The Curse of Draftenstein

I’m not a fan of short blog entries. They make me feel I’m letting the long-windedness out of my sails. And all too often, they put me in mind of someone messaging you – whether by email or text or carrier pigeon – to say they’ll reply to your message later. There’s little more annoying or inevitable than the silence that follows. However! I’ve been so madly preoccupied with my other writing commitments, that I feel honour-bound to explain my absence – before disappearing off into the next brooding silence.

Sarky introductions aside, I bear goodly news: the first draft of my one-man Frankenstein is now finished. It’s so now finished that it no longer exists: I’ll be dusting off the second draft within the next few days. After that, I’ll stick it in a metaphorical drawer for a week (printing being an expensive luxury) and give it the third-over. Then it’s on to Dracula, and finally, exhaustingly, attempting to stage the two in tandem.

I’m really pleased with how it’s been going so far. This is the first play I’ve not been ashamed to put my name to. I now see that my previous efforts at playwriting – a version of Nosferatu, an Edgar Allan Poe portmanteau, more than one retread of The Phantom of the Opera – lacked any clear precedents. Not always a bad thing, but I’m such a prodigious hero-worshipper that I tend to work better with models. The example of Utton’s Hunchback has burned bright throughout my writing: Frankenstein seizes on the uniquely exciting form of an encounter with an extraordinary person. The other benefit of models is that they allow you to diverge. I’ve tried to open Frankenstein out to embrace something wider than the bell-tower. Working firmly against Aristotle, I’ve included wildly different locations (the Arctic, Geneva, Scotland) and disorienting shifts of time (the novel’s structure has become a criss-crossing triple helix). Character must remain the same throughout – that’s one of the gifts of the ‘encounter’ – but I’m trying to fortify that as well. I don’t want my Creature to be a hack-handed Boris Karloff impression, any more than I want it to be Quasimodo with slightly less hump. How do you go about playing an unearthly being – almost an alien, in his detachment from anything approachably human? It’s thrilling to contemplate – and it’s even provoking me to draw for the first time in years. I’ll find an image for my character yet!

I’ve been surprised by the nihilism in my script. I find it bleaker than the Hunchback (non-stop laugh riot that that production was). At least Quasimodo had Esmeralda, albeit shrouded and dead. And whilst Utton argues against beauty’s power to save the beast, it’s so engrained a cultural precept that we can’t help but draw comfort from it – however subconsciously, however unwillingly. The Creature has no one at all. His isolation is devastatingly complete – to a point that he may not even recognise it as such. Then again, have I been as nihilistic as I think? I’m always more sensitive to my capacity for nastiness than gushing sentiment, so there might be a sludge of conventional heartstring-tuggery that I’ve so far overlooked. At present, though, Frankenstein strikes me as unremittingly harsh and spiky. There’s terrible, relentless violence – physical and psychological. Description often slides into body horror, again with a psychological foundation. There’s a whole lot of death, from beginning to end, though that’s Mary Shelley’s legacy rather than my twisted addition. (Incidentally, it’s very hard finding a good reason for a character to go on a killing spree. Great work that it is, it’s always struck me as the gaping weakness in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. ‘They all deserve to die’ – oh, alright then.) Simply put, there’s cruelty inflicted on the audience; there’s no way in hell they’ll have an easy ride with this character. (And, indeed, why should they?) The Creature is so unearthly, in so many different ways, that his tragedy ceases to feel grounded at all. You try to catch hold of it; you catch only air. It takes an adjustment of thought, but once you start thinking of the Creature’s sufferings as belonging to another plane… it’s enlightening.

But in what way exactly? Suffering as mystical experience? As divine retribution? Or shaming example? Subtlety has been hard-won for me, in writing as in acting, but I now rather relish trying for it. Provided it makes sense. If you’re entering the mindset of the alien – he who is cast out – then you can’t blast out messages with full-frontal anger. Angry theatre bores me. Because it’s so often illogical. As alien, you make your meaning with exquisite subtlety – you wheedle, you worm, you quietly unsettle. In other words, it’s a multi-pronged attack. Perhaps ‘multi-tentacled’ is more fitting. Whatever it is, it’s decidedly slippery.

To round off, here are some other questions that have gripped me as I’ve written. Some things that were new to me; some things that weren’t, but have struck me freshly. As insights, they’re hardly earth-shattering, but I find it helpful to get them out of my head:

What has become of the soul? It was once the most important facet of existence, a token to heaven or hell. Now it’s a type of musical wallpaper. The idea of a passionate application to something has lived on – being ‘soulful’, baring your ‘soul’ – but it’s quite a falling-off.

Nature or nurture? The classic Frankenstein question. And also something that troubled me when I played Fagin. By now, it’s become weirdly revolutionary to suggest that people much sinned against might also be disproportionately wicked – for reasons detached from their persecution. It’s not a fashionable point, but it is important: SUCH PEOPLE DO EXIST. I’ve tried very hard to absolve the Creature lately, but it’s bloody difficult. It may also be wrong.

What’s it like to be physically superior? Not only in beauty, but in ugliness? Can there not be an equal pride in ugliness? Perhaps the real curse is reserved for the physically bland, the physically unremarkable… As cheated of love as the ugly may be (though not necessarily), they are backed into a corner that often proves decisive. Many Great Men have been ugly, after all. And it goes without saying that they have the best stories.

Why is kindness the most touching of all things? Dear me. I wish I knew. Because it’s unassuming goodness. It offers a hint of some larger greatness, fleeting only, then disappears again. Also because it hasn’t been commodified; can’t be commodified and emptied of meaning in the way that ‘love’ has been. True kindness resists identification as such.

Why do we think of heaven and hell (or good an evil) on a vertical axis? What is it in our thinking that situates up and down as the meaningful power relations? Some innate spiritual compass, or cultural indoctrination? Nature or nurture again.

What is ugliness? Is it a state with some palpable reality? We’re encouraged not to think so. But once we try to concretise ugliness, beyond the sphere of human vanity… We come to dark places.

Is there anything more insulting than pretending to understand the ugly? (Not your common-or-garden ugly, but the supernaturally ugly, such as Quasimodo and the Creature.) We can aim for only a rough approximation. And yes, we indulge our sympathies on such beings, we try to identify with them – but should we flatter ourselves we understand? Well. We simply don’t. Which is a cause for shame, not catharsis. Surely?

How far is such a being outside the sexual order? Can an alien love a human? We’ve been assailed so often by the image of the monster carrying off the beautiful girl – most strikingly with King Kong. But isn’t this more a legacy of male-created monsters? Mary Shelley, female creator of monsters, presents a near-asexual Creature. Why should a monster be a straightforwardly brutish heterosexual? (Except, perhaps, as an expression of dominance?) Why should a monster possess any definable sexuality? Or romantic inclinations of any sort? It strikes me that a being beyond the natural order would stand aside, would delight in exposing love’s worst aspects. Like Lear’s Fool, an unwelcome truth-teller.

There’s much to be done yet. I write rather slowly and methodically, and the present script is a tiresome hatch of underlinings and crossings-out. If anyone would like to look at the play when it’s ready, feel free to get in touch. If I consider you the sort who won’t make off with my intellectual property, I might even respond. Otherwise, I’ll send you a message. Explaining I’ll reply to your message later. Oh, yeah. That’ll set you right.

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