How Michael Frayn gets it sublimely, perfectly wrong
The playwright and novelist, author of Noises Off and Copenhagen, prefers to disappear from his work, finding rich comedy in chaos and deep uncertainty in history
In three acts the play goes from an amusing hullabaloo to something painfully funny. The first witnesses the bumbling final rehearsal of a sex farce put through its faltering paces by a director with delusions of grandeur. (“And God said, Hold it. And they held it. And God saw that it was terrible.”) The second is a backstage view of the show in motion, with near-balletic scenes of pandemonium. And the third is the show itself going “sublimely, perfectly wrong”.
Often praised for its technical achievement, the play seems to hold a richer metaphor behind all the palaver. “God” has abandoned his creations, the plan of action is falling apart, and, against the threat of chaos, the show must go on. For all the knickers, nosebleeds and pratfalls, it’s a thoroughly existentialist comedy.
“That’s it,” Frayn says. “But don’t tell anyone about your thesis, which is true, because no one would come to see the play if they thought it was philosophical.”
Frayn doesn’t quite abandon his characters, in either his drama or his novels, but he does like to stand apart from them.
“Obviously something has to come out of oneself when one’s writing,” he says. “But it does feel as if one is writing about other people.
“A lot of writers hate other writers saying this, but it does feel as if the characters take on a life and identity of their own. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to think hard about what they’re doing and to sometimes persuade them to try and do something else. I suppose it is a double vision.”
Humour, too, is a way of holding the world at arm’s length, something Frayn reflected on in his recent memoir, My Father’s Fortune. An asbestos salesman who was quite deaf, Frayn’s father would prepare elaborate jokes to keep his customers engaged while keeping conversation to a minimum. “When you tell a joke, the only response you want is a laugh,” says Frayn. “Maybe I picked up a bit of that.”
After the sudden death of his mother, when Frayn was 12, he became a troubled student, shunted from class to class. “I discovered that I could get on with people by mocking the teachers and making the class laugh. Probably a lot of comic writers and comic performers have started that way.”
In conversation Frayn is emotionally reserved and reluctant to repeat himself. “You’ve probably read this already,” he will say before answering a question, and twice he hands me a book from his shelf, as if he feels his writing is the best way to elaborate on a response.
He is often funny, sometimes wickedly. “Always my advice to young writers is just to write the same thing over and over again,” he says. “Just change the names and the plot a bit, and the title, but basically produce the same product until people get used to it. Maybe they’ll come to like it.”