(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/13; Illustration by Grace J. Kim; source photograph by Roberto Ricciuti / Getty.)
A conversation with the playwright and novelist about quarantine, comedy, and Chekhov.
Michael Frayn was born in the suburbs of London, in 1933. He studied philosophy at Cambridge, in the nineteen-fifties, before becoming a reporter and columnist for the Guardian and then a star columnist for the Observer in the sixties—experiences he put to wry use in “Towards the End of the Morning,” a novel about world-weary Fleet Street hacks, published in 1967. He turned to theatre in the seventies, and he may be best known, at least in Britain, as the creator of the imperishable stage farce “Noises Off,” which was first produced in 1982. A decade and a half later, his drama “Copenhagen,” which pried open the mysterious relationship between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the midst of the Second World War, won the Tony Award for Best Play. Another award-winning drama, “Democracy,” from 2003, delved into the muddied compromises of German politics. Frayn’s most recent play, “Afterlife,” is from 2008, and he has hinted it might be his last; it explored the checkered career of the visionary theatre director Max Reinhardt. (Like many of Frayn’s works, it was directed by Michael Blakemore.) He has written a memoir, numerous screenplays and television scripts, and a well-regarded philosophical study on the concept of uncertainty. He has also translated nearly all the plays of Anton Chekhov, among other works of Russian literature.
Despite his irksomely abundant talents, Frayn has an old-fashioned English distrust of over-egging anything, especially himself: in a Profile for this magazine from 2004, Larissa MacFarquhar described him as “optimistic, cheerful, tidy, hardworking, discreet, modest, logically scrupulous, and parsimonious in matters of sentiment.” Frayn told MacFarquhar, “I have a moderate view of life.”
He would have spent this summer doing the rounds of British literary festivals to promote his new book, “Magic Mobile,” a volume of short comic pieces, but he and his wife, the writer Claire Tomalin, with whom he has lived since 1981, are taking lockdown seriously, and venturing out as little as possible. “In a way, it’s nice to be released from all that, and just get on with working and reading,” he told me recently, on a Zoom call of intermittent reliability. He was sitting in his office among neat shelves of dictionaries and play scripts. His three children live close by, and “often come over and sit in the garden or go for walks,” he said.
We went on to talk about the possibilities of socially distanced drama, how laughter has become a health risk, the state of Britain in the wake of the coronavirus, and what Chekhov did during pandemics. Later, we spoke again by Zoom; these interviews have been edited and condensed.
Some theatres in Britain have tried reopening at reduced capacity, but there’s a fear that productions might not get going properly again until next year—assuming theatres even make it through Christmas. Has it affected you?
I have, I think, four revivals in the U.K. scheduled for next year, and they’re all just hanging fire. No one knows whether we’re going to be doing any theatre next year or not. It’s an impossible situation.
There’s something to be said for social distancing on the stage—some directors do a lot of it, because they want to use the whole area of the stage. Things like love scenes are much more effective if you get the lovers apart, on opposite sides of the stage, and make them play to each other across the width of it. I really don’t think we lose very much if all the people who are supposed to have sword fights onstage have to stay well out of bash-bash-bash range of each other.
But you do need to pack audiences in together. It’s just simply not financially viable to have audiences that are a quarter of the size of the audience you’re expecting. Also, the theatre works by having this very close, communal response. Particularly comedy—people do set each other off laughing. To get a comedy going, you really need to be very close to a lot of other people. Of course, when it doesn’t work, that’s even worse—when you’re sitting next to a lot of people who are supposed to be laughing, and they don’t laugh.
And laughter in the theatre suddenly seems to be risky behavior, doesn’t it? All those virus-bearing aerosols.
Normally, people say that laughter is good for you—I like to think I’m dispensing medicine to the public. But if I’m also killing them that’s not so good.
If Zoom could make their system more sophisticated so that everyone in the audience could be represented by an avatar in the theatre, and each avatar could hear the other person, it would be as good as having an audience. But you see the difficulties we’re having even maintaining this conversation with two people. The thought of all the people with avatars being visible and audible, coming back into existence, going out of existence again, would be a very dicey prospect. It’s one of the criticisms that people make of actors sometimes, that they’ve phoned in their performance—but, theoretically, the audience could phone in their responses and that could be broadcast around the empty auditorium.
Theatre architects and technicians are working hard at the moment to try and find solutions that would allow for better audience capacity—I saw a scheme recently for surrounding every seat with plexiglass, so you’d be shielded from your neighbor.
If you’re shut away behind that, you might as well be shut away at home, using Zoom. If it would encourage the actors, you could have lots of little screens, five hundred screens in the house.
Your new book, “Magic Mobile,” is an array of comic miniatures and vignettes, and your previous book, “Matchbox Theatre,” was a series of playlets. Is there something appealing about working on a small scale?
No doubt I have more ideas for short pieces because that’s how I began my career, by writing stuff as a reporter for the Guardian. Then I became a columnist. Maybe I’m just in old age, or second childhood, reverting to where I began.
I’ve been thinking about comedy and the pandemic—obviously, so much of it has been so grim, but in Britain, at least, there’s been a lot of humor, too, partly because so many people think the government has been so incompetent.
I don’t know if it’s a particularly British thing. The British like to feel that they’re the only people in the world who’ve got a sense of humor—and particularly feel that the Germans don’t have a sense of humor. But that doesn’t actually survive going to Germany and meeting Germans. I think everyone in difficult situations tries to laugh about them if they possibly can, don’t they?