Photo: Amy Arbus

Okay, maybe Michael Frayn’s Democracy isn’t as sensational a play as word from London had it, and there may be reason to believe that the Broadway cast lacks the London’s flawlessness. But it is, even here, engrossing: political but also personal, fascinatingly specific but also searchingly universal. Its often epigrammatic language can be ironic, bitter, philosophical, and even lyrically tender. It is a tragicomic lament for the parliamentary democracy it views as a utopian ideal, and also an elegy for one of its humanly imperfect champions, Willy Brandt, West Germany’s socialist chancellor from 1969 to 1974, and winner of the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on a rapprochement between East and West.

One of the causes of Brandt’s downfall was Günter Guillaume, an East German spy in the chancellor’s employ, long undetected partly because of (as Frayn has it) a worshipful affection he developed for Brandt, who didn’t really like him but found him useful as a factotum and sounding board. It is a symbiotic relationship, and Frayn captures it in all its complexity and ambivalence. He has apparently absorbed every historical or journalistic account of the various West German political figures and the spy in their midst, and seamlessly interpolated his acute insights and artfully imagined dialogue. The one obvious but inconsequential liberty taken is the fusion of several men into Arno Kretschmann, the pseudonymous and never-detected East German figure to whom Guillaume reported.

Surely the most brilliant device is the one whereby Guillaume is simultaneously involved with Brandt and his Social Democratic Party cabinet at stage (and political) right and Kretschmann at stage (and political) left—or maybe it’s the way two actions on different stage levels interpenetrate and still remain apart. The result is a running commentary from West to East and back, a critique of the personal by the political and vice versa. Or, as Kretschmann observes, “Three political parties, in and out of bed with each other like drunken intellectuals. Fifteen warring Cabinet ministers in Bonn alone, and 60 million separate egos. All making deals with each other and breaking them… . All trying to guess which way everyone else will jump. All out for themselves, and all totally dependent on everyone else.” Again, take the crapulent Brandt’s wonderfully ironic (or is it merely tipsy?) comment, “Under capitalism, man is oppressed by man. Under socialism, it’s the other way round.” And here is the ex-communist Herbert Wehner, now a Social Democratic mainstay: “Let me tell you what I’ve learnt from bitter experience about democracy. The more of it you dare, the tougher the grip you have to keep on it.”

But don’t think the play is all about politics and dueling ideologies. Characters come to vibrant life recollecting and regretting their past, dreaming about their future, lusting after or getting involved with women. Marriages and families are achingly invoked, jokes are desolately exchanged, confessions allowed to slip out. From turbulent panoramas, the focus narrows to pulsating duologues; Guillaume spies on Brandt, and Brandt on Guillaume, which turns into a mostly but not entirely one-sided quasi–love affair.

Michael Blakemore re-creates his justly praised London staging, though the slack-lipped, semi-cretinous John Christopher Jones (Foreign Minister Genscher) and the squeaky-voiced Jewish comedian Lee Wilkof (security chief Nollau) are out of place here. The dedicated James Naughton adumbrates but does not quite convey Brandt’s stature and charisma, and there is something a bit too schematic about Michael Cumpsty’s Kretschmann. Richard Thomas, however, does encompass the tormented duality of the oily Guillaume, and Robert Prosky as the mordant Machiavel Wehner, John Dossett as the suave but unpredictable Helmut Schmidt, and Richard Masur as the genially academic Horst Ehmke fashion fully rounded characters.

Peter J. Davison’s sleek décor neatly blends realism with suggestive abstraction, Mark Henderson’s lighting adds nicely storytelling touches, and Sue Wilmington’s costumes are germanely Germanic. The fact that Frayn spent some time in postwar Germany does not begin to explain his astonishing grasp of the subject. My only concern is that insular American theatergoers, especially younger ones, may, through no fault of the author’s, fail to make contact with the crucial relevance underneath the seemingly remote particulars. For most American audiences, Germany is either the nasty Nazis from simplistic Hollywood movies or the recent isolationist Krautland, obdurately unwilling to join our troops fighting in Iraq. Whereas most British audiences are aware of what went on not so long ago in the Federal German Republic and its communist neighbor across the Wall, younger Americans, blissfully ignorant of even our own history, may remain yawningly uninvolved. I was particularly struck when, leaving, I overheard a benighted woman tell her escort, “They should have had German accents; it would have been more

Willy Brandt’s womanizing and obsessive shuttle diplomacy weren’t the only proto-Clintonian aspects of the German leader’s biography. Born to a shopgirl in Lübeck, Brandt never met his father. Radicalized in the thirties, he joined the Socialist Workers Party and fled to Norway, then to Sweden when Hitler invaded. He flirted with Marxism (then soured on communist extremism), reported on the Spanish Civil War, and returned to rejoin the Social Democrats in a blockaded Berlin in 1947. Mayor when JFK declared himself ein Berliner, by 1969 he was chancellor—and the world’s first true politician of the third way. 

by Michael Frayn
Directed By Michael Blakemore
National Theatre Of Great Britain
At The Brooks Atkinson Theatre