I regret to report my disappointment with Michael Frayn’s admired, and even drooled-over, Democracy, now on Broadway via the National Theatre. To find myself bored by a playwright of such refined intelligence and wit as Mr. Frayn is no facile thing to admit.
I’ve enjoyed his work and that of his cultivated director, Michael Blakemore, for many years. But Democracy is rudimentary as a political play and tedious as a drama. In many repetitive, illustrative ways, Mr. Frayn’s basically true story of Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor, and Günter Guillaume, the East German spy who betrayed him, amounts to a non-play.
The renowned dramatist is continuing his fascination with shadowy personalities and opposing forces: socialist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin, the duality of divided souls and countries, the spy who’s the servant of two masters, political idealism and compromise, the uncertain, warring “democracy”-I guess-within us all. If only he had brought them to life! But like Democracy’s close relative, Copenhagen, and the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg circling each other like electrons in endless collision, the new play proves as dry as a bleached bone on a beach.
Mr. Frayn’s subjects-Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the German Chancellor plagued by uncertainty-prove more fascinating in theory than in his dramatic representation of them. They read better in scholarly essays and biographies. We’re told throughout Democracy, for example, that Willy Brandt possesses a mysteriously mesmerizing personality-but where is it? We’re told that momentous events and betrayals are taking place behind closed doors-but where are they? Do we honestly experience any of them?
To begin at the end, Mr. Frayn has borrowed his closing coup de théâtre from The Cherry Orchard. No particular crime in that. But when the ominous thudding of a pickax is heard signaling the fall of the Berlin Wall as Chekhov’s ax speaks of the symbolic destruction of his orchard, Mr. Frayn’s monumental moment hasn’t been truly earned.
The impact of the fall of the Wall itself-one of the most dramatic events in modern history-has been borrowed from another play (and a masterpiece at that). But the meticulous Mr. Blakemore, who usually avoids even a hint of theatrical blatancy, has made it only worse by illustrating the fall with a stage effect I must have seen half a dozen times before: He collapses the set.
The Berlin Wall falls; the set falls down! Directors from Britain have been doing it ever since the Edwardian house on the hill collapsed in ruins at the end of The Inspector Calls. It’s The End of One Civilization and The Beginning of The New, and it’s a whopping theatrical cliché by now. Mr. Blakemore’s lapse is by no means typical of his otherwise fine work here, particularly during a wonderful moment at the close of Act I when he conjures up election-eve tension from thin air. I’m taking the final scene of Democracy as my own symbol of what’s wrong with the play. The point is, we are once and twice removed from the real drama at hand.
Every scene-and every scene within a scene-is an exposition. Mr. Frayn’s basic device is to have the spy, Guillaume, describe what’s happening to his hovering party boss, Kretschmann, and a scene is then acted out.
“And now-the big day!” Guillaume announces.
“You met Willy?” Kretschmann inquires.
“I’d just come downstairs and put my helpful smiling face round the door …. Would you like me to slip out for a sandwich, Reinhard? Oh, hello, Horst. How are things on your side of the corridor? Sandwich for you?”
Enter Willy Brandt with the line: “Capitalism stands on the brink of the abyss!”
We’re not too far from Tom Stoppard’s send-up of the old-style detective-play genre, when the maid answers the phone with “Lady Muldoon’s residence, one morning early in spring.”
“So, you and Willy! Under the same roof!” says Kretschmann. “Starting your new jobs together!”
“I joined the party the year Willy became governing Mayor of Berlin. Our stars are linked!”
A few lines later: ” … And now here I am at work. A little room all to myself, up in the attics of the Palais Schaumburg. My first morning!”
A few lines later: “So there you are in the Palais Schaumburg! What’s it like?”
Guillaume thus describes the scene: “Towers, casements. A nineteenth-century ironmaster’s dream of the aristocratic life …. “
And so it goes. The Chancellor is described as one of the most visionary politicians in history, but what he actually says on the stump is anything any posturing politician says: “Dear friends, I say to you and I say to all our people: have the courage to show compassion.” No doubt Mr. Frayn took Brandt’s rhetoric from his real speeches, which only makes it worse. “We have to trust each other, it’s the only way we can live …. “
No Churchill, Willy. No Gandhi, either. Not as we experience him in Democracy, anyway. Mr. Frayn’s Brandt is merely stodgy, solemn and humorless with his bad jokes and weary indecisiveness. It doesn’t help that James Naughton, an actor best known for musicals, plays him ponderously, lacking the quality of excitement and sex appeal that we can only assume Brandt possessed. He was a drinker and a womanizer, apparently. What’s so unusual-or riveting-about that? It’s a familiar tale, and Mr. Frayn deals with it tokenly, as if leaving us to fill in the blanks.
But let a key moment from Brandt’s mythology suffice for all that could be said about the dramatist’s bland portrait of him. On the Chancellor’s historic journey to East Germany, thousands turned out to hear him speak. But he said nothing. Not a word! Imagine if Kennedy had delivered ” Ich bin ein Berliner” in silence, as it were. Brandt stood before the adoring crowds, and he made what the play describes as “a characteristic little gesture” that turned out to be “one of the greatest speeches of his career.” The crowd was captivated and history recorded the astonishing moment. What could be more dramatic?
And if a non-actor, Brandt, could convey a miraculous, silent message to multitudes, what might a real actor achieve on a stage? The fictional Brandt stood before us and made a calming gesture, but the moment went for little or nothing. It was merely described:
“A silent speech to a nonexistent nation,” the awestruck Wilke comments, “and each person in the crowd feels he’s being spoken to like a human being. Spoken to personally. One small gesture.
“‘Easy now! Easy does it!’”
It’s like the silent piano. We’re told that it plays miraculous music-but nothing’s there! So a number of critics who very much admire Democracy tell us that it’s a banquet of unforgettable insights into the art of politics and the complexities of human nature, but they neglect to tell us where we can find them in the play.
That a political leader as sophisticated as Brandt could fall for the deception of an obvious creep like Guillaume is factually true, but dramatically laughable. The Brandt-Guillaume partnership makes a lame spy story. Richard Thomas plays the lurking Guillaume without any nuance-a schoolboy Cassius to a cypher Caesar.
As a play of ideas, Democracy doesn’t stimulate or surprise. The notion that the backstage politics conducted by gray men in gray suits amounts to a dirty business isn’t freshly dramatized here; nor theories about the duality of man that have been richly explored by Jung (as far back as Cain and Abel). But where is the dirt and blood and uproar of anyone’s inner life in the play?
More and more, Mr. Frayn belongs to the generation of British dramatists for whom an understated, neat formality and restrained good taste is preferred over passion and attitude. It’s a very British view of the world-this innate, dry, dispassionate reserve, a national trait worn like an identity bracelet, a badge of honor.
Mr. Frayn has finally succeeded in having no personality as a writer. For him, it’s an objective, thoughtful ideal. For myself, it’s an abdication of the playwright’s voice and heart. He has often quoted the German playwright Friedrich Hebbel saying that “in a good play everyone is right.” And he takes it to mean that the ideal playwright doesn’t take sides.
Mr. Frayn’s model of detachment is Chekhov (he’s a frequent adapter of Chekhov’s plays.) But with the greatest respect to Mr. Frayn, Moscow is not London NW.1, and the understated national temperament of the British is a thousand miles from the lightning mood changes and emotional swings of the Russian. Chekhov isn’t a detached dramatist. It’s true that he represents all voices. But there’s passion in his revolutionary idealist and his invasive capitalist, and broken hearts are in his lost souls who yearn for peace.
Well, whether I’m right or wrong, Mr. Frayn believes in a theater aesthetic in which every character has a point, everyone a voice. The personal fires and visions of the dramatist are neutralized. But I cannot help myself. I am for all those who write with passion and poetry and pain revealed. Damn all good taste and English restraint. Is this the venal babble of the political arena? Is this the anguished voice of Willy Brandt?