a tale of Mary Shelley.” Photo by Kat Moraros Photography

In popular culture, we tend to forget that Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster. The creature himself was anonymous. So too was Mary Shelley when she first published “Frankenstein” because the novel was so controversial for 1818.

And so is the name of Portland playwright Kevin O’Leary’s latest play, which will debut next week at the Studio Theatre at Portland Stage – “Anonymous,” a story about Shelley as she was writing the novel that took on a life of its own over the next 200-plus years. It’s a play, O’Leary said, about the challenges of being an artist.

“All artists, all we can do is create, take our hands off the creation and hope it can walk on its own,” he said.

O’Leary, 64, first became fascinated with Shelley in his 20s as a student at New York University. (“I was in my wearing-all-black period and burning through all the vampire books,” he said.) She was a “rock star,” he said, and he always planned to write a play about her. Then in 2018, the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, he read an article titled “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein,'” by Jill Lepore, in The New Yorker.

“I went, ‘OK, it’s time to write it,’ ” he said.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in England in 1797. At 16, she became pregnant with the Romantic poet Percy Shelley; the two eloped to France in 1814. Her life was full of death. Her mother, the famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, had died just days after she was born. Shelley herself gave birth to four children, but only one lived to adulthood; she also suffered a miscarriage that nearly killed her. Her husband drowned in 1822. Lepore wrote that Shelley started writing “Frankenstein” in part on a prompt from Lord Byron, a friend of hers and her husband’s, and published the novel when she was just 20 years old.


“She wrote this pretty scary story because her life was pretty scary,” said Marie Stewart Harmon, who will play Shelley in “Anonymous.”

Harmon met O’Leary when she was a student at Morse High School in Bath, where he retired last year as an English teacher and drama coach. He encouraged her to pursue theater, and she is part of Mad Horse Theatre Company and has had roles in a number of O’Leary’s plays, including “Mars” in 2022 and “Rock ‘n Roll” in 2019. She knew little about Shelley when O’Leary first told her about the play, but has since learned more about her life.

“She had such a traumatic life, and she’s got a lot of darkness inside of her,” Harmon, 36, said. “But she’s also so inspiring. I don’t know that my Mary Shelley will be exactly who Mary Shelley the real person was, but I think the way that Kevin has written the play honors some of the traumatic journey she’s been on and how that influences a person’s creative work.”

The cast of Kevin O’Leary’s “Anonymous: a tale of Mary Shelley” with the playwright, sitting. Photo by Kat Moraros Photography

O’Leary described Shelley as “mother, artist, renegade, maverick, trailblazer and woman.” He gleaned much of his research from Lepore’s article in The New Yorker but also drew inspiration from the women who have influenced him – his mother, sister, wife and daughter.

“I have been raised by, surrounded by, influenced by strong women my whole life,” he said.

The 90-minute play takes place in real time in London in February 1817. O’Leary imagined Shelley in the early morning, still exhausted from childbirth the night before but putting the finishing touches on her novel. “Anonymous” has three characters; Harmon will be joined on stage by Tyler Costigan as Percy Shelley and Sean Ramey as The Creature. Lauren Stockless is directing.


Shelley’s novel has been reimagined and reinterpreted countless times in the two centuries since its publication. Harmon said she is excited in particular to see Shelley’s creature in “Anonymous.” Cinematic and cultural depictions of that character have veered from the original, who not only could speak but was highly intelligent. Harmon theorized that Shelley gave the pain she had experienced in her life a physical form in the creature, but he wasn’t scary to her. At one point in the play, Harmon as Shelley will tell him: “You’re beautiful.”

“He’s not at all the thing you see in the horror movies today,” Harmon said. “She’s created a facet of herself.”

To O’Leary, the story is as much about the act of creating as it is about the infamous creature.

“Do we, must we, should we take responsibility for that which we create?” he asked.

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