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.)