Interview with Michael Frayn
BROADCAST: Sep. 22, 1975 | DURATION: 00:50:51
Interviewing British dramatist-novelist Michael Frayn.
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Studs Terkel Thank you, Norm. This morning is another conversation that I had in London, this time with Michael Frayn. Frayn is an all-purpose writer, playwright, one of his plays now in London, that will be the main subject of the discussion. Essayist, humorist, satirical writer, in a moment- also, journalist. In a moment the program with Michael Frayn, after we hear from Norm Pelligrini and our sponsors. [pause in recording] Multiple fretmen of the literary world of London is Michael Frayn, who's an excellent journalist for The Observer primarily, as well as for other journals, too. Essayist, playwright, and novelist. He's known for a certain, I don't know, I was going to say is known for a certain kind of witty outlook, but it's more than that, there's a play, his most recent work and recent play I should say, Alphabetical Order, now at the May Fair Theatre in London. So just last night, with Michael and the audience, and, I was taken with it so much it's hard for me to say, it seems like a farce- what suppose we talk about it first. Ostensibly it's a comedy, is it not, about a newspaper office, the files of a newspaper office, in a provincial English city. Ostensibly it is that.
Michael Frayn I think it's a philosophical comedy. It's certainly set in the library of a newspaper office. But what I see, see it as being about is order and disorder. You can't really have order without disorder and how you can't, in fact, have disorder without order. The two are mutually dependent, and that even where you break up a system completely and have a marvelous sense of release when you're smashing it up, another system is certainly going to have to take its place. You can't get a permanent sense of release from breaking up systems, a marvelous sense of release while it's happening, but it can't go on forever.
Studs Terkel In- in the people- in the people, there's- it's this office where newspaper files are kept and Lucy, the woman in charge, attractive woman, is rather, her life is rather chaotic, you know, but she needs somebody. In comes this young assistant of hers, a girl seemingly innocent, ingenue, I take it from a small town because of the dialect, and that's the role- Leslie, the girl Leslie, who is the assistant, to help her organize this place, it's in a mess, now with Lucy are her associates.
Michael Frayn She's- These are the staff of the newspaper who come in and use the library, the reporters and the leader writers and so on. They've been coming in for years and years. They fall in the habit of just sort of sitting around the library all day and chatting to Lucy. She can usually find the answer to their queries, even in the midst of this total disorder in which she lives. And everything done around the sort of cozy, gemutlich basis. Everyone likes being like this, or they think they do, they complain endlessly about it but that's the way the office is.
Studs Terkel That's the way the office is. Luc- as almost- I was saying almost although they were a group of waifs around, and Lucy was sort of the mother of the waifs, you know. But the fact is they're all, they're all very vulnerable. Notably Lucy herself.
Michael Frayn Yes, I suppose she is, she's a woman I suppose somewhere in her 30s who's very warmhearted, who gets on well with people, whom everybody likes. But because everyone likes her, and because she's very good-natured, she gets stuck with all the frightful jobs that nobody else wants to do. She finally complains and- and she does notice this, she's not unaware that she's being exploited because she's easy-going and good-natured.
Studs Terkel And also taking in the various guys too, providing a haven [for?] each one in order.
Michael Frayn That's right, yes. And her domestic life is really rather a reflection of the office life in that it's very undefined. She doesn't have a very defined relationship with anyone. She may or may not be living with the leader writer, they obviously have been living together and obviously, he-
Michael Frayn -moved out. Yes, he's moved out in some kind of way but whether he's coming back or not, she doesn't
Studs Terkel He's someone obviously very talented and sort of absent-minded, [has the?] loose ends and she's not out to fix him, to organize him at all.
Studs Terkel [Unintellgible] and then there's someone she likes, a guy named Wally. There's old [Famder?] there's Wally around. And the old man comes in, he's almost [done?]. The old man who the character is- almost the narrator, is almost a commentator.
Michael Frayn The messenger.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Michael Frayn That's right yes, and he's been there for years and seen everything come and go.
Studs Terkel Into the scene comes, of course, order, you see. So she needs somehow, she feels she needs order, is that the idea? Th-things are chaotic like the papers in the wrong files. Somehow she finds them.
Michael Frayn Yes, well what everyone feels is they want order in some kind of way. And they hate it when they've got it. I mean everyone, [well,? not?] everyone, obviously, people react in different ways, but what people feel all the time is that when they've got disorder, they want some kind of order set in this because they can't stand the disorder, and when they got the order, they can't stand the order they want the disorder, but I can't see how you can have one without the other. Everyone who sees the play identifies with Lucy, the warmhearted woman who runs the library in such a mess and they all say, well that's the way my life is, and my papers all and that kind of mess and so forth. But I think one or two people secretly rather identify with Leslie, the tidy-minded girl.
Studs Terkel Now-
Michael Frayn And the only person who's actually said this to me, in so many words, is a very nice- very nice Swedish academic I know, a woman who teaches English at the University of Gothenburg and she comes over a lot and looks at English plays and talks to English playwrights, and she went to see the play and she rang me off afterward and said "Ah, Michael, it's a dream of my life to find a library in that kind of mess and get it organized!"
Studs Terkel [Laughs] You better explain Leslie, then. Since this woman called you and told you that and she identifies, [laughs] pretty funny, with the person who does the organizing. Now we come to Leslie who does the organizing.
Michael Frayn Well no one likes Leslie because she's very- she's very calm and efficient. She does know how to run the library, which Lucy on the whole doesn't. And she gets the place straightened up, but no one much likes it now after it's been straightened up, it's ceased to be this warm, cozy haven where everyone takes refuge. She's thrown out the old reporter who's somehow just moved into the library for good to get away from the news editor. Chucked him out, forced him to go back to the newsroom. Put up notices all around saying you've got to sign for your folder, and so on.
Studs Terkel [Siren fades in] It's very clean. It's very orderly. It's very sterile.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel You come to the sterility of order, you see. Before it was chaotic, it was a mess but as you say, there was a glow to the mess, there was an excitement. Suddenly it's all orderly thanks to Leslie who is also, by the way, [siren fades out] upwardly mobile.
Studs Terkel See, she's seemingly the innocent- they all want to help, at first, and you read that she's obviously in charge.
Michael Frayn Yes, what she- I think what she does in the first act, when she comes into that disorderly office and we see her first day at work as people try to teach her the job and how this chaos works, and try and tell her, you know, we do things in a rather funny way in this office, but it's just our way and, you know, you just have to get used to it and file things back to front. What she does in that first act is, she is not impressed by what she sees. Everyone is performing for her. They're all putting on their most lovable acts and telling her all the jokes and fooling around, with the idea that she will be impressed by what a lovely, warm-hearted, lovable office this is. And she's not impressed. She sits there, looking rather coolly at all this, and when Lucy, who runs the library, sees her new assistant looking at the library and all her- all the people she knows and loves like this, she begins to feel a little unsettled and disturbed. She starts seeing them as not quite so lovable she thought they were.
Studs Terkel [Unintelligble] Quite remarkable scenes I think, almost almost the scenes of a counterpoint, point-counterpoint, the 2 scenes between Lucy and Leslie. And- Lucy thought she needed Leslie, or someone ]to in order]- that is- you feel- somebody feels you need something, and then when you get that something or somebody you realize that's not exactly what you had in mind.
Michael Frayn That's- yes well as Jeffrey, the old messenger says, in act II, that people often want things and then, when they get it they discover it's not what
Studs Terkel But Leslie is always the operator. She's- she really plays it quite safe because there's one spot where Lucy is now catching on that Leslie is not what she really wants, and she's going to lose almost everything, even- even the chaotic life that has a warmth for the sake of order. She's- there's- they have a little argument, Lucy is testing Leslie, Leslie finally wants to agree with Lucy, doesn't want to lose her position as she's going to climb up. In the next scene-
Michael Frayn Well, I see, in act 2 you mean, yes-
Studs Terkel No first, act one. Act one there's
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel But you agree with me? No, disagree with me. Remember, she's almost trapping her in a way, [you know?] the dialogue in that first act-
Studs Terkel [unintellgible] interpret that?
Michael Frayn Well, I'm- I'm not absolutely certain what you mean. Well, they- they had a long conversation where Lucy says, you know, how do you like them all [do you think]? Aren't they're all marvelous and impossible and so forth. And Leslie starts actually describing them in words and saying, well one of them's a very heavy drinker, isn't he. And another of them is- has other problems. And this, fixing people in words, actually finding the words that describe them already sort of pigeonholes them and cuts them down, reduces possibilities, and just says they're just certain types of people.
Studs Terkel Yeah, that's- she's pigeonholing the people-
Michael Frayn Yeah.
Studs Terkel -just that she's pigeonholing A B C D, Alphabetical Order's the name of the play.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel Just as she's pigeonholing the news files in alphabetical order.
Michael Frayn That's right and she's getting all the relationships which have been so messy and untidy sorted out, or she's trying to. She is going to marry John, the leader writer, who she thinks needs some very definite framework with life. She's trying to force Lucy to make up her mind, whether she's really going to have an affair with the married labor correspondent or not.
Studs Terkel And she's arranging the heavy lady, the good-natured one, you know, the too [unintelligible] woman to be lined up with the guy whose wife's in the
Michael Frayn It seems so natural. They're the right age, they fit together. She likes him, there's one slight awkwardness that he doesn't in fact- in fact, stand her, but she you know can think she can come smooth over small difficulties like
Studs Terkel But what she's doing also again, this pigeon- she's arranging everything- because your play is a play about order, it's organization and order.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel At least that's one- I see that as one aspect of it.
Michael Frayn Yes, but I think it is a lot about organization. I think organization is a very major part of human activity both in- in thinking and in- in talking and in working. I mean, when one thinks about the world, when one speaks about the world, one is organizing it, one is categorizing it, one is to be able to speak about it at all. One is saying there are certain classes of things, some things are chairs and some things the tables, and also one's saying that some chairs are better than other chairs and some tables are worse than other tables, and I think that's a- is a very fundamental part of language and of thought. I don't think you can get around that categorization. I think some people have- have spoken and written in the last ten years as if this kind of domination of the world were a certain characteristic of- of Western thought that went with imperialism. There's a very good book by Michel Tournier called Friday, I don't know if you ever read it, he's a French novelist, and it's a rewriting of the Robinson Crusoe story. But in this book, the hero is Man Friday, and the villain, I'm putting it crudely, the villain is Robinson Crusoe, because what Tournier is doing is contrasting the- the Western approach of Robinson Crusoe as he organizes this island, gets it all set up, gets agriculture going, establishes laws even to regulate himself, works out how time is to be divided and so forth. Gets everything under- under his control and Tournier rather cunningly describes this as if he's in favor of it, as if he sees this as a heroic attempt, and then Man Friday comes on the scene and Tournier sees him as having some kind of instinctive direct link with nature, of just absorbing and accepting nature in a way that's denied to this civilized Westerner. And Tournier makes it clear that he's in favor of the accepting, passive approach as against the act of approach-
Studs Terkel You know it seems to me, as you're talking about this French novel on the Robinson Crusoe theme and as he sees it and your play, I start thinking of the implications, it's incredible that your play has [this?], over- by the way, it's very funny, very funny. I hope this will come to the United States it's very funny, and- it's seemingly English. It is English, at the same time I'm convinced it's universal. [In this?] you describe pollution, the air, man- Western man, technology, the developments, not only bucking, no, there's a man named Hoffer who is an ersatz working man philosopher, but he's in favor of all that's happening, tell you, as the Bible said so, man must subdue nature, subdue nature, the very phrase he used, you know?
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel That wasn't exactly what was said, but he has to subdue it. And in subduing nature, Robinson Crusoe and Leslie, here, [don't you think?]
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel Is subduing many of the- of the natural flows of the human being himself, you know, the possibilities-
Michael Frayn That's true, but I think I may be saying something which, which you wouldn't agree with. I think that it's not as simple a contrast as it looks. I don't see that it's possible, even for Man Friday in the Tournier story, to have as passive an attitude to the world as Tournier makes him out to have. Because I think to exist even on the most simple levels, a hunting and gathering person, he must conceptually organize the world into, you know, the food that's okay for him to eat and food that's not, and that have any thought processes at all, in any language at all, is to become involved in the categorization and therefore the domination of one's environment. I think you might well say that that's become- gone too far, become neurotic, and the people neurotically over categorize and over dominate, and they think it's become- it became so much the accepted wisdom in Victorian times that man was there simply to control, to rule other men, to dominate his environment by mechanical means and by lore and civilization, and so forth, it's gone too far. Now obviously we're trying to backtrack from that and saying, you know, we don't have to be so insane about it, but I will say I think you can't- you can't escape from the process of ordering and categorization if you're going to think and speak at all.
Studs Terkel There is of course the real- real danger of romanticizing, quote-on-quote, the noble savage.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel That aspect that is, you're saying there has to be a balance of some sort, man must find his way-
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel -because nature can also be terrifying and horrendous and destructive.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel But at the same time, finding some sort of balance, really you're talking about in a way.
Michael Frayn I think a lot of human activity is this business of feeling one's way between too much order and too much disorder, of trying to first, steering a zigzag course, first getting to- to over organize and kind of Victorian way and then backtracking perhaps too far. And so one, you know, moves back and forth across the
Studs Terkel So here in this play, here again, the setting is, it could be a traditional comedy. You would think it's just a co- you say it's a philosophical comedy, which of course, [all things considered?], is that the framework is that of just a play, and funny, and the characters in and out. But bit by bit it dawns on at least this member of the audience, you know, that far, far more is involved. You're talking about the world today.
Michael Frayn Yes. Yes, I hope it kind of is subconsciously evident to people. I think people on the whole probably do think it, do see it as a comedy of office life with people, fairly recognizable types doing funny things in an office. But I hope subconsciously, at any rate, in the way one takes in quite a lot of things about the world, that the- what I'm saying about order and disorder-
Studs Terkel Yeah. It's also, if I may say this since I'm- I'm affected by it right now for fairly obvious reasons, the book Working, that this play is also about an attitude toward work, that the people of this office find somewhat meaningless, not quite certain as to what they're doing is such of great value. And they also play little games of their sort, these little games they're playing with one another to make the day go faster.
Michael Frayn That's right yes, I think that's so. And I think it's very much about- particularly with Leslie, the effective worker, in fact. It's about why she works. I mean, she says that when people say well you love doing this, you love getting the place straight. She's- well she doesn't in fact, she just feels compelled, she has this compulsion to get it straight and she feels humiliated by the compulsion. She doesn't feel this is a dignified way of behaving, and I think that goes with a lot of people's attitude to work, particularly often very effective and compulsive workers, they do feel- they can see at the same time there's something slightly absurd about the way they're behaving. But, work I think is almost always a form of organization, isn't it? I mean as John says in act 2, it suddenly occurs to him the whole process of manufacturing is really reorganization. But what- what happens in manufacturing is you take certain things you find lying around, iron ore, and coal, and trees, and things, and you reorganize them through various complex processes so they come out as, as automobiles and furniture-
Studs Terkel Newspapers.
Michael Frayn And newspapers, yeah. And yet that is, I mean when [one thinks of?] making as if it's a process that doesn't have any beginning, as if you- as if you, as if making is some kind of absolute process where you start with nothing and end with something, you never start with nothing. I mean this is what people have realized with alarm now is they think about the ecology, that we didn't create the whole of this complex industrial structure that we now have in the- in the industrialized nations out of nothing at all, we created it out of bits of the world, some of which are now beginning to run rather short. And it is a process of reorganization, we are actually simply moving existing counters around in the game and things that were underground we've now got on the surface, and things that were on the surface we've now put under the ground, and things that were all kind of powdery shaped we packed together made square and with sharp corners. And so on, do you see what I mean?
Studs Terkel Of course, then raises the question, how can [we?] be an organization to make life better for the great many people, at the same time without pigeonholing people? So we come to a question of what we call it, perhaps democracy and totalitarianism too, don't
Michael Frayn Yes!
Studs Terkel By the way, Leslie is kind of tot- become- has a danger- can become a totalitarian figure.
Michael Frayn Yes, she could, oh yes she could. Or she could be a very effective functionary for some Democratic system. I mean at the end, we talked about- about this last night, I think we see this slightly differently. At the end, the paper folds up, collapses, goes bankrupt. And after the initial reactions of shock on the part of the staff where people are appalled to find they've no jobs. There's then a moment of great release and liberation where they think, well if we don't have to go on working here, if there's no papering anymore, we can- we needn't go on being serious about all this organization. So they gradually take all the library to pieces and scattered all the cuttings around.
Studs Terkel Just as it was at the very beginning.
Michael Frayn Absolutely yes. They reduce it to chaos again and they feel a terrific sense of release while they're doing
Studs Terkel Great release! Then-
Michael Frayn Well, then Leslie comes back and she says, but, we're not going to accept the decision of the management like that, surely we can take the paper over and run it ourselves, which the staffs of some publications in this country, as you know, have done. A very long, slow, and difficult process it is. And I think you felt, when we talked about it last night, you felt that she was, that Leslie was really not the kind of person who would take such a risky and radical action as this. You thought she would be more inclined to take over the chairman, and the newspaper.
Studs Terkel Yeah-
Michael Frayn [Laughs] Well that's, that's possible. Whether she is actually initiating this action or not I don't think is clear, she's been talking about it with other people in other parts of the office, and I think she would have a strong drive to keep things in being, to keep things organized, to keep things going, whether by- by whatever means if say, if taking over the chairman seems like the best means she'd take over the chairman, if in this case, the chairman has ditched the paper, then it wouldn't be effective to have [unintelligible]-
Studs Terkel I've been thinking about it since last night and I see the point you're making, by the way, that you see Leslie fully and completely, I was saying, are- you must- I must admit within, at the framework of today and the risk being taken by certain journalists or others, taking over the plant. Very risky indeed. I think she's taking a risk, but I see your interpretation of her, one way or another, there must be order and a sense of anti-chaos, you know.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel But also, it ends the release, that feeling of release and exhilaration that at that moment the others felt during that moment of chaos.
Michael Frayn It does. They realize that if they're going to make some serious attempt to take the paper over, the first thing they've got to do is clean up the library and get all the cuttings back in the files again so they can use the- continue to use
Studs Terkel You know what I like? You mentioned this woman who said she identify with Leslie, she thought, gee that's great, somebody taking it literally, I think, have you had any philosophical anarchist see this play?
Michael Frayn I don't know. No one who's identified himself as an anarchist has commented on it, as far as I know. But I feel that thing about- that the- that the Swedish woman said to me, I feel secretly, I mean, I'm rather a chaotic, disorganized person, but I do have a great desire to get things straight and get them organized. And I worry neurotically, for instance, about- about being on time. I have no natural sense of time at all. I struggle very hard to be on time because I hate the thought of keeping people waiting, but to actually get to somewhere at the right time, I have to start hours early. I mean I
Michael Frayn -about it hours before because I know if I don't I'm not going to just naturally organize it the way someone who is really got a sort of good sense of time does, they just know the right moment to leave to get there at the right moment.
Studs Terkel I'm going to ask Michael Frayn now, let's take a slight pause here, this moment on this radio station for a message, and when we return, I'll ask Michael Frayn now, we've been talking about his most recent play Alphabetical Order, that if you ever come to London you really should see because it sticks with you. It's very funny. It's very funny, it's very entertaining and yet it's more than entertainment. And I hope it will soon be seen in the United States. But after this message, I'll ask Michael about his own approach to writing, to his own creativity, and to his days. [Pause in recording] Michael Frayn, described in the beginning as a quadruple or a multiple threat because you both, you write columns and you write observations of various countries and societies for The Observer and other papers, you've written some marvelous essays and novels. First about you and your day, so you put out- I was saying, you put a tremendous amount of work, you do, and yet you say your days are chaotic?
Studs Terkel You do have a sense of order somewhere here?
Michael Frayn Yes, and doing the writing is some attempt to order the day. I mean, it is an attempt to impose order on chaos, and that's- that's how I do it. I mean, I think when people do something they actually like doing, it- it is a way of structuring things around themselves and structuring themselves, structuring their own life because they can get it out in one particular way or they can make sentences on the paper or they can make marks on the canvas so it comes out like a painting.
Studs Terkel So you're saying, art? When a person does whether it's a painter, or a writer, or a composer, you're seeking order, really.
Michael Frayn Yes, I think so. Very much so. Very much so. I mean, the experience of life, one's perception is- is very chaotic. Already one's ordered the world in perceiving it, really imposed a lot of order in it in just being able to see what's there. All the same, one can't begin to express everything one sees, it's the sensations pressing upon one, a far too- far too many, far too complicated, far too subtle ever to be- ever to be accounted for. When one depicts them or writes about them, it is an attempt to just select some things, demonstrate a pattern, make a kind of structure, show how something hangs together somewhere.
Studs Terkel [To ask?] an elementary question, because of the amount of work that you put out, such excellent work, too, in different forms, you- this element- you have a schedule. You have a daily- now Leslie would obviously- Leslie, the protagonist or antagonist or anti-heroine of your play, would have a definite schedule.
Michael Frayn Well, [laughs] I try to start work by about 10, and I usually go until about 6. On good days something's getting written for quite a lot of that time. On bad days, nothing's really written and they're terrible. Then- they're the days you really earn the royalties, when nothing gets written because you feel such total despair. If you spent a day and you haven't been able to write anything, the days and everything goes well, it's absurd you should ever be paid anything for it because it's so good and it's so nice, it's such a wonderful thing to happen to you. But the days you can't do it, you really see why you should be getting 7 and a half percent, or whatever it happens to
Studs Terkel Just the other day, Dieter Pevsner, who published my book, who knows [unintelligible], pulled out a book, one of yours, Toward the End of the Morning-
Michael Frayn No.
Studs Terkel -it is- it's the best satirical work and novel on journalism that he's read.
Michael Frayn [Laughs] Well, that is about the same thing again in a way, it's set in a newspaper office, not in a library but in the- in the newspaper office in general, and most of the characters in it are journalist or people around the lives of the journalists. But what the general philosophical thesis of the book is, I think probably hidden slightly too deeply for anyone ever to have noticed except me, is the idea that human activity is a local reversal of entropy. When the book was published in America, the title was, I think a better title, Against Entropy. Entropy is a measure of lost energy, and the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy is increasing, that the amount of energy in the world remains constant because that's what the first law of thermodynamics says, but that gradually, according to the second law of thermodynamics, it's becoming unavailable for work. It's gradually all getting sort of evenly distributed. So systems, all systems, run down, and the universe is running down and eventually, it's all going to be just a kind of static level where nothing is happening anymore. Well, obviously human beings can't do anything about such a general process, if it is in fact the case. But- but what we all attempt to do is to make a heroic- heroic effort to reverse this for a time, at any rate. We try and get organizations and systems going, we try to build things which don't fall down, gradually whatever you put up, however solid the house is, things start erroding, bits drop off, the weather starts to wear it down, it gradually tends to disintegrate into a pile of dust. And what we all desperately doing is trying to keep the thing up and make, you know, stop up the hole where the rain is coming in, repaint the- the window frame where the paints flaking off and so on.
Studs Terkel We're working against entropy.
Michael Frayn Yes! And it's a- it's a futile, doomed, but I think rather heroic-
Studs Terkel Well-
Michael Frayn -temporary endeavor.
Studs Terkel What attracts you obviously, is the effort. The struggle-
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel -the very doing of it, John Henry and the machine! As John Henry, fighting the steam drill-
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel The steam drill eventually out-do John Henry, but John Henry beat the steam drill down, at that moment though he died with his hammer in his hand.
Michael Frayn Yes. And what can we do? What can we do in the world except to try and make some gesture, and any gesture is unnatural. It's against the general trend of things-
Studs Terkel You think eventually we'll become Samuel Beckett's people?
Michael Frayn [Laughs] I think eventually we'll- we shall crumble to dust. I mean, I think entropy wins in the
Studs Terkel But in the meantime?
Michael Frayn In
Studs Terkel Now that, I suppose, in the meantime, is what your writing
Michael Frayn Absolutely.
Michael Frayn Absolutely, yes. Very much so, I think it's- it's what we can do today and tomorrow and next year. And you can't really think about what things will be like in 100 years or 1000 years. Well, I'm stretching it a bit. I mean obviously, you have to think about the future as well. But when- the- the more you plan for the distant future, the more you're sacrificing in the present, and the present is all we have, in fact.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I'm thinking, as Michael Frayn, as you're- as you're talking, just reflecting at the moment, out loud, everything you do has this- has this feeling underneath doesn't it. In the meantime.
Michael Frayn Yes, I think it does.
Studs Terkel In- you're in the meantime it feels very exciting, and witty, and funny-
Michael Frayn [Laughs]
Studs Terkel -very moving, [unintelligible] your travel pieces, you also do that, is it, for The Observer?
Michael Frayn Yes, that's right.
Studs Terkel There was a piece you had about Vienna, it was a marvelous study just you going- of Vienna, but of what it is today, the illusion and the reality, and you've been to Cuba, to Israel, to various other places.
Michael Frayn That's right, yes. I find those pieces very difficult to write I must say. I started off my professional life as a newspaper reporter on The Guardian and then moved from that to writing funny columns. And then after I'd written funny columns for, oh, I can't remember now, 8 or 10 years, I really thought I'd done them enough. I thought I was going to be rather predictable, which happens to a lot of funny writers, not all, but to a lot, and that's a very sad fate, I think. And I thought it was time I went back to reporting, and I actually had to face the world again. And it is a- it's a frightful shock to move from writing pieces that come out of your own fantasy and imagination, and from writing fiction where you make things up, to actually having to look at the world again and to see how extraordinarily complicated it is and how unlike- how unlike imagined worlds it is. I mean obviously, it's alike in some ways but whenever you look at the world in front of your eyes and really looked at it because you have to describe it, you are stunned to see there's all kinds of aspects of it you've gotta take into consideration, and it's a very knobbly, awkward shape and doesn't fit into the formula and generalizations you've had at the back of your mind all this time. And if you're writing a factual article you can't turn the corner as you can with fiction, if in fiction you come up against some ferocious difficulty in Chapter 6 where you really can't describe what you intend to describe, oh all right, you describe something else instead or you miss that bit out. But if you're faced with describing the real world, some actual situation in the real world, you've got to do it, you can't just change it-
Studs Terkel There again as you said it, come back to this theme that the writer of the novel, or the essay, or the playwright, in your case all three, is creating order at some sort of disorder with all that, right? And now you enter life itself as the investigative journalist of the journals. You see a great deal of random matters there-
Michael Frayn Yes.
Michael Frayn Well the world is very complicated, I published a philosophical book last year in which I laid some of these ideas out, and one of the antitheses in the book, one of the- one of the, kind of, tensions that I thought-
Studs Terkel Constructions.
Michael Frayn -Construction, yes. One of the kinds of tensions which I thought life was about was between what came from inside ourselves, what we imposed on the world and perception and language, and what the world imposed on us. And I think when we see something, when you look at the window and you see a window, it's a kind of, in an odd way and I don't quite know how to express this, it's a kind of dialogue between you and the world, I mean the world is giving you something and you're bringing the idea of a window to what you're seeing, and somehow the contents of your mind, the system you've gradually built up over the years, and what's in front of you, kind of interact in some way, and this is what perceiving is, but how to put that in words? I don't know. I think it's- it's very difficult because you can't go around the back of the words, I mean the words are all part of the system of dealing with the world, and you can't go around the back of them to say what the world is like behind the language and perception.
Studs Terkel Here again, the words, no matter how eloquent they may be together strung with other words and ideas, do pigeonhole.
Michael Frayn Yes, they do. They do, and you can't get out of that. You have to pigeonhole the world, but I suppose you have to also be aware that whatever you put in any one pigeonhole can always be taken out again and put in- in literally an infinite number of other pigeonholes if you arrange the system in a different way.
Studs Terkel You also want- as you- as you talk you find- you find life in what seems to be inanimate, too.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel That's part of it too, isn't it?
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel [Say I?] like you in the window and right now we're looking through the window and we face Green Park outside there, look Piccadilly? there. There's a tree right through that window.
Michael Frayn Yeah, that's right.
Studs Terkel And you, Michael Frayn,
Michael Frayn I'll tell you one thing that strikes me about the world, and I'm not sure that philosophers have ever said very much about this and I'd like to write more about it, one of the reasons why it's possible to organize perception and language at all, why it's possible to talk about things and see things, is that things can be placed in categories. It's not just a chaos of things. There are- a lot of things are like other things. And there are two reasons why- why this is so frequently the case. One is the biological nature, or the reproductive nature, of so much of what's going on around us. So that a tree is a biological reproduction of another tree. Human beings are- reproduce- are reproductions of other human beings. So they- so this produces great classes of trees and human beings by the very nature of the reproductive [play?] process, and also because so much of what we see, particularly in urban settings, is purpose built by human beings. They- there are things which have been produced by the processes of human manufacture. A chair is like a chair because it been made to be like a chair, a window is like a window because it's been made to be like a window.
Studs Terkel And to serve a certain purpose too-
Michael Frayn To serve a certain purpose, yes sure, but it's because, I mean, we can see so much of the world around us because so much of it we've made in our own likeness or in the likeness of our own needs and images. I think you only learn to see the world quite slowly, and partly through art, partly through the descriptions of other- other people who have offered those things, partly through the pictures they've made of things. But one of the things that makes this possible is that we've already had such a huge effect on our own environment. But I don't think I've ever seen anyone else writing about that, I'm- it's a theme I've mentioned in this early book and I'd like to explore a bit.
Studs Terkel In Constructions?
Michael Frayn Yeah.
Studs Terkel Is Constructions available in the United States?
Michael Frayn It isn't. No, I haven't found an American publisher, I thought
Studs Terkel It seems so to me, by the way, it seems to be that all your books [now?] should be, as well as this play should be read and seen, do- as you're talking, there's no danger as you talk now I see there's no danger of your ever being stale.
Michael Frayn [Laughs]
Studs Terkel No, no. Because of the fact- because the fact that you think as you do, and you have this particular approach to order and to creativity and to a chaotic basis for it that is not chaotic at all-
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel -but as a- as a longing for some sort of falling into place.
Michael Frayn Yes. Well, I don't know, one can goose [tale? tail?] on any idea and if one goes on repeating the same ideas long enough you get stale. So one has to go on developing the ideas
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] infinite variety to your work. I know that you have- you have, here again, order. The hour is now about 12:20, in about 10 minutes or so I know you have to go because you have a luncheon-
Michael Frayn Right.
Studs Terkel -discussing the very play. So here we are. You know, we can go on and this can become chaotic too, can it not, even this very conversation.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel Yet there is- it's for about an hour- there as we're talking out, here, let's just- let's just think out loud for a little. I have a radio program, runs for about an hour, say 55 minutes, so I was thinking, I want about 55 minutes of Michael Frayn. That's kind of funny, isn't it, because it would be 3, 4 hours but 55 minutes. I was thinking well, what am I going to have- well the play obviously, yet we know the play leads to- because play's a reflection of the way you look at things.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel And-
Michael Frayn It's certainly one structures time like this in terms of conversation. It's very funny, you do this- this program, these conversations in a- in a very informal way, as these things go, they're very spontaneously structured. I, once years ago, I used to appear on a discussion program on BBC Television at lunchtime which was supposed to look completely informal. We had lunch together, about eight of us, had lunch. At the end of lunch when they put the coffee on the table, the cameras would come in and we would just be found- just be found to be discussing some topic of the day. And in fact, the show was terribly carefully structured. In front of each us- of each of us was what looked like a menu card, and on the menu card was the list of topics that we'd agreed to talk about-
Studs Terkel [Laughs]
Michael Frayn -and it was- they were structured into main topics, there'd be sort of three main topics, then there'd be a group sort of the- the fourth heading would have three subheadings or three short topics that we talked about that there, and then we go into the fourth and, there was one of the guests around the table was secretly the chairman, though he was never identified as such. And when the producer thought we'd talk long enough about any one subject he would appear creeping behind the cameras and hold up a board saying change subject now-
Studs Terkel [Laughs]
Michael Frayn -and this chairman would cut in on whatever you were saying and say, "oh yes your views about Belgian art, Michael, remind me that in South America the rubber industry is in a bad way."
Studs Terkel It was very spontaneous.
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel You know as you're saying this, I have a beef, a grievance with BBC, and it's on this very point. The other day, in conjunction with the book [you've written?], Vic Feather, who's this quite remarkable man who, I should explain to American audiences is the equivalent in power to George Meany but wholly different, head of the Trades Union Committee-
Studs Terkel Congress.
Studs Terkel -Congress. And he's retired now, Lord Feather, which is kind of amusing. But Vic Feather's marvelous, and we had a half-hour. It was very exciting, I thought. And the producer was very good, says it is, and I've got to cut it down in 10 minutes and I said why? And he took all the spontaneity- it wasn't his fault, that's because that's upstairs. It's bureaucracy, of course, but somehow as a ritual established here, why couldn't it run for the half-hour? They have taken something else up that is- people hear every day. It was very exciting. I haven't heard the 10-minute version but I know some of the blood is out of, you see.
Michael Frayn Well, I'm very sympathetic with producers who have to cut things to size. I mean obviously one wants to be flexible and to say that [DeFrond's?] got a really good interview, that it should be allowed to run the length of the program, or half the length of the program, you cut something else instead. But I suppose you've got to have some shape to the way television schedules and radio
Studs Terkel Here we go again-
Michael Frayn -organized.
Studs Terkel Leslie is there, after all-
Michael Frayn [Laughs] That's right.
Michael Frayn We need Leslie to come right in, and-
Studs Terkel Can't get away from that play, can we?
Michael Frayn -make sure that, you know, [clicks tongue] on the hour, we change [unintelligible]-
Studs Terkel We can't get away from this play, Alphabetical Order, even the very title. Look it's Alphabetical Order, A B C D E, and I say well look but, A jumped to D, it was very exciting and we got- all of a sudden, that G, you know. No, it can't be, because B follows C, and whatever D follows, C.
Michael Frayn But don't you ever feel a sense of irritation when you turn on the radio or the television expecting to see or hear the show that you want, except starting exactly at half-past twelve, and because of some unforeseen thing, there's some other show running all altogether, there's some ministerial broadcast, as it would be on British television. I always feel intensely irritated.
Studs Terkel Well, habit, yeah. But then of course you have many American listeners who have daytime serials, and they were sore because the daytime was- was- the- the time was taken over by the Watergate hearings.
Michael Frayn [Laughs]
Studs Terkel So, we have everything that we-
Michael Frayn But American television is very good like that, isn't it? Suddenly clearing the decks
Studs Terkel If there's something important, yeah.
Michael Frayn -something on like
Studs Terkel Has to be pretty important, yeah. So here we are. Talked for about an hour with Michael Frayn, and really, well, just to talk to Michael Frayn, mostly about the play and I see now, the play is connected with everything else you've done really, isn't it? We're talking
Michael Frayn Yes, it is. Yes, yes. I think there's a kind of underlying philosophical basis, but most of the stuff I write- I'm not sure anyone, except [laughs] perhaps you Studs has ever noticed this, though.
Studs Terkel What?
Michael Frayn I'm not sure that anyone except you has ever noticed this kind of philosophical-
Michael Frayn -underlay-
Michael Frayn [Laughs]
Studs Terkel [unintelligible] because I know you, you know, not as much as I'd like to [from the time I met you?], but it hit me very much, it- even as I- it's just- light comedy [quoting, what is it?]. It's a comedy of ideas and it just sticks right to the ribs.
Michael Frayn Good.
Studs Terkel I hope- hope it comes to the United States. It's called Alphabetical Order. But the other books, Against Entropy, is that still available?
Michael Frayn I think so, yes, it's
Studs Terkel Yeah. And other books that Michael Frayn- and one last question, will you, is there- this is one you've asked many times, do you find a very definite difference in British and American humor? This is an ABC question.
Michael Frayn I don't have a kind of general answer prepared. I suppose there are particular sorts of humor one associates with American, particular sorts from the city, it's with Britain. I think one of the sorts one associates with Britain, curious enough is the opposite of what people think English humor is, people think English humor is being very stiff upper lip about outrageous situations, being terribly calm about things you can't really feel calm about. I think it's often the opposite. One of the major traditions in English humor is overwriting, it's finding very elaborate, complicated ways to describe things that are quite simple and banal. If you think about Woodhouse, for example- for example, this is what he's doing a lot of the time, is to find very elaborate, formal expression for really quite ordinary things, quite well-known things in life, fairly well-trodden paths that you'd find in romantic novels and so forth, he finds this very elaborate expression for. American humor, I don't know, I hesitate to- I think, probably, American humor does tend to cover more difficult ground, doesn't it? I mean really quite outrageous things happen in American comic novels, things that people really do worry about. I'm thinking of writers like Philip Roth obviously, I think probably that the best American comic writers really do attempt to say the- to tell the truth about very painful and very confusing aspects of human life. I'm not sure that many English comic writers are quite as heroic as that-
Studs Terkel Do you think they take less risks then-
Michael Frayn Yes.
Studs Terkel -but in your case, you've got to- you've got a wholly unexplored area, seems to me. Because of the way you look at the world and life, your humor takes on this added dimension, I find neither here nor there, except in you're- you are- you are unique in this respect, I'd say.
Michael Frayn Yes, I don't often tackle very painful things apart from just the general sadness of life declining, I suppose. But I don't often write about any very severe tragedy. I'll tell you one English writer who does actually, and who's done this marvelously, Peter Nichols, the playwright. His-
Studs Terkel National
Michael Frayn all the best of his plays I think are about really terrible things. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which was done very successfully in New York with Albert Finney, is about having a child who is a vegetable, who has no means of communicating, no possibility for organizing its behavior at all, and how one copes with this, it's not a tragic play, it's a funny play. It's about a situation which is so extreme that all you can do is make jokes about it and laugh about it, and people found it very shocking, but also, it's a great release, it's very liberating, you know, for someone to write about
Studs Terkel You know, Nelson Algren, now, had a phrase: Life is terrible, thank God.
Michael Frayn [Laughs]
Studs Terkel I suppose for a creative person, that may be so, for a creative person.
Michael Frayn [Laughs] It certainly would be very, very difficult to be any kind of comic writer in a country where everything was perfectly organized and perfectly governed.
Studs Terkel Michael Frayn, you have to go to lunch, any base we haven't touched you feel like touching before we say goodbye for now.
Michael Frayn I think we've covered quite