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.
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.