Walls and Other Perils of Democracy

03.6.2005 | Cassandra Johnson | Theater
Late to the theatre for the first (okay, the second) time in my life, I rushed into the Brooks Atkinson with my proverbial tail between my legs. This is not easy to admit, as I have righteously claimed that people who are late to the theatre shouldn’t be allowed back for a year; as if the theatre can afford to ban patrons. Red faced from rushing and shame, I begged to be allowed in only to learn that far from being shocked, the box office clerks and ushers didn’t care. This must happen all the time, I realized, as I was escorted into the dark theatre and casually led to my seat. I gripped my program in horror, fully expecting to be stoned or at least booed, before finally arriving in my seat, where I checked my phone for the fourth time and exhaled, knowing that the worst was over. I looked around, taking in the scene I normally assess pre-curtain: the grandeur of the huge theatre; the hundreds of heads around me; the huge proscenium with the actors elevated and far away; the clean cleverness of the expensive set, and the false, echoic sound of the actors’ miked voices. So this is Broadway.

I was there to see Democracy, my first Broadway venture since beginning this column, and I hadn’t realized how accustomed I’d become to more intimate spaces. The play, written by Michael Frayn — recipient of 1999’s Pulitzer Prize for Copenhagen — and directed by Michael Blakemore, is the true story of the brief career of an East German spy Günter Guillame (Richard Thomas), who muscles his way into the office of German Chancellor Willy Brandt (James Naughton).  Despite some fine moments, the classic proscenium and the unnecessary use of hidden microphones amounted to a fourth wall as divisive as the Berlin Wall, if transparent to the eye. This cold separation was emphasized by a style of acting that, to paraphrase a line of the play, kept spontaneity firmly under control.

The play is set in a two-level office connected via a spiral staircase, with the upstairs doubling as a traveling balcony from which the Chancellor addresses the public. Both floors are lined with rows filled with multi-colored files and separated by partitions with desks. By turning their attention to presumed work at their desks, characters disengaged from the action without leaving the stage. All this made fertile ground for an energetic production, but the matinée I saw lacked the insistency and suspenseful qualities that other critics have praised. Instead, as the performers declared and commented on their lines, I was constantly reminded that I was “at the theatre”.

This style may have been deliberate, as the play’s characters are all political men, who must act in front of one another. This double consciousness is especially prominent in Guillame, who initially poses as an office aide and then as the Chancellor’s very personal assistant in Bonn’s Palais Schaumburg. Tensions are high in Parliament as eleven different parties wrestle within the Federal Republic of West Germany.

Chancellor Brandt is a strange breed of leader: an elitist-idealist-messiah with the charisma and bleeding-heart notions to attract large crowds, but whose penchant for red wine and women challenge his moral repute. Naughton invests Brandt with a radio-announcer voice and diction that any leader would die for, but from the stage his artificially amplified voice made him hard to fall for, in the way his crowds, hundreds of women, and spy Guillaume — also serving as the play’s narrator — supposedly do.  Although the play’s subject matter is historical, Frayn himself says that it’s really about “the complexity of human arrangements and of human beings themselves.”  The play is not meant to be a mere cold, intellectual evaluation of clear-cut events.

Thomas portrays Guillaume with a Quixotic naïveté that suits a spy who must stay in the good graces of his host nation, a flea who must go unnoticed by the dog. He lingers like a “hat stand,” as he calls himself, in the corners of the room, by turns involved in the action and a voyeur who relays his discoveries in real-time to his boss Arno Kretschmnn (Michael Cumpsty), who spends much of the play circling the periphery of the stage, at times departing to relay the news back to his boss, the mysterious former Stasi chief Mischa Wolf, whom we never meet. We watch both Guillaumes evolve: the feigned defect who comes to love his new master and gain his favor, and the spy who is homesick and watching his family fall apart. His wife, who “seems to have been doing a little spying on her own account”, discovers his “professional” affairs with secretaries, after the fashion of the Chancellor, and wants a divorce.

Politics have effaced reality amongst these West German politicians who no longer remember where their families live, or if they even have a family. In Democracy the personal is blurred into the political: As Guillaume comes to love the Chancellor, his heart is as divided as his vote. And although hard choices can immobilize, man must still choose.  As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” Chancellor Brandt dreams of a “life without conflict” and his campaign slogans are Biblical: “Have the courage to show compassion…,” “Have the courage to love your neighbor…,” “Have the courage to find your own true selves…” His aphorisms whine like tipsy clichés and seem out of place on the campaign trail, but like the glass of red wine fairly glued to his hand, they carry the seed of possibility, of camaraderie, of the soul’s warmth and peace.

His and Guillaume’s romantic descriptions of women, who in their shared delusion crown some pedestal, rings similarly pathetic, but also reveals true longing for an ideal and for freedom. Guillaume asks, “What is it about women, Chief?” Brandt replies, “The way they look at you…The way they look straight into your eyes and you look straight into theirs. The way you can’t understand them. The way you can.” “The way they look seriously at you. The way they make fun of you.” “The way they’re not like men.” “The way they are.” It all feels like a really bad country song or sonnet. “The way they smell; the way they don’t,” might be next. But then the Chancellor goes on in a more revealing vein: “All the different people you can be with them. All the different ways your life might go…” Like the actor who gets to play many parts, so is the Casanova with his many women.

In his production note Frayn calls the peaceful “half-century or so” that followed Nazi Germany “an achievement at which I never cease to marvel or to be moved.” He goes:

Federal Germany began life after the Second World War as a graveyard in which almost every city had been reduced to rubble, and almost every institution and political resource contaminated by complicity in the crimes of National Socialism; yet from this utter desolation its citizens constructed one of the most stable and decent states in Europe, the cornerstone of a peace which has endured now, at least in Western Europe, for nearly 60 years.
In the play these sentiments are echoed in the Chancellor’s mouth:

1945. Every city in Germany reduced to rubble. So what did we start rebuilding with? The rubble. It was all we had…out of them we built the plain straightforward cities we all live in today. It was the same with the people…they were our building materials…Now what confronts us? Two Germanies, broken apart like the old shattered masonry. This is the material out of which we have to build the world we’re going to be living in tomorrow…Riddled with doubts and suspicions on both sides.
Just as King Lear howls against the storm that mirrors his inner turmoil, the set of Democracy mirrors the souls of its tiered, divided citizens, whose feelings are forcefully filed into endless compartments. Several of the play’s scenes take place on board the Chancellor’s special campaign train, while he and Guillaume chug through the German countryside and watch life roll by. A train is no new metaphor, and here as elsewhere it parallels the human journey, all that it misses while traveling one fixed path, in an irreversible direction.

Though a political play, Democracy offers no polemics. Early in the second act Kretschmann cries, “Democracy, Günter! Sixty million separate selves, rolling about the ship like loose cargo in a storm.” On the same note the character Schmidt cries earlier, “You can’t keep everyone happy, Willy! Not if you’re running a government! We’ve got to come to a decision!” “Keeping everyone happy” is an idealist’s dream that democracy must forego; making a decision immediately renders that impossible.

Whether a practical device for filling in the gaps or a creative attempt to make biography theatrical, Frayn’s decision to have Guillaume narrate the play to his puppeteer Kretschmann contributes to the mythical qualities of a factually historical play, giving us the God-like ability to see many sides at once and therefore to glean a more complex understanding of Frayn’s theme of complexity in human life, in both the political and personal spheres.  Despite the aid of narration, however, for the politically and historically inexpert, following the play was a task in itself, draining attention away from his larger ideas. I have heard the same said of Frayn’s Copenhagen, a play about the role of nuclear physics in World War II, but a couple of years ago in Santa Fe I saw a relatively small town production of the latter that moved and thrilled in ways that some critics claim to have experienced Democracy, but which escaped me. As with most debatably great plays, whether it is the play itself or the production that is flawed (or both) is difficult to disentangle.

I get the feeling that Frayn is passionately in love with history, language, poetry, the theatre, and with his story.  And he is blessed by every muse.  He aspired to do something great with Democracy, had all the right ingredients and the right intentions, but his passion didn’t translate as well as his English versions of the Chekhov plays.  A palatable lack of reaction — either emotional or intellectual — was present in the theatre.  And when a storyteller fails to infect others with his passion, they no longer desire to hear him sing about his history or his dreams.

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