The Monster is Father of the Man

The Monster is Father of the Man November 21, 2012

As I warned you, I’m taking some time before I write anything specifically about being received into the Catholic Church. In the meantime, I hope my thoughts on the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein will do. After all, it’s also about the surprise of becoming a new creation

England’s National Theatre tapes some of its performances and allows them to be shown around the world. This past summer, I was lucky enough to see their production of Frankenstein twice through this program (one evening Benedict Cumberbatch played Frankenstein, and one evening he played the monster).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is such a classic that there were moments that I felt frustrated with how hackneyed the play seemed to be. It’s hard to stage a trope namer without straying into camp or irony. And one part of the story felt terribly worn out, until I’d seen it twice.

As directed by Danny Boyle (who also managed the gonzo opening ceremonies for the London Olympics), Frankenstein is emotionally stunted. When he meets his monster, he mostly marvels at himself; every beauty in the monster is the result of his art, no credit accrues to the individual standing before him. He pushes aside his fiancée for his work and recovers from the death of his brother by becoming more clipped and fixated on hiding what he has made. When the creature confronts Frankenstein’s wife, it’s not surprising that there’s more warmth and charity in that encounter (well, before it turns violent) than in any scene Frankenstein has shared with her.

So, I was rolling my eyes a little in my seat. A story about how a person is divorced from their own humanity, but finds an unexpected tutor in the person assumed to be inhuman who turns out to excel him in charity? Together, they fight crime! But, then, something the creature said while pleading for a mate, brought me up short on the second viewing.

Frankenstein asks what the creature would do with a wife. “I would cherish her!” the creature blurts out. Even in his ugliness, the creature assumed his fervent worship would compel love. I was reminded of the relentless, grotesque love of Fosca from Passion.

The creature turns his attentions to his creator after his hopes of a companion of his own kind are destroyed. If they’re both unfit for the company of the rest of the world, perhaps they should be brothers. Frankenstein weeps and seems to have an epiphany, finally understanding the dignity and beauty of companionship. But if we don’t grant his conversion as positive, it becomes more tragic and less cliché.

Like us, Frankenstein knows the story of the Unexpected Tutor, and he’s relieved to finally find and accept his role in it. But the creature isn’t up to the role Frankenstein and our pattern-matching brains are casting him in. The ultimate proof of Frankenstein’s brokenness is that he mistakes differently broken for whole. A victim of Dunning-Kruger, Frankenstein doesn’t know enough about his deficiency to be able to find a physician.

What came to mind, watching Frankenstein, wretched, experience the relief of his false epiphany was the words from Isaiah 55:2, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Or Aaron Sorkin’s gloss on this sentiment in The American President:

People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

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  • Eli

    “What came to mind, watching Frankenstein, wretched, experience the relief of his false epiphany was the words from Isaiah 55:2, ‘Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?'”

    Oh oh – I know this one: “I have to remember I’m fighting a person and that all my work has to be for their good, not an excuse to feel superior.” Or have you stopped believing in that particular false dilemma?

    • Brandon B

      This looks like a non sequitor to me, and I’d like to know what you’re thinking. How does loving one’s enemies fit into this?

      • Eli

        Well, it seems like one can answer this question…

        “Why spend…your labor on what does not satisfy?”

        …in this way:

        “I have to remember I’m fighting a person and that all my work has to be for their good, not an excuse to feel superior.”

        I.e., believing in some kind of moral imperative to act purely for the sake of another would provide a reason to labor for something that doesn’t satisfy oneself.

  • Hey, a Gunnerkrigg Court reader. A regular stop for me along with Prequel Adventure.

    • Also, speaking of ‘pattern matching’, this article was tough to read since ‘Frankenstein’ is how I always hear the monster referred to, with Dr Frankenstein himself being less referred to. Yes, yes, I know, ‘his proper title is Frankenstein’s Monster’. Argue with several decades of cartoons and TV shows and cereal boxes calling the monster ‘Frankenstein’.

      • Montague

        Because of course common misconception overrules primary documents… like the actual book…

        I think not.

        • In terms of pattern-matching, yes. Most Americans have been trained from childhood to associate “Frankenstein,” taken on its own, with the monster rather than with Dr. Victor. The mind most easily makes that association. It takes a certain effort, even for well-educated people, to overcome that cultural conditioning.

          In terms of what is real and correct, that effort is worth making. I think Crude’s point was simply that it does take effort.

          • Right, I wasn’t saying ‘the popular usage is Frankenstein = Monster, therefore that’s correct!’ It’s that ‘the popular usage is Frankenstein = Monster, therefore when reading an article where Frankenstein refers to the doctor and the creature is just ‘the monster/the creature’, it’s a little confusing.’

  • jenesaispas

    “(one evening Benedict Cumberbatch played Frankenstein, and one evening he played the monster).”
    Thankyou for clearing that up!

    I was checking my email a few days ago when this caught my attention: Olympic opening ceremony

    I think the other guy should have got some credit for the helta skelta hill at least, even though designs for the ceremony were apparently submitted to a website where everyone could see them.

  • deiseach

    I’ve seen a fair few film adaptations of Frankenstein and I’ve even read the novel(!) and what strikes me is the role of Henry Clerval and how that gets either glossed over or omitted.

    He’s Victor’s best (only?) friend, and his death – his murder by the monster – seems to have a much deeper effect on Victor than Elizabeth’s murder. Henry is also one of the few unambiguously good people in the book, so his murder is all the more tragic. Also, there’s never any real emphasis on the fact that Victor is not so much a Mad Scientist as a Mad Alchemist; he starts off on the wrong track as a youth by devouring all the old tracts and then when he goes to university and discovers Real Science, he still tries to force the new knowledge into the mould of his old desires to conquer death.

    Your account of the NT production sounds as if they did a lot of rewriting and filleting out; I don’t recall (from the book) that Victor ever did come to acknowledge any real responsibility for his creation or come to any accommodation with it; he spends his time alternately fleeing from it and then following it on a journey of revenge, but dies without achieving even that.

    I have a fondness for the old Hammer Horror versions, even though they went very far afield and milked every last drop out of the cash cow, but in the last one of the series from 1974 Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, the ending is truly chilling; after the usual murder and mayhem, the now elderly (but still spry and still experimenting) Victor is clearing up the débris in the laboratory and cheerfully preparing to start all over again with a new angle this time; he’s reasonable, he’s calm, he’s not ranting and raving – and he comes across as utterly insane, so far beyond the pole of reason that he can’t recognise what he’s doing or even conceive that he’s wrong, despite all the tragedy he leaves in his wake.

    Hey, you have Sondheim – I have Hammer Studios! 🙂

  • grok87

    Thanks for the Gunnerkrigg Court graphic novel link- looks like interesting reading…
    I love the Isaiah quote, one of my favorites.
    Recognizing our broken-ness, lack of wholeness, is a long hard process, and so counter-cultural to our modern culture.
    Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Brideshead revisited, one of my favorite books
    “But despite this isolation and this long sojourn in a strange world, I remained unchanged, still a small part of myself pretending to be whole.”