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An Interview With A. S. Peterson: Frankenstein (Part I)

In case you haven’t heard, A. S. Peterson (aka Pete Peterson) has written an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein for the stage. If you’re anything like me, you have long assumed, without even realizing it, that you know all there is to know about Frankenstein. I mean, it’s just a cautionary tale about the hubris of scientific progress at the expense of our humanity, right? With a Monster that groans inarticulately, groping in the darkness of his brutish existence, his mad scientist-maker laughing maniacally in the background?

Not even close. In Pete’s own words, “this is not your mama’s Frankenstein.” And while he’s speaking of his own play, it also turns out that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was never what the last hundred years or so of pop culture had told us it was in the first place. Show up to the play or look inside the book, and you’ll find an eloquent Monster, theological questions of creation and death just as abounding as questions of scientific progress, and a Victor Frankenstein indelibly shaped by the drama of his family.

I had the great pleasure of visiting Studio Tenn’s second read-through of Pete’s play adaptation—his own tenth draft—and I was blindsided by the depth and beauty of the story, the characters, and the symbolism woven gently into every moment of the play.

What follows is the first part of an interview with A. S. Peterson—in it, we talk about the transition from novel-writing to playwriting, the hidden treasures within the covers of Frankenstein, the endangered art of theater, and much more. Enjoy, and stay tuned for the rest of our conversation.

Pete: One of the questions I think is important to address about this show is simply, “Why Frankenstein?” And I would say this is not your mama’s Frankenstein—as a culture, we’re so familiar with the trope of an inarticulate beast walking around with arms outstretched, and that’s such a crime because it’s not in the book at all.

Drew: So why did you choose Frankenstein, and what does it have to say to us now?

Pete: I didn’t choose it. Studio Tenn asked me to adapt it because this year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. A lot of people consider it the first ever science fiction novel. It’s one of the most frequently adapted books in the English language, into film and play and so on. So first of all, we wanted to celebrate the anniversary of a monumental work of literature.

I think if I create something, it's my responsibility to love it and give it its best chance in the world. And if I don't do that, not only am I betraying it, but I'm betraying my gift. And Frankenstein as a story asserts that if you begin to hate the thing you've created, it can indeed become monstrous. A. S. Peterson

Matt Logan, the director, asked me if I’d be interested in working on this—and this is coming right off the heels of The Battle of Franklin—and I immediately jumped on it. Those who know me understand that reaction, because a lot of my work tends to be shaped by high adventure. And at its core, this novel is very much high adventure. That combined with the language, which is very Shakespearean, greatly appealed to me.

I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I knew the story, but it turned out I didn’t really know it at all. It’s far more complex than we’ve been taught to believe based on the last hundred years of adaptations. What surprised me about reading it was the way it challenged my assumption that it was merely about the potential pitfalls of scientific advancement and the moral questions involved in that. I didn’t expect to find so many rich theological implications woven throughout the book.

I believe we are all created in God’s image, and that image since the fall has been cracked, so we are now broken vessels. So if we, like Victor Frankenstein, were to attempt to make a life of our own, that means that life is now created in our image. So we are creating a fractured image of a fractured image. What does that mean? Would this new life be beholden to me in the same way that I am beholden to God? And if that’s true, do I have a responsibility then to redeem it of its brokenness?

These are all compelling questions to me, and while they are implicit in Mary Shelley’s book, I’ve never seen anyone bring them to light in their adaptations.

Taken further, that idea applies to more than just the relationship between God and humanity. I think it’s also about the question of art: “What is my responsibility as a creator to the thing I create?” Whether that’s a child, or a book, or an album, or a painting. I think if I create something, it’s my responsibility to love it and give it its best chance in the world. And if I don’t do that, not only am I betraying it, but I’m betraying my gift. And Frankenstein as a story asserts that if you begin to hate the thing you’ve created, it can indeed become monstrous.

Drew: One thing I noticed at the read-through was how fluidly this topic of creation and the theological aspects of Frankenstein are interwoven with family. I was struck by how it presents the father-son relationship and creator-art relationship in dialogue, in analogy. That’s one of those things I didn’t anticipate. All of a sudden I had this lesson in family dynamics and Victor is maybe trying to resurrect his mom, earning his dad’s approval, and his dad is trying to make Elizabeth into his lost wife—

Pete: Yeah, we’re all created and shaped by forces outside of us, and what does that look like? That’s what interests me about the play. The book takes that literally: let’s actually create, let the creation be shaped by the forces of a broken world, and see what happens.

Drew: Which makes the Monster’s voice so weighty. Did you feel the pressure when you were putting words into his mouth?

Pete: You know, the Monster was actually the easiest character for me to write.

Drew: Really?

Ultimately, if your villains aren't compelling, neither are your stories. It's the job of every storyteller to make all their characters as complex and human as they can be. A. S. Peterson

Pete: I feel the deep, lonesome grief of the Monster. And if you look at any poetry, the first poetry people write is about how lonely they are, how awful the world is, how no one understands them. That’s sort of the low-hanging fruit, and that’s who the Monster is. His first encounters with the world are hateful and devoid of love, so he grows into having this voice of absolute grief. And that was fun to write. I put a lot of thought into how to avoid making it sentimental and keep it more universal, but it came pretty naturally.

By contrast, it was really hard to write Victor. Because let’s be honest, in Frankenstein, Victor is the real Monster. And if you want to extend that even further, mankind is the monster. My early drafts of the play were much more melodramatic, Victor was very clearly the mad scientist, and you could only really identify with the Monster because he was so clearly being wronged.

So in later drafts of the play, it was really important to me that we found ways to make Victor look like ourselves. And that’s where family dynamics come in: in order for me to believe he can do these monstrous things, I have to know who Victor is and why Victor is. That was exciting. When I started to hone in on that, the play really came alive. From scene to scene, I could start to feel my loyalties shift based on who was making their argument.

Ultimately, if your villains aren’t compelling, neither are your stories. It’s the job of every storyteller to make all their characters as complex and human as they can be. Honestly, that’s one flaw of Mary Shelley’s book. It heavily employs stereotypes and melodrama. As a result, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the Victor character. He’s very over the top in his wildness. I had to temper that to tell the story well.

Drew: And you tempered his character in part through drawing out his family relationships, correct? Did you find any other ways to do that?

Pete: There were two things. One was simply toning down the language. I love Mary Shelley’s high language, but it definitely strays into hyperbole. It’s a caricature of itself; you can lampoon it. I’m not kidding when I say there are probably five or six times throughout the book where Victor tears open his shirt and gnashes his teeth at the moon, crying for all his grief. I mean, okay, nobody actually does that. Maybe one time in your life, but not five times over the course of a year.

Drew: That would have to be a bad year.

Pete: Oh yeah, a really, really bad year.

So toning down language immediately helped Victor’s case. And then bringing in family issues helped make him more believable—and that element was barely there in the book. I felt like I was blowing on the embers of what made Victor who he was. It was so subtle in the book, which is funny, because most of the time Mary Shelley is the opposite of subtle. It made me wonder if she even realized what she was putting in there.

In a scene early on in the book, when Victor is born, his parents are fawning over him, and they say, “Look at this thing we’ve created. We will love him and shape him and train him in the way he should go.” Those words directly contrast what Victor says about the thing he makes. His reaction is to hate and loathe his creation. He fails to train it up in the way it should go.

Drew: It’s probably helpful to clarify here that the book is basically half and half: first you hear from Victor, then from the Monster.

Pete: Correct. I think you’re about a hundred-twenty pages into the book before you even see the Monster as anything other than something laying on a table. The book is told from first-person perspective. Well, it’s more complicated than that—it’s an epistolary novel, meaning it’s made up of letters, and the letters are being written by the captain of a ship and sent to his sister. He’s relating the story that Victor—whom he has discovered in the Arctic—is relating to him. So it’s first-person from the captain, and then it switches to first-person from Victor within that framework.

But the point is that all you’re initially getting is Victor’s own commentary on his thoughts and feelings. That’s a really hard thing to translate on stage, so we had to give a lot of thought to how to make it more vibrant, vital, and confrontational, and that required me to alter the story’s structure.

So I decided to present the play as a trial in which Victor and the Monster are both making their cases before the audience. My initial goal was to have the Monster alive and on the scene by the fifteen minute-mark. That way, throughout the course of the play, you have his perspective and Victor’s perspective in a sort of tug-of-war, and you’re constantly having to ask yourself who you will believe. Then when you get to the end of the play, you’re compelled to make some kind of judgment.

Drew: And do you want the audience to come away from the play having made a judgment that, even in some small way, impacts their own lives as well?

Pete: The play has a lot to say to us as a society, and I don’t just mean the low-hanging fruit of science and artificial intelligence. In the end, humanity is being put on trial. The audience should come away with the moral, “If we are not kind to one another, if we do not love one another, we are essentially creating monsters of ourselves and our own society.” Those monsters are being born out every day. So the play is ultimately a plea to find a kinder way to be in the world.

Drew: So at the end of the play, the question is not, “Do you side with Victor or with the Monster?” but—

Pete: Right, it’s actually you who are on trial. The play is structured to appear as a trial between Victor and the Monster, but the Monster has this ironic line: “Behold, the great justice of man.” He’s pointing out the incredibly broken nature of our societies. That’s at the heart of the play and the book.

Drew: It’s cool that you superficially have the audience feel like they’re judging the Monster and Victor, but by the end of it they’ll come away with the sense that they were in fact the ones on trial.

Pete: I would be delighted if that’s actually how it works itself out!

Drew: It’s a way of getting through to people without scaring them away with the very prospect of evaluating our lives together. It feels more effective than preaching.

Pete: I mean that’s the challenge of art, isn’t it? To say something that people might not want to hear—

Drew: But slip through the back door to say it. Like Nathan confronting David.

Pete: Very much so. And the other challenge is, while these are my intentions for the play, they may go over the head of the general audience. And it needs to be able to work anyway, merely as a cautionary tale about science and discovery. And it still needs to work just as a Monster play. Hopefully we’ll get some jumps and scares, too. But as a creator, we’re always building some kind of architecture that we understand all the ins and outs of, but that nobody else may ever dial into—and that needs to be okay. The architecture is there, regardless of anyone’s exploring it, and that alone is good.


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