Berkeley Talks transcript: How Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ took on a life of its own

an person holds two cords apart with electricity behind them

In episode #99 of Berkeley Talks, Chancellor Carol Christ joins Manual Cinema’s co-artistic director Drew Dir to discuss the collective’s presentation of Frankenstein, a Cal Performances co-commission, in a talk moderated by Cal Performances’ executive and artistic director Jeremy Geffen. Listen on Berkeley News. (Photo by Drew Dir)

Jeremy Geffen: Hello everyone. I’m Jeremy Geffen, executive and artistic director for Cal Performances, and it is my great pleasure today to have with me two incredible people who both have intersections with the world of Frankenstein. I’ll start out in alphabetical order with Carol Christ, who is the chancellor of UC Berkeley, as well as a scholar of 19th century, particularly Victorian literature, and in even further a great fan of Frankenstein, the book. And from Manual Cinema, one of their co-artistic directors, Drew Dir, who’s joining us from Chicago. It is Drew’s concept for Frankenstein that we will see in the performance that will follow. Thank you both for being here.

Jeremy Geffen: A first question for you Drew, because this may lay some of the groundwork for what we talk about beyond this. Could you explain what is meant by the term “cinematic shadow puppetry?”

Drew Dir: Yeah, yeah, of course. So the name of our company is Manual Cinema and it also describes sort of the mission statement of the company, which is to create something that looks like cinema, that looks like a movie by hand in front of you using handmade materials. And we’ve created a technique called cinematic shadow puppetry, which uses old-school overhead projectors, the same kind that you might’ve used in math class when you were a kid, and uses a whole bank of overhead projectors to use slides, shadow puppets, and create something that doesn’t look like a traditional children’s shadow puppet play, but create something that resembles an animated film made live in front of you.

Jeremy Geffen: Well, I’m very glad that you made the introductory couple of minutes of video that show how these techniques are put to use in a live performance, because otherwise it could be mistaken for just incredible digital work. And there there’s so much artistry — manual artistry — that goes into your work.

You said something in an interview, which I thought would be something that through to you, both, which is that there are no good or evil characters in Frankenstein.

Drew Dir: We’ve always thought of the story as the story of two characters, Victor and the creature that he creates. And it’s also for us, a dual twin story about creation and about abandonment. And, we always wanted to be able to allow the audience to sympathize with Victor and to understand why he creates and even beyond the why of why he creates, but to feel the feeling of excitement, ambition, energy, that he feels when he brings something new into the world. And to also allow the audience to understand the immediate remorse and regret that he feels at the moment that the creature, you know, opens his eyes and looks back at his creator.

At the same time, we always wanted the audience to understand the violence of Victor’s creature as the product of a series of circumstances that brought him to violent acts. So, to us, it’s Greek tragedy: There aren’t good and evil characters. There are only characters who make errors based on choices that they made up to that point.

Carol Christ: Yeah, I think that’s a wonderful way of talking about the book. I think the book is profoundly about good and evil. And I often think of the creature and Victor as almost a doppelgänger, it’s almost like they’re a single person and they keep switching roles, which one is — Paradise Lost is a really important frame of reference for this book. And Mary Shelley is always asking you, which one is Adam? Which one is Satan? What responsibility does a God have for his creature? And if a creature is rejected, is he justified in the evil that he does afterwards? So, it’s profoundly about a theory of good and evil.

Jeremy Geffen: I was thinking, Carol, in your position as the chancellor of an enormous research university, about the prescience of the question that Mary Shelley presents us, is there something Frankenstein is trying to do good or trying to do something that has benefit to to society? But along with benefit comes the possibility of either manipulation or use for dangerous or reckless uses. I’m thinking about the questions before us today regarding genetics, artificial intelligence and even in vitro fertilization.

Carol Christ: No, I think you’re absolutely right. Frankenstein has proven to be an enormously resonant text today. There are a number of contemporary writers that have been rewriting Frankenstein, Ian McEwan in Machines Like Me or Jeanette Winterson has a wonderful book called Frankissstein that is a double narrative, one of Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, the other of a kind of parallel story of artificial intelligence. There was even a Frankenstein in Baghdad, which was a really chilling book. So, I think it’s just it’s a narrative for our time with the incredible capability through genetic technology, through artificial intelligence that mankind has obtained.

Drew Dir: We spoke a lot about social media companies and the internet when we were developing the show and about Silicon Valley and about how, you know, there are no ill intentions. People in Silicon Valley — there are few ill intentioned people in Silicon Valley who one means to do well. And yet the internet companies like Facebook grow so large and so complex that even their creators are just beginning to understand what it is they’ve created and the consequences their creations have on the world.

Jeremy Geffen: I was wondering as I watched this performance, which is so wonderfully humane, even with regard to the monster, but especially with regard to the creature, what it means to be envisioning a dramatic work about this novel in the shadow of so many popular culture, not necessarily interpretations, but weights of images from Frankenstein.

Drew Dir: Yeah. We, I mean, one of the reasons we were attracted to Frankenstein in the first place was because there are so many iterations of it, it felt like such a rich text. There’s a whole Frankenstein text that lives outside of Mary Shelley’s novel because, you know, the Frankenstein, the character has taken on a life of its own in the popular culture beyond like what she created. But when we first began looking at the title, we landed on Frankenstein because you know, most of our work is non-verbal, it’s told without language. And of course, one of the most famous nonverbal characters in popular culture is Frankenstein’s monster. Even though ironically, as, you know, Carol, Frankenstein’s monster is quite loquacious in the novel. He speaks very well for himself, but we were looking for a good marriage between our form and some sort of content. And so, doing our own interpretation on this famous non-verbal character of the creature was really exciting to us.

Another aspect that felt really exciting was when we landed on the title and went back to the novel, we were reminded about what an interesting structure the original novel has, the Gothic structure of the nested framing narratives. And we thought, ‘Oh, this is fascinating.’ This is a book that’s told with these Russian nesting dolls in which each part of the book is narrated by a different character. One part is narrated by Victor and another is narrated by the creature itself, another by this ship’s captain who finds Victor in the Arctic. And we thought what an interesting challenge to find a, to adapt a narrative voice for a visual idiom. So we can’t have someone narrating our story, or we can’t have different characters narrating our story, but what if we could create these different frames and create a different visual style for each one, it would be like personal narrative voice.

And so having all the different versions of Frankenstein the story was really helpful in that regard because across the history of American cinema, like every era of American cinema has produced its own Frankenstein. It was one of the very first novels to be adapted by Thomas Edison’s cinema company, like a very simple 10-minute silent film of Frankenstein. And of course the 1930s James Whale version and the lots of different versions up through the ’60s, ’70s into today. And so, it was really rewarding to draw on each of these arrows, especially silent film and kind of stitch together our own Frankenstein’s monster from all these different cultural tropes that have been produced over the past 200 years of Frankenstein.

Carol Christ: Yeah, I think that’s so interesting as one of the things that I loved about, about your version of Frankenstein is there’s almost a meta-theatrical element to it in which the crafting of these puppets and the silhouettes, the shadow puppets is almost an analogy to what Victor is doing when creating the creature itself. There’s a really interesting point about the history of Frankenstein by the time Mary Shelley returns to London, which is five years after Frankenstein is published. There were five versions of Frankenstein on the stage. So, it almost immediately becomes this really copular theatrical property. And the argument’s been made, I think really interestingly, that one of the things that draws filmmakers to Frankenstein is it’s a kind of analogy that Victor’s creation of the creature to the art of cinema itself.

Drew Dir: Oh, I love that. I love that.

Jeremy Geffen: That ties us into something that Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein also creates another, a bigger Russian nesting doll.

Carol Christ: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I mean, I love, I always call them not Russian nesting dolls, but Chinese boxes. And you’ve created a Chinese box around the Chinese boxes of Mary Shelley’s novel with the story of Mary Shelley herself and her creation of Frankenstein. I thought that was absolutely wonderful, and wonderful in your connection of Mary Shelly’s trauma about giving birth and about babies dying as analogous indeed, one of the motivations to her imagination to create the story.

Drew Dir: Yeah, from the very beginning we knew we wanted to include Mary Shelley’s biography in the show somehow. And actually, the very first draft of the show had so much about Mary Shelley that we had to cut so much because her life is really fascinating. And, you know, just like briefly a couple interesting things about her was that her mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century feminist and thinker, and Wollstonecraft actually died shortly after childbirth giving birth to Mary Shelley.

And she also had this half sister, Fanny, who committed suicide during the writing of Frankenstein. Of course, her husband, Percy Shelley, who she was running around Europe with at the time that she wrote Frankenstein along with Lord Byron. But the detail from the biography that stuck out to us was the story of the birth of first daughter, Clara, who died shortly after Mary gave birth to her.

And she wrote a journal entry shortly after the death, in which Mary had a nightmare in which she laid hands on the dead child and rubbed it, and basically rubbed it back to life. And when we read that, we thought, ‘Well, this is fascinating because I don’t think we’d ever thought of FrankensteinFrankenstein is a story of a lot of things, but it didn’t strike us as a story about grief and loss and, and putting that in the mix with everything else that’s going on in the original novel felt really interesting to us thinking of it as a novel of grief.

And also, of course, introducing the idea of motherhood and childbirth back into the book, which it feels like the story really opens up when you read the novel in that way. And it felt really interesting to us that Mary wrote this novel, you know, basically like throughout a postpartum period. So, those were the, those were the elements that struck us as really interesting and why we want it to include Mary’s story alongside or around the original Frankenstein story.

Carol Christ: I think that’s really profound about Frankenstein. One of the things that I emphasize when I teach Frankenstein is how young Mary Shelley was. I mean, she was 18 and 19 when she writes this and she’s living in Europe in this kind of house, they all go to Percy Shelly, Gordon, Lord Byron, Byron’s physician and Claire Clairmont who Byron is having an affair with and they’re young and they’re reckless. And yet, Mary Shelley’s life is one of having lost this first child, had a second shot. She’s nursing when she’s at this home in Geneva. And so, you know, reinforcing what you just said, when Victor Frankenstein, in the novel, falls asleep right after he finishes creating the creature, he has a dream about his dead mother walking, or Elizabeth, walking through the streets, who’s his fiancé. He grasps Elizabeth and she turns into the skeleton of his dead mother in his arms. So, it’s a book that’s just haunted by death. And I think haunted by grief, I think you’re right.

Jeremy Geffen: Yeah, you’re right. You’re totally right. In fact, the dream, I’m going to mess up the phrase livid with the power of death. Your point Carol, about Mary Shelley’s youth is extraordinary because she went on to write another six novels. She was incredibly accomplished, but when the book was published, I don’t believe her name was attached to it.

Carol Christ: Yeah, that’s right. It’s by Anonymous. And there’s a big argument in the scholarly literature about how important Percy Shelley was to the revisions. And in the novel. One of the things I loved about your version of Frankenstein is the sense of the marital dynamics, or I guess they weren’t married at the point, that the dynamics between Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley that she’s, you know, trying to get his attention and he’s just writing away. And I felt that was really well done.

Drew Dir: It’s a fascinating relationship on its own and is enough material for an entire novel or story itself, for sure.

Jeremy Geffen: Obviously this is not an unfamiliar concept to offer lovers, but it took me a little while to realize that that all of the actors, whether they are male or female are played by women. And I wanted to ask Drew how you arrived at that decision.

Drew Dir: Well, it’s a little bit of a marriage between the material and the company’s mission. Manual Cinema, all of our shows for the most part, either portray female characters as protagonists or draw on work by female authors. It’s maybe not the most visible part of our mission, but it is a sort of a core part of our mission. And when we got ahold of Frankenstein and discovered all these beams and ideas and motifs of motherhood, we really thought about how do we put Mary Shelley back into the story, which by the way, when you read the novel, it really is full of male characters. I mean, almost exclusively, except for, you know, Elizabeth and his mother, most notably. And so we just wanted to find any kind of way where we could remind the audience as much as possible that this is written by a woman. And there are, there are certain themes and motifs and Frankenstein that you might’ve missed if you hadn’t been thinking about maternity or childbirth before.

Carol Christ: Yeah. I love the fact that you made that you had the same actor play, both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, because it really makes it clear that that Victor Frankenstein is expressing so much of her own, you know, desires, dreams, traumas, in the character.

Drew Dir: Yeah. A lot of people, you know, think that Victor Frankenstein is just a stand-in for her has been Percy, and I think there is a totally a valid critique there, but what that loses is that Mary is a creator as well. And, and she has felt these things, she’s felt that thrill of creation, she’s felt the regret of ambition and all those things that Victor feels as an author.

Jeremy Geffen: Well, before two such deeply knowledgeable individuals as yourself on the subject of Frankenstein, I feel embarrassed to admit that my first exposure beyond cartoons was Young Frankenstein, which I’ve watched.

It was this production that was the impetus for me to finally read the novel and to recognize that so much of what we think we know about the novel is not, it’s not an accurate reflection of what was in the text itself. And that is actually one of the themes of Cal Performances’ current season, Fact or Fiction. So, I think we could probably talk for another hour or so about Frankenstein and about your fantastic work Drew, but we’re going to call it quits here. And I want it to say a great thank you to you Drew Dir from Manual Cinema and Carol Christ of UC Berkeley, for making the time for this conversation. And we look greatly forward to the performance.

Carol Christ: Thank you Jeremy.

Drew Dir: Thank you so much for presenting Frankenstein, Jeremy and Carol good luck with your class. I have to say that a big reason why I really love Frankenstein the novel is because of an introduction to romanticism class that I took as a freshman in college. And, and the way, that Frankenstein was taught to me stuck with me all through the years and was so important to me putting up this production. So, I hope your students, I’m sure your students will feel as inspired as I was.

Carol Christ: Well, that’s wonderful to hear and thank you so much for such a spectacular theatrical event about Frankenstein.