Michael Frayn by Marcy Kahan

BOMB 73 Fall 2000
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Michael Frayn. Photo by Jillian Edelstein. Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

I had never interviewed anyone before and was pleased that my first was for BOMB, with its emphasis on lively dialogue, free from either skeptical contempt or shameless fawning. And I was pleased that my interviewee was the prolific Michael Frayn, the author of nine clever novels (including Headlong 1999, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), 13 engaging plays (ranging from the superlative farce, Noises Off to the intriguing Copenhagen), as well as some exceptional Chekhov translations. But the first stage of my encounter with Michael Frayn was not encouraging.

Marcy Kahan Mr. Frayn, I’m phoning to confirm that I’ll be interviewing you for BOMB Magazine at 5:00 PM today.

Michael Frayn Right. Do you realize how unfortunate that name is—BOMB—for those of us who work in the theater?

MK I know what you mean. I feel a lurch in the pit of my abdomen whenever they send me an e-mail.

MF Are you interviewing me now?

MK Er, no—I thought I’d cycle up the road and we’d do it at 5:00 PM

MF Okay. It’s 4:25 PM London time. Ring me back in 35 minutes.

MK Mounting panic—the interview hadn’t even started and already we were failing to communicate .) But if I ring you back in 35 minutes, I won’t have time to get to your office by 5:00 PM.

MF Aren’t you in New York?

MK I’m in London.

MF Ah. When you said “cycle up” I assumed that was the latest technological term for connecting your tape recorder to the telephone.

I cycled up, Michael Frayn made me a cup of tea in the book-lined flat near Regent’s Park he uses as an office, and after he had reminded me to plug in the microphone the interview began.

Marcy Kahan American audiences will know your theater work—Copenhagen has won the 2000 Tony Award for best play—and your novels—Headlong has been published here—but they may not know that your first achievements were in journalism. You wrote columns for the Manchester Guardian and The Observer in the 1960s and won renown as a modern-day Theophrastus—creating character sketches of different moral types. I think the names say it all—Christopher Smoothe, the Minister for Chance and Speculation; Rollo Swavely, the PR man; H. Spencer Upcreep, the royal correspondent; Lavinia Crumble—who exactly was Lavinia Crumble?

Michael Frayn I had two couples in the column, Christopher and Lavinia Crumble, and Horace and Doris Morris. Christopher and Lavinia Crumble knew far more than I did, and were much cleverer than me, and used to patronize me; and Horace and Doris Morris were stupider than me and I patronized them. So I would find out from Christopher and Lavinia Crumble what the smart ideas of the day were, and I then would go and be astonished that Horace and Doris Morris didn’t know about them.

MK And this is the way the chattering classes kept chattering.

MF Absolutely.

MK In a 1963 essay, you famously divided the British into the Herbivores—the do-gooding, muesli-eating, petition-signing middle classes—and the Carnivores—meritocratic thrusters who are trying to amass as many of the good things in life as they can for themselves and their families. The past 20 years could be called “the revenge of the Carnivores.”

MF They certainly could.

MK What happened?

MF Not only in Britain but anywhere, power shifts back and forth between the Herbivores and the Carnivores. After a time of self-indulgence and selfishness, people get sick of that and they want some higher ideals in life, they want to be altruistic. And after a time of being altruistic and unselfish, they get sick of that and they want to have a good time. It’s perfectly understandable. One goes through different mood swings oneself.

MK That’s quite optimistic, because it suggests there’s going to be another swing back.

MF Well, I think there has been. It’s quite confused but I think the present government is basically Herbivorous. It’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It’s really a sheep at heart but it’s trying to make itself out to be a wolf.

MK Yes, it’s being very, very careful to get reelected.

The broadcaster Joan Bakewell recently did a three-part BBC-TV series called My Generation—that was your generation up at Cambridge in the 1950s.

MF Absolutely. One of her subjects was my wife, Claire Tomalin.

MK My impression at the end was that you’d all had a fairly good time, being born when you were.

MF That was certainly one of the moods. We all grew up during the war, but it didn’t affect us as much because we were children at the time. And then after the war, there was a mood of optimism. People did think you could do something about society’s problems. And we were all infected by that and, I think, cheered by it. One of my plays, Benefactors, which was done in New York as well as in London, is about the shift away from that attitude, which occurred everywhere. I used to go to America in the late ’60s, and there was a terrific feeling, particularly among young people, of optimism that society really could be transformed. Education could be extended and it would absolutely change society. I don’t think people believe that anymore, either in the United States or in Europe. It has all gotten to seem much tougher. And the problems have been much more enduring and much less easy to eradicate than we thought.

MK Mark Lawson, the BBC broadcaster, was talking about British drama, and he said that if in 1979 you brought a martian down to Britain and showed him the plays of Edward Bond, David Mercer and Trevor Griffiths, and you said to this very intelligent martian in 1979, “Having seen these plays, what do you think is going to happen in this country?” the martian would have said, “There is going to be a Marxist revolution.”

MF Right. A lot of people thought that.

MK Certainly for people who turned on the TV play of the day, and went to the Royal Court and the new plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company—that’s what was going on. But you had a much broader view of politics, possibly because of your journalism. Your plays had more of a comedic balance than those angry—

MF Well, they were certainly not Marxist plays. I have to say, I went through my Marxist period. At school I’d been interested in—well, I’d been a communist and become interested in Russia. I tried to teach myself Russian at school. And then the interest in communism had worn off but the interest in Russian …

MK Your national service—you spent your two years of compulsory military service learning Russian. But you did square-bashing (military training) for a while.

MF Yes, we had to do basic training and then I managed to get on a Russian course and train as a Russian interpreter. We were attached to Cambridge University. We were taught not quite as students—we were still members of the army—but the university refused to teach us in uniform. And so we were issued civilian clothes, and taught each day at the university. We worked very hard, these were very congenial people, they were all good at languages or academics, and I have to say I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the company.

MK And the playwright Alan Bennett was—

MF Alan Bennett was a great friend. We were on exactly the same course and we used to do shows together. We used to put on revues. That’s where he pioneered his sketch of the sanctimonious clergyman.

MK Did you spend much time in Moscow in the ’60s? I’ve read your 1966 novel, The Russian Interpreter, which summons up a comic yet hideously claustrophobic Moscow.

MF After I finished national service I was at Cambridge for three years as an ordinary undergraduate, as they were then called, and four other people who were studying Russian and I got together and persuaded Moscow University to let us in, as I think, the first exchange students. They would only take us for a month, and they didn’t like us when we got there and they wouldn’t send their own group back to Cambridge. And that was 1956, a very interesting time to go, just after the 20th Party Congress, just before the Hungarian Uprising. Moscow University was and probably still is the elite university in Moscow, so it was full of people like Gorbachev, who must have been there at the same time. Not that I met him. But it was where all the people who were going to be governing Russia were. There were the beginnings of a quiet ferment going on among Russian students—really only the beginnings. And they had to be very, very cautious.

MK I’ve spoken to actors who were there later, in the ’60s with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and they said that when they met their thespian counterparts they felt that there was a kind of despair in these very clever, cultivated people whose lives were so circumscribed.

MF Well, I agree. I think despair was one of the keynotes of Soviet life throughout that period. I went to the Soviet Union a lot in the late ’50s and throughout the ’60s. I never spent very long there but I had to go sometimes as a journalist and I had a novel published there. Anyway, friends always used to say to me, “It can’t go on like this, it simply can’t go on like this.” And each time I’d go back, it was going on exactly as it had before, with people still saying, “It can’t go on like this.” And then suddenly it stopped going on like that. Unbelievably. The whole thing simply fell to pieces, just as people had always been predicting and just as I’d never believed would happen.

MK Have you been back since?

MF No I haven’t. No, I feel quite apprehensive about it. I wouldn’t recognize a single landmark. I should go.

MK In the past few years, have you been spending more time in Denmark because of Copenhagen?

MF I haven’t spent very much time there but I’ve had short trips there.

MK When you were working on Copenhagen, I read that you thought you’d be fortunate if you got the play produced on the radio because it’s a reconstruction of a famous meeting between the physicists Niels Bohr who was Danish and half Jewish, and Werner Heisenberg, a German, during the Nazi occupation. Bohr had been Heisenberg’s mentor and teacher before the war. And much of the play’s plot reconstructs their debates on the uncertainty principle, and quantum physics.

MF Yes, I didn’t think anyone would produce it. Why would anyone want to do such a boring, abstract play?

MK Now, as a result of the response you’ve had round the world, do you have a theory about why it’s been so well received?

MF No, I’m absolutely baffled.

MK I wonder if anyone has had the experience of Copenhagen that I did. I think mine may be fairly singular. I saw it at the Cottesloe, the Saturday matinee, with your Cottesloe Saturday matinee audience, who look as though they’re all over 60 with very good pensions, paid-up members of the Trollope Society.

MF Right.

MK I was entirely absorbed and fascinated by what I was seeing because I only had a very hazy sense of what that famous meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr was about. The lights went down. I thought, what an entirely thought-provoking, satisfying play, put on my overcoat and headed for the exit, and became aware that three quarters of the audience was queuing up to buy ice cream.

MF Ah, right. You thought the interval was the end of the play.

MK So then I turned myself into a Michael Frayn character, went outside, pretended I was going to have a smoke, but I don’t smoke so I did an elaborate pantomime for the benefit of the other smokers that I’d forgotten my cigarettes, went back in, took off my coat—

MF You thought it was the end of the play.

MK Well, of course I was very happy to have stayed because there’s a great payoff in the second act that sent shivers up my spine. I wonder if anyone else has headed for the exit, as I did, not saying either “I don’t understand the science” or “I think this play is a lot of pretentious drivel,” but saying, “that was entirely satisfactory.”

MF I think occasionally people left at the interval if they didn’t like it. There was one man, at previews, an American, who jumped up in the middle of act one and said, “I protest!” but what he was protesting about we weren’t quite sure, as he didn’t explain.

MK Since it’s been on, have you been getting letters from people who knew Heisenberg and Bohr, and from physicists?

MF Yes. When I wrote the play, first of all I was very daunted because for the first time I was writing fiction about real characters and I felt very inhibited because I knew these people had really lived and been like this and been like that and had really spoken in such a way and there was no way I could recapture that. I mean, I couldn’t go to see them, they’re dead and although I read everything that I could get my hands on that they’d written, that still didn’t recapture the voices in which they spoke. So I began by feeling very awkward, but then of course you can’t go on feeling awkward forever; eventually the characters seem to take over, as they do when you’re writing fiction, and they seemed to come alive and the barrier, the difficulty was past. But I still hadn’t taken in the idea fully that these were real people, and although they were not alive, a lot of people who were related to them or had known them were still alive, and they would come and see the play and have feelings about it. And that came as a great surprise. And I have to say that most of the people who actually knew the Bohrs or knew Heisenberg have been very generous about it. I think, in a way, it’s a tribute to the generosity of the human imagination, and peoples’ response to the theater. So that when they accept something, if they go along with the story, they’re prepared to make tremendous accommodation, they’re prepared to go a long way towards it, to understand it and accept it. And a lot of people who knew these three people said that’s exactly how they were, these actors looked exactly like the Bohrs and like Heisenberg—which cannot be so. It’s not possible to cast three people who look physically like the originals, but if people are happy with the story, they’re prepared to accept that. The most daunting thing of all was on the first night in New York when I went backstage at the end and came face to face with an immensely handsome, charming man, who said, “I’m Jochen Heisenberg, Werner Heisenberg’s son.” He lives in America and teaches physics. I knew, actually, that he was coming to see the play but somehow I hadn’t expected to come face to face with him before I’d even met the cast. He was extremely generous and warm about the play but he said, “Of course, your Heisenberg is not like my father. I never saw my father express any emotion except about music.” He said, “Of course in the play, the character has to be a little more forthcoming or you wouldn’t have a play.” He was an absolutely wonderful man.

MK I did come across one academic essay, just browsing the Internet, that felt that you were—I don’t know where you are with this—unduly sympathetic towards Heisenberg.

MF Oh my God, one essay. There’s been a colossal backlash in America, particularly from academics who have studied Heisenberg. Heisenberg has had very bad press. And there is a group of academics in America, and people who’ve been influenced by their writings, who are extremely outspoken; they can’t see any good in him at all. The piece you’re referring to has just appeared in American Scientist; it’s by a physicist who says that I’ve got the historical background and the science all wrong. I don’t think the writer has quite got hold of the right end of the stick. He’s also got a weird idea about the play.

MK But I’ve also read that in colleges in America, the play is now on freshman reading lists, introducing them to a bit of quantum theory and also moral issues surrounding science. And therefore the debates for and against are going to go on.

MF Absolutely. Well, it’s opened up a much bigger debate in America than it has here. I am not making a case either for or against Heisenberg. What I’m saying is that it is extremely difficult to know what his motivation was and this is an example of what applies to all human motivation—this difficulty of knowing why people do what they do. And I quite understand that some people look at his behavior, see it in the context of what he said and did on other occasions, apart from just the meeting in Copenhagen, and come to the conclusion that he was too willing to assist the Nazi regime. That’s entirely understandable. We do have to make judgements and come to conclusions. But some people seemed to have thought that I was trying to demonstrate that he was heroically concealing his real understanding of atomic physics from the Nazis. And that’s not what I think or what I say in the play. I think he didn’t do crucial mathematics; he didn’t work out the critical mass. There’s evidence on both sides, but the balance of evidence is he didn’t do it and the interesting question is why didn’t he do it when he had such a confrontational approach to problems in general and a very aggressive approach to scientific problems. He didn’t just walk around them when he saw them. He tackled them head on and often came up with very surprising solutions. Why didn’t he do it in this case? Maybe there isn’t a reason. Maybe he just didn’t think of it. People don’t think of things. But—then the question arises—why did Frisch and Peierls in Britain actually go back to the question again and do it? And I think you can’t help feeling that Frisch and Peierls were very eager to do it because they felt justified, they felt that the Germans were very likely to be working on the atomic bomb and they wanted to forestall them, and—it’s very difficult not to feel that Heisenberg was not very keen to confront the problem. Nor were the rest of the German team. If you read the Farm Hall transcripts—the conversations that he and the rest of the German physicists had when they were interned and were being recorded by the British without their knowing it, they were plainly very involved in the whole question of whether to build a reactor. And I think it’s very difficult to feel that they ever gave serious thought to the difficulties of producing atomic weapons. They just hadn’t confronted the problem because they didn’t think it was going to be possible. And they didn’t think it was possible because they hadn’t confronted the problem. They were in a circle. It went round and round. If they’d been really keen to build the weapons, they might have broken out of the circle, the way that Frisch and Peierls did. But it let them off the moral hook—if you couldn’t in practice build the weapons, they didn’t have to think about whether they would have to build them or whether they ought to build them. It was a comforting conclusion to come to. So that’s my guess, but I don’t think there’s any way of proving it and I’m not trying to prove it in the play; I’m just airing the various possibilities.

MK Which is all you can do—as a dramatist.

MF Yes.

MK Your latest novel, Headlong—I know how it began: You’re a frequent visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum—that wonderful museum in Vienna. You’d been in the Brueghel room many times, and one day you noticed a little sign saying that the paintings depicting the seasons were part of a series, and that one painting was missing.

MF That’s right.

MK How many years had you been carrying the idea before you actually started working on the novel?

MF Not a question of years, but days. Claire and I were in Vienna, we saw this sign, I immediately began to think about the novel and as soon as I came back to London I started to do the research and got completely obsessed.

MK Did the process of your research mirror the central character Martin Clay’s research?

MF Yes. Well, we were both doing rather the same thing. I was trying to find out whether there had been such a picture and what the subject would have been like had it existed. And Martin Clay was trying to prove a similar thing, that a picture he’d found was that missing picture.

MK Are you familiar with Gore Vidal’s analysis of what’s happened to the postwar novel in Britain and America?

MF No. Tell me.

MK He feels there’s a great schism between sensitive, well-written novels focusing on adultery in Hampstead and the anguish of not getting tenure—and the airport blockbuster best-sellers, bursting with research and hard information about how the world really works—but these don’t tend to be well written. You have answered Mr. Vidal’s wish by writing a novel that features an anatomy of one very happy and one very appalling marriage, as well as a fascinating analysis of 16th-century art historical research and political history.

MF Yes, well some people have thought I should drop one side or the other. Some people have warmed to the comedy but thought that the history and art history was a bore. Some people liked the art history but found themselves irritated by the farce. I quite like the dance between the two. After all, one does spend one’s life partly doing serious things and partly doing ridiculous things.

MK In a recent interview, you said that it was a good idea for novelists and playwrights to do some journalism, to remind themselves that the world is always an odder place than we remember. Is that how you feel?—you’ve done some wonderful BBC documentaries on cities.

MF Yes. They’re always fiendishly difficult to do. It’s difficult writing fiction, but when you get going writing fiction, a fictitious world does kind of assemble in your head and it fits easily into words, because it’s a fiction after all. And I suppose you can always get around difficulties, if you can’t do it this way, you can do it another way. But when you have to describe some real thing, it always turns out to be hideously complicated. Nothing will tie together. It won’t make a story. It won’t make a plot. It won’t tie up. And that is the difficulty of the world from the point of the writer. It’s not in words. It’s tree-shaped and cloud-shaped and room-shaped. It’s not word-shaped.

MK Let’s say you’re in the Kunsthistoriches Museum and you’ve got the Brueghel idea; do you immediately know this is a novel rather than a play?

MF Well, I did in that case. I think the crucial difference is that it’s very natural in the novel to be inside the head of a character, or all the characters if you like. In the theater, it’s most natural to be outside the head of the characters. Again, you can have characters talk about their thoughts, soliloquize, address the audience directly. But the natural mode of theater is dialogue. And with Headlong, I wanted to describe what the central character, Martin Clay, was thinking about at every stage. What he thought he was doing. Was he thinking he was behaving very magnanimously or realizing he was behaving rather badly or cutting a corner or hoping he was combining the two, so that you could follow his self-deception as well as everything else.

MK In a way, by suddenly turning himself into an art dealer, he begins approaching everything in the world, including his marriage, as an art dealer.

MF And conversely, in Copenhagen, since the question is what is going on inside Heisenberg’s head, it seemed that we should be in the position that we’re all in, in life, when we judge other people’s motives and behavior, of being outside the characters and looking at them. They do explain themselves to a certain extent in the play but in general we’re outside their heads, and we’re trying to work out, just like the other characters are, what’s going on.

MK Now you’ve said that you don’t learn how to write plays or novels in any ultimate sense; what you learn is how to write that particular play or that particular novel. But isn’t it rather like traveling—you’re an experienced traveler—so that even though you know there are going to be hardships and unwelcome surprises—you don’t get as hysterical when the luggage has been sent to Zimbabwe and your favorite hotel doesn’t have a room and you’re down with food poisoning from a dodgy omelette on the Boulevard Saint-Germain?

MF Yes, well, I’m not sure about this—both in the case of writing and in the case of traveling, it seems like the end of the world every time it happens, however many times it’s happened before. When you can’t write, when you have bad days, you do feel that’s the end, you’re never going to be able to write again.

MK Now there’s a famous quote of yours that basically plays can be divided into flops and hits.

MF Right.

MK You spoke to one journalist about reading a biography of Noel Coward at the time of the failure of your play, Look, Look, and to be quite heartened to read that Coward had a dreadful failure with a play called The Marquise. It wasn’t The Marquise. It was a play called Sirocco.

MF Really? Oh my God, I’ve told so many people it was The Marquise.

MK They were produced about the same time. Now, with Sirocco, there was this famous gallery claque, which you experienced early in your career, and Coward suffered at their hands at the opening of Sirocco. He writes that he emerged from the stage door and several people spat at him, and that he later had to send his evening coat to the cleaners.

MF So what was The Marquise?

MK That’s the one where Noel Coward went to a production in Vienna and nearly fell out of the box laughing when he saw the huge travesty they’d made of it.

Now this claque of ill-wishers, who used to frequent the West End—do you think if we had them back, this would add a kind of Arsenal versus Tottenham [soccer rivals] excitement to the theater that we need?

MF They weren’t necessarily ill-wishers. They were a group of people who used to come to the first night of a play, and they would sit quietly throughout act one, then they would go out to a pub in the interval, discuss the play and decide whether they liked it or whether they didn’t. I’m not quite sure what they did if they liked it but if they didn’t like it, they would come back and heckle through act two and boo at the end. I hope they don’t come back. I think they were anoraks [nerds] basically, and they gained courage from being in a group and sitting in the darkness and knowing that they were invulnerable.

MK Peter Nichols has had a comeback with the revival of Passion Play. He has said that it all came down to a sympathetic director wanting to do Passion Play. Have you had a similar experience? Did you go through a period when you were writing novels because you weren’t getting the plays on?

MF It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting the plays on. My career went into a considerable decline, particularly in the theater, after the failure of Look, Look. And the next two plays I did didn’t do as badly as Look, Look but they didn’t arouse much interest. And I was certainly expecting to face downwards into oblivion and was very surprised when things turned around a bit with Copenhagen and Headlong. It’s true that Peter couldn’t actually get the plays put on, which is more difficult.

MK Now I’d like to ask you a general question about evolutionary psychology.

MF Oh my God. Right. Yes.

MK I remember when I was at school, we were told that the three great thinkers who formed the 20th century were Freud, Marx and Darwin. And sitting in a classroom in 1971, it was quite clear to us that Marx was fairly seminal—there was going to be a Marxist revolution somewhere any minute. Freud—we were certainly all destined to spend a percentage of our adult salaries on a couch talking about our private lives. But Darwin—yes, he made fairly key discoveries but there was that pall of eugenics over Darwin so he wasn’t given the same weight. Now it’s the year 2000, all that has changed, evolutionary psychologists are now explaining every facet of human life. Have you been following those debates?

MF I wouldn’t say I followed them in any detail but I am very interested in the return of evolutionary theory as one of the most explicative theories in the canon. It does have tremendous explanatory power. If you talk to a physicist, he would probably say that quantum mechanics is one of the most successful pieces of science ever done. It’s absolutely puzzling and the interpretations of the theory vary, and no interpretation is very satisfactory. But its predictive powers are colossal and it has not been faulted yet. I suppose if you think of biology, the theory of evolution has released similar colossal powers of explanation and goes on doing so. I suppose, like a lot of general theories, it can explain too much, it can explain everything, in which case it doesn’t explain anything. The thing about evolution is that it’s such a wonderfully simple idea, once someone’s seen it.

MK When you are thinking such ideas—quantum theory, evolution, gravity—does a big comic “what if?” for a play come out of that, or do you first think of a particular character, a sexually frustrated evolutionary psychologist at an academic seminar about to deliver a plagiarized paper?

MF I think most of my ideas begin with a situation and usually it’s an anomaly—where something has gone astray in some way and as soon as you think of the general situation, then you begin to see the people to whom it’s happening. I suspect that usually the situation comes first. I think often, as with evolution, the best ideas are really quite simple ones, and do reflect some real possibility in the world. The element of play is very important in literature and is often forgotten about because people think that literature should have some serious purpose. But one of the things about the theater, and fiction, is that you can play. You can actually investigate situations that don’t exist, and you’re not bound by the actuality of the world.

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Originally published in

BOMB 73, Fall 2000

Featuring interviews with Vik Muniz, Shirin Neshat, Madison Smartt Bell, Javier Marias, Misia, Michael Frayn, Karyn Kusama, and Michael Roth.

Read the issue
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