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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Frankenstein (NT Live)



The live broadcast from the British National Theatre of Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle, starring Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) confirmed two things I had always suspected.

The first, watching theater performance on screen, even if it has been recorded live, can never feel the same as watching real people acting on stage. There is something irreplaceably intimate about watching actors breathing in your face, spittle flying. The brain can be fooled to shorten the distance between the audience and the onscreen actors, but not completely.

On the other hand, it was certainly cheaper and easier than flying to London to watch the play at the NT.

The novel Frankenstein I read (attempted to read?) years ago and have always thought overrated. I suspect my lack of appreciation for its significance is rooted in my non-Judeo-Christian upbringing. Someone creates a living being out of dead components. So? The premise fails to arouse the instinctive and deep horror that stirs in the hearts of people with a proper Christian teaching from infancy.

The sacrilegious abomination committed by Victor Frankenstein is "to play God." Ever since Mary's little story captivated the imagination and righteous horror of the western world, every time a biologist or medical researcher has the good fortune of getting his name in the news, he runs the risk of being accused of this horror. Practical and complicated ethical debates about reproductive science and genetics are often dismissed with a simple "don't play God." Is that reason enough to cut off any further thinking or discussion about life science?

But I must admit one of the lessons of Frankenstein is still valid --- One is responsible for his creation. In other words, clean up your own crap. You can't just create a pile of garbage and leave it to stink up the whole neighborhood. If you break it, you've bought it. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have taken this message to heart.

In the play, as the novel, the Creature provokes the most sympathy, for he did not ask to be born or to be abandoned into the cruelty of humanity. His revenge on his creator and humanity is justified. Frankenstein, although labeled sympathetically by Mary Shelly as the "modern Prometheus," comes out as a jerk and a dork. He is grandiose and ineffective, with an IQ of a genius and the emotional intelligence of a door knob. He is the original socially crippled geek --- and not the harmless, lovable kind.

Putting aside the issue of when it's OK to play God and when it's not, the tragedy of Frankenstein's Creature is really caused by the unfortunate fact that he is ugly. If only Mr. Frankenstein has had even a rudimentary sense of aesthetics, the story would have come out totally different. Alas, like the stereotypical geek and male scientist, Frankenstein is blind to the importance of beauty. If only his Creature was pretty, he would have been adored and worshiped and assumed to be morally perfect by every human he encounters, rather than being persecuted and shunned and feared.

Therefore, in the end, the play confirms my second suspicion --- The central theme of Frankenstein, which is also the real reason that it resonates with our perception of the world, is that the fundamental difference between comedy and tragedy is merely cosmetic.

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