The electrical pulse of life

All tickets for Danny Boyle's Frankenstein at the National Theatre are sold out until it closes in May. The stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's 1818 classic novel has been the West End's hit of the year. The plot depicts how, from human remains, the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein fashions a monster imbued with life by electricity. Instead of creating a beautiful companion, however, Frankenstein brings into being a hideous freak. The scientist and all who meet the monster are repulsed by its ugliness.

The shunned beast passes a lonely life intent on revenge against its maker. For many, it is a story of humanity's propensity to ostracise the outsider. For others, it's a cautionary tale against tampering with nature. Shelley's legacy is constantly invoked as science moves on. Genetically modified crops, for example, were promptly nicknamed "Frankenstein foods". It was this sense of foreboding at scientific advancement that drove Mary Shelley. She was transfixed by Luigi Galvani's discovery that a frog's dismembered legs could be made to contract if wired up in a thunderstorm. The force of life, it appeared, was nothing more than the physical process of electricity.

The idea that human life can be broken down to a purely physico-chemical base continues to trouble us. Our thoughts are no more than a cacophony of chemical signals in our gelatinous brains.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special