So you think you know the “Frankenstein” story? If you haven’t read Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, think again. And if you wish to experience this treasure trove of evocative ideas, now would be a good time, as Washington University’s Class of 2021 embarks on a journey to delve into the rich and complex dystopian tapestry this teenager wrote so eloquently about, and in doing so, contemplate how eerily similar some of the questions she raised 200 years ago still haunt us today.
Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was chosen as this year’s Common Reading Program selection, an initiative founded in 2003 to provide a common intellectual experience for incoming students to engage in thoughtful inquiry and dialogue with a diverse group of students and faculty across disciplines.
The British dramatist Nick Dear, who faithfully recreated Shelley’s story for the widely-acclaimed 2011 National Theatre of Great Britain performance of “Frankenstein,” will kick off the as well as the collective discussion with his lecture on September 7, “Which One Is the Monster?” Joining Dear will be two faculty members from Washington University’s Arts & Sciences: Rebecca Messbarger, professor of Italian and director of the Medical Humanities Minor; and Henry I. Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature.
This event also kick starts the all-university celebration to mark the novel’s publication 200 years ago. Called the Frankenstein Bicentennial, a multitude of events, lectures, performances and conferences are being developed and will be held on both the Danforth and the Medical campuses beginning this fall and continuing through the 2018 spring and fall terms. Visit the university’s Frankenstein website for program listings and musings on Frankenstein themes.
Thanks in large part to the Western film industry, many if not most of us grew up being entertained by a plethora of Frankenstein-themed movies, presented in a variety of genres ranging from the classic horror films of the 1930s starring Boris Karloff as the iconic monster, to Mel Brooks’ comic turn “Young Frankenstein,” to the campy cult musical “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Generally speaking, the novel has been adapted more faithfully for the stage than for its celluloid counterpart. Dear’s adaptation for the National Theatre not only stayed close to the original story, but Dear and director Danny Boyle (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) went a step further, giving the “Creature” equal billing to the doctor. They accomplished the feat by producing two versions of the same story: During its stage run the principal actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller took turns playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein and The Creature.
“In writer Nick Dear’s adaptation, the Creature, rather than the scientist, is given the central role,” states the narrator in The Making of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.
“We took a new approach,” Dear explained, “which is tell the story, at least initially, from the Creature’s point of view…from the perspective of the experiment rather than the experimenter. We try to show what it feels like to be that experiment.
“I knew I wanted to do Mary Shelley’s book justice,” Dear continued. “My hope is that if Mary Shelley popped into row G in the stalls she’d recognise what she wrote.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries like Jane Austen, Shelley placed her story in the coming century, foreshadowing many of the moral dilemmas that the machine age, the humanist/secular revolution, and major scientific discoveries brought with them.
For more than three decades, Dear has been penning stories for the stage. His first play, “The Art of Success,” made its debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986., Sixteen more have followed, including “Dedication,” “Power,” “The Dark Earth and the Light Sky” and “Zenobia.” A partial list of his literary adaptations include, “Summerfolk,” “The Last Days of Don Juan,” and “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”
Dear’s adaptations display a versatility with the written word that goes beyond theatre to include film, TV, radio, and opera. Among his credits are such venerable favorites as the 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”(which won a BAFTA for Best Single Drama) and several episodes of Agatha Christie’s popular “Poirot” mysteries. Additional screenplays include “Eroica” and “Byron” for BBC2, as well as ITV’s “The Turn of the Screw.” Several of his plays have been broadcast by BBC Radio.
Check for information about the Common Reading Program and related links.