Michael Frayn Frayn, Michael (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Frayn 1933–

English novelist, dramatist, journalist, and screenwriter.

In his humorous newspaper columns, novels, and plays, Frayn satirizes human foibles and contemporary society. Among his targets are middle-class values, the pitfalls of technology, and those aspects of popular culture which Frayn believes distort reality: mass media, public relations, and advertising. Frayn began exploring these topics as a columnist for the Manchester Guardian and the London Observer. The articles written for these newspapers are collected in his books The Day of the Dog (1962), The Book of Fub (1963), On the Outskirts (1964), and At Bay in Gear Street (1967).

In the 1960s Frayn began writing novels concerned with the subjects and themes developed in his journalistic pieces, and in the 1970s he also became known for his plays. In his novels Frayn often uses imaginative settings and plots to comment indirectly on contemporary social and political situations. His first novel, The Tin Men (1965), is set in a futuristic automated world where computers generate everything from organized sports to moral decisions. Also set in the future is Frayn's novel A Very Private Life (1968), which examines the insulating effect of a society's attempt to eliminate discomfort. Both of these works are sardonic indictments of irresponsible technological advancement. Another fantastical work is Sweet Dreams (1973), a novel which concerns a typical middle-class Londoner who goes to heaven and becomes one of God's right-hand men. Frayn depicts heaven as another busy place where one must struggle to succeed. Frayn's more conventional novels include The Russian Interpreter (1966), an espionage story set in Moscow, and Towards the End of Morning (1967), a satire set in a London newspaper office.

Satirical subjects and farcical situations also inform Frayn's dramas. In addition, the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth-century philosopher whom Frayn has studied extensively, is evident in many of Frayn's plays. Beneath their satirical surfaces, the plays often reveal a Wittgensteinian concern with the relation between language, reality, and personal perception. For example, Clouds (1977), which centers on characters who tour Cuba, raises questions about the degree to which artifice influences fact. Similarly, Noises Off (1982) contrasts art with reality by chaotically presenting a farce about a farce. Make and Break (1980), a play involving movable walls, corpses, and corporate manners and mores, epitomizes Frayn's concern with illusion and reality and, in Leonie Caldicott's words, the "depressing world of rapid satisfactions" generated by modern technological society.

Although many critics suggest that Frayn's later novels overcome the weaknesses in character and plot frequently found in his earlier fiction, it is generally agreed that overall Frayn's novels have an uneven narrative quality and the characterizations in both his plays and his novels are underdeveloped. Frayn's most noted strengths are his wit and insight; he is widely praised for his ability to unite comedy with serious observation. As William Trevor notes, Frayn is "the only hatchet man of contemporary letters to combine a consistent attack with something that looks like a purpose."

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 14.)

Jeremy Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It can't be easy to write even a weekly funny column. To be constructively funny—i.e., satirical—three times a week would seem an impossible task. Michael Frayn not only succeeded, he actually got better—a devoted follower could watch him exploring his way into a tricky form until he had the confidence to lash out with one of those superbly accurate pieces of social criticism for which one either loves or hates him. The Day of the Dog contains the best of these, and may come as a surprise to those who are not already with it, Fraynwise. Michael Frayn actually holds a handful of opinions, and doesn't care if people discover the shameful fact, nor whether his opinions are fashionable ones or not. Inevitably, one's hackles sometimes rise (dammit, a man who doesn't like dogs can't be good for much!), but even in the act of throwing the book out of the window one suddenly finds oneself chortling, and retrieving it for another shamefaced dip. (p. 826)

Jeremy Brooks, "Posh Funnies," in The Spectator, Vol. 209, No. 7013, November 23, 1962, pp. 826-27.∗

William F. Gavin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It has become impossible in the last few years to watch television, read a periodical or book, listen to records, or attend a show without being subjected to the latest outpourings of wrath from the angry young wit of the moment. Name a taboo and he'll break it; think of any possible subject and he'll harpoon it with a few well-chosen barbs. Usually unrestricted by taste, learning, talent or sense, he is applauded by the yahoos he insults, most of whom bear the double burden of being not only tasteless themselves, but proud to admit it. (Many of the young wits of a few years ago now sound only nasty and peevish, like an annoyed book reviewer.)

Well, Mr. Michael Frayn comes equipped with the proper credentials…. This collection of essays from his column in the Guardian [Never Put Off to Gomorrah] is full of funny names …, funny people … and—what you might expect from the wittiest man now writing in English—English wit. I wish him well and hope to read him again if the day comes when an Englishman can write without trying to be so terribly witty.

William F. Gavin, in a review of "Never Put Off to Gomorrah …," in America, Vol. III, No. 1, July 4, 1964, p. 18.

Anthony Thwaite

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The pieces in On the Outskirts, like its predecessors [The Day of the Dog and The Book of Fub], have the remarkable virtue, shared with some books of poems, of gaining strength from contiguity. A common tone comes through, and, more importantly, that firm point of view which earlier students of Mr Frayn were quick to notice. You can have your laugh at Wittgenstein, 'informal' television discussions, letters to Radio Times, and at the abiding nonsense of public relations and advertising; but you have to take, too, such a scorching piece of brilliant and humane contempt as 'From Each According to His Need', where the bland, thoughtless stock responses to the Welfare State are shown up in all their selfishness. Mr Frayn and his supporting cast of Rollo Swavely, Christopher Smoothe, Ken Nocker, the Crumbles, et al. are very funny; and when you laugh till it hurts, you know what has hurt you.

Anthony Thwaite, in a review of "On the Outskirts," in The Listener, Vol. LXXII, No. 1859, November 12, 1964, p. 773.

William Trevor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Frayn's first novel, The Tin Men, is a fast, swooping performance by one of our very few serious satirists. In the past he has exposed so brilliantly some of the many vulgarities of modern life—the insidious message of the advertisement, the creepy crookedness of our P.R. workers, the stupidities conceived daily in our boardrooms—that he has become the only hatchet man of contemporary letters to combine a consistent attack with something that looks like a purpose. In The Tin Men Mr Frayn satirizes and parodies, probes and pounces, with all his considerable skill. This is a funny book and delightful to read; but it doesn't quite work as a novel. It is more like a particularly good Frayn piece blown up to size, with extra bits added and a plot thrown in. The characters really are tin men—templates for thousands of others, representatives of this disorder or that. For all that, though, this is not a treat to miss. After all, who but Mr Frayn could arrange for a man called Nunn to draw from his pocket a slim volume entitled Prayers for the Rugby Field?

William Trevor, in a review of "The Tin Men," in The Listener, Vol. LXXIII, No. 1869, January 21, 1965, p. 115.

Julian Gloag

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There was every reason to look forward to Michael Frayn's first novel with the mouth already formed for laughter and wry smiles…. Mr. Frayn at his best is to my mind as penetrating as but perhaps gentler than Art Buchwald at revealing the sweet idiocies of our society.

And in his first novel, The Tin Men …, Mr. Frayn has hit upon a marvelous, if obvious, idea for a witty and devastating fable. His setting is a new school for automation research, his characters humorless men who see no reason why all things should not be automated, from football to the novel, from newspapers to prayer. Machines can substitute for every human activity, with the possible exception of the strictly animal functions. Mr. Frayn makes the case in detail, at times in completely deadpan and utterly hilarious fashion.

Yet there were far too many moments in this book when I found my smile, but not my attention, becoming fixed. The reason is simple: The Tin Men is repetitive. The two-dimensional characters do not change; they come on, go off, come on and perform exactly the same act all over again. And, unfortunately, too many of them are the old hacks of glib satire we saw a decade ago in the Ealing comedies….

Despite flashes of Frayn verve, the thing is old hat, leaky old hat at that. It's too bad, and damn sad, to say that of Michael Frayn. Was it perhaps too easy? You'll smile all right at The Tin Men, but it'll be the smile you give to a good joke you've heard before, instead of the quick stab of laughter, or surprised assent, at the sharp truth mockingly presented, fresh and original. Meat and potatoes to the general, but from Frayn we expect caviar to the knowing ones.

Julian Gloag, "School for Robots," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, January 15, 1966, p. 40.

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maybe it won't be without effect on the Cold War itself that the entertainment media men have gone over in a big way to spoofing it. Michael Frayn stands rather apart, because he doesn't invent absurdities so much as respond to real ambiguities in the situation. The Russian Interpreter is a spy story about cross-purposes on both sides. His earnest hero Proctor-Gould—an Englishman so convinced by himself he's worth setting beside Mr Powell's Widmerpool—is engaged in Moscow on a mission in which good will shades into espionage. Russian motives are no less mixed; the counter-spy uses his network to bring in forbidden Western books, the girl professor of dialectical materialism turns into a nutty heroine of hotel-bedroom farce. Working for one's country is hardly distinct from working against it, or public duty from private enterprise.

Mr Frayn is as clever with these moot points as a one-man Ilf and Petrov; and since their day there haven't been many other novels about Russia so nicely poised between satire and sympathy. I only wonder if it isn't a bit too gentle, a bit droll merely. He deals with comparatively minor mishaps of the Cold War that are nobody's fault. There's hardly a hint that anyone on either side could behave really badly.

Robert Taubman, "Comedians of the Cold War," in New Statesman, Vol. 71, No. 1829, April 1, 1966, p. 477.∗

Pamela Marsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Frayn has been compared to Evelyn Waugh. It is easy to see why….

[In The Russian Interpreter] Mr. Frayn succeeds in a tricky job of juggling deceivers deceived, spies spied upon.

Unfortunately he needs wittier, lighter moments to come near Evelyn Waugh. The solemner a matter is, the funnier Mr. Frayn finds it. But neither his humor, nor the infrequent glimpses he gives of springtime Russia can dispel the atmosphere of self-righteous dullness he has deliberately created.

Pamela Marsh, in a review of "The Russian Interpreter," in The Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 1966, p. 15.

Christopher Koch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a parody of the middle class's obsessive concern with privacy, Michael Frayn's new novel [A Very Private Life] begins auspiciously as a bourgeois children's story turned on its head: "Once upon a time there will be …" a land of utter privacy. Children's stories cope with exaggerated fears and hopes by explaining them in comforting homilies as part of a remote world. Frayn retains this style—but places his story in the future and thereby makes us its cause.

His futuristic world is based on McLuhan's aphorism that electronic technology extends our central nervous systems in a global embrace. His characters remain forever in their homes—windowless boxes connected to the outside world by...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Frayn has long been concerned with what one might portentously call the nature of reality and, until now at least, he's always stood squarely opposed to those who've attempted to fob off the rest of us with alluring substitutes. Hence his rather puritanical obsession with pop culture and the mass media, with ignorant pundits, facile critics and, of course, the eternal PROs and admen. The novels, especially The Tin Men, have pushed the attack rather further than the journalistic pieces. Why not, he asks at one point, an eventual world in which computers play all the games, watch and appreciate each other playing the games and discuss the game afterwards on TV, watched by yet more computers? It's all very...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Irving Wardle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One's heart starts sinking from the first moment of Michael Frayn's play [The Sandboy] when Eleanor Bron drops an armload of cushions to stare at us aghast and go into her embarrassed hostess routine. It is one of those: the audience as uninvited guests. And not only that. We are also supposed to compose a huge television crew who have gate-crashed the house to film a day in the life of her celebrity husband.

I can think of no playwright who has pulled off this particular trick which produces a continuous collision of idioms when applied to naturalistic action. And the fact that Mr Frayn should have lumbered himself with a notoriously unworkable structure amounts also to an internal criticism...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Dave Robins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Frayn is a clever humourist, a master of the witty phrase, the extended satirical anecdote. These talents … ensured that at least I laughed a great deal throughout Clouds, Frayn's new play….

Clouds is set in Cuba—or at any rate an empty blue sky with beneath it just six chairs and a table. Into this void step Mara and Owen, two English writers come to report on life after the revolution. She … is a lady novelist of the Edna O'Brien type; he …, a jumpy, neurotic journalist…. Accompanying them on the tour of the country is Angel …, their slow-moving, slow-talking Cuban guide…. Also on the sightseeing tour is Ed …, an idealist academic from the wilds of Illinois,...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Leonie Caldicott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'And this is what the product is all about,' declares [John Garrard] at the end of Make and Break, swinging round the final section of his firm's wall system and revealing a corpse on the other side.

Death stalks Frayn's characters as they play out their good commercial roles against a lurid trade-fair background, punctuated by the faint menace of exploding terrorist bombs 'out there' in the city of Frankfurt…. At the centre of the frenzy is the managing director, John Garrard …, who unlike the rest of his staff, cannot shed his professional identity and the accompanying turn of mind, even for a moment. This is a brain attempting to work like a computer: absorb maximum data, process, place...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Harold Hobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr Frayn's play Make and Break] is wretchedly constructed; old-fashioned in its views of women; relies on a surprise ending which would have suited a comedy thriller, but which left the Haymarket audience tittering and giggling with embarrassment, not being able to believe that Mr Frayn took it seriously; depends for an interminable time at the beginning on scenic tricks and trucs with characters rushing in and out of opening and shutting doors without a trace of the expertise which sometimes makes trap-door exploits in pantomimes acceptable….

Harold Hobson, in a review of "Make and Break," in Drama, No. 137, July, 1980. p. 35.


(The entire section is 101 words.)

J. R. Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Noises Off is a farce, the form of drama which is most difficult to read and most easy to dismiss from serious consideration. But such doubts should not deter any reader. Like Frayn's earlier comedies, this farce arises from a shrewd and, even, intellectual engagement in life and work in England today. Frayn is always aware of the expectations of his characters and comic disasters are so contrived that complacencies and hopes are constantly challenged and motivations defined. In this latest work Michael Frayn turns from journalism, travel, education and business, the subjects of earlier plays, and presents the world of theatre: this is a farce about the performance of a farce. Part of the joke is that Noises...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's strangely involving to watch actors struggle heroically in a ludicrous play. When absolutely everything goes wrong on stage, as when everything goes right, we're treated to drama that is urgent, spontaneous, unmistakably alive.

Yet whoever heard of a play in which both extremes of theatergoing pleasure occupy the same stage at the same time? That's what happens at Michael Frayn's "Noises Off."… All three acts of this play recycle the same theatrical catastrophe: We watch a half-dozen has-been and never-were British actors, at different stops on a provincial tour, as they perform the first act of a puerile, door-slamming sex farce titled "Nothing On." With a plot involving wayward plates of...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Michael Ratcliffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

['Benefactors'] is a seriously amusing four-hander which takes Frayn away from the richer emotional resourcefulness of (in my opinion) his best play to date, 'Make and Break,' and into the patterning of couples more familiar in Ayckbournland. It is, for him, an excessively neat, neoclassical sort of piece which draws on only a fraction of his imaginative range, and in which the four characters … speak both to one another and to the audience.

It is coloured throughout by the imagery of planning, destruction, rehabilitation and twilight zones as applied to areas of Victorian suburbia and the human refuse of liberal revolution alike, but Frayn seems to be both mocking the methods of Ibsen … and...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I hate to be a habitual dissenter regarding all these celebrated British imports—but I'm afraid Noises Off failed to get my pulse racing…. Watching this carefully manufactured laugh machine was like spending three hours staring into the works of a very expensive, very complicated Swiss clock—impressive workmanship, but for how long can one look at revolving wheels, moon disks, and star dials?…

I seem to remember that Lewis Mumford once declared the clock to be the key machine of the modern age, so maybe Noises Off represents the theatrical future—a time when instruments of stage precision will have replaced our more untidy dramatic endeavors. It is certainly more akin to...

(The entire section is 456 words.)