Michael Frayn

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Michael Frayn

Frayn at the 2023 Chiswick Book Festival
Frayn at the 2023 Chiswick Book Festival
Born (1933-09-08) 8 September 1933 (age 90)
Mill Hill, Middlesex, England
  • Reporter
  • columnist
  • novelist
  • playwright
  • screenwriter
GenreFarce, historical fiction, philosophy
Notable awardsSomerset Maugham Award; Laurence Olivier Award; International Emmy Awards; Critics' Circle Theatre Awards; Tony Award; Commonwealth Writers' Prize; Golden PEN Award; Whitbread Prize
SpouseGillian Palmer[1][2]
Claire Tomalin (1993–)[3][4]
Children3 daughters including
Rebecca Frayn[5]
RelativesFinn Harries[6]
Jack Harries[7]

Michael Frayn, FRSL (/frn/; born 8 September 1933) is an English playwright and novelist. He is best known as the author of the farce Noises Off[8] and the dramas Copenhagen and Democracy.

His novels, such as Towards the End of the Morning, Headlong and Spies, have also been critical and commercial successes, making him one of the handful of writers in the English language to succeed in both drama and prose fiction. He has also written philosophical works, such as The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe (2006).

Early life[edit]

Frayn was born at Mill Hill, north London (then in Middlesex), to Thomas Allen Frayn, an asbestos salesman from a working-class family of blacksmiths, locksmiths and servants, in which deafness was hereditary, and his wife Violet Alice (née Lawson). Violet was the daughter of a failed palliasse merchant; having studied as a violinist at the Royal Academy of Music, she worked as a shop assistant and occasional clothes model at Harrods. After the slump in asbestos prices, Frayn's sister supported the family by also working at Harrods, as a children's hairdresser.[9][10]

Frayn grew up in Ewell, Surrey, and was educated at Kingston Grammar School. Following two years of National Service, during which he learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists, Frayn read Moral Sciences (Philosophy) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, graduating in 1957. He then worked as a reporter and columnist for The Guardian and The Observer, where he established a reputation as a satirist and comic writer, and began publishing his plays and novels.

Theatre work[edit]

The play Copenhagen deals with a historical event, a 1941 meeting between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his protégé, the German Werner Heisenberg, when Denmark is under German occupation, and Heisenberg is—maybe?—working on the development of an atomic bomb. Frayn was attracted to the topic because it seemed to 'encapsulate something about the difficulty of knowing why people do what they do and there is a parallel between that and the impossibility that Heisenberg established in physics, about ever knowing everything about the behaviour of physical objects'.[11] The play explores various possibilities.

Frayn's more recent play Democracy ran successfully in London (the National Theatre, 2003-4 and West End transfer), Copenhagen and on Broadway (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 2004-5); it dramatised the story of the German chancellor Willy Brandt and his personal assistant, the East German spy Günter Guillaume. Five years later, again at the National Theatre, it was followed by Afterlife, a biographical drama of the life of the great Austrian impresario Max Reinhardt, director of the Salzburg Festival, which opened at the Lyttelton Theatre in June 2008, starring Roger Allam as Reinhardt.[12]

His other original plays include two evenings of short plays, The Two of Us and Alarms and Excursions, the philosophical comedies Alphabetical Order, Benefactors, Clouds, Make and Break and Here, and the farces Donkeys' Years, Balmoral (also known as Liberty Hall), and Noises Off, which critic Frank Rich in his book The Hot Seat claimed "is, was, and probably always will be the funniest play written in my lifetime."


His novels include Headlong (shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize), The Tin Men (won the 1966 Somerset Maugham Award), The Russian Interpreter (1967, Hawthornden Prize), Towards the End of the Morning, Sweet Dreams, A Landing on the Sun, A Very Private Life, Now You Know and Skios (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012). His novel Spies was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction in 2002.


He has written a book about philosophy, Constructions, and a book of his own philosophy, The Human Touch.

His columns for The Guardian and The Observer (collected in The Day of the Dog, The Book of Fub and On the Outskirts) are models of the comic essay; in the 1980s a number of them were adapted and performed for BBC Radio 4 by Martin Jarvis.

Frayn has also written screenplays for the films Clockwise, starring John Cleese, First and Last starring Tom Wilkinson, Birthday, Jamie on a Flying Visit, and the TV series Making Faces, starring Eleanor Bron.[13]


Frayn learned Russian during his period of National Service. Frayn is now considered to be Britain's finest translator of Anton Chekhov[14] (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard) as well as an early untitled work, which he titled Wild Honey (other translations of the work have called it Platonov or Don Juan in the Russian Manner) and a number of Chekhov's smaller plays for an evening called The Sneeze (originally performed on the West End by Rowan Atkinson).

Frayn also translated Yuri Trifonov's play Exchange, Leo Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment, and Jean Anouilh's Number One.


In 1980, Frayn presented the Australian journey of the BBC television series Great Railway Journeys of the World. His journey took him from Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific, with side visits to the Lithgow Zig Zag and a journey on The Ghan's old route from Marree to Alice Springs shortly before the opening of the new line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs.

Personal life[edit]

Frayn has three daughters with his first wife, Gillian Palmer: Rebecca, a documentary film maker, writer and actress; Susanna; and Jenny, a television producer.[15][16] Frayn and his second wife, Claire Tomalin, a biographer and literary journalist, live in Petersham, London.[2][17]


He is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society,[33] and declined a CBE and a Knighthood in 1989 and 2003 respectively.[34]





  • The Two of Us, four one-act plays for two actors (1970) Black and Silver, Mr. Foot, Chinamen, and The new Quixote
  • Alphabetical Order (1975)
  • Donkeys' Years (1977)
  • Clouds (1977)
  • Balmoral (1978; revised 1980 as Liberty Hall, revised 1987)
  • Make and Break (1980)
  • Noises Off (1982)
  • Benefactors (1984)
  • The Sneeze (1988), based on short stories and plays of Chekhov
  • First and Last (1989)
  • Listen to This: Sketches and Monologues (1990)
  • Jamie on a Flying Visit; and Birthday (1990)
  • Look Look (1990)
  • Audience (1991)
  • Here (1993)
  • La Belle Vivette, a version of Jacques Offenbach's La Belle Hélène (1995)
  • Alarms and Excursions: More Plays than One (1998)
  • Copenhagen (1998)
  • Democracy (2003) [1][2]
  • Afterlife (2008) [3]
  • Matchbox Theatre: Thirty Short Entertainments (2014), ISBN 9780571313938



  • Plays: One (1985), ISBN 978-0413592804 – contains: Alphabetical Order; Donkey's Years; Clouds; Make and Break; Noises Off
  • Plays: Two (1991), ISBN 978-0413660800 – contains: Balmoral; Benefactors; Wild Honey
  • Plays: Three (2000), ISBN 978-0413752307 – contains: Here; Now You Know; La Belle Vivette
  • Plays: Four (2010), ISBN 9781408128626 – contains: Copenhagen; Democracy; Afterlife

Short fiction[edit]

  • Speak After The Beep: Studies in the Art of Communicating With Inanimate and Semi-Animate Objects (1995).


  • The Day of the Dog, articles reprinted from The Guardian (1962).
  • The Book of Fub, articles reprinted from The Guardian (1963).
  • On the Outskirts, articles reprinted from The Observer (1964).
  • At Bay in Gear Street, articles reprinted from The Observer (1967).
  • The Original Michael Frayn, a collection of the above four, plus 19 new Observer pieces.
  • Constructions, a volume of philosophy (1974).
  • Celia's Secret: An Investigation (US title The Copenhagen Papers ), with David Burke (2000).
  • The Human Touch: Our part in the creation of the universe (2006).
  • Stage Directions: Writing on Theatre, 1970–2008 (2008), his path into theatre and a collection of the introductions to his plays.
  • Travels with a Typewriter (2009), a collection of Frayn's travel pieces from the 1960s and '70s from The Guardian and the Observer.
  • My Father's Fortune: A Life (2010), a memoir of Frayn's childhood.
  • Among Others: Friendships and Encounters (2023), another memoir.


  1. ^ Gyles Brandreth (27 June 2002). "A closed book opens". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  2. ^ a b Hanks, Robert (17 November 2002). "Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin: A marriage between the sheets". The Independent. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  3. ^ "The ultimate twinset: Jack and Finn Harries!". Tatler. 5 March 2013.
  4. ^ Rainey, Sarah (14 September 2012). "YouTube videos funded our gap year travels". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  5. ^ Andrew Billen (23 April 2009). "Michael Frayn on his very current Alphabetical Order". The Times. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  6. ^ Miller, Michael W. (6 January 2016). "Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' Returns to Broadway". The Wall Street Journal.
  7. ^ John Walsh @johnhenrywalsh (24 March 2013). "Michael Frayn: Farce and the uncertainty principle". The Independent. Archived from the original on 12 May 2022. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  8. ^ "Michael Frayn British author and translator", Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
  9. ^ My Father's Fortune, A Life by Michael Frayn, Faber and Faber, 2010, pp. 12–14, 28–29, 225.
  10. ^ 2009 Interview in The Observer.
  11. ^ "Interview with Michael Frayn". British Library (sound recording).
  12. ^ Fiona Maddocks, "The History Play Man; Daring: Frayn's Drama Slips in and out of Rhyming Couplets 'To Blur the Distinction between Theatre and Life Just as Rheinhardt Did'", The Evening Standard, 3 June 2008.
  13. ^ "Michael Frayn". IMDb.
  14. ^ Donald Rayfield, "Review: Chekhov: Four Plays and Three Jokes by Sharon Marie - adapting the four major plays", Translation and Literature Vol. 20, No. 3, Translating Russia, 1890–1935 (Autumn 2011), pp. 408–410?
  15. ^ "Michael Frayn: 'I'm past it. Most playwrights either get worse as they get old or they stop'". The Stage. Retrieved 19 July 2023.
  16. ^ "A closed book opens". www.telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 19 July 2023.
  17. ^ "Rebecca Frayn's Deceptions". Chiswick W4.com. 10 June 2016. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  18. ^ "Somerset Maugham Awards". The Society of Authors. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  19. ^ "Evening Standard theatre awards: 1955-1979". Evening Standard. 12 April 2012. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  20. ^ "Olivier Awards (Society of West End Theatre Awards) 1976". West End Theatre. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  21. ^ a b c d e "Evening Standard theatre awards: 1980-2003". Evening Standard. 5 November 2019. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  22. ^ "Olivier Awards (Society of West End Theatre Awards) 1982". West End Theatre. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  23. ^ "Past Awards". New York Drama Critics' Circle. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  24. ^ "Winners Archive". International Emmy Awards. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  25. ^ "Winners / 2000". Tony Awards. Retrieved 31 July 2023.
  26. ^ "Past Awards". New York Drama Critics' Circle. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  27. ^ "Whitbread Winners 1971-2005" (PDF). Costa Coffee. Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  28. ^ "Michael Frayn and Howard Jacobson up for Wodehouse prize". BBC News. 3 April 2013. Retrieved 15 November 2022.
  29. ^ "Tragic successes for Commonwealth prize". The Guardian. 12 May 2003. Retrieved 31 July 2023.
  30. ^ "Golden Pen Award, official website". English PEN. Archived from the original on 21 November 2012. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  31. ^ "Honorary Graduates of the University of Birmingham since 2000" (PDF). Retrieved 16 July 2015.
  32. ^ "Saint Louis Literary Award - Saint Louis University". www.slu.edu. Archived from the original on 23 August 2016. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  33. ^ "National Secular Society Honorary Associates". National Secular Society. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  34. ^ "Some who turned the offer down". The Guardian. 22 December 2003.
  35. ^ John Banville. 1992. "Playing House. Rev. of A Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn and Daughters of Albion by A. N. Wilson. The New York Review of Books. 14 May 1992.
  36. ^ New Statesman and Society. IV, 13 September 1991, p. 39.


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