Ever since Cain and Abel turned out to be somewhat less than the ideal sons, human minds have been searching for the answer to raising our children to be both good and successful.
Recently, the 1891 Fredonia Opera House has used their capacity to show us high definition performances from the great theaters and concert houses of the world to strike one more blow in those battles. Last Sunday, they brought our community a high definition showing of a production directed by Danny Boyle, from the English National Theatre: "Frankenstein," a play by Nick Dear, based on the classic novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.
Sadly, Mrs. Shelley's novel has been in the public domain for so long, and she has created an imagery which is so stunning, there has grown up a whole Frankenstein industry which has completely distorted the message of her writing.
Just as Shakespeare's poor Juliet asks "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" meaning "Why are you Romeo, instead of somebody else?" Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein is not the murderous monster with the bolt through his neck. Frankenstein is the scientist who created the living thing out of the remains of people who had died.
Meteorologists are even referring to Hurricane Sandy which is bedeviling our country as I write these words, as "Frankenstorm." It gives new truth to the old saying that a little learning is a very dangerous thing.
Let me tell you a bit about Mrs. Shelley's original novel, and then tell you about the simply stunning production which played in our community less than a week ago. I hope the information will prove as delightful and fascinating to you, as it did to me.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley started writing the best-known of her many novels when she was 18 years old. Both her youth and her adult life were filled with uncertainty, rejection and unhappiness, and these found their way into her writing.
Mary's parents were both prominent speakers and writers. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was extremely active in the cause of women's rights, among other radical causes. The senior Mary died of what was called "childbed fever," shortly after the daughter's birth. The fact that, until she married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the daughter had exactly the same three names as her mother has often misled people doing research on them. One of my students, for example, was dumbfounded by the fact that the author had seemed to die nearly 20 years before she wrote "Frankenstein," although of course the reference was to the author's mother.
Mary's father was William Godwin, a popularly known philosopher and journalist. Godwin raised his children, including Mary, to have extremely advanced education, although none of them went to a formal school for more than a few months. It was said that from her early teens, Mary read her father's philosophical books and gave his work editing and advice.
When Godwin remarried, following his wife's death, he married a woman who favored her own children at the expense of her stepchildren, leaving Mary feeling bereft and unwanted. While still in her early teens, Mary fell in love with one of her father's students, the poet Shelley. Because the poet was already married, the couple were outcasts, even by Mary's father, and they left England to travel throughout Europe, with Mary calling herself Mrs. Shelley. Sometime during their travels, she became pregnant, but the child died in infancy.
Eventually, after Shelley's first wife committed suicide, the couple married, and they headed yet again to the less puritan countries on the continent of Europe. This time, they took Mary's half sister with them, and she also became pregnant, possibly by her sister's husband. Eventually, for a while, they rented a house in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Living nearby was the poet, George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron.
One evening, the young writers got into a heavy discussion of fear, and what determines whether a person will become frightened. Fueled by wine and by opiate drugs, they decided they would each write a scary story, and see who was best able to frighten the others. Mary wrote "Frankenstein," which she gave the subtitle "The New Prometheus."
Over the coming months her story gradually expanded from a story to a novel. It was first published anonymously, in 1818, when the author was 21 years old. A number of editions, some of them different from the first version, followed, in subsequent years. Different artists who are using her story as a basis for a play or a film will argue over which version of her writing is the true story.
More than 20 years ago, a film was made called "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: the True Story." In that version, the "monster" which was created by Victor Frankenstein was portrayed by an extremely handsome young actor named Michael Sarrazin, and the emphasis of the plot was that as long as the creation was good looking, people treated it with generosity and kindness. When its appearance began to fail, people became cruel and rejecting.
In the version from the National Theatre, the created person is horrible in appearance from the very beginning, and never experiences the period of social acceptability.
Among the themes which the story approaches is whether there are limits to what man can or should create or whether there should be such limits in law, as well as nature. What part genetics play in the creation of an adult personality is another theme, compared to the role of the person's life experiences as he grows.
The basics of the various plots derived from Mrs. Shelley's writing have many similar events: A scientist takes body parts from a number of miners who have been killed by a cave-in. From them, he assembles one creature, and he succeeds in bringing the creature to life.
Once alive, the creation comes to have a frightening appearance. The famous bolt through the neck was thought up for the 1931 film by director James Whale, and has no place in the original story. The creature learns that it is so ugly that people are frightened by it and want to kill it, so it tries to get Dr. Frankenstein to create a female similar to itself. It plans to take its partner and move to the jungles of South America, where they will never see anyone else.
The doctor creates the female, but then is frightened that the two creations will be able to reproduce, and will engender a race of creatures like themselves. He destroys the female, to assure this will not happen. The creature, robbed of dreams of not being rejected and incapable of love, vows to revenge himself on the doctor. He travels to the doctor's home, and on the day of the doctor's wedding, he murders the doctor's wife.
Both creator and creation then head off toward the North Pole, each planning to destroy the other. In the most commonly used version of the author's writing, the creature is last seen floating away on a piece of ice, perhaps to its doom, perhaps to return to bedevil the human race which has been so cruel to it.
The idea of a man-made, superhuman creature, possibly immortal, has inspired so many cheap imitations, most people are completely unaware of the story's roots in morality, science and philosophy. The version which was shown in Fredonia this week went a long way to restoring the intellectual treasure to the story, without being dull in the least.
Director Danny Boyle is best known for his films. Among the best known of them have been "Trainspotting," and "Slum Dog Millionaire." For his theatrical production of "Frankenstein," he has employed a theatrical trick. He has hired two well-known and greatly respected actors, and has used them in alternating roles, on alternating performances.
Because Dr. Frankenstein and his creature are in many ways mirror images of the same personal characteristics, Boyle has cast Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, and alternated them back and forth in different performances. In the film version, Cumberbatch plays the doctor, and Miller portrays the creature.
Both men are in their 30s. Miller is, I believe, four years older than Cumberbatch. Ironically, both of them are cast in different television shows as the famed detective Sherlock Holmes. Cumberbatch has recently played the detective in his second season of shows on the BBC, and its American branch, BBC-America. Miller portrays a recently rehabbed Holmes, solving crimes in New York City, with Lucy Liu as his Dr. Watson. His version of the plot is called "Elementary," and it appears on the CBS network.
In a situation similar to the filming of "The Tempest," from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which we wrote about last week, the director has made his high definition film using 10 cameras, on the actual stage setting of the production.
The result is much better than the static filming of stage productions, which we have often seen in the past, yet it has much of the power of a live stage performance.
Boyle brings his audience right into the richest part of the plot, with the creation of the creature, completely ignoring the gathering of the body parts, the scientific process and so on. He doesn't tell us how it happens, only that it does.
I was very interested to read in reviews from England, that when the production was staged live, the creature emerged from the large plastic womb in the center of the stage, naked as a babe. I guess if God wanted us to run around naked, we would have been born naked.
In the film, he seems to have formed in the doctor's artificial womb with a little diaper-like outfit around his certain parts. By curious chance, the female creature which is made and then destroyed by the doctor is born on film with a similarly diaper-like outfit, although her breasts are visible. I wonder if that was done especially for American prurience, or for world-wide distribution, or why that decision was made.
The multiple points of view was troubling, especially when the director temporarily took his production away from a linear telling of the story. After being born, from his large, oval, plastic womb, for example, Miller's creature had about a 10-minute miming of an infant's developmental growth. At first, he lay on the floor, then gradually, he found his fingers and then his toes, and of course, he put them right into his mouth.
Boyle's film showed us a few seconds of this beautiful mimicry, then switched to a radically different point of view, then to a third point, to the point that it left one feeling a bit seasick, and completely detached from the process being represented. Indeed, it took a while to figure out what was going on.
I mentioned in my review of "The Tempest" that the camera automatically takes away the audience's ability to look at whatever they want on stage, and when something fascinating is happening, it sometimes brutally disappoints someone who has found something significant which he wants to see. That was even more so in "Frankenstein."
Above the stage in the National Theater hangs a huge cloud of light bulbs, each of which seems to be able to light in several different colors, so when the creature sets fire to the home of the farming couple who first drive him away because they are frightened by his appearance, waves of red move through the huge cloud of light, for example. Because the brightness of the light seems to produce a lens flare which temporarily obliterates the events on stage, it was a major negative to the watcher.
There was a brief documentary film before the beginning, which explained how the actors alternate in their roles and how Boyle and Dear have shaped the story to their own ideas, which helped very much in appreciating what one was seeing, although the one thing one probably most wanted to see, when one realized that the actors were allowed to produce their own versions of the two principal characters, it never showed one minute of the alternate casting. I would have loved to have seen two minutes of Miller's doctor and Cumberbatch's creature, just to inspire my understanding of the alternate possibilities.
So, I'm guessing what I'm saying is that watching this film is not nearly as good as seeing the performance live. On the other hand, the live performances took place last spring, in London, so I would have never seen them at all, and instead I got perhaps 80 percent of what there was to see and think about. We will look forward eagerly to future high definition presentations from the 1891 Opera House, in addition to the wonderful opera presentations which we're already seeing. Life just gets richer and richer.
Fans of Shakespeare in Delaware Park may still have an opportunity to participate in their big fundraising staged reading of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus," tomorrow evening at The Buffalo Seminary, 205 Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo.
The evening begins at 6 p.m. with opening entertainments, followed by hors d'oeuvres and wine tasting, then the staged reading of the play, with coffee and desserts served at intermission.
Tickets are $50 for members of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, and $55 for non-members, and proceeds support the expenses of the coming summer of live plays, presented out of doors with no admission charge. The season for 2013 will include "Measure for Measure," and "Hamlet."
We got their announcement just after we submitted last week's column, so this is the earliest we could get the news to you. For additional information about attending the fundraiser, call them at 856-4533 or go by computer to www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org.
The State University of New York at Fredonia's annual Hillman Opera will be performed during the coming week.
Four performances of a double bill of one-act operas will take place Nov. 8-11 in the Marvel Theater, in the Rockefeller Arts Center, on the university's campus. "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi," both by Giacomo Puccini. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m., except for the Nov. 11 matinee, at 2 p.m.
For information or to reserve tickets, phone 673-3501 or go by computer to www.fredonia.edu/tickets.
The University of Buffalo's Department of Theater and Dance will present a production of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's "A Threepenny Opera," directed by Vincent O'Neill, of the Irish Classical Theatre Co.
Performances will be Nov. 14-18. Tickets are $20 for the general public, and $10 for senior citizens and students. Purchase them by phoning 888-223-6000 or by computer at www.ubcfa.org. To purchase tickets without service charge, get them in person at the UB Box Office.
Nov. 8-18, the theater department of Niagara University will present a farce by famed comic playwright Neil Simon. "Rumors" was Simon's first venture into farce, and has been called by critics a masterpiece of timing and physical humor. The play contains adult language and themes, and is not recommended for children.
Performances will be held in the Leary Theatre, inside Clet Hall, on the NU campus, in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Tickets range in price from $7 to $10. Purchase them by phoning 286-8685 or by computer at theatre.niagara.edu/boxoffice/.
For the past 20 years, Shea's Performing Arts Center, in Buffalo, has presented the Kenny Awards, which honor Western New York high schools for excellence in presenting and performing Musical Theater.
This year's seven finalists for the Kenny Awards include one for the production of "West Side Story," by Maple Grove Junior/Senior High School, in Bemus Point. Congratulations to all involved.
The winner of the award, which includes a $5,000 grant from the Lipke Foundation to the school's theatre department, will be announced on April 20, 2013, which will be a Saturday, at 4 p.m. Admission to the awards ceremony is $8, and can be purchased at any of the finalist schools, or through Shea's Box Office, 650 Main St., in the Downtown Buffalo Theater District. To purchase them by phone, call 847-0850.
Speaking of Shea's, each year about this time they hold a shopping event, at which area craftspeople and merchants are invited to bring their wares to Shea's, to give local shoppers an opportunity to find unique and unusual gifts for the coming holidays.
This year, Shea's Shopping Soiree will be held on Nov. 14, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Well more than 50 vendors will be showing their wares this year. Complimentary foods will be served, and a cash bar will feature specialty holiday drinks. Tickets are $10 if purchased in advance, or $15 at the door.
To make advance purchases, go to www.ticketmaster.com, or come in person to the Shea's Box Office, immediately adjacent to the facility's main theater, in the Downtown Buffalo Theater District. Proceeds benefit Shea's education programs and their restoration project.