I can’t remember exactly how old I was; I assume around 11. I was standing in the foyer of a theatre somewhere in the small university town of Grahamstown (in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa) during the annual two week arts festival. This adventure was to become something of a family holiday pilgrimage during winter school breaks for years to follow. Thinking back on these trips, I marvel at the diversity of performances my parents exposed my sister and I to, including an incredible concert by jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand). I must admit, I did not appreciate this at the time, jazz is still somewhat of a slowly acquired taste for me, but to have the opportunity to experience many creative expressions at a young age really expanded our worlds.
Back to that theatre foyer; this particular show we had arrived to see was a comedic interpretation of Frankenstein that sadly none of my family can accurately remember the title of. We do however recall the principle cast eerily milling around among the waiting crowd, silently, in full character make up, with creepy stares searing straight through you yet remaining aloof and detached. My memories of the play itself are also rare, but the brief flashes of colour and faces include the feeling of being paralysed by laughter. The monster was depicted by a pale faced actor, who’s costume bizarrely included inserting a ping pong ball in each cheek, who met his demise being cornered into a windmill which was set alight by pitchfork carrying villagers; somehow hilariously done.
I had assumed that this was an accurate, yet spoof retelling, of the Frankenstein story which I thought originated as a movie and Boris Karloff’s iconic green face the original monster. The word Frankenstein in itself was innately understood as an adjective, or a metaphor implying madness and danger.
More than a decade later, the book had become my favourite and I’d migrated to another hemisphere; I managed to get tickets to see Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein. Not in the theatre mind, seats were sold out before I knew they were available, but to a cinema screening of a live performance. Chatting to my friend who accompanied me before the start, I realised that I had taken for granted that everyone knew the green face zombie with bolts sticking out of his neck was not the depiction of the creature in the book at all. Boyle’s adaption had me enthralled and emotional. I kept half an eye on my friend’s reaction as he watched Mary Shelley’s tragic story unfold and it seemed to affect him deeply too.
Fast forward to present day and I was back at the British Library for another talk as part of the season celebrating the bicentennial of the first publishing of Frankenstein earlier this year. Having heard Fiona Sampson discuss Shelley herself the week before I was right back in line for tickets, this time to hear Sir Christopher Frayling.
One of the most entertaining and engaging talks I’ve attended, Sir Frayling took us on a journey through the 200 years since Shelley’s novel was published from the surroundings in which the author found herself when the novel was conceived, anonymously published, reviewed and subsequent editions edited.
His talk then followed the path of the novel’s creature; how he represented our worst fears, most frighteningly off the page and in our imaginations to being depicted on stage in a manner that made him a caricature as opposed to a character. Copyright law didn’t really exist at the time, so depictions of the controversial novel on stage were unregulated and essentially melodramatic pulp, giving rise to the standard mindless ‘zombie’ like depiction of the creature, which had now been turned into the now famous ‘monster’.
The terror that the creature invoked in people’s minds could be described as instinctive. For me, he represents us at our most primal and vulnerable, which is a frightening reality to contemplate. His commercial depiction as a ‘monster’ instead of a ‘creature’ strips him of his character though, reducing him to a beast instead of being seen as a man. He is born, albeit in adult form, but learns as a baby, developing his perception based on the reality he is exposed to, like we all do. Sadly his world consisted of instant rejection, ostracism and violence.
The character has now become part of contemporary culture, being a widely used adjective for a botch or hatchet job. There is so much to explore with Shelley’s work which is proved by us still exploring it two centuries later. In his fascinating book: Frankenstein, The First Two Hundred Years, Sir Frayling chronicles this evolutionary journey in amazing detail. This book is an absolute treasure for Shelley and creature fans alike.
I took the opportunity to grab a copy after the talk and managed to get it signed by Sir Frayling and have a chat. It was wonderful, especially for teenage me, who thought she was alone in her continuous fascination with Frankenstein, to be validated. She felt at home among ‘her people’ investigating ideas human frailty, mortality and science first posed in 1818. Paging through Frayling’s book reminds me of that 11 year old, feeling slightly bewildered in that theatre foyer, unaware she was about to open a window into a realm she’d completely fall in love with. Time to re-read Shelley’s masterpiece I think.