1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · News

Frankenstein at the National Theatre

13.04.2011

Introduction

The play, based on the story of Frankenstein, raises questions about science.

Story

“I am talking about science!”“No. You are talking about pride.”

The Danny Boyle-directed production of Nick Dear’s play Frankenstein at the National Theatre is that rare thing, a critical and a popular hit (writes Claire Packman, Egenis Communications Officer). Dear’s version focuses on the creature rather than the creator, although the decision to have the two lead actors alternate those roles (an astute choice both in artistic and commercial terms) instantly underlines the importance of the relationship between Frankenstein and his ‘invention’.

Giving precedence as it does to the experience of the creature, the part of Frankenstein the creator is relatively minor. The play does not explore, as Shelley’s original does, the scientific zeal which drives the creator on; we are told about, rather than witnessing, his genius. But the results speak for themselves: scientific endeavour is prone to hubris and must be carefully controlled.

The programme notes carry an essay by biologist Armand Marie Leroi, who notes that last year, nearly 200 years after Shelley’s novel was written, artificial life was indeed created, by a team at the J. Craig Venter Institute. But Synthia, or organism JCVI-syn1.0, shows no sign of the intelligence of Frankenstein’s creature, or indeed of any other power. It can only reproduce. Interestingly, it is that very prospect which so terrifies Frankenstein that, having created a female as well, he then destroys her. And Synthia is by no means always viewed as a benign creation. Dr David King, of Human Genetics Alert, has been quoted as saying, “Scientists' understanding of biology falls far short of their technical capabilities. We have learned to our cost the risks that gap brings, for the environment, animal welfare and human health.” Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, said the artificial organism was a step towards “the creation of living beings with capacities and a nature that could never have naturally evolved”. He sees the risks as “unparalleled”.

Egenis’s Dr Christine Hauskeller has written that “Science freely offers to engage with human self-understanding and its societal and ethical dimensions, claiming to be able to define humanity.” Certainly Frankenstein seems sure he knows what is human and what is not, but the play looks critically at his certainty. The creature is not given life “in the usual way” but is created from “meat for the dogs”, a fact which causes the creature himself to feel disgust. Yet because of his remarkable powers of assimilation, in what seems like no time at all he has learned to read and is quoting Milton and, less happily for those around him, imitating the ancient Romans. Elsewhere on this site Prof Paul Griffiths takes ; in this play there is no doubt that nurture – or the lack of it – is what makes the creature what he is. Met with only rejection at best and violence at worst (except for the blind man who teaches him how to speak and then to read) the creature, who could, it is implied, have learned to be wholly good, instead learns to be vengeful and violent.

“Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie.”

Graphic

Human expression