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Richard Thomas and James Naughton in Michael Frayn's "Democracy"Spy Trails
By Jonathan Kalb

Democracy
By Michael Frayn
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 307-4100

 

 

 

 

 

In a program note to his new play, Democracy, the British playwright Michael Frayn laments that "The only part of German history that seems to arouse much interest abroad is the Nazi period. The half-century or so which has followed Germany's awakening from that sick dream is thought to be a time of peaceful but dull respectability." Germany's postwar prosperity, peacefulness, and "even that supposed dullness," writes Frayn, "represent an achievement at which I never cease to marvel or to be moved," and he set out to write a major play about that.

It was a noble ambition. At a time when democracy seems to be on the wane in the United States and much of the world, Frayn sought to spotlight what he saw as an instance of marvelous waxing in the wake of utter desolation and moral degradation. Furthermore, since that degradation had partly to do with human institutions gone awry, he wanted to look closely at another kind of institution that did a better job addressing the "reconciliation of irreconcilable views." There was something about the very humdrum nature of coalition politics, mirroring the bureaucratic tendencies of Germans, that spurred his interest.

Trouble is, dullness and respectability have never been the best fuels to ignite a major play, so Frayn found a sexier focus in the most colorful German political figure of the period, Willy Brandt. Even a brief sketch of Brandt's eventful life will explain why this new focus immediately overwhelmed all previous intentions.

Born Herbert Frahm and active in the Socialist Youth Movement from his early teens, Brandt left Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazis and never again worked under his given name. During exile, he did resistance work in Norway and Sweden under various pseudonyms, at one point returning to Berlin disguised as a Norwegian. He was Mayor of West Berlin when the Berlin Wall went up. In 1969, he became the first German Chancellor from the left in forty years, and under his Eastern Policy (Ostpolitik) he cooled tensions with the Soviets, Poland and the GDR by signing previously unthinkable cooperation agreements--for which many branded him a traitor despite his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1974, he resigned as Chancellor after his personal assistant, GŁnter Guillaume, was unmasked as an East German spy. Dramatizing dull respectability while telling this story well was a puzzle even the ingenious Frayn could not solve.

Democracy--which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York in November following a sold-out run with a different cast at the National Theatre in London--is a sort of companion piece to Copenhagen, Frayn's play about a secret wartime meeting of two nuclear physicists that ran for ten months on Broadway in 2000-01. Both works are peculiar hybrids, products of prodigious research and copious historical documentation that ultimately spurn the rigors of docudrama in favor of ruminations on uncertainty. Frayn's absorbing 1999 novel Headlong plays a similar game, inviting readers to follow an elaborate scholarly argument about Bruegel that turns out to be useless to the characters. Frayn, who was trained as a philosopher at Cambridge, seems to be taking a philosophical attitude toward research of late, indulging in it in order to jettison it as a narrative shill.

Democracy spends most of its time--two hours and forty minutes, in Michael Blakemore's production--recounting the highlights of Brandt's Chancellorship. On a spare, white, modernist, two-level office set whose walls are arrayed with obsessively orderly rows of color-coded files (design by Peter J. Davison), Brandt is seen: dealing with a half dozen gray-suited party colleagues (including the hyper-ambitious Helmut Schmidt, who itches to displace him); celebrating the triumph of his Ostpolitik; surviving a no-confidence vote and a second national election; responding to radical terrorism; kneeling at the memorial to the murdered Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and much, much more.

This thicket of historical minutiae is played off against the more personal story of Brandt's private afflictions (depression, alcoholism, indecision) and his relationship with the non-descript Guillaume, who boasts to his Stasi handler, Arno Kretschmann (Michael Cumpsty) that he's a "Hatstand. No one notices it." Along with Kretschmann, Guillaume acts as narrator, standing both inside and outside the action. Played by Richard Thomas with a padded belly and a jovial servility that irritates but never quite justifies Brandt's description of him as "greasy," Guillaume meets with Kretschmann at a cafť table to the side and speaks often over his shoulder to him while acting in scenes with his office colleagues. Kretschmann sometimes answers questions that Guillaume puts to others, or fills in background no one has asked for.

Brecht would have admired this device. Clever and efficient, it's one of those lively approaches to keeping multiple balls in the air for which Frayn is rightly admired, and it has the provocative effect of forcing the audience to consider the Stasi viewpoint as normative. Guillaume is given enough emotional latitude to appreciate the romance and drama of electoral politics ("Never mind football! Try parliamentary democracy!") but Kretschmann toes the ideological line and provides a Martian-like perch for viewing the Western system: "Democracy, GŁnter! Sixty million separate selves, rolling about the ship like loose cargo in a storm."

When Brandt's grizzled SPD colleague Herbert Wehner (cunningly played by Robert Prosky) comes out with cynical quips like, "the more [democracy] you dare, the tighter the grip you have to keep on it," it's easy to lose track of who the good guys and bad guys are. (In his memoirs, the real Brandt suggested that Wehner had conspired in his downfall.) In the end, Brandt's Ostpolitik is seen as having hastened the end of the Cold War, with Guillaume sharing credit because his reports convinced the GDR leaders to trust Brandt. The fall of the Berlin Wall prompts the evening's sole technical coup de theater.

Frayn's boldest conception in Democracy was to imagine the extraordinary ordinariness of representative government as a dramatic spectacle, filling us with wonder at the skin-of-our-teeth miracle that such a system survives at all, anywhere, given the constant doubts and attacks on it from without and within. As in all his serious plays, however, his deeper purpose here is to dramatize the complex, divided nature of human beings. The complications, negotiations, compromises and infighting of representative government are used as a figure for social life. "I think human beings are kind of democracies within themselves," Frayn said in a recent interview.

Thus, the fictional Brandt is not only attacked from all sides over public policy but also haunted by the plurality of masks and aliases he has adopted. Guillaume is not only spying on him but also a little in love with him. Horst Ehmke, a loyal aide (affably played by Richard Masur) whom Brandt carelessly pushes away, puts the theme this way: "Life's such a tangle . . . Everyone looking at everyone else. Everyone seeing something different. Everyone trying to guess what everyone else is seeing. It's such an endless shifting unreliable indecipherable unanalysable mess!"

For all its probing and cleverness, however, Democracy isn't Frayn's happiest conception for accommodating his characteristic theme. His ambivalent obsession with research got in the way this time. His 1984 play Benefactors is, to my knowledge, Frayn's most elegant use of this theme because it dwells on the uncertain "goodness" of a controversial public works project by following the changing private relations within and between two couples. In Copenhagen, the balancing trick was harder because he set himself the task of teaching spectators the basics of quantum mechanics. He managed things there, though, by limiting the cast to three characters who described themselves as ghosts and compared themselves to subatomic particles, circling one another in a wonderfully ambiguous human-rights-court-cum-electron-cloud. Somehow, all their talk about particle attraction, repulsion, and spin was easily understood as passionate, metaphorical references to trust, friendship, love, and survival.

Richard Thomas and Michael Cumpsty in Michael Frayn's "Democracy"Democracy, by contrast, takes place in a cold, sterile office and has ten characters who all come off as too thinly drawn for anything but straight docudrama. It's far less effective at intertwining its human stories with philosophical aims. Guillaume's editorializing as narrator, for instance, signals that he's the play's real lead, yet his role can't bear that responsibility with its nebishy persona and diminutive emotional compass. He's split internally because of his infatuation with Brandt, but it's not a profound split, nothing like the Iago-like monumental grudge he'd need to sustain focus over Brandt. Tellingly, neither he nor Kretschmann have much to say in the way of compelling description of the GDR, its values, or its society. Both speak about "home" in generalities and without conviction.

This muddied focus puts the actor playing Brandt in an awkward position, and indeed James Naughton has taken considerable flak from reviewers for his starchy, patrician portrayal of Brandt (too Kerryesque, it seems, whereas the real Brandt was more expansive, like Clinton). Naughton deserves credit, though, for fleshing out a character that Frayn left emotionally sketchy. Whether drinking and brooding in a lone armchair on the set's upper level, or standing beside Guillaume exchanging rather ordinary thoughts about why both can't help leering at women, he brings psychological cogency, complexity and gravity to many moments where the script leaves him blanks.

There is one scene late in the action that suggests what Democracy might have been had its characters been given more thoroughly imagined inner lives. The restrained Brandt, having been told that Guillaume is under suspicion, finds himself suddenly flush with appreciation of human complexity: "The merest possibility that Guillaume's not what he seems makes him infinitely more tolerable." Brandt then agrees (so that Guillaume can be kept under observation) to go on vacation to Norway with him and their two families, and there the spy-game becomes double-edged and the dialogue spiced with refreshing irony.

Guillaume: Freedom . . . That's what's so relaxing about this place, Chief. You can leave all the doors unlocked and let the kids run wild.
Brandt: You know why that is, GŁnter?
Guillaume: Because the whole area's been sealed off by the local police.
Brandt: Our own little police state to make you feel at home.

This circumstance adds present-tense excitement to the historical reports of Brandt's wartime spying, and it wipes the smile briefly off the face of the play's smug, panoptical narrator: a few more scenes like this would've done a lot to lift Democracy more securely above its factual quicksands.

These problems aside, though, I found myself grateful that Democracy had arrived on Broadway amid a dreadful election season. A strong narration of Brandt's political fall holds invaluable lessons for the present moment, when millions are questioning whether it's even possible for a gentle, compassionate, sophisticated, worldly, secular, enlightened, peacemaking leadership to prevail again over a simplistically belligerent, hawkish, deliberately narrow-minded, ideologically blinkered leadership that plays cynically on people's fears and base instincts. Regardless whether you buy Frayn's argument about Brandt and the Cold War, any drama that prompts sober reflection on this question at this moment has earned a respected place in American culture.

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