I took the superb new Frankenstein – which I saw last night via the brilliant National Theatre Live project – to be a morality tale for our times. The script and production has all the focused, archetypal quality of an ancient Greek tragedy, though the centre of gravity was not so much the vitalism that alarmed Shelley’s time – the notion that electricity might bring flesh to life. Rather, it was the deeper, more durable question of where human beings find soul when a mechanistic view of the universe dominates the collective imagination.
There’s really only one person in the play, Frankenstein himself. The nameless monster is his unconscious, which haunts the practice of his rapacious science. Repeatedly, the monster/shadow asserts that thwarting its desire will lead to ruin for Frankenstein, and as the play progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the two are monstrous sides of the same person – conveyed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swapping the roles each night.
The soul-searching theme comes across most vividly in the double attempt to unite with a bride, the archetypal soul figure that Jung called the anima. Frankenstein destroys his soul/bride because he fails in what Iris Murdoch identified as the key task of love, the painful realisation that someone else exists. His narcissism, acted out in his scientific hubris, means he doesn’t really see anyone else around him, even his father. When his young brother is killed, Frankenstein does not mourn, but interprets the death as a sign: he must find the thing he has created, though he does not yet realise that it is himself.
The price is high – an unbearable loneliness that leads to death. The monster knows this: several times it gazes at the moon and laments its chilly isolation. In fact, the monster grows in the humanity that the scientist lacks, as it comes to realise the consequences of living without soul – dare I say, without God.