Frayn, Michael 1933–
Frayn, Michael 1933–
Frayn, Michael 1933–
PERSONAL: Born September 8, 1933, in London, England; son of Thomas Allen (a manufacturer's representative) and Violet Alice (Lawson) Frayn; married Gillian Palmer (a psychotherapist), February 18, 1960 (divorced, 1989); married Claire Tomalin (an author), June 5, 1996; children: (first marriage) three daughters. Education: Emmanuel College, Cambridge, B.A., 1957.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Green & Heaton, 37a Goldhawk Rd., London W12 8QQ, England.
CAREER: Novelist and playwright. Guardian, Manchester, England, general-assignment reporter, 1957–59, "Miscellany" columnist, 1959–62; Observer, London, England, columnist, 1962–68. Military service: British Army, 1952–54.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature.
AWARDS, HONORS: Somerset Maugham Award, 1966, for The Tin Men; Hawthornden Prize, 1967, for The Russian Interpreter; National Press Club Award for distinguished reporting, International Publishing Corporation, 1970, for Observer articles on Cuba; Best Comedy of the Year awards, London Evening Standard, 1975, for Alphabetical Order, and 1982, for Noises Off; Society of West End Theatre Award for best comedy of the year, 1976, for Donkeys' Years, and 1982, for Noises Off; Best Play of the Year award, Evening Standard, Society of West End Theatre Award for best play of the year, and Laurence Olivier Award for best play, all 1984, and Plays and Players Award for best new play, and New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best new foreign play, both 1986, all for Benefactors; Anto-inette Perry ("Tony") Award nomination for best play, 1984, for Noises Off; International Emmy Award, 1989, for First and Last; Emmy Award, 1990; Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, 1991, for A Landing on the Sun; Evening Standard Award for best play, Critics Circle Award for best play, and South Bank Show Award, all 1998, Moliè Award (Paris, France), and Tony Award for best play, 2000, all for Copenhagen; Booker Prize shortlist, 1999, for Headlong; honorary doctorate, Cambridge University, 2001; Whitbread Novel of the Year Award, 2002, and Twenty-first Century Award for best foreign novel (China), both for Spies; Evening Standard Award for best play, Critic's Circle Award for best play, and South Bank Show Award, all 2003, all for Democracy; New York Public Library for the Performing Arts tribute, 2003; S.T. Dupont Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, PEN English Centre, 2003; Tony Award nomination, 2005, for Democracy.
The Day of the Dog (columns; originally published in Guardian), illustrations by Timothy Birdsall, Collins (London, England), 1962, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1963.
The Book of Fub (columns; originally published in Guardian), Collins (London, England), 1963, published as Never Put off to Gomorrah, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1964.
On the Outskirts, Collins (London, England), 1964.
At Bay in Gear Street (columns; originally published in Observer), Fontana (Huntington, NY), 1967.
Constructions (philosophy), Wildwood House (London, England), 1974.
The Original Michael Frayn, Salamander Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1983.
Speak after the Beep (ollected columns), Methuen (London, England), 1995.
The Additional Michael Frayn, Methuen (London, England), 2000.
The Tin Men, Collins (London, England), 1965, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1966.
The Russian Interpreter, Viking (New York, NY), 1966.
Towards the End of the Morning, Collins (London, England), 1967, reprinted, Harvill (London, England), 1987, published as Against Entropy, Viking (New York, NY), 1967.
A Very Private Life, Viking (New York, NY), 1968.
Sweet Dreams, Collins (London, England), 1973, Viking (New York, NY), 1974.
The Trick of It, Viking (London, England), 1989, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
A Landing on the Sun, Viking (London, England), 1991, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
Now You Know, Viking (London, England), 1992, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
Headlong, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 1999.
(With David Burke) Celia's Secret: An Investigation (based on the play Copenhagen), Faber (London, England), 2000, published as The Copenhagen Papers, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Spies, Metropolitan Books (New York, NY), 2002.
(With John Edwards) Zounds! (musical comedy), produced in Cambridge, England, 1957.
The Two of Us: Four One-Act Plays for Two Players (contains Black and Silver, The New Quixote, Mr. Foot, and Chinamen; first produced in London's West End, 1970), Fontana (London, England), 1970.
The Sandboy (first produced in London, England, 1971), Fontana (London, England), 1971.
Alphabetical Order (first produced in London's West End, 1975), published with Donkeys' Years, Methuen (London, England), 1977.
Donkeys' Years (first produced in London's West End, 1976; produced off-off Broadway, 1987; also see below), S. French (New York, NY), 1977.
Clouds (also see below; first produced in London, England, 1976), S. French (New York, NY), 1977.
Alphabetical Order [and] Donkeys' Years, Methuen (London, England), 1977.
Balmoral (also see below; first produced in Guildford, Surrey, England, 1978, revised version produced as Liberty Hall in London, England, 1980, produced under original title in London, 1987), Methuen (London, England), 1977, revised, 1987.
Make and Break (also see below; first produced in Hammersmith, England, then in London's West End, 1980; produced at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1982), Methuen (London, England), 1980.
Noises Off (three-act; also see below; first produced in Hammersmith, England, then London's West End, 1982, produced in New York, NY, 1983; revival produced on London's West End, 2000, then Broadway, 2001), S. French (New York, NY), 1982, revised version, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
Benefactors (also see below; two-act; first produced in London's West End, 1984; produced on Broadway, 1985), Methuen (London, England), 1984.
(Translator from the French) Jean Anouilh, Number One (first produced in London, England, 1984), S. French (New York, NY), 1985.
Plays: One (contains Alphabetical Order, Donkeys' Years, Clouds, Make and Break, and Noises Off), Methuen (London, England), 1985.
Look Look (first produced as Spettattori in Rome, Italy, 1989; produced as Look Look in London, England, 1990), Methuen (London, England), 1990, first act published as Audience, S. French (New York, NY), 1991.
Listen to This (short plays), Methuen (London, England), 1990.
Plays: Two (contains Benefactors, Balmoral, and Wild Honey), Methuen (London, England), 1992.
Here (first produced at Donmar Warehouse, 1993), Methuen (London, England), 1993.
(Translator from the French) Jacques Offenbach, La belle Vivette (opera), first produced at Rome Coliseum, 1995.
Now You Know (first produced in London, England, 1995), Methuen (London, England), 1995.
Alarms and Excursions, first produced in Guilford, England, 1998.
Copenhagen (first produced in Cottesloe, England, 1998, produced in London's West End, 1999; produced in New York, NY), Methuen Drama (London, England), 1998.
Plays: Three, Methuen Drama (London, England), 2000.
Democracy, first produced in London's West End, 2003; produced in New York, 2004.
TRANSLATOR FROM THE RUSSIAN; AND ADAPTER
(And author of introduction) Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard (four-act; first produced in London's West End, 1978), Methuen (London, England), 1978.
(And author of introduction) Leo Tolstoy, The Fruits of Enlightenment (four-act; first produced in London's West End, 1979), Methuen (London, England), 1979.
Anton Chekhov, Wild Honey: The Untitled Play (also known as Platonov; also see above; produced in London's West End, 1984; produced in New York, NY, 1986), Methuen (London, England), 1984.
(And author of introduction) Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters (four-act; produced in Manchester, England, 1985), Methuen (London, England), 1983.
(And author of introduction) Anton Chekhov, The Seagull (produced in London's West End, 1986), Methuen (London, England), 1986.
Trifonov, Exchange (produced at Guildhall School of Drama, 1986, then on BBC Radio 3), Methuen (London, England), 1990.
Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (produced in London, England, 1988), Methuen (London, England), 1987.
Anton Chekhov, Chekhov: Plays (includes The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard), Methuen (London, England), 1988.
(And adaptor) Anton Chekhov, The Sneeze (short stories and sketches; produced in London's West End, 1988), Methuen (London, England), 1989.
1962–66 What the Papers Say (documentary series), Granada TV.
(With John Bird) Second City Reports (series), Granada TV, 1964.
Jamie, on a Flying Visit (teleplay; also see below), British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC-TV), 1968.
(And presenter) One Pair of Eyes (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1968.
Birthday (teleplay; also see below), BBC-TV, 1969.
(With John Bird and Eleanor Bron) Beyond a Joke (series), BBC-TV, 1972.
(And presenter) Laurence Sterne Lived Here (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1973.
Making Faces (six-part comedy miniseries), BBC-TV, 1975.
(And presenter) Imagine a City Called Berlin (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1975.
(And presenter) Vienna: The Mask of Gold (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1977.
Alphabetical Order (adapted from Frayn's stage play), Granada TV, 1978.
(And presenter) Three Streets in the Country (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1979.
Donkeys' Years (adapted from Frayn's stage play), ATV, 1980.
(And presenter) The Long Straight, BBC-TV, 1980.
(And presenter) Jerusalem (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1984.
Make and Break (adapted from Frayn's stage play), BBC-TV, 1987.
Benefactors (adapted from Frayn's stage play), BBC-TV, 1989.
First and Last (movie; broadcast on BBC-TV, 1989), Methuen, 1989.
Jamie, on a Flying Machine [and] Birthday (teleplays), Methuen (London, England), 1990.
(And presenter) Magic Lantern: Prague (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1993.
A Landing on the Sun (movie; adapted from Frayn's novel), BBC-TV, 1994.
(And presenter) Budapest: Written in Water (documentary film), BBC-TV, 1996.
Copenhagen (movie; adapted from Frayn's stage play), BBC-TV, 2002.
(Editor) John Bingham Morton, The Best of Beachcomber, Heinemann (London, England), 1963.
(Editor, with Bamber Gascoigne) Timothy: The Drawings and Cartoons of Timothy Birdsall, M. Joseph (London, England), 1964.
(With others) Great Railway Journeys of the World (based on film broadcast by BBC-TV; contains Frayn's segment on Australia), BBC (London, England), 1981, Dutton (New York, NY), 1982.
Clockwise (screenplay; produced by Universal, 1986), Methuen (London, England), 1986.
Noises Off (screenplay; adapted from Frayn's stage play), Touchstone, 1992.
Remember Me? (screenplay), Channel Four Films, 1997.
Contributor to Michael Sissons and Philip French, Age of Austerity, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1963.
SIDELIGHTS: Though best known in the United States as the author of the hit stage farce Noises Off and the multi-award-winning play Copenhagen, British playwright Michael Frayn has actually produced a wide variety of writings during his long career. Frayn's beginnings as a columnist and critic for two newspapers—the Manchester Guardian and the London Observer—led to a number of published collections, while his novels, including Headlong, The Russian Interpreter, and Spies, have garnered praise for both their humor and their insights into the complications of modern times. Among his plays, Frayn's translations of Anton Chekhov's classics draw particular attention. In 1986 the writer ventured into cinema with the produced screenplay Clockwise, and has also written for television.
A native Londoner, "Frayn believes his sense of humor began to develop during his years at Kingston Grammar School where, to the delight of his classmates, he practiced the 'techniques of mockery' on his teachers," re-ported Mark Fritz in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. As an adult, he quickly established himself as a keen social satirist on two newspapers, the Guardian and Observer. For the former, as Frayn saw it, his task in his "Miscellany" column "was to write cool, witty interviews with significant film directors passing through, but there were never enough film directors so he started making up humorous paragraphs to fill," according to Terry Coleman in the Guardian. Malcolm Page explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Frayn "invented for the column the Don't Know Party and such characters as the trendy Bishop of [Twicester] …; Rollo Swavely, a public relations consultant; and the ambitious suburban couple" Christopher and Lavinia Crumble.
Comparing Frayn's "wit, sophistication, and imagination" to "that of American humorist S.J. Perelman," Fritz declared that Frayn's "satire is sharper." That sense of satire, along with an emerging seriousness, carried the author to his first novel, The Tin Men. The story, a satire about the suitability of computers to take over the burden of human dullness, won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction in 1966.
After The Tin Men Frayn produced The Russian Interpreter, "a spy story which deals more with the deceit between individuals than between nations," according to Fritz. The action resolves around an English research student studying in Moscow who becomes embroiled in a series of swiftly paced intrigues involving a mysterious businessman, stolen books, and a Russian girl and eventually is incarcerated in a Russian prison. Page characterized the book, which was awarded the Haw-thornden Prize, as one of Frayn's more conventional novels, as opposed to his fantasies and satires.
Frayn's novel A Very Private Life, written in the future tense, "explains how life has grown more private, first through physical privacy, then through the development of drugs to cope with anger and uncertainty," wrote Page. To Spectator reviewer Maurice Capitanchik, "Frayn, in his parable of the horrific future, does not escape the impress which [George] Orwell and [Aldous] Huxley have made upon the genre, nor does he really go beyond the area of authoritarian oppression so brilliantly illumined by [Franz] Kafka, but he does something else both valuable and unique: he shows that his 'Brave New World' is really our cowardly old world, if we did but, shudderingly, know it, in a prose which is often beautiful and, almost, poetry."
In the novel Sweet Dreams a young architect dies and goes to a distinctly familiar sort of English heaven, "a terribly decent place, really, where one's pleasantest dreams come true and one's most honest longings are fulfilled," as Washington Post Book World critic L.J. Davis described it. Caught in a permanent fantasy world, Howard, the architect, "immediately joins the small, intimate, and brilliantly unorthodox architectural firm he'd always yearned for," Davis continued. After redesigning the Matterhorn, engaging in a dramatic love affair, and realizing other superlative encounters, Frayn's protagonist "sells out to the movies, purges himself with a spell of rustic simplicity, rallies the best minds of his generation by means of letters to The Times, meets God … and eventually winds up, crinkle-eyed and aging, as prime minister. It is all rather poignant," noted Davis. Page found Sweet Dreams to be a "shrewd, sardonic and deceptively charming tale" that Frayn relates with "wit and flourish."
After Sweet Dreams, Frayn abandoned the novel form for a decade and a half in order to establish his reputation both as an original playwright and a translator of Chekhov's plays. He returned to the novel in 1989 with The Trick of It, in which a young lecturer in literature becomes personally involved with a slightly older, celebrated author on whom he is an expert. During his involvement with the woman, which includes marriage, the man hopes to unravel the secret to her creative success, attempts to influence her writing, and tries unsuccessfully to become a creative writer himself. Told entirely through letters, the novel was described by Page as "a highly original work … linked more closely with a real world than [Frayn's] fantasies." George Craig in the Times Literary Supplement called The Trick of It "an intensely discomfiting novel, precisely because the elements of farce, social comedy and adventure remain present throughout as potential directions, even as darker and more destructive elements proliferate."
Civil servants are leading characters in Frayn's novels A Landing on the Sun and Now You Know. In the former, civil servant Brian Jessel is assigned to investigate the supposedly accidental death of colleague Stephen Summerchild fifteen years earlier. Jessel uncovers that Summerchild was overseeing government research into happiness by Elizabeth Serafin, an Oxford philosophy don, and that the two had set up a hidden garret for meetings. "A Landing on the Sun tells the wacky and exhilarating story of how Summerchild and Serafin got up into the garret, what they did there and what became of them," explained Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "On that level, it is loony comedy with a mournful ending. Intermittently, it is a lovely satirical speculation on the ways of bureaucracies and academics, on the uses of order and disorder, and the deepest opposite twists in men and women." Page found A Landing on the Sun "less ingenious" than Sweet Dreams, "although it cleverly unfolds as narrative and explores significant ideas."
In Now You Know, a novel-related, play-like work, told through a series of dramatic monologues, Hilary Wood quits her job at the Home Office after meeting Terry Little, who heads OPEN, an organization demanding truth from the government. When she leaves, Hilary illegally takes a file about a police fatality case, the details of which OPEN wants made known. Yet, despite all the talk of openness, secrecy abounds. Now You Know is "ingenious, witty, thoughtful and smart…. It is also a provocative meditation on the pitfalls of letting it all—most particularly, the truth—hang out," Jonathan Yardley noted in the Washington Post Book World. Calling Now You Know a book about "truth and when lying may be justified," Yardley added that Frayn's more recent novels "have in common wit, elegance, page-turning storytelling, and a playful treatment of serious themes."
Short-listed for the Booker Prize, the novel Headlong is a fascinating mix of comedy, art history, and human desire. Art historian Martin Clay discovers a painting, a lost masterpiece, in a run-down country estate while on vacation in England for a week. Believing Flemish master Pieter Bruegel may have created the painting, Clay is determined to deceive the unsuspecting owner in an effort to claim the painting for himself and sell it for millions of dollars. Complications abound and the young art historian soon discovers that some things are not worth risking everything for. "Clay's five days that shook the world become, in the hands of Frayn, a small jewel of comic shine," according to Terri Natale of the New Statesman.
Set in World War II, Frayn's novel Spies chronicles the story of two British boys who suspect their neighbors of Nazi espionage and begin following them. The friends—Keith and Steven—live in a quiet little neighborhood until they convince themselves that it is really a network of underground passages and secret laboratories for German infiltrators. "Frayn perfectly captures the dynamics of childhood friendships," stated a Booklist critic, while a Publishers Weekly reviewer added that Frayn's "enigmatic melodrama will keep readers' attention firmly in hand." Interestingly, Spies, which won Frayn the 2002 Whitbread Award for best novel, found its author going head to head against his wife, biographer Claire Tomalin, whose Whitbread Award-winning biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self ultimately won out against Spies as the Whitbread Book of the Year.
From his beginnings as a journalist and novelist, Frayn's dramatic work started with television plays, and advanced to satiric and humorous work for the stage. Contemporary Dramatists essayist Christopher Innes viewed the playwright's work in terms of "a return to traditional comic values," in response to the didactic "political drama that was sweeping the English stage at the beginning of the 1970s." Discussing the thematic content of Frayn's plays as a whole, Innes stated: "Frayn deals with society in terms of organizations—the news media, a manufacturing industry, the commercial theatre—which intrinsically threaten the survival of humanity. Deadening order is always subverted, however unintentionally; and the life force triumphs, though at the expense of what the individuals concerned are striving for." Frayn, himself, described the overriding theme of his dramatic work as "the way in which we impose our ideas on the world around us."
Among Frayn's stage plays, Alphabetical Order and Donkeys' Years earned plaudits, profits, and some measure of reputation for their author. In Alphabetical Order, the happy disarray of a newspaper's research department—the "morgue"—is changed forever when a hyper-efficient young woman joins the staff. "By the second act she has transformed [the morgue] into a model of order and efficiency. But somehow the humanness is gone," noted Fritz. "The young woman then proceeds to reorganize the personal lives of the other characters as well. She is not a total villain, however. In a way, the newspaper staff needs her: without a strong-willed person to manipulate them, weak-willed people often stagnate. At the heart of the play is the question: which is better, order or chaos?" Innes pointed out that the play is satirizing "the illusory nature of what our news-fixated culture considers important."
The successful Donkeys' Years focuses upon a group of university graduates reunited twenty years later, only to revert to their adolescent roles and conflicts. Voted the best comedy of 1972 by London's Society of West End Theatre, the play was praised by Stephen Holden in the New York Times as a "well-made farce that roundly twits English propriety."
Frayn's early theatrical background included a sojourn with the Cambridge Footlights revue during his college days and a walk-on in a production of Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General, the latter a disaster that prefigured the backstage slapstick of his most popular play, Noises Off. "I pulled instead of pushed at the door, it jammed in the frame, and there was no other way off," the writer told Benedict Nightingale for a New York Times Magazine profile. "So I waited for what seemed like many, many hours while stagehands fought with crowbars on the other side and the audience started to slow-handclap. I've never been on the stage since."
Although many renowned comedies and dramas have used the play-within-a-play format in the past—it is a device that predates Shakespeare—perhaps no self-referential play has been so widely received in this generation as Noises Off, a no-holds-barred slapstick farce. Using the kind of manic entrances and mistaken identities reminiscent of French master Georges Feydeau, Noises Off invites the audience to witness the turmoil behind a touring company of has-beens and never-weres as they attempt to perform a typically English sex farce called "Nothing On." Referring to the production as "a show that gave ineptitude a good name," Insight writer Sheryl Flatow indicated that Noises Off was criticized by some as nothing more than a relentless, if effective, laugh-getting machine. The charge of being too funny, however, is not the sort of criticism that repels audiences, and Noises Off enjoyed a long run on the West End and Broadway. Describing the play in Plays: One, Frayn stated: "The fear that haunts [the cast] is that the unlearned and unrehearsed—the great dark chaos behind the set, inside the heart and brain—will seep back on to the stage…. Their performance will break down, and they will be left in front of us naked and ashamed."
"The fun begins even before the curtain goes up," Frank Rich reported in his New York Times review of Frayn's comedy. "In the Playbill, we find a program-within-the-program…. Among other things, we learn that the author of 'Nothing On' is a former 'unsuccessful gents hosiery wholesaler' whose previous farce 'Socks before Marriage' ran for nine years." When the curtain does rise, Rich continued, "it reveals a hideous set … that could well serve all those sex farces … that do run for nine years." As the story opens, the "Nothing On" cast and crew are blundering through their final rehearsal; importantly, everyone establishes his onstage and offstage identities. Remarked Rich: "As the run-through is mostly devoted to setting up what follows, it's also the only sporadically mirthless stretch of Mr. Frayn's play: We're asked to study every ridiculous line and awful performance in 'Nothing On' to appreciate the varied replays yet to come. Still, the lags are justified by the payoff: Having painstakingly built his house of cards in Act I, the author brings it crashing down with exponentially accelerating hilarity in Acts II and III."
While the backstage romances simmer, the troupe systematically skewers whatever appeal the cheesy "Noth-ing On" should have provided. Even the props get involved: by Act II, a plate of sardines is as important an element to the play as any of the actors. By this time, "Frayn's true inspiration strikes," wrote Washington Post reviewer David Richards. "The company is a month into its tour and the set has been turned around, so that we are viewing 'Nothing On' from backstage. The innocent little romances in Act I have turned lethal and, while the actors are still vaguely mindful of their cues, they are more mindful of wreaking vengeance upon one another…. An ax is wielded murderously, a skirt is torn off, toes are stomped on, shoelaces are tied together, bone-crunching tumbles are taken, bouquets are shredded, a cactus is sat upon and, of course, the ingenue's damned [contact] lens pops out again!"
Noises Off established Frayn as a farceur on the order of Feydeau and Ben Travers. To that end, the author told Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Isenberg that farce is serious business. Its most important element, he explained, is "the losing of power for coherent thought under the pressure of events. What characters in farce do traditionally is try to recover some disaster that occurred, by a course of behavior that is so ill-judged that it makes it worse. In traditional farce, people are caught in a compromising situation, try to explain it with a lie and, when they get caught, have then to explain both the original situation and the lie. And, when they're caught in that lie, they have to have another one." The play was revised for a revival debuting at London's National Theatre in the fall of 2000 and from there quickly moved across the Atlantic to Broadway.
Frayn's first produced screenplay, Clockwise, closely resembles Noises Off in its wild construction. Like the play, the film takes a simple premise and lets circumstances run amok. In Clockwise protagonist Brian Stimpson (played by Monty Python star John Cleese), a small-town headmaster who is obsessed with punctuality, wins Headmaster of the Year honors and must travel by train to a distant city to deliver his acceptance speech. Inevitably, Brian catches the wrong train, and the thought that he may arrive late drives him to desperate means. By the film's end, he has stolen a car, invaded a monastery, robbed a man of his suit, and set two squadrons of police on his trail. "It isn't the film's idea of taking a prim, controlled character and letting him become increasingly unhinged that makes Clockwise so enjoyable; it's the expertise with which Mr. Frayn's screenplay sets the wheels in motion and keeps them going," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Noting that Clockwise is "far from perfect—it has long sleepy stretches and some pretty obvious farce situations," Washington Post critic Paul Attanasio nonetheless added that, "at its best, here is a comedy unusual in its layered complexity, in the way Frayn has worked everything out. 'Gonna take a bit o' sortin' out, this one,' says one of the pursuing bobbies. The joke, of course, is in the understatement. And rarely has the 'sortin' out' been so much fun."
Departing from farce, Frayn also wrote the stage work Benefactors, an acerbic look at a 1960s couple wrestling with their ideals as they try to cope with their troubled neighbors, a couple caught in a failing marriage. Comparing Benfactors with Noises Off, Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: "It's hard to fathom that these two works were written by the same man. Like Noises Off, Benefactors is ingeniously constructed and has been directed with split-second precision … but there all similarities end. Mr. Frayn's new play is a bleak, icy, microcosmic exploration of such serious matters as the nature of good and evil, the price of political and psychological change and the relationship of individuals to the social state. Though Benefactors evokes Chekhov, Othello and The Master Builder along its way, it is an original, not to mention demanding, achievement that is well beyond the ambitions of most contemporary dramatists." Likewise, Mel Gussow of the same newspaper found strong ties between Chekhov and Frayn: "Thematically … the work remains [close] to Chekhov; through a closely observed, often comic family situation we see the self-defeating aspects of misguided social action."
Also dark in focus, Frayn's Democracy features a fractured Cold-War Germany and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's fall from power. While focusing on Brandt and Günter Guillaume, the communist who caused Brant's downfall, Democracy also has a subtext: "the complexity of human beings" and the idea that each individual "contains all the lives that he or she might once have been or could be again," in the words of Hollywood Reporter's Ray Bennett.
Frayn's Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen focuses on a meeting during World War II between Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Before the war, their work together had revolutionized atomic physics, and their meeting—which has been heavily debated over the years—has been the subject of much speculation. Both men gave opposing accounts of their meeting following the war, and the real purpose of the encounter remained a mystery. Frayn's play is inspired, in part, by the book Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, which focuses on Heisenberg's efforts to dis-courage the Nazi atomic bomb program. Moral ambiguities are one of the primary themes Frayn addresses in his play, and as the playwright told a Guardian contributor: "whatever was said at the meeting, and whatever Heisenberg's intentions, there is something profoundly characteristic of the difficulties in human relationships, and profoundly painful, in that picture of the two ageing men."
While Frayn has gone on to produce such popular comic works as Democracy, his work during the twentieth century is viewed as particularly influential. "Although one cannot say that Michael Frayn's plays revolutionized the British stage during [the late twentieth century], they certainly helped to enliven it," concluded Fritz. Like many of his contemporaries, in his early work he "experimented with dramatic structures borrowed from film and television—perhaps an attempt to find new methods of expression," and went on to produce "a string of lively, witty comedies with some serious philosophical questions lurking beneath the surfaces." Discussing Frayn's overall impact on modern theatre, Innes grouped Frayn with playwrights Trevor Griffiths, Peter Barnes, and Tom Stoppard as creators "of the most inventive contemporary comedy" of their generation.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Dramatists, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 31, 1985, Volume 47, 1988.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 13: British Dramatists since World War II, 1982, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, 1983.
Page, Malcolm, File on Frayn, Methuen Drama (London, England), 1994.
American Theatre, October, 2001, Celia Wren, review of The Copenhagen Papers, p. 121.
Art in America, July, 2000, Paula Harper, review of Headlong, p. 35.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 7, 2002, Steve Murray, review of Spies, p. H4.
Back Stage, April 21, 2000, David A. Rosenberg, review of Copenhagen, p. 64.
Back Stage West, January 17, 2002, Kristina Mannion, review of Copenhagen, p. 16.
Booklist, July, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of Headlong, p. 1893; March 15, 2001, Whitney Scott, review of Headlong, p. 1412; April 1, 2001, Jack Helbig, review of The Copenhagen Papers, p. 1442; February 15, 2002, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Spies, p. 991.
Boston Herald, April 19, 2002, Rosemary Herbert, review of Spies, p. 35.
Chicago Tribune, November, 1988.
Commonweal, June 16, 2000, Celia Wren, review of Copenhagen, p. 17.
Dallas Morning News, May 15, 2002, Jerome Weeks, "A Success on Stages and Pages" (interview with Frayn).
Drama, summer, 1975; July, 1980.
Entertainment Weekly, September 3, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 65; December 24, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 2145.
Fortune, April 16, 2001, review of Copenhagen, p. 460.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 30, 1999, review of Headlong, p. D19.
Guardian (London, England), October 1, 1968; March 11, 1975; February 9, 2002, Peter Bradshaw, review of Spies, p. 10; March 23, 2002, review of Copenhagen, p. A1.
Hollywood Reporter, November 27, 2002, Jay Reiner, review of Copenhagen, p. 20; October 7, 2003, Ray Bennett, review of Democracy, p. 24.
Horizon, January-February, 1986.
Hudson Review, summer, 2000, Abraham Pais, review of Copenhagen, p. 182, and Thomas Filbin, review of Headlong, p. 330.
Insight, February 3, 1986.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1991, p. 1421; July 15, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 1071; March 1, 2001, review of The Copenhagen Papers, p. 311; February 1, 2002, review of Spies, p. 122.
Library Journal, June 15, 1999, Edward B. St. John, review of Headlong, p. 106; April 1, 2001, Mingming Shen Kuo, review of The Copenhagen Papers, p. 101; August, 2002, Elizabeth Stifter, review of Noises Off, p. 94.
Listener, January 21, 1965; January 15, 1966; March 20, 1975.
London Review of Books, October 8, 1992, p. 13; October 14, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1984; February 3, 1985; February 12, 1985; October 10, 1986; July 20, 1987; January 7, 2002, Daryl H. Miller, review of Copenhagen, p. F10.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 16, 1992, p. 3; September 5, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 11.
Massachusetts Review, summer, 2001, Robert L. King, review of Copenhagen, p. 165.
New Statesman, October 4, 1968; November 1, 1974; January 26, 1996, p. 32; September 13, 1999, Terri Natale, review of Headlong, p. 55; November 29, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 82; February 4, 2002, Hugo Barnacle, review of Spies, p. 57; January 5, 2004, John Gordon Morrison, review of "The Last Laugh: Why the Art of Farce Is an Extremely Serious Business," p. 32.
Newsweek, February 18, 1974; January 20, 1986.
New Yorker, September 20, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 128; April 1, 2002, John Updike, review of Spies, p. 94.
New York Review of Books, May 14, 1992, p. 41; December 2, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 23.
New York Times, September 11, 1970; June 13, 1971; June 3, 1979; December 12, 1983; July 23, 1984; January 28, 1985; December 23, 1985; January 5, 1986; March 19, 1986; September 4, 1986; October 10, 1986; December 14, 1986; December 19, 1986; March 12, 1987; August 24, 1999, review of Headlong, p. E8; October 25, 1999, Sarah Lyall, "Enter Farce and Eruditon," p. B1; March 21, 2000, James Glanz, William J. Broad, review of Copenhagen, p. D1; April 12, 2000, Ben Brantley, review of Copenhagen, p. B1; May 14, 2000, Rick Marin, review of Copenhagen, p. WK2; June 13, 2001, Richard Bernstein, review of Copenhagen, p. B9; February 9, 2002, James Glanz, review of Copenhagen, p. A15; April 9, 2002, Michiko Kakutani, review of Spies, p. B7; April 14, 2002, Jennifer Schuessler, review of Spies, p. B7.
New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1968; March 18, 1990; February 16, 1992; January 17, 1993, p. 1; August 29, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 7; December 5, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 8; January 5, 2003, Scott Veale, review of Spies, p. 16.
New York Times Magazine, December 8, 1985.
Observer (London, England), June 11, 1967; July 18, 1976; April 27, 1980; April 4, 1984; August 22, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 11; October 3, 1999, review of The Original Michael Frayn, p. 16.
Opera News, August, 1996, p. 49.
Plays and Players, September, 1970; March, 1980; December, 1984.
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San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 2001, David Perlman, review of Copenhagen, p. D1.
Saturday Review, January 15, 1966.
Science, April 14, 2000, David Voss, review of Copenhagen, p. 278.
Sewanee Review, fall, 2000, Merritt Moseley, review of Headlong, p. 648.
Spectator, November 23, 1962; October 4, 1968; August 29, 1992, p. 28; December 10, 1983; August 7, 1999, Anita Brookner, review of Headlong, p. 34; July 24, 2000, Robert Winder, review of Celia's Secret: An Investigation, p. 54; January 26, 2002, Jane Gardam, review of Spies, p. 53.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 27, 1980.
Time, September 27, 1968; July 12, 1982; January 5, 1987.
Times (London, England), February 25, 1982; February 15, 1983; April 6, 1984; March 14, 1986; November 10, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, February 1, 1980; March 5, 1982; September 22-28, 1989; August 20, 1999, Hal Jensen, review of Headlong, p. 19; September 1, 2000, Maggie Gee, review of Celia's Secret, p. 34; February 1, 2002, Jonathan Keats, review of Spies, p. 22.
Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2000, Amy Gamerman, review of Copenhagen, p. A24.
Washington Post, October 16, 1983; October 27, 1983; December 24, 1985; October 25, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, January 10, 1974; January 31, 1993, p. 3; September 5, 1999, review of Headlong, p. 15.
Bomb Online, http://www.bombsite.com/ (May 28, 2002), Marcy Kahan, interview with Frayn.
London Review of Books Online, http://www.lrb.co.uk/ (May 28, 2002), Michael Wood, review of Headlong.
Washington Post Online, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ (May 28, 2002), Michael Dirda, review of Headlong.
World Socialist Web site, http://www.wsws.org/ (May 28, 2002), Trevor Johnson, review of Copenhagen.