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July 16, 2004

Democracy - Michael Frayn

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Michael Frayn's Democracy
Wyndham's Theatre, London
National Theatre Production

Michael Frayn's curiously titled play Democracy is based on the one notable scandal that ruffled the otherwise largely uneventful surface of post-war politics in the Federal Republic of Germany. The Chancellor Willy Brandt, a great hero to many people, fell from grace (and power) because it turned out that the manager of his political office was an East German spy. What does this tell us about democracy? Basically, the answer is not very much - though we'll come back to the point. The really fascinating thing about the play, however, is its representation of politicians going about the business of power. Here we find men in suits and they are all male manoeuvring and posturing for each other's benefit in a world of fake intimacies.

Willy Brandt was a good German who had opposed the Nazis and came back to Germany after the war to become Mayor of Berlin. In a world full of passionate anti-Communists, Brandt sought reconciliation with the East, especially with the East Germans whom he could never regard as foreign to West Germany. His Ostpolitik made him a hero to many Germans, and Frayn is fascinated by the way in which he could communicate with his audiences almost as much by his silences as by his words. The crowds felt, it seemed, that he was talking to each of them directly, even though such rhetoric as "courage with compassion" and "justice with love" had a rather stale and impersonal sound. But what was the real Brandt beneath the public positions? This question soon develops into a more searching one: who actually was he? For rather like the spy who betrayed him, Brandt also had a variety of different names and identities, stretching back to his own deliberate reinvention as a teenage social democrat.

The events of Democracy unroll against a split-level set full of bureaucratic pigeonholes. Brandt making public utterances stands on the top level, and often takes up a silent pose reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln in the Washington memorial. The party manoeuvring takes place on the lower level. All is bustle and excitement, but our attention is fixed on the East German plant Gunter Guillaume whose passion to please servile enough to make most of the others dislike him - allows him to insinuate himself ever closer to the centre of things, which means into Brandt's affections. And we know all about what is going on, because while his public life is largely pretence, Gunter is telling all to his "handler", and thus to us, in a running commentary on the realities of the situation.

The East German spymaster is a laconic figure but he's quite clear about what capitalist democracy is "Sixty million egoists" trying to compose a community. What else can you expect from such a system? We Communists will win, he thinks, because we speak with one voice. Heard against the shifting sands of Western politics, against the endless nervy parade of opportunism in Brandt's associates, this looks like a bit of gritty realism, but it is, of course, an illusion. Indeed, nearly everything in the play turns out to be illusion. Complexity, as Frayn himself tells us, is its theme. On the other hand, democracy is the least worst system, and that may well result from the fact that, in reflecting the fluid instabilities of human beings, it at least makes an honest attempt to recognise them as it goes about the messy business of sustaining some sort of civil unity.

But playwrights never tell us much about systems. They are people people. And for my money, the fascination of Democracy lies in what we learn about human intimacy, especially in politics. Brandt on the top floor, before the audience, is what the audience makes of him. Down below in the office, he is the centre round which these busy and important men circle in the hope of getting him to do the varying things that each of them thinks is right. And at the end of the day, the chief chats with his henchmen and supplies the pseudo-intimacy and the closeness to power that guarantees their loyalty. But again where is the Brandt who might be something more than a public position? It may be that the heroic programme of womanising in which Brandt famously indulged another element in his downfall was another aspect of the intimacy deficit of politics. Is it perhaps that his closest friend turns out to be the spy who destroyed his career? Frayn's Brandt is a fascinating creation.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.


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My favourite line from this play is not by Frayn at all. It is the use of the glorious old joke - by Willy Brandt, who apparently loved it in real life:

Under capitalism man exploits man. Now under socialism, it's quite different. It's the other way round.

Posted by: Jane at January 31, 2006 06:17 PM
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