It sounds farcical, but Frayn's written ending to 'Noises Off' 800 times!
Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off made him famous. But when he first wrote it, in 1982, there was a problem. The first two-and-a-half acts were farce, but the final half act was serious.
When they tested the play in previews, they realised the ending wasn't working. So Frayn rewrote it. It still didn't work. He rewrote it again. Still not working. He rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Eventually, the actors simply refused to take any more rewrites.
By now, Frayn had turned the ending of the play into farce, but he still wasn't happy. "It's very difficult to end a farce," he observes, on the phone from his home in London.
It may not have been perfect, but it was good enough. Noises Off was an enormous hit, transferring to the West End and later opening on Broadway. Yet, when the West End production got a new cast, he rewrote it again. And when it was revived at the National, almost 20 years later, he rewrote it again.
"If you've seen a play that many times, you absolutely itch to get it better," he says. "I must have written the ending 800 times, but I still wouldn't say it was right."
Frayn is something of a hero of mine. Like me, he started as a journalist, and had his first play produced in his late 30s. His plays Copenhagen (about atomic physics during the war) and Democracy (set in post-war West Germany) were part of the inspiration for my play Guaranteed!. Both are based on in-depth historical research and are steeped in politics. Like Guaranteed!, which basically consists of men in suits talking about banking, Democracy was not an obvious sell: it consists of "10 men in suits talking about West German politics".
Frayn, though, has two things on me: 40 years of experience, and massive success. So I was keen to ask him for his advice.
"You have the same problem as I do," he said. "I know how to write the last play that I wrote. But I don't know how to write the next one."
Is it ethically problematic to fictionalise real people? "My theory is that it is perfectly fair to write fictionally about historical events provided you make reasonably clear what you made up," he says. "The point of this is that you can guess at things which the historical record can't guess at, such as how people felt and thought about things."
He was approached one night in New York after a production of Copenhagen by a man who introduced himself, to Frayn's "considerable alarm", as the son of one of the play's central characters, Werner Heisenberg. "Your Heisenberg is nothing like my father," said the son. "I never saw my father express emotion about anything except music. But I understand that the characters in a play have to be rather more forthcoming than that."
What did he learn from journalism? "As a journalist, you have to catch people's interest in a story. That is something writers of novels and plays should (always) bear in mind. All writers of fiction should be required to go and do some reporting every now and then – to remind themselves what the world is actually like. The world is unbelievably complicated and not at all like anybody describes it in fiction."
In an earlier interview in the Paris Review, Frayn described how interviewers used to ask him why he wrote farces, instead of writing about life "as it is". "I couldn't understand what their lives must be like," he said.
"It seems to me that everyday life has a very strong tendency towards farce; that is to say, things go wrong. And they go wrong often in a very complex and logically constructed way – one disaster leads to another, and the combination of two disasters leads to a third disaster, which is the essence of classical farce: disaster building upon itself. It seems to me that the same thing happens in life, in my life anyway."
This production of Noises Off comes from the Old Vic, where it broke box-office records, proving that farce can be a very serious business.
Noises Off comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin from July 8 to 13; www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie.