To be a member of a good audience is exhilarating. The sounds that it makes around you are as much a part of the show as the sounds from the stage: the sound of alert anticipation before the curtain rises — the sound of silence — the sound of implications being understood — the sound of generosity in laughter and response.
This description occurs early in the first half of the collection, where Frayn describes the processes involved in the writing, rehearsal, re-writing and performance of his original plays. Many of these reflections and ruminations relate to what is often called — though he never, I think, uses the word — the magic of theatre: the sense of occasion; the unspoken conspiracy between players and spectators; the chemistry that is produced by the successful interplay of action and reaction. This indefinable quality that one recognises only in the moment that it occurs, and cannot necessarily be reproduced, is only present in a good production; in a bad production the audience is only too aware of the play’s articifice and the actors’ performance and the spell is broken. Frayn writes engagingly and entertainingly of both sorts, nailing down — as far as it is possible to nail down the ephemeral — aspects of theatrical production which the layman has usually never paused to think about but which, once stated, immediately strike a chord. He writes, for example, of the changeability of audience response, which can send an evening to heaven or hell.
Audiences have communal responses, and communal responses are unpredictable and violent because they are self-reinforcing. You begin to warm to what you’re seeing; your warmth warms the people around you; their warmth warms you back; your corporate warmth warms the performers; you all warm to the performers’ warmth. Or you chill, and the chill spreads around, then up to the stage and back. In all responses in the theatre there is an element of either love or hate. Love encourages and cherishes and overlooks faults; hate discourages and wishes for failure. Loved performers respond with love; performers who feel the audience’s antagonism reply in kind. And as always, love and hate lie close together, ever ready to change places. The history of every drama, when you come to look at it, is a drama in itself, with the same tendency to sudden shifts of feeling and reversals of fortune.
The history of his own plays forms the first part of the book — both of their writing and their production. Here one can also discover the relationship between the documentary record on which plays such as Copenhagen, Democracy and Afterlife were based and the dramatist’s constraints and aspirations. The latter part concerns Frayn’s translations and adaptations of plays by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Trifonon and Offenbach’s opera retitled La Belle Vivette. Here we see Frayn as a playwright in its true meaning, as a maker rather than a writer of plays, as a craftsman and a problem-solver. He traces not only the history of each of the plays in its original form, which is indeed a drama in itself, but the history of his journey to rendering the Russian classics accessible and meaningful to a Western audience without losing their integrity and authenticity. The tiniest nuance can of course be of the greatest significance in translation, such as Nina’s line in The Seagull where she states, in all previous translations, ‘I am a seagull,’ indicating she is clearly mad and thinks she is a bird. Frayn’s translation gives, ‘I am the seagull,’ implying a rational recognition of her relation to a central image in the play. Similarly the line ‘Missed again!’ uttered by Vanya in Uncle Vanya — while it gets a laugh, occurring as it does when he fails to hit his target at point-blank range — eludes the fullest sense of the word Chekhov has chosen, which refers to any kind of mistake — all the mistakes of Vanya’s life, summed up in a moment.
Frayn’s book has something in it for writer, reader, actor, spectator, translator, historian, professional and layman alike. Affectionate towards his subject without being indulgent, Frayn is never pretentious and never impenetrable: this is writing on theatre as it ought to be.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 10, 2008