A Gentle Example of the Puppeteer’s Art

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley, adapted by John Ginman, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, presented by Blackeyed Theatre, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Thursday 17th November, 7.45pm

It’s the story we all know from the book we’ve never read. I think, truly, Wuthering Heights is the authentic Frankenstein masterpiece, with the added bonus of a supporting cast of memorable women, but you may not agree.

Literary merit aside, Mary Shelley’s version was inspired by, among other things, German folk or ghost tales, which were, presumably, quite short and pithy. Her novel is a blowsy, baggy, shaggy dog of a yarn which travels all over, from Geneva to the Orkneys, to the North Pole via St Petersburg, but somehow finds in there somewhere a seed of an idea that’s taken an unshakable grip on the popular imagination: The Walking Dead, a recent example.

As much as the Lazarus schtick can be a televisual gold mine (how must those corpses smell!) the real monster in Frankenstein is the metaphor.

Frankenstein, the character that is, is so conflated in the popular imagination with his creation, who has no name, that together they’ve entered the language, creator and monster now one, indivisible, shorthand for any phenomenon which has a tendency to rise up against humanity, to take on a malevolent life of its own. Almost like the idea of Frankenstein itself has done.

And in its own way this is only right, Frankenstein and his monster are the same person. As the circumstances of Shelley’s conceiving the idea are now as famous, or maybe more so, than the book itself, it isn’t hard to imagine the model for the duo, Frankenstein and monster, was Lord Byron, at the time notorious, a supposed genius, leading Mary Shelley’s step-sister a merry dance, having fled England following an affair with his own half sister and cruelty towards his wife, the model of a modern romantic (Byron, not his wife) hero and villain, a character for the age and a handy, on the spot, metaphor and horror story all rolled into one.

Did Mary Shelley have Byron in mind? Who knows. It’s fun to think so. It’s also fun to think of modern examples: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates. No, I’m not accusing these multi-billionaires of being (or having been) crazy, aristocratic poets (or worse), but like Byron/Frankenstein their names have assumed the status of metaphors (an icon is something else altogether), avatars (get it?) for their creations, givers of personality and character to things, machines, which aren’t people, which fundamentally are devoid of humanity in the sense of being human. (Or in other senses too, maybe.)

I am writing this on an Apple Computer (are you surprised?), and as someone interested in technology stories (that’s another story) I’ve watched as the Apple Computer myth has ebbed away from the mainstream press since the sad death of their éminence grise, the person who somehow gave those gadgets soul. What was, just a short few years ago, a shiny piece of the future, a brushed aluminium chip of science fiction right there on your desk, is slowly, imperceptibly, turning into what? A typewriter?

Whether or not Frankenstein is Byron, the fact is that Shelley has imagined her character as a great genius, so great that he can create a great monster. The greatness of the monster depends on the greatness of its creator. Just as the greatness of Apple Computer was somehow dependent on the greatness of Steve Jobs; or the greatness of Microsoft on the great geek, Bill Gates. The creation is an expression of the individual genius of the creator. This is the Romantic myth, created to resist, imaginatively, the ascendancy of machines in the early days of the industrial revolution.

Two hundred years later we need, I think, a different metaphor for creativity. Go into any art gallery and the name of the artist will be there beside the art. Go to any bookshop or library (thank you Brighton and Hove) and the name of the author will be on the book. Any film, and there’s the director, any music, the composer. Frankenstein and his monster, the metaphor that just keeps on giving.

It’s not hard to extrapolate from Frankenstein in both incarnations to the idea that a banker (for example) or CEO of a listed company, is great enough, individually, to warrant the kind of pay and bonuses that have become widely accepted. Individual genius is beyond morality, beyond question, beyond logic. It has ascended to the realm of myth.

On many lips, just now, is the accusation that the arts exists in a bubble, that as an activity it’s inured to searching, unflinching examination. Certainly there exists a contradiction between individual genius and the way that art is enjoyed by its public as both a product and a social interaction.

And there is very clearly a mismatch between art as a creation of an elite and the everyday consumers of art who maybe think it ‘isn’t for them’; that individual genius isn’t something they relate to; that what they understand and value is community.

So to this production (I thought you were never going to get there): Blackeyed Theatre have put the book onstage, faithfully and honestly. And given that most of their audience won’t have read the book, this is a useful service, because the book really does have something very important to say.

The difficulty arises with the character of Frankenstein, given that the real conflict is within. He is struggling with himself. And that struggle is developed through the creation of the monster, also an aspect of himself. This works well as a novel. As a stage play the actors are forced back to narrative, to telling the story. They do it very well, it must be said, creating the ambiance, stepping in and out of telling and being, easily and seamlessly, playing the incidental music, the multiple roles.

But in the impersonation of the monster by a puppet, though fun and interesting to watch, the fundamental message of the story, novel and play, is lost. Puppetry is an anthropomorphic art. We all love to watch the puppeteers projecting themselves into the inanimate material, seeing wood and string, or in this case metal and foam, come to life. It’s also safe and comforting, an intermediary between performer and audience, unthreatening yet sad, always just a moment away from lifelessness when its moment ends.

That the puppet is the antithesis of the immortality of the monster, of its ubiquity, that if we look we can see its face everywhere, could have been a powerful comment on the central tenet, but in fact the creature was simply melancholy rather than scary, a gentle example of the puppeteer’s art rather than the embodiment of two hundred years of artistic expression.

Paul Corcoran