Sinister tales of sex, death and gore, mystical “undead” beings and humans consorting with them, are nothing new — just more graphically dramatized and available on more entertainment platforms these days.
“Frankenstein” is a long-surviving staple of the Gothic horror genre. But the scary fable about a fearsome being, conjured by a devilishly ambitious scientist, has haunted films even before the classic 1931 film represented him in the gruesome, hulking, neck-bolted form of Boris Karloff.
Two centuries ago, and before the sequels, spoofs and other spinoffs that followed that movie (including the widely panned new flick, “I, Frankenstein”), Frankenstein’s monster arose directly out of the Romantic Age.
In her 1818 novel “Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus,” the precocious 19-year old Mary Shelley, wife of famed Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wanted her book to terrify but also incite serious debate. Indeed, it presaged some of the major scientific debates of our own age — over human cloning, genetic engineering and the tension between science and religion.
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But it is also a product of, and reaction to, early 19th-century Romanticism, a movement of artists and intellectuals who rebelled against the religious, cultural and scientific establishment of the age, and championed heroic individualism.
Book-It Repertory Theatre is mounting a new version of Shelley’s tale, which adapter-director David Quicksall hopes will “communicate the metaphysical ideas behind the book,” along with some shivery thrills.
Quicksall’s staging of his script stars Connor Toms as the bold young scientist Victor Frankenstein and Jim Hamerlinck as his disturbing bionic creation.
It uses the same basic narrative framework Shelley employed in her novel. The play opens at the North Pole, where the frozen, starving Victor is rescued by a ship captain, to whom he recounts his obsession with perfecting a technique to reanimate dead human tissue, and the terrible outcome of his success. (In the book, all this is relayed by letter to the captain’s sister.)
Conjuring a scary creature who turns on his creator and others — but is more than a ghoulish villain — is one of Quicksall’s central aims. “Shelley’s creature isn’t like the way Karloff played him,” he says. “ He’s a poet, a philosopher, who teaches himself to read Milton. He’s sensitive, yet he murders children. There’s the creative side, and the violent side.”
In rehearsal, he adds, “If we drift into that clichéd ‘Frankenstein’ world, we shout, ‘Neck bolts!’ and get back to the creature Shelley painted for us.”
The greater challenge, perhaps, is finding theatrical ways to incorporate the novel’s philosophical themes without making the script didactic.
The writing of “Frankenstein” is the stuff of literary legend. Mary and Percy Shelley were visiting Switzerland with fellow poet Lord George Byron when the latter proposed a contest: Who among them could write the best ghost story?
Mary later wrote, in a preface to a revised version of the novel, that one night after a conversation about “the nature of the principle of life” and “the experiments of Dr. [Charles] Darwin,” she dreamed of an artist who assembled “a hideous phantasm of a man.” He hoped it would “subside into dead matter.” But the “horrid thing” instead terrified its creator by opening his eyes, and coming fully to life.
That was the genesis of her chilling novel, which remains a gripping read. As Quicksall notes, critic Harold Bloom classified it as “one of the most perfect distillations of the Romantic philosophy of Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, all those writers.”
The daughter of the proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (who died giving birth to her) and journalist William Godwin, Mary Shelley was not formally educated. But she was bright, imaginative and well-read, and such works as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” were influences on “Frankenstein.”
Reflects Quicksall, “ She took all these intellectual ideas swirling around her and made a cautionary tale about the Promethean spirit, the man who is so driven to fulfill his own creative impulses that he does so at any cost.
“Prometheus was the god who brought fire down from Mount Olympus, but also the god who brought all the woes on mankind. In a way she is critiquing what she calls the ‘fatal impulse’ of the artist as the lone genius who is striving to create his own world, but in the process destroys himself and everyone around him.”
Mary Shelley herself suffered a nearly unbearable loss when her brilliant husband, who defied convention and authority, drowned at sea in 1822. He was 29, and among the works he left behind was a verse drama, “Prometheus Unbound.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org.