By Jonathan Kalb
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
. . . 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.