9 minute read

Michael Frayn Biography

Nationality: British. Born: Mill Hill, London, 1933. Education: Sutton High School for Boys; Kingston Grammar School, Surrey; Emmanuel College, Cambridge, B.A. 1957. Military Service: Served in the Royal Artillery and Intelligence Corps, 1952-54. Career: Reporter, 1957-59, and columnist, 1959-62, the Guardian, Manchester and London; columnist, the Observer, London, 1962-68. Lives in London. Awards: Maugham award, 1966; Hawthornden prize, 1967; National Press award, 1970; Evening Standard award, for play, 1976, 1981, 1983, 1985; Society of West End Theatre award, 1977, 1982; British Theatre Association award, 1981, 1983; Olivier award, 1985; New York Drama Critics Circle award, 1986; Emmy award, 1990. Honorary Fellow, Emmanuel College, 1985. Agent: Elaine Greene Ltd., 37 Goldhawk Road, London W12 8QQ, England.



The Tin Men. London, Collins, 1965; Boston, Little Brown, 1966.

The Russian Interpreter. London, Collins, and New York, VikingPress, 1966.

Towards the End of the Morning. London, Collins, 1967; as Against Entropy, New York, Viking Press, 1967.

A Very Private Life. London, Collins, and New York, Viking Press, 1968.

Sweet Dreams. London, Collins, 1973; New York, Viking Press, 1974.

The Trick of It. London, Viking, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.

A Landing on the Sun. London, Viking, 1991.

Now You Know. London, Viking, 1993.

Headlong. New York, Metropolitan Books, 1999.


Zounds!, with John Edwards, music by Keith Statham (producedCambridge, 1957).

Jamie, On a Flying Visit (televised 1968). With Birthday, London, Methuen, 1990.

Birthday (televised 1969). With Jamie, On a Flying Visit, London, Methuen, 1990.

The Two of Us (includes Black and Silver, The New Quixote, Mr. Foot, Chinamen) (produced London, 1970; Ogunquit, Maine, 1975; Chinamen produced New York, 1979). London, Fontana, 1970; Chinamen published in The Best Short Plays 1973, edited by Stanley Richards, Radnor, Pennsylvania, Chilton, 1973; revised version of The New Quixote (produced Chichester, Sussex, and London, 1980).

The Sandboy (produced London, 1971).

Alphabetical Order (produced London, 1975; New Haven, Connecticut, 1976). With Donkeys' Years, London, Eyre Methuen, 1977.

Donkeys' Years (produced London, 1976). With Alphabetical Order, London, Eyre Methuen, 1977.

Clouds (produced London, 1976). London, Eyre Methuen, 1977.

The Cherry Orchard, adaptation of a play by Chekhov (producedLondon, 1978). London, Eyre Methuen, 1978.

Balmoral (produced Guildford, Surrey, 1978; revised version, asLiberty Hall, produced London, 1980; revised version, as Balmoral, produced Bristol, 1987). London, Methuen, 1987.

The Fruits of Enlightenment, adaptation of a play by Tolstoy (produced London, 1979). London, Eyre Methuen, 1979.

Make and Break (produced London, 1980; Washington, D.C., 1983).London, Eyre Methuen, 1980.

Noises Off (produced London, 1981; New York, 1983). London, Methuen, 1982; New York, French, 1985.

Three Sisters, adaptation of a play by Chekhov (produced Manchester and Los Angeles, 1985; London, 1987). London, Methuen, 1983.

Benefactors (produced London, 1984; New York, 1985). London, Methuen, 1984.

Wild Honey, adaptation of a play by Chekhov (produced London, 1984; New York, 1986). London, Methuen, 1984.

Number One, adaptation of a play by Jean Anouilh (producedLondon, 1984). London, French, 1985.

Plays I (includes Alphabetical Order, Donkeys' Years, Clouds, Make and Break, Noises Off). London, Methuen, 1986.

The Seagull, adaptation of a play by Chekhov (produced Watford, Hertfordshire, 1986). London, Methuen, 1986.

Clockwise (screenplay). London, Methuen, 1986.

Exchange, adaptation of a play by Trifonov (broadcast 1986; produced Southampton, Hampshire, 1989; London, 1990). London, Methuen, 1990.

Uncle Vanya, adaptation of a play by Chekhov (produced London, 1988). London, Methuen, 1987.

Chekhov: Plays (includes The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, four vaudevilles). London, Methuen, 1988.

The Sneeze, adaptation of works by Chekhov (produced Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London, 1988). London, Methuen, and New York, French, 1989.

First and Last (televised 1989). London, Methuen, 1989.

Look Look (as Spettattori, produced Rome, 1989; as Look Look, produced London, 1990). London, Methuen, 1990.

Listen to This: 21 Short Plays and Sketches. London, Methuen, 1991.

Audience: A Play in One Act. London, French, 1991.

Here: A Play in Two Acts. London, French, 1994.

Now You Know: A Play in Two Acts (from the novel). London, Methuen Drama, 1995; New York, Samuel French, 1996.

Copenhagen. London, Methuen Drama, 1998.


Clockwise, 1986.

Radio Plays:

Exchange, from a play by Trifonov, 1986.

Television Plays and Documentaries:

Second City Reports, with JohnBird, 1964; Jamie, On a Flying Visit, 1968; One Pair of Eyes, 1968; Birthday, 1969; Beyond a Joke series, with John Bird and Eleanor Bron, 1972; Laurence Sterne Lived Here (Writers' Houses series), 1973; Imagine a City Called Berlin, 1975; Making Faces, 1975; Vienna: The Mask of Gold, 1977; Three Streets in the Country, 1979; The Long Straight (Great Railway Journeys of the World series), 1980; Jerusalem, 1984; First and Last, 1989.


The Day of the Dog (Guardian columns). London, Collins, 1962;New York, Doubleday, 1963.

The Book of Fub (Guardian columns). London, Collins, 1963; asNever Put Off to Gomorrah, New York, Pantheon, 1964.

On the Outskirts (Observer columns). London, Fontana, 1967.

At Bay in Gear Street (Observer columns). New York, Fontana, 1967.

Constructions (philosophy). London, Wildwood House, 1974.

Great Railway Journeys of the World, with others. London, BBCPublications, 1981; New York, Dutton, 1982.

The Original Michael Frayn: Satirical Essays, edited by JamesFenton. Edinburgh, Salamander Press, 1983.

Speak After the Beep: Studies in the Art of Communicating with Inanimate and Semi-Inanimate Objects. London, Methuen, 1997.

Editor, The Best of Beachcomber, by J.B. Morton. London, Heinemann, 1963.

* * *

Three of Michael Frayn's novels, the first, fourth, and fifth, are highly original, a satire and fantasies; the second and third, on the other hand, are conventional. The second, The Russian Interpreter, concerns an English research student in Moscow who serves as interpreter for a mysterious businessman (he seeks ordinary Russians for exchange visits), and the pair become involved with a Russian girl. Though Moscow's streets and weather are described, soon the action is moving swiftly. Books are stolen and sought, somebody is tricking somebody, espionage or smuggling is occurring, and we read on eagerly, awaiting explanations. Even when the student is imprisoned, Frayn focuses on his comic efforts to obtain a towel, and the novel remains a good, cheerful read.

The American title of the third novel points to opposing inertia and conformity; the English one, only a little more relevantly, to the subject of being in the mid-thirties (the hero "had spent his youth as one might spend an inheritance, and he had no idea of what he had bought with it"). Frayn's 37-year-old is a feature editor, worrying about repairs to his Victorian house with West Indian neighbors in S.W.23 and dreaming of escape, hopefully through appearances on a television panel. The plot is vehicle for comedy about a newspaper office, with a few shrewd observations, as when a girl reflects: "She wasn't a girl at all, in any sense that the fashion magazines would recognize. She was just a young female human being, fit only to be someone's cousin or aunt." Some passages suggest Frayn intends more, a fuller study of his hero's marriage and serious focus on the future of newspapers (a cynical, pushy graduate challenges the office's ways), but these are not pursued.

The Tin Men, the first book, is about the William Morris Institute of Automation Research and its eccentric scientists. A thin plot-line turns on a new wing, the arrangements for the Queen to open it, and the TV company that plans to finance it. Most of the fun is about computers: the automating of football results because the Director believes "the main object of organized sports and games is to produce a profusion of statistics," the programmed newspaper, which prints the core of familiar stories such as "I Test New Car" and "Child Told Dress Unsuitable by Teacher," and Delphic I, the Ethical Decision Machine, which expresses its moral processes in units called pauls, calvins, and moses. Amid clever jokes, Frayn shows anxiety about the dangerous possibilities of computers and the limitations of the men responsible for them.

A Very Private Life begins "Once upon a time there will be a little girl called Uncumber." In her world, "inside people" remain all their lives in windowless houses, supplied by tube and tap and using drugs—Pax, Hilarin and Orgasmin—for every experience. In very brief chapters, Frayn explains how life has grown more private, first physically, then through drugs to cope with anger and uncertainty. Dissatisfied Uncumber meets a man through a wrong number on "holovision" and goes to the other side of the world to visit him. The compelling story is part fairy tale, part fantasy, part morality, so that we ask "Is it plausible?" and "What is the moral?" Frayn's inspiration was contemporary America, where he noticed dark glasses used to hide feelings, and city people buying disused farmhouses to be alone in. He touches on penology, longevity, the treatment of personality, but concentrates on technology making possible a new kind of isolation which excludes uncomfortable realities. And Frayn the moralist never dominates Frayn the story-teller.

Even better is Sweet Dreams—clever, entertaining, dazzling. A typical middle-aged, middle-class Londoner is killed and finds himself in a Heaven where he can fly, speak any language, change his age, and retrieve long-lost possessions. He is set to invent the Matterhorn, returns to England and writes an official report on its condition, drops out to the simple country life and bounces back as right-hand man to God (who proves to be a blend of Freddie Ayer and A.J.P. Taylor, and says "To get anything done at all one has to move in tremendously mysterious ways"). Slowly we realize the hero's Heavenly evolution is markedly similar to his earthly one. Frayn tells with wit and flourish his shrewd, sardonic and deceptively charming fable.

After sixteen years during which Frayn established a big reputation as a playwright, and also translated Chekhov's plays, he returned to the novel in 1989 with a highly original work which, however, was linked more closely with a real world than the fantasies. The Trick of It is told through the letters of a young lecturer in English to a friend in Australia. These describe how he first meets the successful woman novelist he studies (he refers to her as a "MajWOOT," a major writer of our time) and marries her. He thinks that he can improve her next novel; is disturbed that the work which follows is about his mother and does not mention him; tries to write fiction himself, then discovers he has not "the trick of it"; finally values his letters (which we are reading) only to learn that the recipient has lost them. The tone is playful, yet Frayn has insights into creativity and the relation of critic to creator.

A Landing on the Sun is less ingenious, although it cleverly unfolds as narrative and explores significant ideas. A civil servant investigates a mysterious death from seventeen years earlier, of a man involved with a "policy unit" on "the quality of life," headed by an Oxford philosopher. Frayn writes of the bureaucratic world while pursuing the concept of "happiness" and the intriguing way in which the searcher becomes caught up with the object of his search.

Now You Know is about an elderly man with a varied past who runs an organization devoted to freedom of information. Gradually all the characters emerge as having something to hide and as misinterpreting the behaviour of others. Frayn's subject this time seems to be truth and when lying may be justified. Audaciously, the novel resembles a play, being told in a series of dramatic monologues.

These three novels have in common wit, elegance, page-turning storytelling, and a playful treatment of serious themes. Headlong is another witty comedy, but the intellectual details—e.g., information on the work of Peter Bruegel, and the world in which his paintings were conceived—threaten to weigh down the airy plot. This is a pity, since the story itself, of how art historian Martin Clay attempts to take a suspected Bruegel from its unsympathetic owner, is plenty enough to occupy readers' attentions.

—Malcolm Page

, updated by

Judson Knight

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: E(mily) R. Frank (1967-) Biography - Personal to Martha Graham (1893–1991) Biography