Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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Michael Frayn is known in the United States primarily as the author of two popular plays, Noises Off (pr. 1982) and Benefactors. In his native England, however, he is widely respected for a considerable variety of works. Before turning to playwriting he was a journalist for Manchester’s The Guardian and The Observer, winning a National Press Award for distinguished reporting in 1970 for a series of articles on Cuba. During this period he also wrote two television plays and four of his five novels. Frayn’s playwriting career began in 1970 with The Two of Us, an evening of four comic sketches on marriage that was judged well written but slight. The Sandboy (pr. 1971), which followed, has some rudimentary echoes of the later Benefactors but was not a success, despite containing some effective comedy. Alphabetical Order (pr. 1975) was considerably more successful.

Through the mid-1970’s, Frayn continued to write novels, teleplays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), essays, and even a book of philosophy, Constructions (1974). The latter provided the basis for his play Clouds (pr. 1976), which explores different characters’ perceptions of events and uses a theatrical style similar to that found in the later Benefactors. Donkeys’ Years (pr. 1976) was another very successful farce, but the more philosophical Liberty Hall (pr. 1980) failed. Make and Break (pr. 1980) was his third comedy to focus on the workplace.

Noises Off, a farce within a farce about a provincial touring troupe’s theatrical escapades, returned to the theatrical note found in the earlier Clouds, though in a very different manner. Benefactors followed in 1984. Subsequent works include the plays Balmoral (pr. 1987), Here (pr., pb. 1993), Now You Know (pr., pb. 1995), and Copenhagen (pr., pb. 1998), as well as several novels and nonfiction works. Frayn’s Copenhagen won a Tony Award in 2000 for best play.

Benefactors has been called a departure from Frayn’s former works by Americans familiar only with his comedies, but a more careful look at his other works suggests that it is very much in keeping with its author’s broad interests, talents, and abilities. This interpretation is given added weight by the respect accorded Frayn’s translations of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (pb. 1986), Three Sisters (pr. 1985), the highly successful Wild Honey (pr. 1984), and Uncle Vanya (pb. 1987). Michael Frayn is an established writer of considerable merit in several genres and formats, and Benefactors should be viewed as a maturing of his theatrical skills rather than as a major change in direction or subject matter.