Michael Frayn Frayn, Michael (Vol. 176) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zounds! [with John Edwards] (play) 1957

The Day of the Dog (essays) 1962

The Book of Fub (essays) 1963; republished as Never Put off to Gomorrah, 1964

On the Outskirts (essays) 1964

The Tin Men (novel) 1965

The Russian Interpreter (novel) 1966

At Bay in Gear Street (essays and journalism) 1967

Towards the End of the Morning (novel) 1967; republished as Against Entropy, 1967

A Very Private Life (novel) 1968

*The Two of Us: Four One-Act Plays for Two Players (plays) 1970


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Katharine Worth (review date March 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Worth, Katharine. “Farce and Michael Frayn.” Modern Drama 26, no. 1 (March 1983): 47-53.

[In the following review, Worth asserts that Frayn proves himself a master of the stage farce with Noises Off.]

“Is God?”, asks Professor George Moore in Stoppard's Jumpers. “Is farce?” might be a question for today's theatre and for the same reason that bothers Moore and his wife, Dotty, in their speculation on God. How can farce exist in a society which has lost all its certainties and loosened all the rigid social and moral structures which were the launching pad for the farces of the past? The special pleasure of the form, as Eric Bentley has said, is...

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Stephen Wall (review date 28 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Going to Bed with an Author on Your Reading List.” London Review of Books 11, no. 16 (28 September 1989): 18.

[In the following review, Wall praises Frayn's engaging, readable narrative voice in The Trick of It, describing the novel as “a fable of literature's ambivalent power.”]

Michael Frayn hasn't published a novel for 16 years, but it's immediately clear from his new one that he hasn't lost the trick of it. After so long a lay-off some self-consciousness might have been expected, but Frayn has turned this potential liability to advantage by making it an essential part of his subject. The Trick of It is, among other...

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Zoë Heller (review date 29 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Heller, Zoë. “Art's No Joke.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 69 (29 September 1989): 37-8.

[In the following review, Heller contends that The Trick of It is thoughtful and funny, observing that the novel explores the difficulties of writing fiction and the mysteries of the creative process.]

It is fitting that [The Trick of It] Michael Frayn's first novel for 16 years should explore the difficulty of writing fiction. Rather daunting for a reviewer, though, that it wittily deflates the business of literary criticism in the process.

When Frayn's hero, a lecturer in English, invites a female author whose book he...

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Michael Frayn and Michele Field (interview date 2 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Frayn, Michael, and Michele Field. “Michael Frayn.” Publishers Weekly 237, no. 9 (2 March 1990): 65-6.

[In the following interview, Frayn discusses the writing of The Trick of It while reflecting on his literary career and writing process.]

Michael Frayn is renowned for debunking the interview. In the 1960s he had a column in the Manchester Guardian in which he chatted with visiting celebrities. Very gradually Frayn moved the column toward fantasy, “interviewing” characters he created, gulling the public in the process. And in his new novel, The Trick of It, out this month from Viking, one of the themes is the impossibility of...

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Mark Kamine (review date 9 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kamine, Mark. “A Critic to the Core.” New Leader 73, no. 9 (9 July 1990): 18-19.

[In the following review, Kamine praises Frayn's entertaining, witty, and dexterous prose in The Trick of It, stating that the central themes of the novel include the writing process and the ways in which the novelist transforms life into art.]

The “trick” here is how: how a writer writes, and writes well. How life, in other words, becomes art. Thankfully, Michael Frayn is wise enough not to try to tell us, and clever enough to hold our interest anyway.

His novel [The Trick of It] is composed of a series of letters that Richard...

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Stephen Wall (review date 12 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Word-Processing.” London Review of Books 13, no. 17 (12 September 1991): 15-16.

[In the following review, Wall comments that A Landing on the Sun treats themes similar to those in The Trick of It, but less successfully, contending that the narrative voice of the former is dull and that the storyline tends to be diffuse.]

There have always been novels with a highly developed sense of their own means of production. When, at the end of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said she'd let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, she was being literal as well as figurative. A pen was what she wrote with. Dan Jacobson's and Michael Frayn's...

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Mary Margaret Mackenzie (review date 13 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackenzie, Mary Margaret. “A Question of Happiness.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4615 (13 September 1991): 21.

[In the following review, Mackenzie asserts that although many of the characters in A Landing on the Sun are irritating stereotypes, Frayn skillfully blends the genres of philosophy and literature in the novel.]

The first joke is on you. A Landing on the Sun pretends, at the start; to be a political thriller—Summerchild, a civil servant working in a secret Strategy Unit in the new Wilson Government of 1974, falls to his death from a building in Whitehall; his connections with espionage are denied. Then Jessel, another civil...

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Amanda Mitchison (review date 13 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitchison, Amanda. “Time Rewound.” New Statesman and Society 120, no. 4050 (13 September 1991): 39.

[In the following review, Mitchison lauds Frayn's accomplishment as a writer, judging A Landing on the Sun to be a skillful depiction of Britain's stodgy upper classes.]

Michael Frayn's latest novel [A Landing on the Sun] begins: “On the desk in front of me lie two human hands.” In the next paragraph, the reader discovers the hands belong to the narrator, and that the narrator wears “crisp white shirtsleeves”. Over the page we find the hands are also connected to a voice: “Because of course I have my voice in here with me, as well as...

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Francis King (review date 14 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Pretty Bubbles in the Air.” Spectator 267, no. 8514 (14 September 1991): 31-2.

[In the following review, King comments that reading A Landing on the Sun is a pleasurable experience due to Frayn's successful combination of seriousness and humor.]

Since Harold Wilson was as full of gimmicky wheezes as a freshly poured Pepsi of bubbles, it is in no way improbable that, after he had returned to office in 1974 in the aftermath of the miners' strike and the three-day week, he established a Policy Unit (as Michael Frayn imagines in this sparkling novel [A Landing on the Sun]) to ‘look beyond day-to-day considerations at the quality...

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Michael M. Thomas (review date 2 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Michael M. “The Paper Chase.” Washington Post Book World 22, no. 5 (2 February 1992): 1, 11.

[In the following review, Thomas assesses the strengths of A Landing on the Sun, describing the novel as witty, touching, and intelligent.]

This [A Landing on the Sun] is a marvelous novel, wise and witty, but I despair of its readerly reception in a culture that elevates Scarlett. Its qualities are literary rather than digital. Highly refined but not in the least bit precious, it is a true page-turner, but in a rather different sense from that in which the overused staple of bookchat praise is generally employed: wherein the business of...

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Richard Eder (review date 16 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Labour's Loves Lost.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 February 1992): 3, 9.

[In the following review, Eder extols the strengths of A Landing on the Sun, calling the book a satirical examination of bureaucracies, academic institutions, and the differences between men and women.]

Jessel, the archetypal British civil servant, sits in his regulation office in Whitehall: a desk, a hat rack, two chairs, a view across the air shaft, and files in a neat pile. It is his purely abstract kingdom. He is the perfect instrument, a samurai of administrative procedure, existing to be the cog between other cogs. He describes his nirvana, his entire...

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John Banville (review date 14 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banville, John. “Playing House.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 9 (14 May 1992): 41-3.

[In the following review, Banville argues that A Landing on the Sun effectively displays Frayn's talents for comedy, but notes that the plot is overly contrived in some places.]

The novel is as English as roast beef or the monarchy, a national institution which in a declining age must be stoutly defended against skeptics and foreigners. By “novel” here I mean the novel of manners, that essentially middle-class form perfected by the great Victorians. The present British prime minister, John Major, has claimed to have read all of Trollope (a prodigious feat,...

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Peter Reading (review date 28 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reading, Peter. “Open to Question.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4665 (28 August 1992): 17.

[In the following review, Reading offers a positive assessment of Now You Know, calling the novel witty and entertaining.]

It will surprise no one to learn that Michael Frayn's new novel, Now You Know, is workmanlike, entertaining, perspicacious, funny and gently satirical. It is the uncomplicated (even lightweight) story of a few weeks in the life of OPEN, a freedom-of-information lobby, and the ironic gulf between this organization's aims (exposing governmental evasiveness in public issues) and the clandestine machinations of the individuals who...

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Francis King (review date 29 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Uneasy Lies the Head of OPEN.” Spectator 269, no. 8564 (29 August 1992): 28-9.

[In the following review, King contends that Frayn makes convincing use of different narrative voices in Now You Know.]

In recent years there have been an increasing number of cases of civil servants breaching the Official Secrets Act by leaking confidential documents to the press or the opposition. Sometimes the culprits have been eventually identified and punished, sometimes not. If one were oneself a civil servant, party to something morally repugnant, would one be justified in committing the same sort of disloyalty? Or should one first resign from one's job?...

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Brian Raymond (review date 11 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Raymond, Brian. “Leave It Out.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 219 (11 September 1992): 39.

[In the following review, Raymond observes that Frayn is a clever and adroit writer but argues that Now You Know falls short in its construction, plot, and ethical values.]

In the effective modern state, secrecy is the last thing the sensible government wants to conceal. The message is broadcast hourly by the granite ministry walls, regulation bombproof curtains and official limousines: don't bother to ask for true information as a press release in the mouth can easily offend. Terry Little, a kind of Arthur Daley figure who runs a freedom of information...

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Patrick Parrinder (review date 8 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Whitehall Farces.” London Review of Books 14, no. 19 (8 October 1992): 13.

[In the following review, Parrinder compares the central motifs in Now You Know to similar themes in Frayn's earlier novels and plays, praising Frayn as an inventive and innovative comic writer.]

‘In its attitude towards Dickens,’ George Orwell wrote, ‘the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling … One knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office.’ Lawyers these days...

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Lindsay Duguid (review date 13 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Duguid, Lindsay. “Swells of Sadness.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4715 (13 August 1993): 17.

[In the following review, Duguid asserts that the strength of Here lies in the play's sense of dramatic immediacy.]

Many of the jokes in Michael Frayn's new play [Here] come from familiarly funny situations: a young couple in their new home argue about where to put the bed; they go from insults to hugs and back in a matter of seconds; their landlady always knocks on the door just as they are about to make love. Ashley Martin-Davis's simple set—a one-room flat with traces of cornice, a glimpse of green bathroom, mattress and duvet on the...

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Thomas Filbin (essay date autumn 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Eurofiction, Interest Rates, and the Balance of Trade Problem.” Hudson Review 46, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 587-92.

[In the following essay, Filbin discusses several recent novels—among them Now You Know—which he argues hold greater value and significance than other works of contemporary fiction.]

American fiction these days seems generally to have recovered from its bout with minimalism. Scorched earth prose which prefers epiphanies and resonances to themes and character exposition has largely run its course. Readers could only be expected to tolerate for so long antiheroes who dream of things that never were and ask, “Why...

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Nicholas Lezard (review date 11 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lezard, Nicholas. “Getting Stuck in an Open Door.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4819 (11 August 1995): 18.

[In the following review, Lezard judges the stage version of Now You Know as a successful adaptation of the novel, commenting that the play “both raises and dodges issues of openness and secrecy in both private and public life.”]

Now You Know, the play, is sleek and deceptive, like the cliché; the knowledge passed on when you wrap facts up by saying “now you know” is often either inferred or unwelcome, and carries with it the suggestion that whatever it is should probably have been hidden in the first place. It is the perfect...

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Karen C. Blansfield (essay date November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blansfield, Karen C. “Michael Frayn and the World of Work.” South Atlantic Review 60, no. 4 (November 1995): 111-28.

[In the following essay, Blansfield discusses the themes of work and professional life in Frayn's plays, concluding that Frayn's interest in these themes is based on “a perception of its crucial role in middle class life.”]


Michael Frayn once commented that seeing the plays of David Storey demonstrated to him “for the first time that the great world of work in which we all live could be represented on the stage” (Plays: One x-xi). That observation must have taken root, for many of Frayn's own plays...

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Jonathan Dyson (review date 1 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dyson, Jonathan. “Remember Me?: Various Cinemas.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4922 (1 August 1997): 18.

[In the following review, Dyson observes that many of the comic moments in Remember Me? are predictable but effective, further commenting that the film's resolution is unsatisfying and improbable.]

Remember Me? is a traditional British farce. The screenplay is by Michael Frayn, the author of Noises Off, the hugely successful play about a farce. Indeed, the film looks as if it has been adapted from a stage play, without much opening-out: almost all the action takes place in a run-down suburban semi in West Byfleet over the period of...

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Anita Brookner (review date 7 August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Artfully, Seriously Ludic.” Spectator 283, no. 8922 (7 August 1999): 34-5.

[In the following review, Brookner evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Headlong.]

The journey [in Headlong] begins with a literal journey: a couple travelling north with their young baby. They are going to their cottage in the country, which is furnished with all the comforts of a typical low-grade English rural property: mice, damp, a defaulting septic tank. They are met, unexpectedly, by a man who introduces himself as a neighbour, Tony Churt, equally bedraggled, and receive an even more unexpected invitation to dinner. Churt's purpose becomes clear:...

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Hal Jensen (review date 20 August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Reading the Pictures.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5029 (20 August 1999): 19.

[In the following review, Jensen asserts that Frayn's treatment of the protagonist's relationship with his wife in Headlong is the book's main asset, but faults the novel for lacking substantial characters, memorable description, and for a disappointing and contrived plot.]

Headlong into what? Reproduced on the jacket of Michael Frayn's new novel [Headlong] is Bruegel's painting “The Fall of Icarus”, and certainly this work deals with the adverse consequences of rash ambition; but the picture is reproduced in a strange perspective, which is meant...

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Judith Dunford (review date 5 September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dunford, Judith. “Magical Mystery Tour.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 September 1999): 11.

[In the following review, Dunford contends that Headlong demonstrates Frayn's abilities as an intelligent, funny, and clever writer.]

What would we readers do without the infernally brilliant writers of Britain, of which there fortunately seems to be a limitless supply? Certainly one of the very cleverest is Michael Frayn. Thirteen plays, including the fondly remembered Noises Off. Journalism. Novels that have made critics thumb through their thesauri to find new synonyms for “smart” and “funny.”

Headlong, his ninth...

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Terri Natale (review date 13 September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Natale, Terri. “Countryside Capers.” New Statesman 12, no. 572 (13 September 1999): 55.

[In the following review, Natale describes Headlong as a successful novel that effectively blends farce and social comedy.]

Can a master playwright and skilled columnist also produce a successful novel? Can the writer of the award-winning theatrical hits Noises Off and Copenhagen transfer his peculiar talents to another genre? Michael Frayn's first novel in seven years emphatically proves that he can.

Headlong is an intoxicating blend of farce and social comedy—a sustained history lesson on the Spanish conquest of the...

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Michael Wood (review date 14 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Four Thousand, Tops.” London Review of Books 21, no. 20 (14 October 1999): 22-3.

[In the following review, Wood discusses the theme of self-delusion in Headlong, commenting that the book has a fine beginning but loses its momentum when bogged down by the plodding details of the protagonist's research findings.]

In Michael Frayn's first novel, The Tin Men, there is a character who is supposed to be writing a novel, but mainly concentrates on devising the blurbs and reviews for the as yet unstarted book, as if the work itself was merely the plodding cause of a glittering celebrity effect, and ideally could be dispensed with...

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Victoria Stewart (essay date November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stewart, Victoria. “A Theatre of Uncertainties: Science and History in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.New Theatre Quarterly 15, no. 60 (November 1999): 301-07.

[In the following essay, Stewart argues that Copenhagen creates a dialogue between the discourses of science and theater which reveals that both are concerned with questions of ambiguity and uncertainty.]

Recent critical writing has addressed the relationship between literature and science in a variety of ways, reflecting both an ever-increasing interdisciplinarity in academia and the increasing availability and popularity of accessible accounts of scientific discoveries and concepts,...

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Philip Hensher (review date 18 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Triumphant Comedies of Failure.” Spectator 283, no. 8941 (18 December 1999): 55, 57.

[In the following review, Hensher provides an overview of Frayn's novels and plays, focusing on the theme of failure in interpersonal communication, with specific emphasis on the novel Headlong.]

Michael Frayn's Headlong didn't win the Booker prize this year, and no one can have been surprised, only rueful. The odds are heavily against any remotely comic novel, and it long ago turned into a prize for good behaviour by unexciting novelists. Anything further from a piece of good behaviour by an unexciting novelist than Headlong can hardly be...

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Peter Bien (review date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bien, Peter. Review of Headlong, by Michael Frayn. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 364.

[In the following review, Bien describes Headlong as “urbane and funny,” but comments that some readers may find the academic and research portions of the book to be tedious and uninteresting.]

Some readers crave an edition of Moby Dick with the descriptions of whaling deleted. Likewise, some readers may crave an edition of Headlong with the art-history passages deleted. The novel's protagonist, Martin Clay, thinks he has discovered a long lost Bruegel covered with soot. So he spends hours in the London Library researching the...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Mark Steyn (review date May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Period Decadence, Emotional Truths.” New Criterion 18, no. 9 (May 2000): 45-9.

[In the following excerpt, Steyn comments that Copenhagen effectively makes use of scientific principals to illuminate emotional truths.]

Life upon the wicked stage, wrote Oscar Hammerstein, ain't nothin' like a girl supposes. I'll say. Seventy years on, as if to underline the futility of theatrical aspirations, there now seems to be a distinct actuarial disadvantage. A couple of years back, it was Jonathan Larson dying on the eve of his triumph with Rent. Last month, the author of James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire could have woken up and read a...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)

Paul Lawrence Rose (review date 5 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Paul Lawrence. “Frayn's Copenhagen Plays Well, at History's Expense.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46, no. 35 (5 May 2000): B4-B6.

[In the following review, Rose offers a negative assessment of Copenhagen, arguing that the play distorts historic and scientific truth for the sake of drama and theatricality, thereby undermining the moral significance of the real life events on which the work is based.]

Scholars are never satisfied when they see their specialized subjects turn fodder for stage, screen, or novels. The adaptor, like the translator, is by definition something of a traitor to his topic. There are so many pitfalls awaiting the...

(The entire section is 3698 words.)

Nicholas Fearn (review date 20 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fearn, Nicholas. “Perpetuating Impractical Jokes.” Spectator 284, no. 8963 (20 May 2000): 51.

[In the following review, Fearn praises Frayn's sense of humor in Celia's Secret, calling the work an “entertaining record of folly.”]

People who claim to have seen God whilst on hallucinogenic drugs sometimes tell of a common reaction to the circumstances. Our first impulse on the Day of Judgement, they relate, is neither to apologise profusely nor put up a spirited defence of our behaviour. Rather, it is to try to delay the Almighty, to keep Him talking or distract Him somehow by changing the subject. More sober citizens experience similar thoughts as...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Thomas Powers (review date 25 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Powers, Thomas. “The Unanswered Question.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 9 (25 May 2000): 4, 6-7.

[In the following review, Powers describes Copenhagen as “wonderful theater,” noting that Frayn addresses moral issues of depth and complexity.]

Something happened—some terrible offense was given which could never be recalled—during the wartime visit of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg to the man who probably meant most to him in the world, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. It would be forgotten now, certainly Michael Frayn never would have written a play about it, if the offense had not somehow involved Heisenberg's role as a leader of...

(The entire section is 3948 words.)

Celia Wren (review date 16 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wren, Celia. “The Idea's the Thing.” Commonweal 127, no. 12 (16 June 2000): 17-18.

[In the following review, Wren asserts that the storyline in Copenhagen is obscured by the complexity of the abstract ideas being discussed.]

Science has escaped from its ghetto, at least here in Manhattan, where laboratory-minted ideas and images are gaining ever wider currency. The theater scene, in particular, has been awash in theorems. Off Broadway, no fewer than three new dramas about mathematics opened in April and May, while the ambitious Ensemble Studio Theater was wheeling through its second season devoted to drama about science. On Broadway, audiences were...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)

Thomas Filbin (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Visas Not Required.” Hudson Review 53, no. 2 (summer 2000): 329-35.

[In the following review, Filbin describes Headlong as witty, sardonic, engaging, and droll.]

On a perfectly indolent June evening last year, my wife and I sat in a restaurant in Edinburgh enjoying the endless summer twilight in northern latitudes. The restaurant was Italian, our waiter was Bosnian, and with friends from Cheshire who had recently been to Crete and Botswana, we began musing about the new global economy. Our shoes were from Hungary or China, our clothes from Central America, and so on as we made an inventory. We flew back to Boston with tourists and...

(The entire section is 3400 words.)

Paula Harper (review date July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harper, Paula. “Uncertainty Principle.” Art in America 88, no. 7 (July 2000): 35.

[In the following review, Harper asserts that the strength of Headlong lies in its effective mixture of philosophy and farce.]

Michael Frayn's current Broadway play, Copenhagen, dramatizes a heady, imagined conversation between two atomic physicists. Now in his recent comical mystery novel, Headlong, Frayn romps across the fields of philosophy and art history. The whole reckless rush of the story is seen from the viewpoint of Martin Clay, a professor of philosophy who is prone to jumping to conclusions, impulsively acting on them, and then reversing...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Robert Winder (review date 24 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “Hall of Mirrors.” New Statesman 129, no. 4496 (24 July 2000): 54-5.

[In the following review, Winder offers a positive assessment of Celia's Secret, praising the book as “clever.”]

There are, as any writer will be quick to tell you, not very many rules of etiquette governing book reviewing. Indeed, reviews often include a level of rudeness that would be considered actionable in, say, a business report. But at least one rough-and-ready principle still holds: reviewers are not supposed to give away the ending, to spoil the twists and surprises on which a plot turns. It would be bad form to identify the killer in a murder story, the...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)

Jonothan Logan (review date July-August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Logan, Jonothan. “‘A Strange New Quantum Ethics.’” American Scientist 88, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 356-59.

[In the following review, Logan faults Copenhagen for altering historical facts and misconstruing the moral issues raised by the real life events on which it is based.]

Copenhagen Tames Complexity of Science” was the title of a recent review of Michael Frayn's latest play—meant, no doubt, as a compliment. Audiences in New York, where the play opened in April after a long run in London, do seem dazzled by the heady counterpoint of history, quantum mechanics and postmodern epistemology electrifying the air between the play's...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)

Maggie Gee (review date 1 September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gee, Maggie. “A Joker's Guide to Table Tennis.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5083 (1 September 2000): 34.

[In the following review, Gee asserts that Celia's Secret is a factual account of a hoax carried out between two friends.]

This curious little book is a coda to Michael Frayn's successful play Copenhagen, in which his current co-author David Burke played the Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr. The play explored the mystery of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg's visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, at a time when the two men's countries were at war. We know the visit marked the end of the friendship between Bohr and Heisenberg,...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

Merritt Moseley (essay date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moseley, Merritt. “The Booker Prize for 1999.” Sewanee Review 108, no. 4 (fall 2000): 648-55.

[In the following essay, Moseley notes that Headlong, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, was his personal choice to win the award, asserting that Headlong is “a novel of lasting significance.”]

The Booker Prize for fiction was awarded on October 25, 1999, to the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee for Disgrace. Coetzee thus became the first author in the thirty-year history of the prize to win it a second time (his The Life and Times of Michael K won in 1983). Disgrace was chosen from a short list of titles,...

(The entire section is 3673 words.)

Jane Gardam (review date 26 January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardam, Jane. “No Careless Talk in the Close.” Spectator 288, no. 9051 (26 January 2002): 53.

[In the following review, Gardam praises Spies, contending the book is detailed, sensuous, and an effective evocation of boyhood memories.]

Michael Frayn's new novel [Spies] comes disguised as a memory of boyhood experience during the last war, the friendship between a bewildered, inarticulate state-school boy and a boy from further down the street whose frightening father imposes an officer-class discipline on his apparently perfectly balanced household. The unravelling by the boys of a wartime mystery among the other residents of The Close (aptly...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Jonathan Keates (review date 1 February 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Keates, Jonathan. “A Well-Tended Eden.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5157 (1 February 2002): 22.

[In the following review, Keates discusses the significance of setting Spies in an English suburb, the book's subtle references to other works of fiction, and its treatment of the themes of “morality and the nature and impact of truth.”]

Suburbia, more especially the grid-plan sprawls making up Greater London on its western and southern sides, is one of the twentieth-century's greatest gifts to fiction. Its stifling limitations, real or fancied, force desire and imagination to burgeon like the rhubarb grown by gardeners under upturned dustbins. A...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Hugo Barnacle (review date 4 February 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnacle, Hugo. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 15, no. 692 (4 February 2002): 57.

[In the following review, Barnacle describes Spies as fascinating, pleasurable, and powerful, despite its implausibility and recycling of familiar themes.]

Books read in adulthood almost never seize and enwrap your imagination like the books you read as a child, but here is one that might do the trick. [Spies] is about children and the intense, “half-understood” world that they inhabit, and it has the brevity and compactness of books written for the young, yet neither of these factors can quite explain its remarkable grip. It recycles some familiar themes...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Max Watman (review date May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watman, Max. “Guileless Games.” New Criterion 20, no. 9 (May 2002): 66-71.

[In the following review, Watman contends that the overall quality of Spies is compromised by its contrived, ineffective narrative devices.]

If there is anything the reading public knows, it is that underneath the calm gentility of suburban life boils a hellish soup of misdeeds and perversions. The rolling hills of Winesburg, Ohio and its cast of fresh-faced ne'er-do-wells are always within view. Michael Frayn, in Spies, has turned this tradition a bit on its head, for in this book, the transgressions are mostly imagined by a young boy named Stephen.1 That...

(The entire section is 3828 words.)

Philip Hensher (essay date 25 May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “The Ruthless Grip of Language.” Spectator 288, no. 9068 (25 May 2002): 39-40.

[In the following essay, Hensher discusses what he perceives as the central theme throughout Frayn's columns, novels, and plays—a concern with the problematic relationships between people and language.]

Michael Frayn has been awarded this year's Heywood Hill Prize, and nobody is going to argue with that. The prize is not for an individual work, but in recognition of a complete and distinguished literary career. Frayn's career has been a remarkable one; cogent and unified, pursuing single ideas with seemingly infinite resourcefulness and variation, raising grave...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Blansfield, Karen C. “Michael Frayn.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 143-57. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Blansfield presents an overview of Frayn's dramatic works, including reference sources, through 1995.

Coates, Joseph. “Getting What You Want.” Chicago Tribune (22 February 1993): 5.

Coates applauds the character development in Now You Know, describing the novel as “half farce, half tragedy, and all comedy.”

Frayn, Michael, and John L. DiGaetani. “Michael Frayn.” In A...

(The entire section is 426 words.)