Michael Frayn

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Michael Frayn began his career as a reporter and columnist for the Manchester Guardian (1957-1962) and The Observer (1962-1968). Frayn has published several collections of these largely satirical newspaper columns and returned briefly to writing a column in 1994. Frayn has also written several novels. He has translated and adapted several plays by Leo Tolstoy, Jean Anouilh, and Anton Chekhov. Frayn’s 1983 adaptation of Chekhov’s Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901, rev. pb. 1904; The Three Sisters, 1920) received especially favorable notice. Frayn has written numerous documentaries and original scripts for television and became a motion picture screenwriter with Clockwise in 1986. In 2001 Frayn published The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue, a short nonfiction work concerning a mysterious bundle of papers he received during the production of Copenhagen that may have resolved the mysteries at the play’s core.


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Already established as a respected journalist and novelist, in middle age Michael Frayn won even greater acclaim as a playwright. His first plays, amusing and well-crafted comedies, suggested that yet another clever farceur, someone akin to the early Alan Ayckbourn, had arrived on the scene. More discerning viewers, however, began to note that Frayn was a serious writer employing comedy to explore philosophical themes: the relationship of language and perception, of order and misrule, of human beings’ illusory control of self and environment. Soon after arriving on the theatrical scene, Frayn was winning awards as author of the best comedy of the year (for Alphabetical Order, Donkeys’ Years, and Noises Off). In 1980, Make and Break, more reflective than his previous plays, won awards as both the year’s best comedy and the year’s best play. In 1984, Benefactors, his darkest comedy, not only won awards as the year’s best play but also afforded Frayn a place among such contemporary British dramatists of the first rank as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. His subsequent work for the stage, however, fell off in quality and quantity, achieving neither the popular success of Noises Off nor the critical acclaim of Benefactors. Look Look in 1990 and Here in 1993 fared poorly with audiences and critics alike. In the late 1990’s Frayn’s reputation soared again when his play Copenhagen (1998) won three Tony Awards including Best Play, and his novel Headlong (1999) was listed as a finalist for the Booker Prize.


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Cushman, Robert. “Michael Frayn and Farce Go Hand in Hand.” The New York Times, December 11, 1983, pp. B1, 4. Cushman introduces Noises Off to the Broadway audience before its New York premiere, pointing to its genesis in an essay, “Business Worries,” which Frayn wrote for The Guardian. The key sentence of the essay about a theater audience’s apprehensions is “All the time one is waiting aghast for some embarrassing disaster to occur.” Cushman offers evidence that comic events in his plays and novels stem from Frayn’s own experience.

Glanz, James. “Of Physics, Friendship, and the Atomic Bomb.” The New York Times, March 21, 2000, p. F1. Discusses the ongoing debate surrounding events dramatized in Frayn’s play Copenhagen. Provides historical background, comments from scientists, and a brief bibliography.

Gottlieb, Vera. “Why This Farce? (From Chekhov to Michael Frayn).” New Theatre Quarterly 7 (August, 1991). An analysis of Frayn’s plays.

Gussow, Mel. “Echoes of Chekhov Haunt Frayn’s Benefactors.” Review of Benefactors, by Michael Frayn. The New York Times, January 5, 1986, pp. B3, 15. Gussow suggests that a quotation from Anton Chekhov’s notebooks in Frayn’s introduction to his translation of Three Sisters could serve as an epigraph to Benefactors: “We struggle to change life so that those who come after us might be happy, but those...

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who come after us will say as usual: It was better before, life now is worse than it used to be.”

Henry, William A., III. “Tugging at the Old School Ties.” Time, January 27, 1986, 66. Henry underscores the relationship of Frayn’s life to his work—both plays and novels—in what is primarily a review of the Broadway production of Benefactors, which Frayn apparently prefers to the original London production. Henry suggests that “one traditional measure of a superior play is that it can sustain widely varying interpretations.” Benefactors, according to Henry, “meets that test.”

Kaufman, David. “The Frayn Refrain.” Horizon 29 (January/February, 1986): 33-36. Written soon after the American premiere of Benefactors, this article suggests that Broadway is in need of such serious yet entertaining plays. He notes that Frayn finds American critics, especially John Simon, to be more perceptive about the play than were the British critics. Frayn confesses that he himself learned what his play is about from reading sound critical analyses. The article, biographical in part, is illustrated with a photograph of Frayn and scenes from the Broadway production of Benefactors.

“Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (1998); Michael Blakemore.” In Making Plays: Interviews with Contemporary British Dramatists and Their Directors, edited by Duncan Wu. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A brief overview of the play and interviews with Frayn and director Blakemore, who discuss the ideas at the heart of the play and the challenges of producing it for the stage.

Simon, John. “Frayn and Refrayn.” Review of Benefactors and Wild Honey, by Michael Frayn. New York 17 (September 3, 1984): 62-63. One year before the American premiere of Benefactors, Simon, an American critic, reviewing the London production, was overwhelmed by the play’s intelligence and haunting power. Disturbed by the performance, he read the text: “Creepingly, imperceptibly,” he writes, “it overpowers you.” Simon reveals the play’s complexity by suggesting that it is about change as “the ultimate changelessness” and concludes, “Benefactors, finally, is a play about everything.”

Weber, Bruce. “Critic’s Notebook: Science Finding a Home Onstage.” The New York Times, June 2, 2000, p. E1. Looks at several plays from the 2000 season, including Frayn’s Copenhagen, that take as their themes science and the search for scientific truth.


Critical Essays