So you think you know the story of Frankenstein?
‘Frnkstn’, at the Abbey Theatre, reanimates the monster for a new generation
Theatre Lovett’s ‘Frnknstn’ by Michael West, at the Abbey Theatre from August 17th to September 1st. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
In the 200 years since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has proved itself endlessly malleable. Regarded as the foundational text of Gothic fiction, its influence has permeated popular culture since the early 1800s, when Frankenstein’s monster made his first appearance on stage.
Since then it has been brought to life in cartoon, live-action film, comic and picture-book form. It has been translated to celluloid more than any other novel, and adapted for the stage almost 60 times in the UK alone. It has been a comedy (Young Frankenstein), a tragedy (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and a musical (The Rocky Horror Picture Show). It has been Hammer-horrified (The Curse of Frankenstein) and Marvel superheroed (Frankenstein’s Monster), given the Looney Toons treatment (Hair-Raising Hare) and feminised (Bride of Frankenstein).
For every faithful adaptation, there have been scores of riffs that are allusive at best, using Mary Shelley’s creation myth as inspiration for a meditation on contemporary events. What is it about Shelley’s book that has captured the imagination of readers and viewers over the centuries?
The origins of the novel are perhaps as famous as the monster’s genesis, on the operating table in Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory. In 1816, the teenage writer was holidaying in Switzerland with her lover, Percy Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron. After dinner one evening, the trio held a writing competition to see who could write the best horror story. Mary – who had borne two children, lost one in early infancy, and was pregnant with her third – was preoccupied with pregnancy and childbirth, although the men were too. In diaries from the time, she detailed how “the principles of life” dominated conversation at their Lake Geneva refuge that summer.
Biographers have speculated that it reflected the teenager’s attempt to come to terms with the trauma of childbirth
The story of Frankenstein came to the young writer as a dream: a scientist gives life to a man of his own creation and, horrified by the results, abandons it. Biographers have speculated that it reflected the teenager’s attempt to come to terms with the trauma of childbirth: a vision of new life created without parturition.
The novel was published in 1818, when Romantic Europe was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, and fascination with science and technology was widespread. For contemporary readers, Shelley’s book articulated cultural fears, as religious beliefs gave way to secular thought and progress. Since then, its story has been remade by many, shedding light on the novel’s other themes: parental responsibility, fear of the Other, the ongoing battle between nature and nurture; themes that many would argue remain relevant today. However, it is the spectre of scientific experiment that seems particularly pertinent to our time, when genetic discoveries have expanded the possibilities of procreation beyond its natural determinants.
The possibilities and danger of scientific discovery is what attracted playwright Michael West to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. His latest play Frnknstn, which opens on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock Stage on August 17th, is “a mutation” of the classic novel. It approaches the book through its basic plot and themes, but, as West explains, “it is not a heritage piece; it is as much about how we tell the story today as it is about the story itself”.
When he began to write the piece for Theatre Lovett, West saw the book’s permeation of popular consciousness as a boon rather than a challenge. “Frankenstein’s familiarity is so potent,” he says. “Everybody knows the book, even if they haven’t read it. It is such a powerful brand. So, if you are trying to tell the story, you are actually telling several stories: you are telling the story of Bugs Bunny’s monster and of early Hollywood cinema. You are telling the story of a whole tradition of Gothic literature.”
For West, this mutability of meaning mimics the structure of the book itself: “It starts with Walton, then we meet Frankenstein, then the monster tells his story, so the book is a box within a box, with these nested narratives that expose – not the unreliability of the narrator – but the secret identities we all have within us.”
The most famous of recent adaptations of the novel – Nick Dear’s stage version at the Royal National Theatre in London – played with that very theme; the actors playing Dr Frankenstein and his monster alternated roles each night. West’s Frnknstn, a solo performance piece written for actor Louis Lovett, also investigates this idea of doubleness: what is our fear of the Other but a fear of the darkness within?
Lovett argues that the monster’s ambiguous identity is part of the attraction of a modern re-telling. “I like to think, sometimes,” he says playfully, but with serious intent, “that maybe there was no monster. I mean, what was that final spark that made the creature come to life? Magic? The science of the day was nowhere near making it even remotely possible. But now, with the advances of technology, it is much more feasible. The suspense of disbelief [for a contemporary audience] is much less.” For Lovett, and West, this is perhaps the most important story of our times: how our quest for scientific discovery actually threatens the survival of the world.
West’s Dr Frankenstein is a molecular geneticist, specialising in the area of genetic transformation: altering cells by inserting new DNA into the genome.
I wanted to rewrite the code of life itself
He expresses his ambitions early in the play: “I swore to do everything I could to understand the initial workings of our genetic make-up,” he explains to the audience, “to control and stop our own DNA turning on us, betraying us and taking us away from our loved ones. I wanted to rewrite the code of life itself.”
The doctor’s arrogance, however, makes Frankenstein an inevitable catalyst for tragedy. His ambition has destructive as well as creative potential, just as contemporary efforts to preserve and create new life do, as Lovett observes. “What are we doing to Mother Earth with our potential for innovation?” he asks. “Where does it lead us in this bid to do good, to make things easier for ourselves, to make us live longer?”
That the ultimate appeasement of human survival would be to stop procreating is an unspoken irony that undercuts the conversation: the most creative thing that Frankenstein could do would be to refuse to create new life altogether.
But the doctor is driven to make a man in his own image, and Shelley’s personal history of love and loss, childbearing and grief, gives deep resonance to the complex portrait of parenthood that also resonates deeply today. “There is a darkness in parenthood,” West elaborates. “Anyone who has had children will talk about how this tiny creature has upended their life. But what you need to consider is the fact that Frankenstein’s monster is a fully formed adult. Frankenstein has literally given birth to something that is bigger than him.”
The monster may be hideous to look at, but he is human, articulate, a creature of feeling: he is still an innocent. It is the doctor’s rejection of him that turns him into a monster. “It is easy to forget that,” West says, “when you think of the history of how he has been represented on stage and screen over the years, and we want to play with the audience’s expectations of what – or who – he is. People think they know already, and we can use that knowledge, of what they think might happen, to make something special, something new.”
Theatre Lovett’s “Frnkstn” runs at the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage from August 17th to September 1st.