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Corpse, Live

We watched a stage performance of Frankenstein last night, and it was time well-spent. (Technically, we watched a live broadcast of a stage performance, but since we had to go to a theater to see it, I figure that’s close enough.) The rendition was fairly faithful to the book, and thus had little in common with the celebrated Karloff version. This came as a surprise to my father-in-law, who knew Frankenstein only by way of Mel Brooks. Faithfulness means an intelligent, self-possessed creature and plenty of philosophical diversions. Generally, I’m not much for theater, and my attention drifted at points of philosophical pontification, but perked up again whenever the plot began to move: in ethics, too, showing is a better way to teach than merely telling.

Perhaps this superiority of showing over telling is the reason the first five minutes of the play were the best. The creature (that night played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who switches lead roles nightly with Miller) clambers out of an enormous, artificial womb and spends several minutes flailing about before achieving the complex art of walking upright. The creature behaved very much like a severe stroke victim learning to walk, combining an infant’s absolute ignorance with an adult will and adult strength.

The process was part acting, part dance, punctuated by wordless grunts and howls, because the creature hadn’t yet learned to speak, either. It was entirely engrossing. I could have watched it for half an hour or more, but only so long as “watching an adult body learn to walk” was the entire show. Sadly, the creature continues to move convulsively and speak as though with an impediment for the entire show—long after it has moved on to heavy social and ethical questions and left the “learning to walk” stage far behind. The creature speaks smoothly enough when the philosophy gets heavy, and moves smoothly enough when it needs to overpower someone, so why must it continue to look like the victim of nerve degeneration otherwise?

Strictly speaking, the novel is ambiguous on the point. One could imagine all that “Adam” says and does in a clumsy but powerful manner. But one gets the impression of a sophisticated, self-possessed “Adam” by the novel’s end, the creature having mastered speech and its own physique over the intervening years.

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