When Benedict Cumberbatch breaks free of an artificial womb on the stage of Britain’s National Theatre in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, currently running in London and recently broadcast digitally in Melbourne cinemas, he does so as a mewling infant. For the several minutes in which he moves crablike across the stage and back again he is accompanied by surges of light coming from a dazzling array of globes above him. In a play on one of the subjects much in Shelley’s mind as she wrote, the creature is galvanised into movement by electricity’s searing light. Alone, awkward and clumsy, he eventually gets to his feet and stumbles across the stage. It is a profoundly moving piece of acting, bringing to mind not just infants as they learn their bodies, but damaged adult bodies too. Cumberbatch, who spent time with stroke and accident victims as he prepared for the part, combines acting ability with a physical stamina that is little short of amazing, and always affecting. He is, of course, playing the monster―or creature, as this version prefers―in a new stage version of Frankenstein, written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle.
The play runs for two hours with no interval: there’s no let up for the audience, no nice little glass of chardonnay to carry you through the next act. You must sit and watch as the creature becomes a profound and good being at the same time as the horrified Frankenstein attempts to put the ‘experiment’, as he calls it, behind him, abrogating responsibility for what he has made, and for what he has done to the creature. As abandonment and rejection do their work―the creature cries, ‘All I want is the possibility of love’―Frankenstein’s creation, designed with the idea of perfection in mind, turns to avenge himself on his creator. Darkness descends upon what was grace.
Mary Shelley was a reader of Rousseau. His ideas about education, and in particular of the necessity of protecting the child from the deleterious effects of society (Rousseau’s Emile begins with the line ‘Everything good comes from the hand of the Creator, everything degenerates in the hand of man’), were subjects influential to Shelley’s own writing. Yet Rousseau’s ideals of education (and ideals they were, for Rousseau famously abandoned every one of his five infants—or rather forced his common-law wife Therese le Vasseur to do so―to the Paris Foundling Hospital) is by no means the only principle at stake in Shelley’s work, or in Nick Dear’s play.
In both novel and play, Frankenstein’s creature is left to fend for himself in the world: he is in the position of Rousseau’s natural man. His innate qualities of self-love and self-preservation are coupled with compassion: Rousseau’s amour de soi. Yet his desire for human company, and his careful observation of the family in whose lean-to he lives unknown to them, mark him out as a civilised man rather than a natural one, and he develops amour propre: pride, and the capacity to compare himself to others, and to compete with them. His self-education through observation is complicated by the eventual confrontation in which the family rejects him in horror and fear. His new sense of self is offended. He did not deserve their treatment, and he knows it full well.
The crime that Frankenstein commits against his creature is, however, not merely brute abandonment, but a failure fully to grasp the meaning of his experiment.
Although his aim had been to create a human being, he understood what he was doing only in the terms of the experiment itself. His disgust arose when the creature stirred into life, when his experiment moved from inertness to living embodiment. His was a failure of imagination of an extraordinary but not unfamiliar kind.
Frankenstein was engaged in what Shelley called natural philosophy rather than the newer name, science. The definitions are worth considering: science is the state or fact of knowing, according to the OED; philosophy is the love, study or pursuit of wisdom or knowledge—these are similar enough yet distinct meanings. In Shelley’s case, and in Dear’s account of her work, wisdom is the more apt meaning and is what Frankenstein so obviously lacks. His hubris, shared by many scientists in his period, and often enough today, is to fail to see that science and technology do not exist in some value-free realm, and that all experiment has consequences beyond the laboratory.
Shelley’s insight is given a contemporary setting in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, currently screening in Melbourne. Told in retrospect by Kathy H., who is twenty-eight years old, the narrative begins in the school hall of Hailsham, a boarding school in a fine house in the English countryside. The camera ranges over the children gathered together, pausing on one bonny child after another: endearing little boys and delightful little girls, opening their mouths wide as they sing, enunciating with care.
On the face of it, these seem to be privileged children. In their strange innocence, dressed in vaguely old-fashioned clothes, the children appear to have stepped out of the pages of children’s fiction of the 1950s and 60s. But instead of inhabiting a utopia of adventure, play and happy families, the world these children know is dystopic. Like Shelley’s poor monster, these too are creations, bereft of family or homes. They are clones, and the purpose of their lives is to provide healthy, fully-grown organs for harvesting.
The three central characters Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) grow up together, and form a lasting emotional tie. When the time comes for them to leave Hailsham, and to begin living in the world, they do so as a close group. The narrative that follows involves the complications of their love for each other, as they finally understand the role that has been laid out for them, and ready themselves for their first ‘donation’.
While they are at school the children are required to submit drawings and paintings to the school’s gallery. A special teacher visits the school regularly, and discusses the artwork with the children. The account the children have of this is that the paintings are a way for the teachers to see the children’s capacity to love. Whether they can love or not, and whether they can love in the right way, becomes an issue as the children grow into young adults: another of the circulating rumours suggests that if a couple can prove that they truly love each other they can gain a few years together before they begin to donate—that is, before they begin on the path which will, after two or three donations, end in their death. When Kathy and Tommy seek a reprieve they discover that the rumour was baseless: more, they learn that the point of the paintings was not to look into their souls, but to see if they had souls at all.
What Shelley had to imagine, Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel can almost take for granted. We haven’t cloned humans yet, and with luck we never will. But technologies such as surrogacy and IVF would have been equally astonishing to Shelley, and perhaps more appropriate to her purpose had she been able to imagine them. While Frankenstein was not a biological father to his creature, there can be little doubt that he stood in that relation to him. Frankenstein was a terrible father, and not only because he abandoned his child: he didn’t give him a mother either. The womblike membrane from which Cumberbatch falls at the opening of Dear’s Frankenstein is outside anybody and everybody. He is truly alone, embodied and yet horribly dis-embodied, unable to find a place for himself in a world full of ‘natural’ people.
Ishiguro’s children are also truly alone. They accept their fate with a meekness that has perplexed many reviewers, since the world in which we see them as they begin their donating life seems very like ours. But it isn’t, because this is a world in which it is fully and publicly accepted that people are bred in order to make organs for others. The people thus bred are not really people at all: they cannot have a share in the idea of the person that otherwise prevails if they are to fulfill their purpose. The children of Hailsham will never achieve independence and never exercise choice; their future is, as a teacher tells them, mapped out for them, and until they die they are detained in a strange limbo of obedience. More ‘creaturely’ than Shelley’s creature, they are that much less than the ‘natural’ man of Rousseau.
We can spend a great deal of time trying to imagine in depth what kind of fictional world would produce such an outcome, but it would be a waste of time, since the reference of fantasy is always the real world, the one we know. It’s to our world that Ishiguro’s points. Just as Shelley was concerned with the role of what she didn’t yet call science in her newly industrialised world, so Never Let Me Go, film and novel, draws attention to questions about science and technology in ours and, in particular, the sciences by which we enable life. Have we thought it through, or will we too be found to be wanting in imagination in our very real world?
By Valerie Krips
Valerie Krips is an Arena Magazine editor and an Honorary Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.