Michael Frayn, whose work is often compared to that of Anton Chekhov for its focus on humorous family situations and its insights into society, is equally at home writing newspaper columns, novels, television productions, and stage plays. However, his greatest notoriety and critical success has been from his long-running and internationally successful stage farce, Noises Off (1982). This and numerous other plays have been popular with audiences who enjoy their sharp wit and humor and by critics who enjoy their satiric social commentary.
An apartment above a liquor store in Mill Hall on the northwestern edge of London was Frayn’s first home, but his parents moved to Ewell on the southern edge of London soon after he was born. His father, Thomas Allen Frayn, was a sales representative for an asbestos company; his mother, Violet Alice Lawson Frayn, had been a shop assistant. It was while he lived in Ewell that he attended Kingston Grammar School and got his first taste of education and of social interaction, earning a reputation as someone who was quick to make jokes at the expense of others.
“After leaving school in 1952, Frayn was conscripted into the Royal Army and sent to a Russian interpretership course at Cambridge. He also studied in Moscow for several weeks, returning with the opinion that the so-called Cold War was ridiculous. East/West relations would later become a subject of satire in many of his works” (Edited by Stanley Weintraub, Dictionary of Literary Biography [Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1982], 172).
In 1954, after being discharged from the army, he returned to Cambridge to study philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein, who influenced his thoughts and writing dramatically. After graduation he worked as a newspaper reporter , columnist, and critic for the Manchester Guardian and The Observer in London. His social satire from this time has been collected in four books, The Day of the Dog (1962), The Book of Fub (1963), On the Outskirts (1964), and At Bay in Gear Street (1967).
“Frayn’s columns are social spoofs, often written in dialogue form and with a cast of fictional characters. The pieces usually take a popular trend or human foible and stretch it to ludicrous proportions. . . . His pet peeves are liberal-minded hypocrisy, middle-class convention, and class snobbery” (Weintraub, 173).
His first novel, The Tin Men (1965), won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction; his second,The Russian Interpreter, the Hawthornden Prize. These were followed by Towards the End of Morning (1967), A Very Private Life (1968), and Alphabetical Order (1975).
Frayn’s first dramatic works were television plays, both aired by the BBC: Jamie, on a Flying Visit (1968) and Birthday (1969). These led to his first stage play, The Two of Us, which opened in the West End on 30 July 1970. His second play, The Sandboy, opened the next year at the Greenwich Theatre.
Frayn then shifted gears again, focusing for four years on novels and a weekly BBC comedy series, Beyond a Joke. His next play, Alphabetical Order did not appear until 1975. He followed this with four documentary films for the BBC: Imagine a City Called Berlin (1975), Vienna: The Mask of Gold (1977), Three Streets in the Country (1979), and The Long Straight (1980). Frayn describes these documentaries as “kind of filmed essays, really, with a lot of history in them” (Weintraub, 175).
His next play, Donkeys’ Year (1976) was staged in London’s Globe Theatre and was named best comedy of the year by the Society of West End Theatres. Clouds, his fifth play, debuted only a month later at the Hampstead Theatre Club in London, followed by Liberty Hall and Make and Break in 1980.
However, it was with Noises Off! that Frayn achieved commercial and critical success in the United States. The play opened in February 1982 at the Lyric Hammersmith in England and quickly transferred to the Savoy Theatre, where it passed the 1,000th performance mark. It opened in America at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater in December of 1983 to rapturous reviews. It has since been produced around the world, including stints in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, France, Belgium, and Scandinavia.
Since that time, Frayn, who lives with his wife, Gillian, outside London, has published (among other things) the play Benefactors (1984) and the novel Headlong (1999), and has translated numerous French and Russian classics, including Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
“Although one cannot say that Michael Frayn’s plays revolutionized the British stage . . . , they certainly helped to enliven it. Frayn contributed a string of lively, witty comedies with some serious philosophical questions lurking beneath the surfaces. Like many other playwrights of the era, Frayn experimented with dramatic structures borrowed from film and television–perhaps more a natural result of having started his dramatic writing career in television than an attempt to find new methods of expression” (Weintraub, 178).