Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Return of the mad scientist

I have a comment on the Prospect blog about the production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, which I saw this week. To save you a click, here it is anyway. I am reviewing the play more formally for Nature. It’s flawed but worth seeing – but if you haven’t got a ticket, tough luck, as it’s sold out. However, I believe you could still come to this.


Do not go to see the Monstrous Drama, founded on the improper work called FRANKENSTEIN!!! Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!

Actually, although the latest adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story at the National Theatre, scripted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, includes nudity and a rape that would certainly not have featured in the 1823 staging that prompted this warning, there is little here that would shock most wives and daughters. Even the Grand Guignol gore in the draft script has been toned down. One scene even turns into a dance routine like some monstrous hybrid of Oliver! and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

None of this is a bad thing. Some is very good: the staging is spectacular, the adaptation largely thoughtful and the monster – I can comment only on Jonny Lee Miller’s version in the show’s alternation of lead roles – is the most inventive and heartfelt I have seen, owing something to Caliban, Charles Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and even the Elephant Man. Some of the secondary performances creak, and some of the dialogue is throwaway, but the main problem is the title character.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Victor Frankenstein on the night I saw it, did all a versatile, intelligent actor of his calibre could be expected to do with the lines he was given. But about halfway through the production, the penny dropped as to why he seemed to be struggling. He is the Mad Scientist.

True, he does not cackle like Gene Wilder or shriek Colin Clive’s line from James Whale’s seminal movie – ‘Now I know what it feels like to be God!’ But that’s part of the problem: not even naked madness motivates his egotistical quest, his utter neglect of his doting fiancĂ©e, his contempt for the ‘little men with little lives’, his lack of real anguish about his child brother’s murder. From the outset it is clear that he is a stranger to human feeling and has not the slightest real interest in developing his knowledge of reanimation for ‘medical research’. Set against a creature who we see develop from its ‘birth’ and first baby steps to a state of savage grace and wisdom, all the time spurned and despised for looking no worse than a person flung through a windscreen, there is never any doubt who is the real monster.

I don’t think it makes much sense for scientists to feel indignant at this portrayal. Frankenstein has for so long been the archetype of the mad scientist that another representation as literal as this can’t elaborate on that image. And anyone who could entertain the notion that this cold, amoral individual experimenting in misanthropic solitude for nothing but personal glory bears the slightest resemblance to the modern scientist is already too biased and ignorant to argue with. This Frankenstein is a fairy-tale figure, like the wicked witch or the evil stepmother. The only harm this can do today is in dramatic terms: villains need to be either more complex or more exuberantly depraved to work as central characters. For all its virtues, Nick Dear’s adaptation in the end takes the easier option in making us love the monster. A production that tries to make us feel sympathy for Victor, a useless but confused and struggling father – now that would be an interesting challenge. 


airth10 said...

It was interesting to find this on Frankenstein since I had written a piece on it/him. I also was taken by your piece on the use of metaphors in science because Frankenstein is itself quite a metaphor in science.

I would like to share my essay with you:

JimmyGiro said...

So is it Frankenstein meets EastEnders?

Another left-wing allegory promoting the bad 'father figure'.

With Marxist-Feminism requiring 'science' to be its stooge, hence every picture you see of a 'scientist' will be that of a woman, the left-wing lap-dog media (including the luvies in the theatre) must therefore find another monster within science.

Therefore the 'Monster' isn't the monster, because Marxist-Feminists need victims; and 'Science' isn't the monster, because 'Science' can help scare the populace into compliance with the states aims; thus 'the man' is the monster, because he represents independent thought.

"Men are stupid, let's throw stones at them!"

And if you think I'm being facile, over the top, or just plain nuts, consider some Realpolitikal uses of 'science':

(i) Johnny Ball, considered a "paedophile", for contradicting the Anthropogenic Global Warming mantra.

(ii) Approximately a million boys prescribed Ritalin, on 'scientific' advice.

Phil, are you at the "interface of culture and science", or are you on the fence? Or worse, are you a professional decoy like Richard Dawkins, calling peoples attention away from the calamities of 'state sponsored science', by the smokescreen of hyped irrelevance?

Philip Ball said...

Ah, that's for you to decide Jim. Since I don't buy the Marxist-Feminist takeover of science or society, however, I'm probably some distance from that particular fence.
But this implication of the play - that Frankenstein is the bad father - isn't in fairness an invention of the NT production. It is an interpretation often made of Shelley's original novel, and for good reason: Shelley had just been virtually disowned by her own father William Godwin for eloping with Percy (who was already married).

JimmyGiro said...

"Shelley had just been virtually disowned by her own father William Godwin for eloping with Percy (who was already married)."

So was the novel merely a 'dirty' protest from the guilty party? No wonder the Marxist-Feminists are so enamoured of it.

Regarding your fence stance, do you believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming 'theory'? Even though you admitted in a previous comment, that you (or rather the 'we' of the better funded science) couldn't explain the cause of Milankovitch Cycles?

And if you are sold on the AGW hypothesis, would it not be fair to say that its core credibility is based on correlation? If so, then why are you not convinced about the correlation with Feminist teaching practices, and the calamity that is British public education, including science?

Philip Ball said...

Blimey Jim, I can't explain my detailed reasoning here for believing that some global warming is human-induced. That's an essay. It's a correlation, yes - like most presumed cause-and-effect in science - but not merely a correlation that says 'temperatures and going up and so is CO2'. The studies are much more sophisticated than that, as you doubtless know. Among other things, the models predict recent past climate well, so are believable even if not with pinpoint accuracy. The global distribution of temp change seemed to match the expected anthropogenic fingerprint. And much more. My review of Christopher Booker's 'climate sceptic' book in the Observer went into this a little more. Just because almost every informed scientist agrees about this doesn't mean it is wrong...
And what on earth is that Johnny Ball (no relation) business all about?

JimmyGiro said...

Here is the piece on Johnny Ball. It makes my blood boil; so it would be pointless of me to comment further, as it would mean you deleting all the expletives.

As for 'curve-fitting', and the correlation that is AGW, it is good for an hypothetical start, but I would hold back from calling it a theory, until there is some analytical solution (based on thermodynamics, etc), or possibly a mechanistic account of the observations, that allow it to be distinct from any other hypotheses. Looking for the classic single variable, which owing to the complexity of atmospheric dynamics, would be close to pissing in the wind, and because computer curve-fitting is so damn clever, there is a risk of stumbling on any of the multitude of solutions that spawn from allowing just a few parameters to 'wander'.

Because computer curve-fitting is so clever, it shouldn't be relied upon by itself. Recall Arrhenius, if his examiners had access to modern curve-fitting computers, they would have failed his PhD, on the basis that other non-Arrhenius equations fitted the rate-data better. Indeed, Arrhenius equation is only used today because it lends itself to mathematical coherence with other chemical kinetic theories, not least of all, statistical thermodynamics its self.

And then there is the economics/politics shit-fest', associated with anything coming from an environmental science department. Remember when there wasn't any environmental science departments? Science departments had real economic purpose for existing, the modern industrial revolution is sufficient to account for the need of physics, chemistry, and other physical sciences; whilst medicine and agriculture could account for the requirement of all the other disciplines. But who or what needed environmental science?

It was during the early 90s that environmental science departments began to sprout, at a time when other departments were struggling against the climate of diminishing grants. Therefore it is safe to say, that environmental sciences were bought and paid for by political agencies.

Further, the lack of money for research changed the landscape of British pure science from one of collaboration, to one of mutual competition. I therefore strongly believe that any purpose that 'peer-review' itself once had, is now defunct. Being the child of cooperation, peer-review in a political world is a charter for circle-jerking empire builders.

"Just because almost every informed scientist agrees about this doesn't mean it is wrong..."

Very cute, but how many pure scientists moved over to environmental science, and can they be trusted to sell second hand cars?

Finally, you skipped the Ritalin bit, and the Marxist-Feminist correlation, so here, near the bottom of the page is a graph plotting gender ratios for teachers and A-level results. If there were no Marxist-Feminism, and all other things being the same, then the two graphs should have been flat lines, with no gradients.


Ken said...

Given that the play is showing us the creature's point of view it makes sense that the depiction of Victor would be largely unsympathetic.

JimmyGiro said...

"The studies are much more sophisticated than that, as you doubtless know. Among other things, the models predict recent past climate well,..."

This guy might disagree with you.