Two hundred years ago Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein burst onto the literary scene and almost singlehandedly launched the Horror genre. While Horror is one of my least favorite genres, what book&movie&theatre-loving person wouldn’t jump at the chance to see Benedict Cumberbatch play the Monster-Creature live on a London stage? I promptly bought a ticket but only had to travel as far as a local movie theatre to be utterly and profoundly moved, frightened, surprised, disturbed and inspired. That said, I fear I’m underselling the play and the performances. While the play follows Mary Shelley’s novel more closely than the best-known movie versions, its most striking difference is that the story is told from the perspective of the Creature, not Victor Frankenstein. We feel the Creature’s pain and loneliness. With empathy comes understanding as well as important questions we humans can’t escape.
As lightning flashes, a Creature struggles to come alive. His uneasy ‘birth’ is followed by an epic struggle to inhabit his sewn-together body parts and walk upright like a man. His creator isn’t the least bit sympathetic. Horrified by what he sees as a hideous monster, Victor Frankenstein flees, leaving the childlike Creature to fend for himself in a hostile world. It isn’t until the Creature encounters a blind old man that he makes his first friend. The old man teaches him to read, and the Creature’s mind develops quickly. He reads the notebook the fleeing Frankenstein left behind and learns that he was a scientific experiment. Happier reading is when he’s introduced to poetry and the great works of literature, because it’s in this way he learns about love and dreams about finding a woman partner. This idyllic interlude comes to a tragic end when the old man’s son and daughter-in-law return to the home. Far from embracing the Creature as the old man promised, they are horrified and drive him away. The Creature is enraged and destroys the family by setting fire to their cottage. Now hellbent on revenge, he pursues his creator to the Frankenstein family home, where he first stumbles across Victor’s younger brother and kills him. The Creature then strikes a bargain with the scientist. “I want a female built like me.” In return, I’ll leave you and humanity alone. Victor agrees but destroys the ‘bride’ before fully bringing her to life. This final betrayal sets the course for the rest of the story.
Fear is as old as mankind. Our worst fears have changed over the centuries, or have they? When Mary began writing her story in 1816 as a young woman of eighteen, it was at a time when people were terrified by physical abnormalities/deformities in others. Today, generally speaking, we’re more accepting of people’s handicaps, but we’re not as accepting of other differences. I didn’t make the connection between Frankenstein and our world today until seeing this play, a collaboration between British playwright Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle (best known for the films Trainspotting and Slum Dog Millionaire.) By giving a voice to the Creature (in most films, he only grunts) and telling the story from his point of view, we feel his pain and isolation. People fear him simply because he’s an ‘other.’ An unknown. An outsider. Different. Rejected at every turn, even by his creator, he becomes a monster. A murderer. The tragedy is that he’s not to blame.
After the murder of his brother, Victor tracks down the Creature and says, “I’ve come to kill you.” “Then why did you create me?” the Creature asks. “Because I could.”
Victor has created, from his viewpoint, a monster; yet he doesn’t want to take responsibility for him. He later says to the Creature, “You have no rights. You are a slave. I am the master. You should show me respect.” He, who has offered no care, no respect and no guidance to the person he created. What is a parent’s responsibility to a child? What is a leader’s responsibility to his countrymen?
In the last couple of weeks, our country has come face to face with three different monsters. Monster #1 is a 56-year-old Florida man charged with sending pipe bombs (explosive packages) to at least a dozen of President Trump’s critics–men, women and news organizations that the President has disparaged. The windows of the van in which he lived were plastered with Trump’s image and political stickers. Monster #2 is the 51-year-old Kentucky man who stands accused of walking into a Kroger supermarket and shooting an African-American man to death. A stranger. Then he walked outside to the parking lot and killed an African-American woman. A bystander pulled out his own gun to protect himself, and the shooter reportedly said, “Don’t shoot me. I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.” Minutes earlier the killer had tried to enter a predominantly black church. Monster #3 is a 46-year-old Pittsburgh man who burst into a synagogue last Saturday morning and shot dead 11 worshippers. He told the police who arrested him that he “wanted all Jews to die.” These three ‘monsters’ went after people who were ‘others,’ people who were different than they are: a different race, a different political affiliation, a different religion.
Last year white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Since Charlottesville, the Anti-Defamation League has reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitic acts, the highest single year on record. How do we stop these hate crimes? How do we stop the hateful level of political discourse in this country? Maybe we need to look to ourselves as a society and the power we could hold over our elected officials if we chose to do so. We elected you, but we want this hate-mongering and trash-talking to stop!
The Frankenstein analogy works both ways. We fear the Frankensteins of the world, but there’s also a danger that, if provoked, our fears could turn some of us into monsters. The more nationalist or isolationist the United States becomes, the more we are made to fear outsiders or Americans who don’t share our same political party, even though we were conceived as a nation of immigrants. I have many friends and acquaintances who are camped on the opposite riverbank of the great political divide. We get along just fine. If I were to start slandering or ridiculing people we both know just because they disagreed with something I said, they’d call me out and ask me to stop or they’d drop me faster than a rabid skunk. I’d do the same to them, given that kind of behavior. Shouldn’t our political representatives be held to the same standard? Particularly since the stakes are so high. Murder. Terror. Fear about what’s lurking around the next corner.
When I saw Frankenstein last week, I joined the ranks of about 500,000 people around the globe who’ve seen the play on film. During the stage run in London, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller took turns playing the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. Maybe next year I’ll get to watch Benedict as the mad scientist and Jonny as the misunderstood Creature. Come Halloween a year from now, I hope to see fewer Americans living in fear. Let Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein show us the folly of creating a monster.