You Gave Me Life, Now Show Me How to Live

This seems like the perfect pair of shows to launch my inaugural Spec Fic Archives blog. I’ll be honest, I always get a little queasy when I delve into the idea of writing about theatre, but I’m going to do it anyway.  My preference is to focus strictly on storytelling, and theatre introduces a whole host of elements that also deserve equal attention and analysis, and sometimes I don’t have the patience to (or even the awareness of how to) assess them adequately.  However, the combination of Frankenstein, Sci Fi, and Halloween is too good to pass up!

I’m going to be cliché and say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is my favorite science-fiction novel. On a good day it might even be my favorite novel, but I’m a little too hesitant to commit to that just yet. Either way, it’s definitely something that I love.

Part of that love stems from the fact that Shelley’s novel was clearly written in dialogue with earlier creation myth adaptations (namely John Milton’s Paradise Lost which is quoted frequently throughout the text, as well as the Ancient Greek myth of Prometheus (from which the novel derives its subtitle)). However, an undeniable element of that love is for the significance that Frankenstein holds within the canon of science fiction literature. There’s validity to the argument that Frankenstein is the first English sci-fi novel, but at the very least, it laid the foundation through fertile ground for later masterpieces like Blade Runner and Gattaca.

After waiting for nearly 8 years, I recently had the opportunity to catch encore broadcasts of the National Theatre Live performances of Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  The shows were everything I thought they would be and more and I’m thrilled to finally be able to write some nice things about them.

Briefest of summaries ahead—Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus at age 18 (I know, I’m still jealous) while cooped up in an old house during a long winter. It was originally framed in the familiar epistolary style, where a character (named simply ‘Walton’) is writing a series of letters to his sister, where he tells her about the darnedest thing he saw while out on an expedition…

One day, Walton’s crew rescued a rambling, half-frozen man from the ice cliffs of Switzerland. They brought him aboard their ship and nursed him back to life. As the man grew stronger and began to recover, he explained that his name was Victor Frankenstein, and that he had done a terrible, terrible thing. At this point, Frankenstein himself takes over the telling of the story, talking briefly about his days as a student in Ingolstadt and all of the events leading up to how he managed to bring a man to life. Frankenstein is understandably cagey on the particulars of how he managed to make things happen, but we’re able to infer that it has something to do with dead body parts sewn together and then somehow animated through the use of electricity. Ew.

From there, Frankenstein’s account gets a little hazy. He expresses that his creation actually awoke and drew breath but that the reality of it terrified him so much that he ran away. By the time he returned to his laboratory, the creature was gone.

(Quick note – Over the past 200 years, the name “Frankenstein” has erroneously become associated with the creature (aka “monster”) that Victor created. From here on out in this post, the scientist will be referred to as “Victor” or “Frankenstein” and the “monster” will be referred to as the “Creature”)

Time passes but then mysterious deaths start happening and Frankenstein is horrified to learn that his Creature is behind it all. The two of them come together again in a stark reunion and now the reins of this story are handed over to the Creature himself.

The Creature (who remains nameless throughout the story) tells us his own tale—about how Victor abandoned him, about how he slowly started to come into awareness and understanding of life and existence. How he learned how to read and speak and exist (in the shadows) in the world of men. With his series of revelations comes the understanding that his existence is a cruel one, that he is a beast forged from death and decay and that he feels no true place in the world. As a final request, he asks Victor to make a female version of a creature like himself so that he can have some companionship in the world. He promises that the two of them will hide away from the world of men and never be seen again.

Horrified, guilt-driven, (and somewhat held hostage), Victor agrees to do so. However, when confronted with the possibility that the Creature and his wife will choose to procreate and make more creatures, Victor quickly changes his mind and destroys the body of the female creation.  The Creature is understandably grieved and seeks revenge by killing Victor’s own fiancee. The two men enter into a never ending duel of back and forth as the Creator chases his Creation to the edge of the world and beyond.

All right, sorry, I lied, that wasn’t brief.

Among the many many rich takeaways from the novel is the nesting of voices that tell this story to us. This idea of frequently shifting perspectives is a crucial structural component of the novel, and it’s apparent through the 2011 adaptation that this was a particular dynamic that the production wanted to explore. The 2011 production featured a minimalist, rotating stage and semi-circular audience pit. However, the most striking component of the production is in how it chose to portray Victor and his Creature, by featuring two actors who would proceed to swap roles across several nights of performances.

The first performance that I watched featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein’s creation (known as “The Creature”) and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein himself. The second performance swapped these roles –– with Jonny Lee Miller playing the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch playing Victor Frankenstein.

This choice was definitely more than just a gimmick, but rather forces the audience to question the connection between creator and creation, and particularly between Victor and his Creature. Is the Creature meant to be a mirror for humanity, containing both the best of our potential while harboring the lowest depths of our depravity? What does Victor represent, the prideful hubris of men or the cruel abandonment of gods? At the very least, through watching these performances it becomes obvious that the characters are intimately connected to each other, and each actor was able to explore these connections in his own unique way.

I first read Frankenstein as part of a course focused on representations of innocence in English literature. Like all living things, the Creature begins its existence in a state of innocence and naivety which soon sours and turns to bitterness and cruelty as he grows and learns more about the world. However, based on these performances, I feel like we could effectively make the argument that Victor himself is just as innocent as his creation—bumbling, unaware, and at times, a danger to himself and others. Whether intended or not, this dynamic is brilliantly highlighted by the performances put forth by these two actors.

What was most notable about Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance of Creature was that it seemed to be a thing drawn from anger and fury.  Even in the depths of Cumberbatch’s vulnerability as the Creature, we still sense a latent fire for more. He acquires knowledge because he hungers for knowledge, he exacts revenge because the world deserves balance. He wants a wife because every other man he sees has a wife and he relates to Satan’s character in Paradise Lost because God treated him horribly and he deserved better. There is a high, cruel, calculating sense of order to how he engages with the world, and though we want to sympathize with him, we are terrified of him.

Fascinatingly, Cumberbatch manages to bring this same quality to his performance of Victor Frankenstein as well. Unlike Miller’s Frankenstein, for which it is possible to feel a sense of sympathy and compassion, Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is likewise detached and calculating. While still in mourning for the death of his brother (at the hands of his Creature) Victor Frankenstein makes jokes about how his dead brother “will not be joining him” on his next departure. (Although this production was staged earlier, Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Frankenstein reminded me of his performance of Hamlet which elevated the whiny, spoiled prince into an unapologetic smart mouth. Cumberbatch seems to specialize in this). When his Creation asks him to build a female version, Frankenstein accepts the challenge not out of any sense of pity toward the Creature, but out of a sense of pride, wanting to see if he can improve his most recent work and hone his craft at necromancy.

Both of Jonny Lee Miller’s performances are in sharp contrast to Cumberbatch’s. In his performance of the Creature, we manage to hold onto that innocence for just a little longer. There is a childlike quality of harmlessness in him that is absent in Cumberbatch’s interpretation. Miller’s Creature wants to learn because learning seems like fun! He relates more to Satan than Adam because God was proud of Adam and this fills him with sorrow. He wants a female companion because he is lonely and he wants to take care of her. He wants revenge because he is in pain. Whereas Cumberbatch’s Creature was filled with righteous anger, Miller manages to find deeper notes of pain and sadness to drive him forward.

This same harmless quality carries over into Miller’s performance as Frankenstein as well. Objectively, Victor Frankenstein is one of the most infuriating characters in literature, however Miller manages to find softer elements at his core. Miller’s Frankenstein is a meek and simple fellow, the sort of accidental genius driven more by curiosity than by anger. In Miller’s portrayal we see the edges of guilt at having created something and then abandoned it, and then unleashed it upon the world. Miller’s Frankenstein agrees to fulfill the Creature’s request to make a bride not so much because he wants to, but out of pity.

Miller’s Frankenstein is more irresponsible than cruel, more absent-minded than sociopathic. In short, he is more innocent than he is aware. Whereas Cumberbatch’s performances as both Creature and Creator are meditations in the frustration of knowledge, both of Miller’s performances are contemplations on the danger of innocence.

This dynamic is best exemplified when comparing interpretations of an exchange between Victor and his Creature where they discuss the idea of love.

Miller’s Frankenstein seems to ask the Creature to explain how he knows that he’s in love out of genuine personal curiosity, as if pained by the incongruity of being engaged but not being capable of feeling the emotional intimacy of loving another. He is jealous while at the same time wishing that the Creature could show him the way, and could teach him how to love.

In the reversal of this scene, Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein asks the question in a sneer, coming from that familiar place of anger and haughty confidence. How dare his Creature claim to know what love is? If the great Victor Frankenstein himself can’t understand it, what chance does a monster have in feeling true emotion? The humility of the earlier performance is transformed into arrogance.

So, what does this reversal of roles reveal about the text itself? I could make up answer. In scholarship surrounding the original text, much is made of the dynamic of monster vs man — Who is actually more cultured? Who is more thoughtful and eloquent? Who is truly humane and who is something other than human?  All of these are still valid questions but I think what this performance revealed to me is that there are elements of either in both, and in this way, Creator and Creation are truly perfect reflections of imperfection.

As I’ve expressed before, I have uncomfortable feelings surrounding the idea of infinity, which is why I tend to be suspicious of theatre at its core — too many uncontrollable elements combining to create infinite possibilities in interpretations. But, much like Shelley’s novel itself, perhaps theatre is also the imperfect creation of man — a fumbling, reactive brute that at times has a grasp that exceeds its reach, while at the same time knowing and doing more than it meant to.

Happy Birthday Frankenstein. At 200 years old, you still look great for your age.

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