Like Chekhov, his inspirational mentor, Michael Frayn is at his best when he allows his audience an intimate glimpse of characters attempting to make order out of the routine chaos of their mundane existence. There are no grand confrontations, no melodramatic plot twists, merely bursts of wasted energy frequently followed by a deepening frustration as his characters—reporters, salespeople, actors, and architects—perceive a world that ought to be changed, but one on which their ineffectual efforts and plans make no impression. Only the characters change, surrendering to the inevitable, as, comically, a disordered world continues its mad spin.
Frayn’s third play and first critical success, Alphabetical Order, locates what would become his abiding concerns. In the library of a provincial newspaper office, several middle-aged reporters, who resemble little boys lost, take refuge amid the office debris. Their daily routine dictates that they enlighten the surrounding world, yet they would rather run and hide from the world, mothered by the head librarian, Lucy, who indulges their whims just as she allows a haphazard filing system to take care of itself. Their personal lives are in as much disarray as the room itself, cluttered with baskets and boxes of news items, even a broken chair. Lucy lives with John, is interested in Wally, and offers sympathy to Arnold, whose unloved wife, Megan, is in the hospital.
When Lucy hires a young woman, Leslie, as her assistant, the newcomer immediately takes control. When a reporter cuts his hand and Lucy cannot find the key to the first-aid kit, Leslie’s first act is to break open the kit with a smartly delivered blow with a leg from the broken chair. Leslie not only rearranges the furniture but also manages to have all the clutter neatly filed away. More significant, Leslie imposes order on chaos by rearranging relationships as well. She enters into an affair with John, freeing Lucy for Wally; Lucy resists the neat arrangement, however, and takes Arnold into her home instead, thus dashing the hopes of Nora, the features editor.
The newly imposed order is short-lived. A seemingly more efficient library has no effect on a newspaper that is failing. When the paper’s closing is announced, the library’s habitués, with Leslie out of the room, revolt. Throwing caution to the wind, grown men reduced to little boys convert folders and clippings into missiles to pelt one another. Chaos has dictated order, which in turn has dictated chaos. When Leslie, the youngest and most recent employee, enters to announce that she is in the vanguard of those who will take over the paper to run it themselves, she reasserts the notion that order will rule once more, but to what purpose? Her fellow employees’ lives are as messy as ever, and Leslie’s failing relationship with John further suggests that her compulsion for efficiency does not extend to that area of her life that really matters.
Critics have viewed Leslie as the villain of the piece, seeing her as the symbol of arid organization in confrontation with the confused humanity of Lucy, the heroine. Frayn himself takes a different view. Perhaps, he suggests, Alphabetical Order demonstrates that order and disorder are interdependent, that any extreme provokes its opposite. Lucy’s inefficiency is only a perception; her library functions. Leslie’s order, too, is only a perception. She is hardly responsible for the paper’s failure, but as she rules her roost, the paper grinds to a halt. A semblance of change occurs, but the essentials remain the same.
In an essay entitled “Business Worries,” originally written for The Observer and collected in At Bay in Gear Street (1967), Frayn offers a reason for not going to the theater: An audience sits in fear—a fear of something going wrong onstage. A carefully rehearsed play represents an ordered world that should comfort an audience that lives in an uncertain world in flux. Actors, however, can trip and fall, cigarette lighters can fail to light, cues can be missed. In Noises Off, Frayn takes theatrical accidents to their extreme, but an audience can view it all happily, knowing that the disorder onstage is, in fact, the order of art. Frayn’s award-winning farce presents a predetermined world in which accidents are programmed to occur. First produced in 1982, Noises Off, a play in which an actual unforeseen mishap occurring to an actor is accepted by the viewer as yet one more comic disaster planned by the author, so delighted audiences that it achieved a four-and-a-half-year run, breaking all records at London’s Savoy Theatre, and has afforded Frayn financial independence. In addition to its nearly two-year Broadway run, Noises Off has been translated into thirty-six languages including Russian, the language that Frayn has so frequently translated into English. Despite the failure of an Americanized film adaptation in 1992, Noises Off is one of the most successful stage farces of the last quarter of the twentieth century. What has, however, surprised its author is that the laughter has obscured, for most audiences, who may consider it mindless entertainment, the fact that the play has a general application even for them. It is about, Frayn insists, what...
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