The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090

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As Benefactors begins, Jane relates her memory of the day some fifteen years before when David came home early, bursting with the news that he had just been awarded the architectural contract for an urban housing project in South London. Jane’s recollection is not enthusiastic, for she remembers all the problems that project brought them. David is also onstage, but unaware of the Jane that the audience is seeing. He is instead acting out the long-past day that she is talking about. Their lines overlap, quickly establishing that the play’s action will unfold in flashback style. As David exits, Jane is saying that when Colin heard about the project later that night at supper, he started to make fun of David by taking his usual position as devil’s advocate. Jane turns and blends smoothly into the after-supper flashback scene. Sheila sits silently while David talks about the good that urban renewal projects can do. Colin is playfully against them as socially disruptive, and Jane takes David’s side.

The next scene occurs several weeks later. Like most of the scenes, it takes place in the Kitzingers’ kitchen. David has been working hard trying to fit enough housing units onto a cramped site and has been encountering a lot of bureaucracy. Jane has been helping him by taking a census of the project area’s residents. Colin continues to bait David, deriding his only half-serious idea of building a tower of flats as a solution to the space problem. Sheila again sits silently until the end of the scene, when she tells the audience in direct address how happy she always felt at Jane’s house. This is immediately undercut by Jane’s remark that Sheila is “always flying over with some new disaster.”

Several more short scenes establish the Kitzingers as the good-natured but sometimes reluctant benefactors of the Molyneuxs, with Sheila in particular being pictured as incapable of taking care of her family. Colin, an old school chum of David, continues to debunk the increasingly serious notion of the high-rise building. The action then shifts to two short evening scenes at the Molyneux residence. Colin jokes with Sheila in the first, then turns ugly in the second. He sends Sheila from the room in tears by telling her that she disgusts him. The next day, Sheila is back at Jane’s, nearly hysterical over the recurring thought that Colin might leave her and the children. Jane comforts her and concludes that what Sheila needs is a job.

David is not thrilled at the thought of the incompetent Sheila working for him at the house, but he agrees reluctantly. Colin is not happy about it either, but he does not know how to stop her. Sheila’s first day at work is a disaster. She quickly learns the routine, however, and in direct address tells the audience how much she enjoyed working at the Kitzingers’ and how she was soon helping with housework and meals. At home, however, Sheila still neglects her own housework and cooks as poorly as ever. Colin reacts by ceasing to pretend that he still loves her.

The next few scenes are pivotal. David is working at home for the afternoon and, as he cannot concentrate properly, he goes walking with Sheila to pick up her daughter from school. She tells the audience that they took several happy walks together after that. One afternoon, weeks later, Colin is waiting at the Kitzingers’ for his wife to come home. Jane arrives to find him in a state of quiet, jealous anger. In a strained but frank conversation, Colin describes Sheila’s history of becoming dependent on a couple, gradually spending more and more time with them, and finally falling in love with the husband. Jane’s insistence that things are different this time is interrupted by David and Sheila arriving home. Sheila, in direct address to the audience, then admits that she was indeed in love with David, though she knew he did not return her love. David only liked the company, supposes Jane, and that is how he came to tell Sheila certain things first. Journalist Colin is ecstatic when Sheila relays the news that David is planning to build two great skyscrapers for the project after all; he promptly tells the newspapers. When David and Jane see the article, they agree that Sheila must be fired, but the dismissal is prevented when Sheila arrives with baggage in hand and children waiting outside. She announces that she has left Colin. Kindhearted David and Jane put her up for the night, which quickly becomes several weeks. Jane then narrates that when she went to check on Colin, she found only a very empty and messy house. Act 1 closes with the news that she finally stumbled on Colin living as a squatter in one of the empty houses waiting to be torn down for David’s project.

Act 2 begins in the winter. David opens the act with direct-address lines punctuating Jane’s telling Sheila, in flashback, the news that Colin is organizing the South Londoners to oppose the housing project. Sheila and Colin both seem to come alive at this turn of events, while David grows more and more depressed as difficulties with the project mount. Jane realizes that Colin is now an enemy, and they begin to drift apart. Jane takes a job working for a housing rehabilitation firm, and Colin’s group begins public demonstrations urging rehabilitation in place of David’s high-rise project. David feels betrayed and hurt by Jane’s desertion.

Spring arrives, and with it the news that Colin is a candidate in the upcoming election, running on the housing issue. For the first time ever, Jane lies to David when he asks where Colin is getting his campaign money; the firm Jane works for has given to Colin’s campaign. Colin appears at the Kitzingers’ one day, demanding to see his children, but Jane tries to throw him out. In the row that ensues, Sheila throws hot stew in Colin’s face. His bandaged face is worth a few votes, but Colin is soundly defeated. A series of direct-address speeches by all four characters ends the play by bringing the audience up to date on their lives. David’s towers were ultimately stopped in favor of a rehabilitation after all, which is all he designs now. Sheila has moved on and sees a psychiatrist. Colin writes about rehabs for a magazine, and David and Jane are happy once again.

Dramatic Devices

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The structure of Benefactors encourages a frankly theatrical approach to producing the play. Frayn himself, in a prefatory note, urges that a minimum of setting and props be used in the staging. Flashbacks and direct addresses to the audience are common theatrical devices, but Frayn employs them somewhat differently from the way they are often used. The play is framed by direct-address remarks. At the beginning of the play, Jane remembers the entire history of events that commenced with David’s childlike enthusiasm for his big housing project as a time when the “cloud-shadows” of her mind made the “bright landscape . . . just travelled through . . . [seem] grey and graceless,” though now that fifteen years have passed, she tells the audience that “that day, at any rate—that’s out in the sunlight again.” In a broad sense, then, the play’s action can be considered as the passage of a particularly difficult set of memories from darkness into the light. The memories are all the ins and outs of benefaction presented by the play’s plot, though perhaps “tapestry of events” would be a more accurate description than the notion of a traditional plot.

Framing the play thus with memories of the characters invites identifying as a subtheme the subjectiveness of memory. This interpretation is closely bound up with the exploration of all the facets of benefaction, for the play’s technique of asides allows the audience to see the characters’ changing interpretations of events and of one another as the action progresses.

Instead of using only one character in direct address, Frayn has all four at one time or another turn easily and frequently from speaking frankly to the audience to immediate interaction with characters who may have remained onstage from the previous scene. They move just as easily in the opposite direction, frequently addressing the audience from the middle of a vignette such as a scene played around the table in the Kitzingers’ kitchen.

This device has two important effects on the play. It allows for the use of many short scenes by providing an effective means of starting and ending them at any desired point, creating a kind of “snapshots of the memory” format. It also creates a clearly and frankly presentational (“we are in a theater and this is above all a play”) style with a rather loose structure that paradoxically serves to keep the audience’s focus tightly on the issues being explored by Frayn.

Of the fifty-three scenes in the play, all but nine are located in the kitchen of David and Jane’s house. Five of the others are in the Molyneuxs’ house, one is an early outing to the project site, and the remaining ones are in Colin’s squatter digs. A unit set seems demanded by the tightly written manner in which characters flow from one scene to the next, and use of one would further support the theatrical nature of the play that is integral to Frayn’s technique.


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Sources for Further Study

Blansfield, Karen C. “Michael Frayn.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Blansfield, Karen C. “Michael Frayn and the World of Work.” South Atlantic Review (November, 1995): 111-127.

Hobson, Harold. “Clouds.” Drama 131 (Winter, 1979): 45-46.

Lawson, M. “The Mark of Frayn.” Drama 169 (Summer, 1988): 8-10.

Page, Malcolm. File on Frayn. London: Methuen, 1994.

Turner, J. F. “Desperately Funny.” Plays and Players 369 (June, 1984): 24-25.

Worth, K. “Farce and Michael Frayn.” Modern Drama 26 (March, 1983): 47-53.


Critical Essays