Michael Frayn - World Literature

World Literature

Michael Frayn


BORN: 1933, London, England


GENRE: Drama, Fiction


The Tin Men (1965)

Noises Off (1982)

Copenhagen (1998)

Spies (1984)

Democracy (2002)



Michael Frayn. Frayn, Michael, photograph.© Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.



In his newspaper columns, novels, and plays, Michael Frayn employs satire and farce to explore the complexities and shortcomings of contemporary society. Among his targets are human foibles, middle-class values, the pitfalls of technology, and those aspects of popular culture that Frayn believes distort reality—including mass media, public relations, and advertising. Although he first established himself as a columnist and novelist, Frayn is probably best known for several acclaimed theatrical works he wrote during the 1970s and 1980s. In these plays, he undertakes a more thorough examination of the relationship between language and reality. He is widely praised for his wit, insight, and ability to unite comedy with serious, philosophical observation.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Difficult Child becomes a Reluctant Cold Warrior. Michael Frayn was born on September 8, 1933, in London, England, to Thomas Allen Frayn, a sales representative for an asbestos company, and Violet Alice Lawson Frayn, a shop assistant. Soon after his birth, which came during the worldwide economic depression that preceded World War II’s 1939 start in Europe, Frayn’s parents moved to Ewell on the southern fringe of London. Frayn believes his sense of humor began to develop during his years at Kingston Grammar School where, to the delight of classmates, he practiced ‘‘techniques of mockery’’ on his teachers. Referring to this early habit of making jokes at the expense of others, Frayn says, ‘‘I sometimes wonder if this isn’t an embarrassingly exact paradigm of much that I’ve done since.’’

After leaving school in 1952, Frayn was conscripted into the Royal Army and sent to a Russian-interpreter course at Cambridge. He also studied in Moscow for several weeks, returning with the opinion that the so- called Cold War was ridiculous. The Cold War was a decades-long period of tension between purportedly Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Asia and the determinedly capitalist governments of Western Europe and the United States. Such East-West relations would later become a subject of satire in many of Frayn’s works. Eventually Frayn was commissioned as an officer in the Intelligence Corps, which certainly influenced his second novel, The Russian Interpreter, (1966). Discharged from the army in 1954, he returned to Cambridge to study philosophy at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

From behind the Stage in Cambridge to behind High Society in Manchester. At Cambridge, Frayn wrote humorous articles for the undergraduate newspaper. He also collaborated with John Edwards on a musical comedy, Zounds!, which was performed in 1957 by the Cambridge theatrical club, the Footlights. After graduation in 1957, Frayn worked for the Manchester Guardian, where he was a reporter from 1957 to 1959 and a columnist from 1959 to 1962. His columns of social satire for the Guardian soon became very popular and were collected into two books, The Day of the Dog (1962) and The Book of Fub (1963). In 1962 he moved to the Observer in London, where he continued writing humorous columns until 1968. His work for the Observer has also been collected as On the Outskirts (1964) and At Bay in Gear Street (1967).

A Novelist Turns to Television. Frayn’s first novel, The Tin Men (1965), is a satire on the failure of mere human beings to rise above the level of computers. Naturally, it is in the satirical mold of his newspaper columns. The Tin Men won the Somerset Maugham Award, and his second novel, The Russian Interpreter, about espionage, won the Hawthornden Prize. Two more satirical novels followed: Towards the End of the Morning (1967) and A Very Private Life (1968).

Television then offered Frayn a new opportunity to try out his dramatic skills. In 1968 ‘‘Jamie on a Flying Visit,’’ a farcical comedy about the collision between the tired inhabitants of a postwar housing estate and a rich visitor from the protagonist’s wife’s undergraduate past, was broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It and ‘‘Birthday’’ (1969), a story about the overriding imperatives of human reproduction, were produced as part of the Wednesday Play series.

Failed Drama Offers the Blueprint for Success. The encouragement of the producer Michael Codron, who later staged many of Frayn’s plays and produced his motion picture Clockwise (1986), prompted Frayn to try writing for the theater. His first professional theatrical production, four one-act two-actor plays collectively titled The Two of Us, opened on July 30, 1970, at the Garrick Theatre in London. The Two of Us was not a success, and Frayn fared little better with his next play, The Sandboy (1971).

Frayn, however, did not give up on his drama and went on to write the well-received Noises Off, which established his reputation not only as a playwright but also as a supreme writer of farce. A comedy that depends on its parodic borrowings from the worst traditions of the British farce, Noises Off traces progress from the last-minute rehearsal and the subsequent run of an awful piece of repertory theater, and the connection between the stage business and the actors’ interwoven lives. The idea for the play came initially from Frayn’s viewing of his own work, The Two of Us, from backstage. He found that viewing the play from that vantage point provided a greater comic experience than observing it from the usual audience perspective.

Sparkling Career as a Dramatist and Prosewriter. Frayn’s success in theater, however, did not mean a renunciation of his earlier engagement with the novel. He continued writing novels sporadically throughout the 1980s and ’90s and into the new century, most recently offering the very successful Spies (2002). At the same time, his stage efforts found still greater success, with the 1998 Copenhagen winning a variety of awards, including a prestigious Tony Award for Best Play for its Broadway performances in 2000. Copenhagen deals with a mysterious meeting between physicists Neils Bohr (Danish) and Werner Heisenberg (German) in Nazioccupied Denmark, with Frayn reaching back from the end of the twentieth century to one of the century’s most significant and devastating moments: World War II and the development of the atomic bomb. Frayn returned again to Germany for his successful 2002 play Democracy, before turning to Austrian theater impresario Max Reinhardt—and his encounter with Nazism—for the 2008 Afterlife. He has also published a number of volumes of non-fiction and philosophy, with his latest effort The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe (2006) focusing (rather lightly, complain the critics) on what quantum theory and certain trends in cognitive science suggest about the world outside our minds. Frayn lives in London with his wife, well-known biographer and literary critic Claire Tomalin.



Frayn's famous contemporaries include:

Cormac McCarthy (1933—): An American novelist, many of whose novels, including No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses, have been adapted into popular films.

Michael Ondaatje (1943-): The Sri-Lankan and Canadian novelist who won the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient.

Bob Marley (1945-1981): A Jamaican songwriter who promoted peace through his songs. His efforts were recognized when he was awarded the Peace Medal of the Third World from the United Nations.

Cyprian Ekwensi (1921-2007): An author who helped to popularize the novel as an art form in his native Nigeria.

Jose Saramago (1922-): The Portuguese novelist honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007): The first woman to serve as prime minister of Pakistan. Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007, in her home country.


Works in Literary Context

Frayn’s work is nearly always satirical in nature. But that satire runs above a deep philosophical undercurrent. Indeed, much of Frayn’s work delves into issues of language and meaning, and his philosophical thinking is influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher whose primary focus was on the nature and limitations of language.

In the Satirical Tradition. Satire seeks to critique a person or practice, usually by exaggerating and laying bare the foibles of the person or the practice. As an example, Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels satirizes many aspects of the culture in which he lived, but Swift focused extra energy on scientists. He considered scientists to be overly abstract people whose ideas were far removed from practical implementation. In Gulliver’s Travels, he portrays scientists as being so absent-minded that they actually have to hire assistants to help them remember to do things like breathe, eat, and go to the bathroom.

Frayn’s work, like Swift’s, often focuses its satirical gaze on people who are less than fully present in the lives they lead. For instance, Tin Men is a satire on the stupidity of people whose procedures are so dull that they can be taken over by computers. Again, in Mr. Foot, Frayn satirizes lifeless and loveless marriages. The husband is enshrined as the upholder of a set of suburban values spoofed in the English absurdist tradition, and the wife, who is the mouthpiece of the satire, is thus separated from those values. In Mr. Foot, the audience ultimately comes to understand that the life of the wife has been a tragic loss, thereby underscoring the fact that there is something missing in the suburban values Frayn critiques. This suggests, in the process, that there must be a better way to live life.

Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Language. Frayn’s work is thoroughly infused with philosophical meditations—on everything from the nature of reality to the effects of language. With respect to these philosophical ruminations, Frayn recalls, ‘‘The philosopher who entirely dominated the way that philosophy was done and taught at Cambridge, and who had the greatest possible influence on me and everything I’ve written was Wittgenstein.’’ An Austrian expatriate who spent most of his life in England, Wittgenstein was a leading figure in twentieth-century philosophy. He studied logic under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge and later taught philosophy there until 1947. Wittgenstein’s work deals primarily with the nature and limits of language. He discussed the limits of language as a means of interpersonal communication and as a means of representing reality. Words, he said, present a picture of reality but are not reality itself.

To see the influence of Wittgenstein on Frayn’s drama, one need only look at Frayn’s second play, The Sandboy. Its central character is a city planner who is so successful that a documentary film is being made about him. In the play the actors speak to the audience as if it is an imaginary film crew, which is present to record a day in the life of Phil Schaffer, city planner. This unusual dramatic framework places Phil and his wife in the position of having to present a social facade and yet appear natural at the same time, while asking the audience—in a move that breaks the dramatic unity separating audience from players—to assume roles as partners in this charade. It is a play of ironic contrasts between what the liberal, intellectual Phil announces to the camera and what he actually does: a play about one man’s self-delusions. The play also goes beyond simple satire of hypocrisy, examining fundamental questions about the very nature of reality. The questions it raises are reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s: What is the reality signified by what people say? Do the words people use signify what they really mean—do they themselves know what they mean and what reality is? What is real and what is merely a representation of what is real?

Given the recent popularity of ‘‘reality’’ television, The Sandboy—with its questions regarding the nature of reality and the way it is portrayed through language and, indeed, visuals—is clearly before its time in representing the problems of capturing ‘‘reality.’’ Furthermore, if the ‘‘reality’’ we can understand is never simply what it is, but always our own representation or web of symbols, the idea of being delusional is itself somewhat called into question.



Noises Off, Frayn's most popular play, utilizes a technique best described as ''play-within-a-play.'' The play itself is a play, but it is also about a play. The characters in Noises Off attempt to perform in another play called Nothing On. Here are a few more examples of films and plays that use the "play-within-a-play" strategy:

For Your Consideration (2006), a film directed by Christopher Guest. This sharp piece of social satire sends up actors and the awards they receive, pointing out the self-congratulatory nature of institutions like the Academy Awards.

Adaptation (2002), a film directed by Charlie Kaufman. This film is about Kaufman, who wrote Being John Malkovich. In this movie, Kaufman participates in the production of Being John Malkovich while trying to adapt a novel into another screenplay. Along the way, Kaufman exposes the fears and fantasies that haunt him during the creative process of writing a screenplay.

Kiss Me, Kate (1948), a musical play by Cole Porter. In this musical, the actors attempt to perform a version of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Kiss Me, Kate was honored with a Tony Award in 1949, demonstrating the popularity of the "play-within-a- play"—or in this case the "play-within-a-musical"— format.

Hamlet (c. 1601), a tragedy by William Shakespeare. In this play, as Hamlet tries to determine whether or not his uncle has killed his father, he produces a play that he thinks will force his uncle into confessing to the crime. He thereby raises questions about the nature and purpose of theatrical productions.


Works in Critical Context

Michael Frayn is a satirist who has moved from newspaper columns to novels to television productions to stage plays. Judging from the critical responses, he seems to have conquered each medium. His plays have been popular with audiences who are attracted to their humor and with critics who have noted and reveled in their underlying social and philosophical commentary.

Noises Off. 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. 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 observes that Noises Off was criticized by some as nothing more than a relentless, if effective, laughgetting 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 both London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. Describing his own play, Frayn states: ‘‘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.’’

Critic Benedict Nightingale describes it in the New Statesman as ‘‘by far the funniest play in London,’’ a view shared by many others. And in TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, Peter Kemp writes, ‘‘Having first parodied a farce, then brilliantly engineered his own, Frayn finally sabotages one.... Juggling expertly with its own stock in trade, Noises Offis a farce that makes you think as well as laugh.’’

Copenhagen. Where Frayn succeeded in out-farcing the farce with Noises Off, he may just have out-dramaed the drama in Copenhagen. The New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley notes, ‘‘Copenhagen, a critical and (more surprisingly) popular hit when it opened in London at the Royal National Theater in 1998, is nominally about a subject with all the sex appeal of a frozen flounder: a meeting in 1941 between the venerable Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Mr. Bosco) and Werner Heisenberg (Mr. Cumpsty), his former pupil and a German, during which no one to this day knows exactly what happened.’’ Despite such a seemingly ‘‘unsexy’’ premise, Brantley concludes that the play is ‘‘endlessly fascinating’’ and that its protagonists take ‘‘possession of your own imagination as well, probably raising your blood pressure in the process. And who would ever have thought it: that three dead, long-winded people talking about atomic physics would be such electrifying companions?’’ Likewise, in a review for the Guardian, David Hare writes, ‘‘Audiences flock to Copenhagen because they judge, rightly, that Michael Frayn has something interesting to tell them about nuclear physics.’’ But Copenhagen is hardly just a play about ideas; it is a play about how ideas themselves are also about people, and it is perhaps in this that its enduring appeal may be found.


Responses to Literature

1. If the ‘‘play-within-a-play’’ setup is designed to make a comment upon the process of writing and producing plays, then what is Frayn communicating about the creative process in Noises Off? Support your response with analysis of passages from the play.

2. Frayn has been described as a writer of farce. Using the Internet and the library, research the word farce. How would you define this word as it relates to Frayn’s work? Support your response with analyses of passages from his work.

3. Frayn’s The Sandboy raises a number of the same questions asked by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein regarding reality and language. Based on your reading of the play, what kinds of answers—if any—does Frayn offer to these questions?

4. Frayn’s The Tin Men is widely considered a fine example of satire. Read the novel and, in order to understand the complexities of writing effective satire, try to use Frayn’s style to satirize an aspect from today’s popular culture.




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Cave, Richard Allen. New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage, 1790-1985. Gerrards Cross, U.K.: Colin Smythe, 1987.

Glaap, Albert-Reiner. Studien zur Asthetik des Gegenswartstheaters. Heidelberg: Winter, 1985. Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama, 1890-1990.

Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Rusinko, Susan. British Drama, 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: G. K. Hall/Twayne, 1989.


Gottlieb, Vera. ‘‘Why This Farce?’’ New Theatre Quarterly (August 1991).

Turner, John Frayn. ‘‘Desperately Funny.’’ Plays and Players (December 1984).

Worth, Katherine. ‘‘Farce and Michael Frayn.’’ Modern Drama (March 16 1983).