2018 was the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, inspiring “The Year of Frankenstein” in Chicago theatre. There were at least six different stage productions adapting or inspired by the novel. I managed to see four of them. They all turned out to be strikingly different, even while sharing elements, themes, and motifs. If one made a Venn diagram of particular scenes, plot points, or philosophical ideas from the book, the productions would overlap in many areas, but none would completely match up with any other. As a story, the original text is complicated, with multiple narrators and perspectives on the events. Which voices become part of an adaptation and which ones are left out shape the nature of the story, who you believe, and why the story is being told at all. The producers of these adaptations all found things of personal importance in the text and gathered those elements together into their visions. Different answers were found to questions such as “whose story is this?”, “why does Frankenstein’s reject the Creature?”, or “who are we meant to identify with?”
The first one I saw was modest in production but large in ambition. It was put on by Theatre Hikes, which stages performances at various parks around Chicago. Their unique approach is that rather than having the audience gather at a single location with the actors moving on and off stage, they set up different locations around a park and have the audience take short walks from one to the other. Given the nice city park system of Chicago, this works quite well. Theatre Hikes usually adapts their source material to suite their style, and their performances have included a modern retelling of War of the Worlds, a blending of Edgar Allen Poe stories into a single narrative, and last year, their take on Frankenstein. Something that is almost always removed from adaptations is the overall framing sequence that contains the main story. The novel of Frankenstein is actually conveyed through letters written by an ambitious young explorer, Captain Robert Walton, as he leads a ship braving the arctic ice in search of the North Pole. He is writing home to his sister, telling of his expedition — which is interrupted by a sighting of a strange giant man, and then an encounter with Victor Frankenstein, who is pursuing that creature. Frankenstein then recounts to Captain Walton the tragic story of his life. That story includes the account that Frankenstein’s Creature himself tells of his life. So the novel is, technically, Walton telling his sister Frankenstein’s telling of the Creature telling his story. Only at the very end of the book does the Creature appear to speak directly to Walton. Many questions about who exactly is a reliable narrator here come to mind, particularly for a modern reader.
Of the four productions, two included some element of the Walton framing story, and only Theatre Hikes made much use of it. They gave the framing sequence their usual modern spin. The story is narrated by a physicist/engineer who is trying out a new device to allow him to probe time and space. His experiment malfunctions and he is thrown into a dreamlike realm where he encounters the similarly lost Frankenstein (cast as a Victoria Frankenstein here, though her gender isn’t a significant part of this interpretation). Her memories and fears shape the limbo around them, recounting the main elements of the story. The presence of the Creature hovers in the background, howling his creator’s name. Frankenstein doesn’t wish to recall these events, but the narrator questions and insists, even as bringing these events to life draws the Creature ever closer. Several main events of the novel’s plot are depicted, particularly the Creature’s request that Frankenstein construct a female companion for him — which she begins, but then, filled with doubt, destroys. While Frankenstein is filled with regrets, the narrator is ever more curious. Frankenstein warns him about the dangers of reckless ambition, just as Shelley’s character warns Captain Walton. While in the novel Walton heeds the warning, and decides to send his ship home, at the ultimate confrontation of the Theatre Hikes’ adaption, our narrator chooses to pursue the Creature, freeing the tormented spirit of Victoria Frankenstein by taking on the chase himself, into unknown realms. This ending was particularly effective with the Theatre Hikes presentation, since the narrator and the Creature literally head off into the distance, across the landscape of the park. Frankenstein and the Creature are present throughout this version, yet in a way are only ghosts, trapped in the deeds they have already done. It is the narrator, the Captain Walton stand-in, who is the active force, driving the story to its preordained conclusion, making this take on Shelley’s novel this narrator’s story.
While the next performance I attended was in a more traditional theatre, it departed most radically from Shelley’s text, at least in theme. Lifeline Theatre also presented us with a Victoria Frankenstein, though again gender wasn’t a major focus. The genesis of the Creature here comes not just from Frankenstein’s ambition to discover the secret of life, but from the direct goal of resurrecting her depart father. She succeeds, after a fashion, but the result is of course a monster. Frankenstein flees from the Creature as its pleas for help, love, or just the recognition of its existence. Denied this, it haunts and pursues her, murdering everyone she is close to. The deaths and key events of the novel, such as the aborted construction of the female, are reconfigured to this envisioning of the story.
The Creature is portrayed by a life sized puppet, assembled as much from the broken fragments and detritus of the material world as from revivified flesh. When each victim falls to the Creature, that actor joins in the puppeteering, so the construct grows larger and more articulated. The use of a puppet, even one with onstage operators, as in Japanese bunraku, emphasizes that the story we see is more allegorical than literal. The Creature is the embodiment of Frankenstein’s grief over her father’s death. Even as she appears to flees from it, she refuses to let it go, and that refusal destroys her life and relationships. In trying to keep her love for her father alive, she is making it something monstrous. The acceptance and recognition the Creature seeks is Frankenstein’s acceptance of her father’s death. Only when she faces it can the monster be disassembled. This play is Frankenstein’s story, presenting to the audience her internal journey, with even the Creature as perhaps only a projection of her emotional turmoil.
Each production discussed here has an initial hook that establishes its unique take on the story. In Remy Bumppo’s production, the actors who portray Frankenstein and the Creature exchange roles in alternating performances. That puts attention on those two characters, yet when their production begins, we quickly learn that this version of the story is from the Creature’s point of view. As mentioned above, in the Shelley’s novel we go through several layers of narrative before the Creature can speak for himself. The Remy Bumppo adaption starts there, with the Creature’s birth and how he is thrust, alone, ignorant, and vulnerable to survive by himself. It is Frankenstein who must wait for a chance to appear on stage. Once this point-of-view is established, the adaption follows the action of the novel closely. It does take opportunities to expand some of the scenes and some of the Creature’s interactions,beyond what Shelley wrote, so that we can learn more of his thoughts and sufferings. The interactions between the Creature and De Lacey, the blind peasant who teaches him speak and read, are shown in detail. We get to see the Creature grow from an ignorant child into a philosopher, albeit a dark one. Much later, another poignant addition is a scene between the Creature and Elizabeth, just after her wedding to Frankenstein. I don’t think I have seen any interpretation of the story before that including a conversation between these characters. While Elizabeth was shocked by the appearance of the Creature , she did not scream and flee in horror. It makes the tragedy of her murder all the greater, seeing the possibility that he did not need to kill her, that another outcome was possible, if the Creature had not already given himself to destruction. Another variant approach is the story of the creation of the female Creature: Frankenstein goes so far as to successfully give the her the initial semblance of life, though not yet consciousness. He has also improved the aesthetics of the construct as well, making a thing of beauty, rather than horror — emphasized by having a nude actress perform the role. Despite this, Frankenstein gives in to his doubts about creating a race of monsters, and murders what he has made.
Since Remy Bumppo has given us the creature’s point of view in this production, Frankenstein’s perspective is diminished proportionally. He is more thoughtless, cruel, and self-obsessed, and undeveloped. This adaption does bring the final confrontation to arctic, but there is no Captain Walton here. Frankenstein is hunting the what he made, and the Creature, while leading him on, is hardly trying to escape. He even assists Frankenstein when his lesser frame threatens to end the chase. Here is it is the Creature that cannot let go of his love for his creator, even while enduring the suffering that love brings, because he feels he deserves it.
The last of the Year of Frankenstein came from Lookingglass Theatre, with a production that was still in early development when the others were being performed. The “hook” of this staging, aside from the acrobatic theatrically that Lookingglass is known for, is that they give the story a further level of framing: the night in Geneva when Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori had their ghost story competition. Mary tells her tale, with others acting out the roles she gives them. In that sense the entire performance is their play acting, though with their personal issues, particularly those of the Shelley marriage, intruding on the events from time to time. Shelley includes the framing story of arctic explorer Walton, with him taking on the narration until Frankenstein is discovered, and he, in turn begins his tale. With that approach to the story there is an emphasis on the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his childhood friend, cousin, and eventually fiancé Elizabeth, with Percy and Mary “performing” those roles respectively. The conflict between Victor’s quest for knowledge, glory, and academic vindication and his love for Elizabeth, and human interaction in general, is the central dramatic question. So this is Victor’s play. The Creature only appears on stage relatively late (played by a blood and grime covered Byron). The Creature gives his usual account of rejection, brief hope after learning language by observing the peasant family, and his tracking of Victor to Ingolstad. The latent destructiveness of the Creature is downplayed in this account, even to point of altering the death of Victor’s young brother William to an accident rather than the Creature’s first murder. That echoes the events of the 1931 James Whale Frankenstein, were the Creature kills a child without meaning to.
After making his promise to produce a female companion, the play begins a gauze-shrouded dream sequence where Frankenstein begins to envision the Bride, as in the Remy Bumppo staging, as a being of perfection, and the two creatures as almost godlike lovers. His fear of instead spawning a race of devils overcomes him, as it always does, and he tears the Bride apart, splattering blood across the stage. This performance had the most liquid and body parts of the four performance, though nothing worse than is acceptable on television these days. From here the play continues to follow the classic plot of the book, with Frankenstein mistakenly believing the Creature’s threats about being with him “on his wedding night” are directed at Frankenstein personally, and that he can finish off the Creature with a pistol, end the whole matter, and return to a normal life with Elizabeth.
When the story catches up to the Walton expedition, and Frankenstein’s death, Mary Shelley’s own telling of this story fades back into the forefront. Throughout this “play” Mary has lead her companions through, she has taken on the role of Elizabeth, though in her heart she seems to identify most with the Creature. His doomed relationship with Frankenstein, resonates the most with Shelley’s troubled marriage. Doom is the final message, as the death of the characters in the story merge with the eventual early deaths of most of the guests who were at the house in Geneva, Mary included. The play ends with a stage strewn with bodies, as if it were a Shakespearian tragedy. Mary Shelley is trying to tell her story, through these characters she has imagined, but can only see them just as trapped as she feels.
James Whale’s famous 1931 film was a very different story than what Shelley wrote, unlike all these four, which are constructed around the same core plot elements that are in the original novel. The “hooks” of these adaptations — a time-traveler, a puppet, a rotating cast, a historical story frame — can seem the main features that distinguish each from the other. Those would only be theatrical gimmicks if the productions were not trying to achieve very different goals, and tell the story from different perspectives. Theatre Hikes brought out more of the cautionary themes of Shelley’s novel, directing warnings to audience, by the example of the explorer/scientist who does not heed the dangers he is warned of. Lifeline presented a path to recovery from personal tragedy, one that drew on real-life loss from the playwright’s life. Remy Bumppo — the one version that was not a Chicago premiere — dove deepest in the sufferings and torments of the Creature, giving him a voice that is often denied him. Lookingglass tried to uncover some of the reasons that the very young (in years at least) Mary Shelley came to compose this story. After two centuries, more people than ever are turning to Shelley’s work and finding visions of horror, loss, and longing. It continues to move people to rebuild and re-embody what she created into nightmares and visions of their own.