Authors: Michael Frayn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright, novelist, and journalist


Michael Frayn is one of the leading satirists among contemporary playwrights and novelists. He was the son of Thomas Allen and Violet Alice Lawson Frayn. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Ewell, Surrey. Frayn’s mother died when he was twelve, and his father, a sales representative for an asbestos manufacturer, was unable to pay both a housekeeper and private school fees and enrolled the boy in Kingston Grammar School. A poor student, Frayn made up for his insecurities by becoming the class clown.{$I[AN]9810001170}{$I[A]Frayn, Michael}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Frayn, Michael}{$I[tim]1933;Frayn, Michael}

After leaving school in 1952, Frayn completed two years of mandatory national service as a corpsman in the Royal Artillery and as a Russian interpreter in the Intelligence Corps. Following his discharge, he studied philosophy at Cambridge University, becoming strongly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s views on the nature of language and reality. At Cambridge, Frayn also wrote a column for the university newspaper and collaborated on a student musical comedy.

After receiving his degree in 1957, Frayn was a reporter for The Manchester Guardian until 1959, when he began writing a column of social satire, collections of which were later published. He began working for The Observer in London in 1962, writing a humorous column until 1968. In 1960, he married Gillian Palmer; they had three daughters and were divorced in 1989. Frayn later married biographer Claire Tomalin.

While with The Observer, Frayn wrote two television plays and four novels. In 1970, an American producer asked him to write a comic sketch for a London revue. When Frayn’s effort was rejected because it called for a baby’s diapers to be changed onstage, he wrote three more short plays and combined them under the title The Two of Us. His ensuing plays gained increasing recognition from critics and the public, culminating in the enormously successful farce Noises Off, which had the longest run in the illustrious history of the Savoy Theatre.

Frayn’s novels and plays share the same concerns as his satirical columns: middle-class human conventions, class snobbery, hypocrisy, trendiness, conflict with technology, and the absurdity of Cold War tensions. The Tin Men, his first novel, presents humorless computer specialists at an institute for automation research who aim to automate everything from sports to religion to literature. The Russian Interpreter, based on his military experiences, looks at the confused motives of English and Russian spies. A Very Private Life satirizes the middle class’s obsessive concern with privacy by envisioning a future in which the wealthy live comfortably in hermetically sealed boxes. Sweet Dreams dramatizes a middle-class Londoner’s vision of heaven, where everything is a reflection of his earthly aspirations. The Trick of It, a satire of academia, looks at the power of literature over life. Now You Know is a political satire centered around a freedom-of-information lobby.

Middle-class English values are also at the center of Frayn’s plays. The Sandboy, concerned with the making of a television documentary about a celebrated city planner, contrasts what the main character says to the camera with what he actually believes and does: a dramatization of the Wittgensteinian paradox about what is real and what is a mere representation of the real. Alphabetical Order takes a comic look at the human need for order, as a zealous young woman organizes the chaotic library of a failing newspaper, changing her fellow employees’ lives in the process. Frayn’s ambiguous attitude toward this character is typical of his approach to drama; he consistently confronts issues and values without didacticism.

The highly acclaimed, more serious Copenhagen dramatizes a 1941 meeting between the physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Frayn’s play explores whether the Nazis’ atomic bomb program failed because Heisenberg was unwilling to provide Adolf Hitler with the world’s most powerful weapon or because he simply did not understand how to build one. In 2001, Frayn published The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue, a short nonfiction work concerning a mysterious bundle of papers he received during the production of Copenhagen that may have resolved the mysteries at the play’s core.

Frayn’s most successful play has been the ingeniously complicated Noises Off. This depiction of a third-rate repertory company rehearsing and performing a trashy sex comedy in the provinces seems to be little more than a brilliant entertainment. Frayn, however, conceals his usual themes behind the facade of farce. The first act presents a dress rehearsal of the play, the second the backstage activity during an actual performance, the third the chaotic onstage goings-on, showing the characters and their ever-changing relationships from three perspectives. The connection between art and reality is explored as the farcical nature of the characters in the play-within-the-play is imitated in real life. The actors are as hapless and confused as their onstage counterparts.

Frayn has been criticized for the lack of depth of his characters, who display considerable wit but little passion. His plots and characters have been called precision-made objects as mechanical as the automated world he satirizes. On the other hand, Frayn’s novels have been likened to the best works of Evelyn Waugh, and his plays have been favorably compared with those of such contemporaries as Alan Ayckbourn, Simon Gray, and Tom Stoppard. Frayn has also written television documentaries, has won an international reporting award for his articles about Cuba, has written a treatise on the nature of perception, and has translated plays by Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Jean Anouilh. He can properly be called a contemporary Renaissance man.

BibliographyCushman, Robert. “Michael Frayn and Farce Go Hand in Hand.” The New York Times, December 11, 1983, pp. B1, 4. Cushman introduces Noises Off to the Broadway audience before its New York premiere, pointing to its genesis in an essay, “Business Worries,” which Frayn wrote for The Guardian. The key sentence of the essay about a theater audience’s apprehensions is “All the time one is waiting aghast for some embarrassing disaster to occur.” Cushman offers evidence that comic events in his plays and novels stem from Frayn’s own experience.Glanz, James. “Of Physics, Friendship, and the Atomic Bomb.” The New York Times, March 21, 2000, p. F1. Discusses the ongoing debate surrounding events dramatized in Frayn’s play Copenhagen. Provides historical background, comments from scientists, and a brief bibliography.Gottlieb, Vera. “Why This Farce? (From Chekhov to Michael Frayn).” New Theatre Quarterly 7 (August, 1991). An analysis of Frayn’s plays.Gussow, Mel. “Echoes of Chekhov Haunt Frayn’s Benefactors.” Review of Benefactors, by Michael Frayn. The New York Times, January 5, 1986, pp. B3, 15. Gussow suggests that a quotation from Anton Chekhov’s notebooks in Frayn’s introduction to his translation of Three Sisters could serve as an epigraph to Benefactors: “We struggle to change life so that those who come after us might be happy, but those who come after us will say as usual: It was better before, life now is worse than it used to be.”Henry, William A., III. “Tugging at the Old School Ties.” Time, January 27, 1986, 66. Henry underscores the relationship of Frayn’s life to his work–both plays and novels–in what is primarily a review of the Broadway production of Benefactors, which Frayn apparently prefers to the original London production. Henry suggests that “one traditional measure of a superior play is that it can sustain widely varying interpretations.” Benefactors, according to Henry, “meets that test.”Kaufman, David. “The Frayn Refrain.” Horizon 29 (January/February, 1986): 33-36. Written soon after the American premiere of Benefactors, this article suggests that Broadway is in need of such serious yet entertaining plays. He notes that Frayn finds American critics, especially John Simon, to be more perceptive about the play than were the British critics. Frayn confesses that he himself learned what his play is about from reading sound critical analyses. The article, biographical in part, is illustrated with a photograph of Frayn and scenes from the Broadway production of Benefactors.“Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (1998); Michael Blakemore.” In Making Plays: Interviews with Contemporary British Dramatists and Their Directors, edited by Duncan Wu. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A brief overview of the play and interviews with Frayn and director Blakemore, who discuss the ideas at the heart of the play and the challenges of producing it for the stage.Simon, John. “Frayn and Refrayn.” Review of Benefactors and Wild Honey, by Michael Frayn. New York 17 (September 3, 1984): 62-63. One year before the American premiere of Benefactors, Simon, an American critic, reviewing the London production, was overwhelmed by the play’s intelligence and haunting power. Disturbed by the performance, he read the text: “Creepingly, imperceptibly,” he writes, “it overpowers you.” Simon reveals the play’s complexity by suggesting that it is about change as “the ultimate changelessness” and concludes, “Benefactors, finally, is a play about everything.”Weber, Bruce. “Critic’s Notebook: Science Finding a Home Onstage.” The New York Times, June 2, 2000, p. E1. Looks at several plays from the 2000 season, including Frayn’s Copenhagen, that take as their themes science and the search for scientific truth.
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