Frankenstein Was One Of Us
Liam Scarlett’s Balletic Take on Shelley’s Classic
By Joe Ferguson, Contributor
When I heard the San Francisco Ballet was doing an interpretation of Frankenstein I was thoroughly nonplussed. It wasn’t my lack of interest in the subject, but the memory of every theatrical version of the story I had ever seen. There was the heavy-footed, clumsy Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, the bare-chested histrionics of Branagh’s cinematic take, and the completely unwatchable I, Frankenstein. Yet, there I was, pensively seated in the theater waiting for the curtain to lift. Frankenstein holds a particular fascination for anyone with a background in the sciences, and though I’d never been satisfied with anything other than the book, I held out hope.
This uniquely artistic interpretation was the work of choreographer Liam Scarlett, former artist-in-residence at The Royal Ballet in London. The performance was nearly three hours long, and roughly followed the 1818 text.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece has suffered many interpretations and each—including Scarlett’s version—has faced criticism. I offer a no less rigorous evaluation of this recent work. My view, however, is not from the perspective of the overly-conditioned art critic, but is taken from decades of scientific training and practice. Scarlett’s work may be flawed when compared to traditional ballet performances, but when considered as a contemporary commentary on science, technology, and cultural issues, we find messages that need to be considered.
Some, for instance, have criticized the synchronized dancing in John Macfarlane’s impressively-constructed anatomy theater—it must be said that this is probably the first ballet to present a human dissection. I have spent hundreds of hours in cadaver labs as both instructor and student, and I can assure these incredulous critics that theatrics are part of the process. In order to distance themselves from the material, students often compensate with dispassion and humor, alternating between the roles of discovering scientist and respectful burgeoning physician. Cliques develop as students seek out those of varying skills and temperaments. The politics and role-playing of the anatomy lab play out every term without significant variations. Scarlett did well in translating these repeating roles.
Others have criticized the movements of Frankenstein’s Creature as being too balletic or graceful. These criticisms, however, are inconsistent with the text, and dismissive of early scientific endeavors. Shelley’s Creature may have emerged clumsily, but he eventually taught himself to speak and read, thoroughly engaging with the works of Milton's Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives of Illustrious Greeks and Romans, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. The intelligence of Victor’s Creature not only speaks to the innate nature of humanity, but to the scientific prowess of his creator. Early scientists may have lacked our knowledge base and technology, but they approached their works with the same commitment to excellence as any of us today. Scarlett’s work is a physical interpretation of Shelley’s very wordy text, and his Creature’s movement effectively relates the product of 19th-century scientific effort.
In a larger scope when viewing this piece, it is important to remember that Mary Shelley was a Romantic—a group of 19th-century individuals repelled by the Enlightenment’s claims of scientific certainty. She wanted to evoke an overwhelming emotional response in order to subvert the rational. In the introduction to the 1831 version of her novel she wrote that she wanted to write a story that would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror.” Despite this disavowing, however, it is clear that she was aware of the work of real scientists of her day—chiefly Erasmus Darwin and Luigi Galvani.
Erasmus Darwin—grandfather of Charles—published a long poem titled The Temple of Nature. Though poetry may seem an odd choice for scientific publication today, it was not so at the time. In the notes of his work he writes, “…the organic particles of dead animals may, when exposed to a due degree of warmth and moisture, regain some degree of vitality.”
Luigi Galvani was an 18th-century Italian physician who discovered animal electricity--he found that the muscles of dead frogs’ legs twitched when struck by an electric spark. In 1803, his followers attached electrodes to the body of a recently executed murderer in the hopes of restoring him to life—perhaps not the best choice of subjects, but common at the time. They failed, only succeeding in causing a few muscle spasms.
Mary Shelley was clearly disturbed that these experiments might someday succeed to calamitous moral outcomes. She referred to science and medicine as the “unhallowed arts” and that, “Supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world.”
For those of us trained in the sciences, we view Frankenstein not as a passive audience, but as participants. Victor is not the other—the mad scientist or a member of the evil scientific industry—he is one of us. Like Shelley’s protagonist, we’ve been in the labs, we’ve wrestled with the philosophical conundrums created by our work.
In Scarlett’s version, we encounter a very human Victor Frankenstein. Scarlett chose to focus on the man who was the scientist, and not the madness of his work. He provided a relatable, inwardly-tortured professional lost in the minute machinations of his work and toiling in isolation from the rest of the world.
For this audience raised on visual culture, Shelley’s attempt to provoke the emotional in order to undermine the rational might have been more effectively realized by translating the written work into the dramatic language of dance. In that way, the performance was a success for Scarlett. It leads me to wonder, however, if perhaps there was a subversive element in bringing the work to San Francisco.
Shelley’s gothic isolation is mirrored in San Francisco, a city culturally isolated by ravenous tech industries, sky-high real estate prices, and inflated incomes. Viewed not through the lens of conventional theatrical criticism, but through the eyes of the young technorati, the piece gains a potential poignancy. Among an audience riddled with engineers, data analysts, and scientists, we are forced to wonder if we are any better than the tormented protagonist of the performance. In 200 years, will society look back and see that our creations reduced human suffering and improved the quality of our lives, or see us as fools blinded by our obsessions?