Neo-Victorian Review – Dancing Monsters: Frankenstein at the Ballet

Lesley Gray is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature within the School of European Culture and Languages at the University of Kent. Her current research involves an interdisciplinary study of mesmerism in the long nineteenth century, with a particular interest in the power of suggestion. You can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyFGray

The Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden recently saw the Royal Ballet debut of Liam Scarlett’s adaptation of the classic Gothic novel Frankenstein.[1] The text has inspired many productions for stage and screen, but it is rare for it to be presented in dance. In fact, this is the first time that this story has been staged as a ballet since the 1980s when Wayne Eagling choreographed a version to music by Vangelis, a composer chiefly known for his electronic pieces. In this new work, Liam Scarlett offers a fresh and original perspective on this complex novel. The production is enhanced by an expressive musical score from the American composer Lowell Liebermann and some stunning sets designed by John Macfarlane, both doing justice to the clarity and skill of the dancers, in particular the memorable figure of Steven McCrae as the Creature.

It is two hundred years since Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein during her stay by Lake Geneva during the strange and tragic ‘year without a summer’ of 1816, a time of cataclysmic events that resulted in crop failure, hunger and civil unrest. Since its publication, this dark tale of a young scientist’s attempt to reanimate the stitched-together body parts that he carefully harvested from selected corpses and the grim consequences of his success, has been a subject of both fascination and controversy.

Leonardo da Vinci: anatomical drawings of legs, c.1506. (Source: Web Gallery of Art.)

Leonardo da Vinci: anatomical drawings of legs, c.1506. (Source: Web Gallery of Art.)

Translating a work of literature, particularly one as complex as Shelley’s novel, into dance offers a number of challenges. Karen Bennett has carried out an extensive investigation into the translation of text into dance, looking specifically at different interpretations of Romeo and Juliet.[2] She took as a framework Roman Jakobsen’s ‘intersemiotic translation or transmutation’,[3] which ‘extended the concept of translation from the merely verbal to include transfer between different sign systems’.[4] Bennett also included André Lefevere’s theories of rewriting which take into account not only the source text but his category of ‘natural language’, explained by Bennett ‘as the kinesthetic code, or the language of dance’ to consider ‘how the medium itself limits and conditions those aspects of the originals that can realistically be transferred’.[5] This is, of course, particularly relevant to the translation of Frankenstein into dance, as the Creature’s eloquent voice reveals much about his inner self, as for example when he asks ‘Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?’. [6] In this production, Scarlett addresses the issue of expressiveness by showing the aptitude and natural intelligence of the Creature through his ability to assimilate movement. For example, having arrived at the Frankenstein’s manor, the Creature observes William, Victor Frankenstein’s younger brother, receiving lessons on the courtly arts of bowing from the family servant Justine. The Creature then imitates what he has seen. Therefore, through watching others, the Creature is able to educate himself to the extent that he can blend in among the elegant dancers at the ball scene in the final act, only Frankenstein notices him weaving among the guests.

The Creature is brought to life at the end of the first act. This takes place in a spectacular set that replicates an anatomy theatre and includes an electrostatic machine. Appalled at what he has done, Frankenstein takes fright and runs away. In his haste, he leaves his coat with his journal in its pocket. The Creature adopts the coat, which then becomes a motif for his duality as he is careful to remove it prior to carrying out any acts of violence. Frankenstein’s journal too is used throughout the ballet. A parting gift from his parents when he leaves home, it is where Frankenstein details his research. The Creature discovers the journal and looks inside. Realizing that the drawings document his own creation, the Creature can’t bear to look and throws the journal aside. Later, Victor finds the journal and tears it up in a fury, but the Creature is watching and it is this that proves to be the ultimate gesture of rejection, so paving the way for the slaughter in the finale.

The Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge provided inspiration for John Macfarlane’s setting of the anatomy theatre. (Credit: Robert Gray.)

The Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge provided inspiration for John Macfarlane’s setting of the anatomy theatre. (Credit: Robert Gray.)

In his sensitive adaptation of the text, Scarlett has retained the key themes of the novel, that of love, longing, rejection and loss. After watching the pas de deux between Victor and his fiancée, Elizabeth, the Creature attempts to copy what he has seen. He tries out the movements, hugging himself as the lovers did, and so feels the warmth of an embrace. This action provides him with an awareness of his physical self and awakens the need for a companion to love, a desire signified later in the ballet when the Creature presents to Victor the shawl that Elizabeth left lying on a chair. As Raub says, quoting from John Hill’s The Actor: Or, a Treatise on the Art of Playing (1755), ‘gesture, then, is every bit as expressive as words, and even more closely tied to truth, as it professes “truth” and “passion” by drawing from “nature” and presenting a language “common to all mankind.” ’. [7]

Much has been made of Richard Brinsley Peake’s 1823 stage adaptation of Shelley’s book in constructing the image of the Creature as the dumb robotic figure that has become so familiar to us, notably through the early horror films. Richard Holmes points out that in Peake’s play, entitled ‘Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein’, ‘the unnamed Creature is transformed into the ‘Monster’ and made completely dumb […] whereas in the novel he is superbly and even tragically articulate’.[8] However, as Emma Raub notes, Mary Shelley did not seem displeased with the play when she saw it, commenting in a letter, ‘But lo and behold! I found myself famous. “Frankenstein” had prodigious success as a drama’.[9] Raub also comments on Thomas Potter Cooke’s performance as the Creature, ‘Shelley’s monster stands before its audience, at once attractive and terrible, displaying the conflicts at the heart of Frankenstein’. [10] Cooke was an actor known to have a fine physique, which is displayed to its full advantage in the illustration on the cover of Dicks’ Standard Plays, and reflected Shelley’s description of Frankenstein’s ‘infinite pains and care’ to produce a being whose ‘limbs were in proportion’ and whose his features were selected ‘as beautiful’.[11] The ballet in many respects goes back to this very physical interpretation of the Creature with his flesh-coloured bodysuit disfigured by huge livid scars and movements that embody the tormented internal self.

Thomas Potter Cooke as the Creature, from the cover of Peakes’ Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, 1823. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Thomas Potter Cooke as the Creature, from the cover of Peakes’ Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, 1823. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Scarlett’s narrative provides a complete and satisfying interpretation of the story and reflects a close reading of the text, as when the Frankenstein household all dance together in the first act. This reflects the enlightened social attitudes described in the book, ‘A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England […], a condition which, in our fortunate country, does not include the idea of ignorance and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being’, [12] although sadly this tolerance does not extend to those creatures reanimated through scientific experimentation, nor does it show itself in the swift and brutal condemnation of Justine for little William’s murder. This perhaps illustrated the perceptive words of the Creature in the original text, ‘I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but, without either, he was considered […] as a vagabond and a slave’. [13]

Frankenstein retains its fascination and relevance in our own time, with the rise of uncanny robotics, the possibility of laboratory-grown body parts and the swathes of people who remain outside society. This is perhaps reflected in the rash of recent adaptations and spin-offs, such as Victor Frankenstein, Penny Dreadful, I, Frankenstein and The Frankenstein Chronicles. The story is also making its way into other art forms: Dave Morris’s Frankenstein[14] is an app that offers an interactive version of the novel, while in Geneva you can visit a statue of the Creature. While the richness of the written word underpins Shelley’s original, dance can offer an alternative sensory experience, one that expresses the story in a more abstract and possibly more visceral form. Movement and music provide a different emotional engagement with the story, one that perhaps appeals directly to our unconscious self. Ultimately, as with the book, the ballet leaves a question mark over who is the real monster, which is perhaps one of the secrets of Frankenstein’s endurance.

The Creature in different art forms; this statue in Geneva was recently installed in the Plaine de Plain Palais, the site in the book of the murder of William, Victor Frankenstein’s brother. (Credit: Nicolas Nova/Flickr/Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

The Creature in different art forms; this statue in Geneva was recently installed in the Plaine de Plain Palais, the site in the book of the murder of William, Victor Frankenstein’s brother. (Credit: Nicolas Nova/Flickr/Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

There is so much to be drawn from this ballet, even though it could be argued that some of the first act could be trimmed to allow a closer exploration of the Creature and his journey. Despite this, though, the tragic figure of the Creature was both pitiful and terrifying. It would be interesting to have viewed the live broadcast of the ballet shown in cinemas and theatres in order to consider how this mediated form would affect the reception of the performance. In any case, in my opinion, it deserves a re-run and I for one will be in the queue for tickets.

Acknowledgement. I would like to thank Julia Meddle of Dance with Julia for all her valuable insights into the world of ballet.


[1] Mary Shelley. 1831 (1818). Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. (London: Colburn & Bentley).

[2] Karen Bennett. 2007. ‘Words into movement: the ballet as intersemiotic translation’ in Teatro e Tradução: Palcos de Encontro, edited by Maria João Brilhante & Manuela Carvalho. (Porto: Campo das Letras) p. 125.

[3] Jakobsen, Roman. 1992 [1959] ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’ in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, edited by Schulte & Biguenet. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) p. 145

[4] Karen Bennett. 2007, p. 125.

[5] Karen Bennett. 2007, p. 126.

[6] Mary Shelley. 1831, p. 103.

[7] Emma Raub. 2012, p. 445.

[8] Richard Holmes. 2008. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. (London: HarperPress), p. 335.

[9] Quoted in Emma Raub. 2012. ‘Frankenstein and the Mute Figure of Melodrama’. Modern Drama 55.4, 437–58. (accessed 28 May 2016), p. 437.

[10] Emma Raub. 2012, p. 440.

[11] Mary Shelley. 1831, p. 103.

[12] Mary Shelley. 1831, p. 50.

[13] Mary Shelley. 1831, p. 103.

[14] Morris, Dave (based on Mary Shelley’s text). 2012. Frankenstein, a new interactive literary app for iPad and iPhone. (London: Profile Books).


One response to “Neo-Victorian Review – Dancing Monsters: Frankenstein at the Ballet

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