Stage Directions by Michael Frayn

Frayn is on record as regretting his fate – to be an all-rounder inspired in limitless ways. If he were only a translator or columnist, only a novelist or philosopher, only a playwright his talents in any of these would see him more highly regarded than he is today for being wonderful at all of them. He would make more money too. If only he lived in a period where a man was admired for talent that went in many directions, instead of in a period in which specialisation is worshipped and we view with suspicion those who are constitutionally unable to live the narrow life, or think the narrow thoughts, that result from specialisation.

This collection of writings about his theatre work, both his own plays and his translations, being a renowned Chekhov translator in particular, spans his career from the very beginning. And I do mean very beginning, with hilariously charming accounts of his productions as a small boy in which he took on all roles – writer, producer, set designer and maker, cast maker in the case of his puppets. The diversity is astonishing, from his discussions of the difficulties in developing his farces to a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the history that inspired one of my favorites, Copenhagen. Throughout, however, two things stood out for me.

The first was the sheer hard work involved. Anybody who thinks being a writer means putting a badly written, then badly proofed, badly laid out book on Amazon, faking some reviews on Goodreads and trying to solicit others to give them good reviews should read this. The dedication involved in his work is an example to all would-be authors.

The second is not unconnected to the first. Despite the vast amount of theatre I’ve watched in my life, I had never understood what an organic thing it is. The novel is an interaction, if you like, between the writer and the reader. The theatre interacts with director and designer, actor and cast, theatre-goer and audience. I’d never realised, consciously at least, that as a theatre-goer I’m part of an amorphous mass, ‘the audience’. I’d never realised that this thing called ‘the audience’ has important impact on the development of a play. It is never the high-handed ‘you will love my work or leave it’ in which novelists may indulge. Frayn describes two successive nights of a play’s performance, one might capture an audience in a mass hysteria, laughing until they are sick, the next will be like trying to raise the dead in a graveyard, not so much as a snicker to be had from the audience. This is particularly important in the case of farce and having seen Noises Off several times and Clockwise (film) which are perfect examples of that genre, it had never occurred to me how much sweat and angst had gone into them – not necessarily into them specifically but into developing the skills that permitted their perfection.

One can safely say after reading this part of the book that getting farce right is no laughing matter.

Frayn puts it like this:

I began my professional career in the theatre very late. Most playwrights, I think, start young, when they are full of passion and certainty; and often, by the age of thirty-six, which I was when my first play was produced, have already got it out of their system, and sunk exhausted into obscurity, celerity, or drink. What held me up was early failure, even before I’d got my foot on the first rung of the ladder. In my last year at Cambridge I wrote most of the Footlights May Week revue, and complicated things for myself by observing a rather austere aesthetic. No references to current affairs, or undergraduate life, or show business, or any of the other standbys of student shows and what was then called intimate revue. The humour was to be entirely abstract. I had got the idea from seeing a show in London called Cranks, created by the choreographer John Cranko. Cranks had made people laugh. My imitation of it did not. Every year, after its run in Cambridge, the May Week show transferred for a brief run in the West End…. – a precious opportunity for all of us with professional ambitions to get ourselves noticed. My show was the first that did not transfer.

Frayn does not strike me as a stubborn man and, indeed, the fact that he simply moved into other areas of writing with success perhaps goes to demonstrate it. But when he did return to theatre-writing much later, he couldn’t let go of the farce. One receives the impression of a person who does not struggle with his desires. The impulse was there, he stuck with it. Luckily for us. Lucky also that he is an incredibly diverse writer not only in form and style, but also in what he is able to portray. The farcical, the tragic, the humorous and the pensive, the slapstick and the intellectual, Frayn can do all these things. He couldn’t be more different from the formulaic professional theatre-writers such as Alan Bennett, David Williamson and so on. This means, of course, he is more likely to fail, and yet he rarely does so.

He tells the story of being asked by his children why he wasn’t famous like Alan Bennett, who lived across the street from him. Given that he is never going to achieve the acclaim he deserves due to the stigma of being an all-rounder, what surprises me is just how famous he is. The professional playwrights like Bennett play it safe. Frayn does not have that in him. He writes things because he needs to and tries things out because he needs to. Thus he has his failures. There is a saying in bridge that if you don’t occasionally defend game doubled and making, you aren’t doubling enough. Equally maybe if you aren’t having the occasional flop as a writer you are being too safe. I would dearly love to see Look Look which was a catastrophe when it came to stage in London in the early nineties. The idea of it is to examine the audience. I can see after reading this book that the audience, of which I’ve so often been a member, is an entity worthy of examination.

Revealing just how organic and shifting plays are, is the story of the writing of Copenhagen, not just the story of its original inception, but what happened after. It generated great interest in the science world and provoked the early revelation of correspondence which was supposed still to be under lock and key. All this in turn led to some changes in the play. I’d been wondering, as I started reading this book, why it is that I’m happy to watch a play based on historical events, but not a film. Maybe this is partly the answer. The biopic is generally false through and through. Its egregious changing of history may be for money, it may be arrogant, it may be through sheer ignorance, but there it is, a permanent record of history itself. Hoover is DiCaprio. In the theatre, it is almost never so that an actor overtakes the role in this way. The only obvious exception I can think of is Topol, but that is in a straightforward fiction. The actor doesn’t supplant the historical person in theatre. The story, the facts, the way in which it interacts with the audience, everything about a play can change with every production. If something is shown to be wrong, it can be fixed. What a wonderful thing Theatre is!

There is also a detailed account of the work and rationalisation behind Democracy, the story of Brandt’s fall from power. Reading this book has given me a taste for European history. This is another case where he carefully discusses the ways in which he has changed things due to the necessities of the form, theatre. If you are like me, there are various hats under which you will enjoy reading this stuff: as audience, as writer, as historian. As linguist, even. Whatever objections one may have to reading in translation (none in my case), surely they have to be shed in the case of the theatre when it is simply another level of interaction in an already complex amalgam of them. I have a better understanding now of why it is that playwrights rewrite each other’s work. It isn’t just for lack of inspiration.

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