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October 30, 2018

Mayo, Guthrie Theater Team Up for Frankensteinian Celebration, Re-examination

By In the Loop

Despite its reputation, there is more to "Frankenstein” than meets the eye. Mayo staff and the Guthrie Theatre joined forces to examine how the 200-year-old tale is really a story about what it means to be human.


Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley graced the world with her famed novel "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus." What was supposed to be a simple "ghost story" has been retold through countless on-screen adaptations, with just one problem: Much of that adaptation is wrong. "If you've read the book, you know it's about much more than just a scary monster," Johanna Rian, Ph.D., coordinator of Mayo Clinic's Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine, tells us. "That's the Hollywood version."

Dr. Rian tells us the book is really about "what it means to be human and what it means to create something that then comes with moral, ethical and emotional responsibilities," she says. "It's also about what it means to be a member of society and to not be a member of society — in other words, what it means to be an 'other.'"

Big philosophical questions for sure, and ones that not only pertain to us as humans, but also to Mayo Clinic as an academic medical institution. Which is precisely why Dr. Rian chose to team up with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to celebrate this year's 200th anniversary of the book. "When they let me know they'd chosen 'Frankenstein: Playing With Fire' as their season opener, we worked with their education and production staff to create two separate events."

The first, held Oct. 8 in Rochester, was a staged reading of 10 scenes from the play. "Forty-five minutes into the event, we'd only covered two scenes because there was so much discussion," Dr. Rian says. "That was fantastic."

Just as it was the following Saturday, when Mayo's Barbara Jordan, Chris Hook, M.D., and Eelco Wijdicks, M.D., Ph.D., joined playwright Barbara Field for a panel discussion at the Guthrie between matinee and evening performances. "The audience was terrific," Jordan tells us. "It was a diverse and eclectic crowd of young people, older people who might be quite familiar with the novel, and 35 or so Mayo Medical School students who'd come up with Dr. Rian."

The discussion that ensued was as eclectic as those driving it. "Dr. Wijdicks talked about the neurology of the brain, and of the criminal mind and the criminal brain," Jordan tells us. "Dr. Hook spoke about the ethics of humanism and of being an 'other' from a medical ethics perspective. And I took the topic of otherness from my background in diversity and inclusion at Mayo, and really explored all of that as it pertains to Shelley's novel, as well as 'Playing with Fire.' Having the playwright there was a bonus because we can all think we know what she was trying to depict or uncover, but she was there to say yay or nay and help us find that direction."

Direction that Dr. Wijdicks says needs some course-correcting.

"'Frankenstein' is seen by some as a major bioethics theme, but I don't think Universal Studios had any interest in the bioethics of Mary Shelly's book and instead just wanted to scare everyone," he tells us. "So they created a monster with an implanted criminal brain, which would better explain the killing rather than the abandonment theme of the novel."

You can read more of what Dr. Wijdicks has to say about "Frankenstein" from a neurological point of view in this article. Then author something of your own by sharing your comments below before using the handy social media tools to share this story with others.


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Tags: Barbara Jordan, Community, Dr. Chris Hook, Dr. Eelco Wijdicks, Dr. Johanna Rian, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine, Office of Diversity and Inclusion

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