INTRODUCTION: Our Frankenstein(s): Points of entry and Points of Reference
Can you remember your first encounter with the story of Frankenstein? Your first time, that is, in the company of the monster, perhaps the archetypal monster, the ‘Creature’ of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s imagination and devising in her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus? Was it a meeting facilitated by reading her 1818 or 1831 edition, though? Or was it an abridged or a conflated version you accessed?
Was your point of entry perhaps not via Shelley’s novel at all, or if so only by very distant association? Was it on celluloid that you first met the Creature – the bolt-necked Hollywood creation of Boris Karloff in the 1931 film and numerous spin-offs, sequels and afterlives maybe? Or, was it in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s critically disfavoured film adaptation, which made the idea of the ‘monstrous birth’ in the scientific laboratory of Dr Viktor Frankenstein all too explicit on screen? For loyal Harry Potter fans, it was probably through the recent 2015 reimagining of the biography of Viktor’s sidekick assistant (sometimes called Fritz, here named Igor) in the ‘servant’s point of view film’ starring Daniel Radcliffe as Igor and James McAvoy as the wayward scientist? Or was it, perhaps, through live performance or mediated filmed accounts of the same that you first entered into a relationship with the Creature? Was it – this time, with rather more accompanying critical plaudits – the Danny Boyle-directed National Theatre production of Nick Dear’s play that gave you a point of entry to this story and its multiple variants? That production was itself a plural experience, since Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller famously reversed the lead roles of scientist and creation on different nights. It is also a production which has enjoyed multiple subsequent existences in terms of the National Theatre Live screenings (both the one that unfolded on screens across the UK in the real-time moment of live performance and the many subsequently screened ‘encores’ in cinemas and classroom worldwide).
Or was your first time a danced encounter – possibly, Liam Scarlett’s recently choreographed ballet version with its knowing revisitings of the pas de deux as a form? Scarlett deployed the pas de deux to depict both the creation sequence between Dr Frankenstein and his monstrous variant on the human and the later confused relationship of Elizabeth and the Creature – deliberately reworking the embrace of the first relationship with fatal consequences for Elizabeth. What is left to our imagination in the novel, taking place “offstage” as it were in the bridal bedroom, is here made physical, visual, onstage, and all too visceral. The erotic aspect to both these pas de deux also gets at something central to the narrative in Mary Shelley’s novel: the Creature’s deep yearning for a female partner, and his intense dangerous closeness to and reliance on his scientific creator. All of these versions are very different – in genre, story and effect – and yet they share themes, ideas, resonances, and points of reference. And the reader or spectator who begins to thread multiple experiences of Frankenstein together at different times, to read these versions against and in relation to each other, enjoys the enriched experience that has made adaptation such a potent art form for our multimedia age.
Maybe the Danny Boyle production in either the screened or staged experience or the Liam Scarlett ballet are simply part of your own broader repertoire of spectatorship. Perhaps in this context you have encountered the Frankenstein myth at one stage remove through Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, a dramatic reimagining of the Villa Diodati ghost story competition that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her husband the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fashioned as the creative origin of their, in truth, much refined and reworked text? In one memorable sequence in that play Bysshe Shelley throws his shadow against a wall and the projection seems to morph into something monstrous before our eyes – the Creature of the literary party’s joint imaginations becoming momentarily, suggestively, visible to us as the watching audience. We self-consciously, knowingly, read our own previous encounters with the famous story and character into the response to Brenton’s play in this moment. That Bloody Poetry has itself enjoyed numerous stage and radio adaptations directs us yet again to the existence of multiple versions, to endless cycles of creativity and experiment that themselves reach back to something elemental, fundamental even, in the originating story.
Mary Shelley’s novel was highly experimental and attuned to its own moment of creation, reacting to and reflecting on as it did contemporary issues of geographical and scientific exploration. The framing narrative of her 1818 edition was the story of Walton’s ill-fated polar expedition. Arctic exploration was a highly topical subject when Shelley was writing. As a result the novel invokes related metaphors of magnetism, and specifically of the polar opposites of attraction and repulsion. These prove central to an emotional and intellectual response to the inset story of Frankenstein and the Creature. Similarly, Shelley moulded her story around concepts and ideas derived from the contemporary fascination with electricity as a force – and in particular theories of vitalism, with its interest and investment in the operations of positives and negatives. In turn, this becomes a text built on and yet endlessly resistant to simple pairings and binaries: self and other, male and female, nature and nurture, science and religion. The balletic pas de deux or the swapped interpretations of the modern stage find their own suggestive counterparts, then, in Shelley’s nineteenth-century novel.
Of course, dramatic adaptations of Frankenstein began to take shape almost as soon as Wollstonecraft’s novel was published. This is, perhaps, a story for another day but it is also worth pausing to note that Shelley’s text was itself deeply intertextual, full of literary points of reference that would have enriched interpretation for the knowing or familiar reader. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and John Milton’s Paradise Lost are just two literary epics which haunt the pages of the novel. The latter provides the suggestive framing epigraph:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
(Paradise Lost Book x. 743-5)
This brilliantly conjures up from the very beginning the scientist-protagonist’s propensity to play God that is a central dilemma and plot-driver in the novel. Paradise Lost is also the Creature’s personal reading matter at one point. He directly cites that text when the De Lacey family has abandoned the tenanted cottage and cultivated garden in which he appeared, momentarily, to have found some hope and a fleeting sense of family and belonging:
‘And now, with the world before me, whither should I bend my steps?’
This line echoes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden in Milton’s epic poem, although, in the novel, of course, there is only ever an aborted effort to create a female companion, a second Eve, for this poor moulded creature ….
Wollstonecraft Shelley wove literary influences, then, into her narrative in such a way that her novel would in turn provide points of reference for future poets, novelists, and playwrights. But as a result, is your experience of Frankenstein simply a tale of intertextualities? Is it filtered through embedded references in other significant literary texts? To riff on just one example, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, we might consider the moment when the escaped convict Magwitch returns and reveals himself as Pip’s benefactor in that novel as one such point of reference. The narrator Pip observes: ‘The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me’ (Great Expectations, Chapter 40). The Creature is here become maker; the story is in suggestive reverse, remade and seen afresh.
And, as a suggestive side note, what does it mean for the self-aware cinema-goer that Robert De Niro plays the creature in the aforementioned 1994 Branagh film and, then in a modern New York City based film adaptation of the novel directed just four years later by Alfonso Cuaron, plays Magwitch? Are we over-reading in seeking to make these connections across time … or does it enable us to continue to ask questions both of the story and ourselves? Adaptation is a creative process and a creative force and so we find ourselves in this new moment, in new places and spaces, confronting an innovative and endlessly enriched version of the Frankenstein myth by Selma Dimitrijevic. Her Dr Frankenstein is play which asks fresh questions as the same time as it pulls in all kinds of familiar or available points of reference, filters, and textual ghosts.
There are over one hundred film versions of Frankenstein alone criss-crossing genres such as horror, parody, young adult fiction, anime and manga. Film critic Mark Jancovich in the recently published Cambridge Critical Companion to Frankenstein notes that:
Few if any of the films that are associated with Mary Shelley’s novel were actually an adaptation of this source text. Many are actually adaptations of other sources, such as plays, other films, and comic books. They are rarely, even simply adaptations of these other sources but are rather produced in relation to a range of different intertexts. Indeed, texts never have a one-to-one relationship with an original source text, but are also constructed through the hybridization of many different materials.
Jancovich even worries that ‘the novel’s influence may be so dispersed that it is almost impossible to capture …’ (p. 203). But perhaps he need not worry; perhaps instead the dispersal and the multiplicity is reassuring, empowering even. It allows all of us our own points of entry and points of reference for this modern myth (and, intriguingly, Wollstonecraft Shelley even seemed aware of that future status for her story in her self-conscious sub-titling of the novel as ‘The Modern Prometheus’. In this latest knowing version, Prometheus is a laboratory rabbit.)
Is the Frankenstein story for you, then, one about the Romantic imagination, a symbolic account of the French Revolution, about science and technology, and indeed the ethical limits of the same, about arctic exploration and polar geographies, or imperialism? Is it about the notion of nature and nurture, families, parenthood, childhood, about the shaping and slipping of identity, gender or class? Does it tell us something about European politics, about the cinematic penchant for horror, or is it a trenchant intellectual manifesto about feminism or theology, or creativity or love … it all depends. And, indeed, as Selma Dimitrijevic’s vibrant and compelling text teaches us all over again, it changes over time, refashioned and reshaped by new encounters, revised contexts, and unexpected analogues.
Selma’s version is a compelling gender-inverted, gender-disrupted Frankenstein for her – and our – era. Her protagonist is one Dr Victoria Frankenstein and her telling is a deliberately sparser version than the novel, with fewer characters and locations, no arctic exploratory frame, and with the De Lacey storyline barely hinted at. But so much else that drives the onstage action of this play while absolutely of the present are topics and issues that would have exercised Mary Shelley: debates, historical and modern, about patriarchy and social expectation, about class hierarchies and social exclusion, about women and science and about the right of access to a university education more generally. The title of the play and the use of the title ‘Dr Frankenstein’ tests our unconscious bias at various points when we, along with other characters, all too readily assume that the title is Victoria’s father’s to own and to possess (and here, as in Shelley’s text, the undertow of theology and the idea of God the Father is inescapable). The research laboratory elements of the play, not least the fate of Prometheus the rabbit, abut in sensitive ways with pressing contemporary questions around medical ethics and about the intrinsic value of the individual and the collective in the face of technological and medical advances; but they also suggest the spaces that women were and were not able to occupy in the nineteenth-century. History and the present enfold and unfold in this brilliantly suggestive and provocative adaptation.
In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s version at least Frankenstein is a creation myth of sorts. Fittingly, its narrative has in turn become generative of many different and diverse afterlives, ones that speak in different genres, forms, formats, and languages, to new issues and agendas in a transnational context. Dimitrijevic’s play, as it oscillates between England and mainland Europe, makes similar gestures towards a fast changing political and personal landscape that is testing our individual and collective sense of belonging at this particular juncture in time. The script as it developed during 2016 (and I am grateful to Selma for her intellectual generosity in sharing multiple drafts and versions with me) took on ever more urgency in its thinking about the Creature in terms of the generic incomer to an established society, a migrant, a stranger, someone seeking welcome. It is striking that the play in its latest iteration ends with the word ‘hello’, with a statement of welcome and potential.
But a script is in itself just one component part in a bigger story or set of stories. This is a play that at its heart tests us as watching audience members, and which will, like all the best theatrical creations, continue to be remade and reconsidered through performance on any given night. Theatre is an inherently adaptive form: individual or early thinking in the form of a script is self-consciously tested in group and co-creational contexts from the rehearsal room to the auditorium. Some of the most telling and most unpredictable moments of this compelling play are when the Creature speaks alone onstage – and yet of course as his decision to face out into the audience suggests, he is not alone. We are never alone in the collective encounter space of theatre, and must constantly define our own actions, values and judgements in relation to those onstage and to each other. As the Creature asks early in the second act:
Do you think I don’t see you?
You can’t hide in the dark.
Dr Frankenstein brings important issues to light but also, importantly, leaves the story unfinished, open to further interpretation in the ongoing process of making and telling, remaking and retelling. The very end of the play is also a beginning. Our points of entry and our points of reference are all our own; what we choose to make of the story and its heartfelt messages at any given point in time is, as Dimitrijevic expertly demonstrates, very much up to us.
Mark Jancovich, ‘Frankenstein and Film’, The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein ed. Andrew Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 190-203 (191).
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith