Have you ever read Frankenstein? Today’s current monster fascination has delved thoroughly into zombies, werewolves and vampires but left the lurking Creature revived using dead parts out of popular culture. I was thrilled to see the recent live broadcast of London’s 2011 National Theatre production which featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. It was anything but what I expected.
Mary Shelley was ahead of her time. Not only was she a woman writing about a man’s world but she dared to explore scientific concepts few women of her time would have even comprehended. She wrote passionately and asked questions as she examined the consequences when Man plays God.
The story, in its simplest terms, spotlights urgent concerns of scientific responsibility and partners them with issues of parental neglect, cognitive development and the nature of good and evil. All these themes embedded within a thrilling and deeply disturbing classic Gothic masterpiece.
In the recent National Theatre broadcast, two popular screen actors most widely known for their current day portrayals of Sherlock Holmes took on the Frankenstein challenge. And, to better understand both Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, the actors alternated roles for each performance.
Imagine the challenges to an actor … learning both roles and playing both roles during the run of a live theatrical production. One night to the next … Monster to Creator ... Creator to Monster. It would give the actors a chance to acquire complete understanding of the motivation and emotional state of both characters. They could then learn from each other and incorporate that duality into their portrayals.
Childlike in his innocence but grotesque in form, Frankenstein’s bewildered Creature is literally born on stage in the National Theatre’s production. He is then cast out into a hostile world by his horror-struck (yet brilliant) master, the compelling, driven Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Meeting with cruelty wherever he goes, this friendless Creature – who due to treatment received becomes increasingly desperate and vengeful – determines to track down his creator and strike a terrifying deal. And his Creator, already tormented by what he has dared to do, is faced with yet another opportunity to play God.
We do that daily … play God. We toy with science and essentially create “life.” And though I wonder at the choices we’ve made and are making, I find myself drawn to the Creature. After all, it is Man that makes him into a Monster.
Frankenstein’s Creature is as innocent as a babe from the womb. Though he appears horrifically ugly, his character and personality begin as a clean slate. But the cruelty and brutality inflicted upon him inevitably transform him into the terrible Monster that inspires fear. His Creator rejects him and hurls this fundamentally defenseless being into a harsh world. Is it any wonder he becomes what he becomes?
It is the World that makes him into the monster. It is fear of his grotesque appearance that inspires judgment and physical abuse – he is different and therefore dangerous. Only a blind man is able to “see” beyond external ugliness to honor the curious and fundamentally good being that exists on the inside.
It is the World that turns the Creature into a malevolent force. Unkindness. Rejection. Silence. Physical Abuse. That was all the Creature encountered. There was no soft touch or kind word. It was not offered positive reinforcement or supportive encouragement. It was not embraced by its Father or the world into which it found itself. And when rejection and cruelty are the only elements to which one is exposed … how can the end result be different? The Creature had not developed the cognitive ability to reason … to process and overcome the impacts of harsh remarks and ugly behavior. And its personality and ultimate choices were made based solely on what it learned from others … on the treatment it received.
Do I do that? Do I reflect that? Do I absorb the negative elements of a bad day or unkindness from another? Do I pass that along with my behavior onto the people who surround me? Am I cruel to another as a result of cruelty I experience? When put to the test, am I really evolved enough to move beyond my own emotional triggers? Do I somehow reflect the desperation, cruelty, judgement, voyeurism, dismissiveness and brutality around me?
I like to think I can set aside those darker aspects of my nature and brush aside the impacts of negative experiences that try to touch me. But, I know that isn’t always the case. Sometimes these wounds assume a life of their own, infecting me and bubbling under the surface. And sometimes they find a way of getting out.
If someone is dismissive of me, do I then dismiss the innocently presented ideas of my kids? If someone is mean to me, do I set aside the effects of that unkindness before dealing with the next life challenge? Or, like the Creature, do I absorb that into my own being and allow it to infect my personality development and behavior?
Frankenstein’s Creature wanted Love and Acceptance from his Creator. Pretty simple stuff. He wanted someone to love him as he was. If he'd received it, I dare to suggest that he might have been very different. His childlike innocence believed this was possible. But the actions of Dr. Frankenstein did not reflect his hope. It condemned both of them to isolation.
The director’s placement of the actors into both roles was an act of sheer brilliance. They learned to see into the heart and mind of another and used that in their developments and performances. It gave them better appreciation for both characters and allowed them to reflect elements of each other on-stage.
We can't look into the soul of another -- not unless they open up and allow us a glimpse. We can't know what motivates or triggers their choices. But if someone opened up to us and we honored their spirit no matter what appeared on the surface, mankind would be truly evolved. If we could make a choice to love unconditionally and accept unconditionally, perhaps we would create fewer Monsters.
Few allow us a glimpse into their motivations and hopes, frustrations and passions, desires and reasoning because they fear what the world would do to them. We are quick to judge and reject. We look into others' lives and are quick to call the unknown -- be it idea or individual -- a "Monster."
Perhaps if we looked deeper and saw the impact our actions had on others we might not be so quick to reject the Creature. Perhaps we could find a way to look past the external ugliness and identify something beautiful inside. Perhaps we could truly learn to recognize an aspect of our own loneliness, desire, passion and hope inside its dark innocence and handle the encounter differently.
Am I the Monster or the Creator?