Creating a monster

On Thursday I finally saw the filmed version of Benedict Cumberbatch playing the creature in last year’s National Theatre production of Frankenstein.  With an Olivier award already received for the role I knew I was in for a consummate performance but even my high expectations were exceeded.  Early portions of the play have the creature learning to stand, walk and speak and the physical skills alone even before research with people recovering from strokes and relearning to move and talk were astonishing.  Add to this the emotional depth and vulnerability which Cumberbatch brings to so many roles, and the creature was at once utterly sympathetic and embraceable and yet chillingly violent.

Many others should also receive praise for their contributions to the creation of the character, including of course the director Danny Boyle and the amazing make-up and costume artists.  The original characters were of course created by Mary Shelley, but I have not read the novel to know how closely the portrayal and themes were hers.  In this version, while the science of creating the creature was down to the invention of Victor Frankenstein, any monstrous attributes besides his scarred and stapled appearance were very much shown as consequences of his harsh treatment.  Abandoned by his creator, beaten and mocked by others he met and later more cruelly betrayed by Frankenstein, the creature’s crimes, horrific though they were, were clear acts of vengeance and retaliation.

So perhaps society created the monster, rather than the scientist himself, although Frankenstein was additionally the main source of negative influence, nurture or lack thereof on the creature he had made.  I suppose similarly parents, while biologically responsible for their offspring, are also usually the key influences in their children’s upbringing.  Separating nature and nurture is therefore rather problematic, although I have argued before that parents are far from the only influence in young people’s lives.  Peers, the media and wider society including schools also have an impact, for good, indifference or ill.

The majority of young offenders I worked with and researched had considerable adversity and trauma in their backgrounds prior to committing any crime.  This does not excuse their actions, which included very serious offences, but it made their behaviour more understandable, particularly when combined with their developmental status as young adolescents.  Throughout my research I identified the need for early help following abuse or witnessing domestic violence, or pro-active intervention after the first incidents of concerning behaviour as a way of preventing or at least reducing the likelihood of further harmful behaviour.  The media rarely helps in these cases, demonising young offenders as some separate species unlike ‘normal’ teenagers; when in actual fact most young people do not repeat serious offences.

Removing a young person from their home environment, whether to local authority care or a young offenders institution statistically seems to do far more harm than good.  I can’t say I entirely trust the statistics, particularly regarding local authority care as I know that some children’s homes are a safer option and work hard to support the young people in their care as I did when I worked in that job.  The much reported ‘poor outcomes’ for young people in care are clearly a function of the multiple reasons why young people enter care in the first place, combined in some cases, regrettably, with unsatisfactory care and support.  Some young people do need to be in secure accommodation for their own safety or that of others, but the majority of short term custodial sentences are surely counter-productive.  Young people learn more about crime and denial as well as interrupting their family lives, education and support systems.  A longer period of supervision within the community including some restrictions on peer groups when needed would always be my preference.

Other effects from society are perhaps harder to evidence from research.  The influence of the media, including violent and explicit material is everywhere, and the question of how well young people handle this remains unproven.  Sexual exploitation and intimidation over social networking sites is expanding at a rate that leaves researchers far behind, although whether this has simply relocated the crime rather than increased it is debateable.  The tendency to panic and think the internet is the problem rather than the medium leads perhaps to kneejerk reactions rather than sensible precautions and open discussion.  The trail of evidence is certainly greater in online crime, even as the speed and ease of image distribution has also escalated.

Many of the students I teach are fascinated about youth crime, and I guess this interest has been heightened by the proliferation of crime drama and media coverage of incidents like the looting last summer.  I seem to spend more of my time dismantling the myths and drama, critiquing some of the risk factor tools and explaining theories of moral panics which seasonally demonise young people as sources of risk, deviance and instability for society.  Actually meeting, talking to and building relationships with young people who have been involved in crime reveals that in so many cases they are just messed up kids with so much potential.

Post script

This remarkable production also inspired my blog-posts ‘Creating a drama’ and ‘Creating a myth’.

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5 Responses to Creating a monster

  1. Katie Foster says:

    Very interesting. I too saw Frankenstein on thursday, having previously seen it the other way around, last year. I think in the context of the play, both society and Frankenstein are responsible for the Creature. Frankenstein is the father who not only rejects him, but proves to be untrustworthy. He leaves him unprotected against a cruel society’s abuse and rejection. Would society’s rejection have mattered so much if he had a loving, affirming father? The old, blind gentleman is obviously there to demonstrate the potential of the Creature under good fatherhood. I think if the old man’s son and wife had accepted and loved the Creature, he may well have acted very differently. He says in the play, ‘I wanted to be good’ and I certainly don’t children are born bad.
    It’s interesting that when the old man’s son and his wife reject the Creature, his response is ‘What would a king do? What have I learnt from history that an emperor might do?’, which I guess is similar to the influence of modern media. Who do I aspire to be like and how, am I told, they would react?

    • Hearten Soul says:

      Hi Katie,
      Thanks for commenting. I definitely agree that Dr Frankenstein has major responsibility for the creature, but I was trying to say how it wasn’t the act of creating him that was the problem so much as what he did next. Not that I agree with attempting to create life from body parts but that’s a whole other debate!
      The other thing that struck me from your comment was the way the creature was negatively influenced by his literary exposure. How far could Paradise Lost and his other reading (Shakespeare?, can’t remember where he got his ideas of emperors from) be said to have taught him that people enact violent revenge when they are wronged? Maybe the benevolent old man could be argued to be actually a source of more negative ideas.
      Unsurprisingly perhaps I wouldn’t argue that literature and drama create criminals – the other direction I’d have liked to explore in the blog is the power of things like dramatherapy to channel our more monstrous impulses in a positive direction. I’m planning to watch the alternate version next Thursday so I may blog again. xx

  2. Katie Foster says:

    No I wouldn’t say literature or drama created criminals either. I think the Creature was referring to historical texts at this point, rather than literature, which is another way of learning how humans ‘should act’. I would be extremely surprised if Mary Shelley, with her background and friends, would argue that literature had that sort of negative influence as well. When I mentioned modern media, I meant tabloids and news coverage rather than drama or literature.

    I too was not referring to Frankenstein as wrong in creating the Creature, but his initial and continuing rejection of him.. He is physically his father, as he was his creator (which undeniably means he has responsibilty for the Creature’s welfare, either by him personally or by proxy), but he is also emotionally his father. And although, I think the Creature could have flourised under the adoption of the old man and his family, he still bears the wounds of this original rejection (exacerbated by having access to the diary).

  3. Pingback: Creating a drama | Hearten Soul

  4. Pingback: Catching the Benedict | Hearten Soul

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