Michael Frayn 1933-
English playwright, novelist, journalist, philosopher, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Frayn's career through 2002. See also Michael Frayn Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 7, 31.
Frayn is a noted English social satirist and critically acclaimed newspaper columnist, novelist, and playwright. His prose style, worldview, and central themes have remained relatively consistent, regardless of the medium in which he writes. He is known for his humorous critiques of modern culture, particularly targeting mass media, technology, bureaucracy, the workplace, and professional life. First and foremost a humorist, Frayn has also been applauded for his effective blending of serious and comedic elements in his work. Critics have noted that his personal philosophy is strongly influenced by the ideals of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth-century British philosopher. Among Frayn's most popular and well received works are the plays Noises Off (1982) and Copenhagen (1998) and the novels A Landing on the Sun (1991), Headlong (1999), and Spies (2001). Frayn's humor columns, originally written for the Manchester Guardian and the London Observer, have also been collected in a number of volumes.
Frayn was born on September 8, 1993, in Mill Hall on the northwestern edge of London, England. His father, Thomas Allen Frayn, was a sales representative for an asbestos company and his mother, Violet, was a shop assistant. Soon after his birth, his parents moved to Ewell on the southern fringe of London. His mother died when Frayn was thirteen, and his father later remarried. He attended Kingston Grammar School, where he developed a knack for satire by imitating his teachers to amuse his fellow students. Upon graduating from high school in 1952, Frayn was drafted into the Royal Army and was required to attend a course in interpreting Russian at Cambridge University. He was eventually commissioned as an officer in the intelligence corps, where he served until he was discharged in 1954. Having completed his military duty, Frayn enrolled in Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, where he studied philosophy and was exposed to the works of Wittgenstein, among others. Frayn graduated from college in 1957 and worked as a reporter and columnist for the Manchester Guardian newspaper, writing a satirical column that gained wide popularity among readers. In 1962 Frayn left the Guardian and began writing humor columns for the London Observer, where he worked until 1968. His first novel, The Tin Men, was published in 1965. In 1970 his first professional stage play, The Two of Us, was produced in the West End Theatre in London. Frayn has since worked professionally as a writer, continuing to write columns, novels, and plays, as well as working as a screenwriter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Frayn's first marriage, to Gillian Palmer, a psychotherapist with whom he had three children, ended in divorce in 1989. In 1996 he married author Claire Tomalin. Frayn has received numerous awards for his work, including the 1986 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new foreign play for Benefactors (1984) and the 2000 Antoinette Perry Award for best play for Copenhagen. In 2003 Frayn was awarded the Whitbread Award for best novel and Great Britain's Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book from Eurasia for Spies.
Frayn's essays and humor columns for the Guardian and Observer newspapers have won him a large popular following in the United Kingdom and abroad. Many of his early columns are collected in The Day of the Dog (1962), The Book of Fub (1963), and At Bay in Gear Street (1967), while his later essays and sketches have been collected in On the Outskirts (1964), The Original Michael Frayn: Satirical Essays (1983), Speak after the Beep: Studies in the Art of Communicating with Inanimate and Semi-Inanimate Objects (1995), and The Additional Michael Frayn (2000). Similar in tone to his newspaper columns, many of Frayn's novels offer satirical observations regarding the state of the contemporary world. His earliest novels are futuristic and fantastical tales, lampooning the bureaucratic, professional, and technological frailties that characterize modern culture. The Tin Men employs a futuristic setting to portray a society that is almost completely computerized and automated—thus erasing virtually all human traits. A Very Private Life (1968), written in the future tense, ridicules the upper-class British obsession with privacy, and Sweet Dreams (1973) features a London architect who finds himself in heaven, where he discovers that modern business practices and bureaucracy exist even in the afterlife. Frayn's preoccupation with modern bureaucracy can also be seen in The Russian Interpreter (1966), a spy story set in Russia, which is based partly on Frayn's experiences in military intelligence. Towards the End of the Morning (1967), set in the office of a London newspaper, satirizes how reporters struggle to recreate real life experiences through words.
Frayn took a hiatus from publishing novels between 1973 and 1989 to focus on his plays, essays, and screenplays. His novels written after this period, while retaining his characteristic elements of farce and social commentary, embrace the examination of various forms of research and investigation, whether academic, personal, bureaucratic, or clandestine. Many of these works employ fictional letters, transcripts, or historical quotes as narrative devices, addressing issues of secrecy, the quest for truth, and the endless capacity of mankind to misinterpret events in accordance with their own obsessions, fantasies, and neuroses. The Trick of It (1989) is an epistolary novel composed of letters written by a literary academic who marries the novelist on whose work he specializes. In A Landing on the Sun, a civil servant is charged with investigating the death of another worker, Stephen Summerchild, that took place fifteen years earlier. The probe reveals that Summerchild worked in a covert government unit responsible for investigating the “quality of life” and happiness of its citizens. The central characters of Now You Know (1992) belong to an organization called OPEN that works as a watchdog and lobby group, promoting freedom-of-information as well as truth and accuracy in government. Hypocrisy runs rampant in the organization as the head of OPEN engages in secret love affairs with several different women in the group. The events of the plot are narrated alternately from the distinct points of view of the characters. Frayn later adapted Now You Know for the stage in 1995. In Headlong, an academic philosopher conducts research on a painting he has discovered in the home of an unsuspecting provincial squire, hoping that it is an original work of the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel. Spies revolves around the imaginative life of two young boys during World War II whose make-believe games involve mystery, intrigue, and espionage within their suburban English neighborhood. The two decide that the mother of one of the boys is a German spy and engage in a covert operation, tracking and documenting her suspicious activities.
Frayn's plays, like his novels, are generally characterized by their recurring elements of farce and social satire. Alphabetical Order (1975) is set in the clippings-library of a provincial newspaper where the new librarian turns a chaotic workplace into a meticulously organized system. In the process, she attempts to impose her hyper-organization on the lives of her fellow employees. In Donkeys' Years (1976), a group of men at their twentieth college reunion find themselves regressing to their undergraduate behaviors, which include drunkenness and sexual liaisons with the wife of the headmaster. A pair of writers meet while on assignment in Cuba in Clouds (1976) and one of them, a female reporter and novelist, engages in lascivious behavior with three different men—her fellow journalist, an American professor, and a Cuban government official. Set amidst a sales conference held in a hotel in Germany, Make and Break (1980) concerns a salesman who is consumed by his job and suffers complete alienation from human emotion. One of Frayn's most critically and commercially popular works, Noises Off is a comedy that depends on its parodic borrowings from the worst traditions of the British farce. The play traces the progress of a group of actors from the last-minute technical rehearsal through the subsequent run of an awful piece of repertory theatre called Nothing On, making connections between the chaotic stage business and the actors' complicated, interwoven lives. During the 1980s and 1990s, Frayn's plays began moving away from his traditionally uniform satiric tone. Benefactors, set during the 1960s, concerns a liberal-minded architect as he struggles to live up to his own ideals. The plot follows the architect, his wife, and another married couple, as their personal and public lives become progressively entangled in the fifteen-year narrative span of the play. Copenhagen is based on an actual historical meeting in 1941 between Werner Heisenberg, Nazi Germany's most prominent physicist and a key member of the Manhattan Project, and Niels Bohr, a physicist and Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Denmark. Copenhagen addresses the much-debated question of what actually transpired during this meeting, particularly in regard to the moral dilemmas and scientific research of the two physicists. Heisenberg and Bohr had once been close colleagues, but found themselves working for different sides during World War II. Frayn has also composed translations of a number of plays from the nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, including The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya, among others. Frayn's play Wild Honey (1984) is based on an unfinished manuscript by Chekhov known as Platonov.
Most critics have concurred that Frayn is a skilled practitioner of farce and social satire—recurring elements that figure prominently in almost all his writings. Frayn's humorous newspaper columns have been extremely popular in the United Kingdom and have been frequently lauded for their biting commentary on various aspects of modern culture. Critical response to Frayn's novels has been varied, with some reviewers praising his use of humor and wit, asserting that his novels contain well-developed characterization and clever plot construction. Others have criticized Frayn's fiction, arguing that his novels read shallow and flat, with unconvincing characterization and implausible plotlines. The Trick of It has drawn praise for its examination of the mysterious nature of the creative process and the ways in which a novelist transforms life into fiction. A Landing on the Sun has received mixed reviews, with several commentators faulting the novel's stereotyped characters and poorly structured narrative. Now You Know has been recognized as a witty and inventive novel by a number of reviewers, though some have observed that the underlying ethical message of the novel is questionable due to the fact that the main character participates in the cover-up of a politically motivated murder. Headlong has been commended for its exploration of self-denial and the obstacles that hamper effective communication, but others have complained that the novel's discourse of academic art history is tedious and uninteresting. Spies has similarly been acclaimed as an engaging and powerful narrative, despite some assertions that the plot is contrived and implausible. Frayn's plays have been generally well received as works of dramatic farce, with Noises Off attracting a great deal of critical and popular attention. Critics have consistently applauded Frayn's effective use of the play-within-a-play motif in Noises Off, complimenting the work as a classic comedy of errors. Although Copenhagen has been highly regarded in several critical circles, it has stood as perhaps Frayn's most controversial play. Critics have been sharply divided in their opinions on Copenhagen, largely depending on their particular perspective in regard to the play's ethical message. Several reviewers have offered harsh criticisms of the play's underlying moral center, contending that Frayn's historically inaccurate rendering of the real life events leads the audience to draw faulty conclusions. However, many scholars have argued that the play effectively raises deeply relevant ethical questions, regardless of historical accuracy.