Friday, July 11, 2014

Liberty, the Playhouse

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 36
Michael Frayn, Democracy: A Play


When you mention Michael Frayn's name in theatre circles, you'll likely conjure up images of his classic metatheatrical farce Noises Off. But his recent dramatic works, including this, a slow-moving meditation on freedom in a plural society, have the potential to be more powerful, more influential and more epoch-making in the world of comtemporary theatre.

Based on the rise of Germany's first left-of-center coalition government since the Weimar Republic, headed by the legendary, painfully conflicted Willy Brandt, and his collapse following a Societ-bloc spy scandal, this play lays bare the fragility of international relations at the height of the Cold War. At government’s highest levels, functionaries, even duly elected ones, trade secrets and confidences like children trade baseball cards.

West Germany’s postwar democracy allocated parliamentary seats based on proportional populations, not on geography, as American and British elections do. Thus German governments relied heavily on coalitions, meaning real social change came haltingly, if ever. Willy Brandt’s chancellorship, on a rare outright majority, was the first out-and-out leftist German government since Weimar days. Brandt was so liberal, Soviet operatives could’ve called his election a victory.

Elected in 1969, Brandt sought rapprochement with the Eastern Bloc, which netted him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. But East Germany nevertheless insinuated a spy into Brandt’s administration. What happened, and why, remains deeply mysterious; official state documents leave huge lacunae regarding actual events, particularly the personal consequences for those involved. Frayn steps into this gap, attempting to reconstruct the events around Brandt’s 1974 resignation.

Structurally, Democracy is a memory play from the viewpoint of the East German spy, Gunter Guillaume, with scenes shifting as his personal narrative demands. Frayn’s notes ask for “A complex of levels and spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters…” This implies a massive stage arcology, but Frayn never gets any more specific. No specified set, few props, and only a handful of required light and sound cues make this a fairly easy staging.

Unless you count the actors and the director.

The director and the ten-member, all-male cast needs to research the history of divided Germany, the personalities of highly esoteric public figures, and even at one point the Norwegian language. Thankfully large portions of the information necessary to savvy the background for the play are found in a lengthy and detailed afterword, saving a great deal of headache in the creative process. Frayn’s encyclopedic discourse on German history, and what it says about the NATO world today, is shockingly familiar.

Frayn takes the unusual step of including a substantial bibliography, rare in modern theatre. Both Brandt and Guillaume left substantial writings, and the so-called Guillaume Affair has occasioned many books by top-flight historians and political scientists. Controversies current before I was born remain unresolved even today. Theatre professionals performing this play join an already rich red-meat debate. But that doesn't answer everything; these figures loom large in Twentieth Century history, and recreating them on stage is work.

As noted, despite substantial official documentation, insightful questions frequently outnumber verifiable facts. Frayn, a successful playwright and novelist, brings crafty storytelling technique to that gap. His presentation alternates between languid political discussions and moments of extreme intimacy, frequently inflected with surprisingly understated humor. Though never farcical, his unexpected chuckle opportunities pierce characters’ inflated pretenses.

This fictionalization sometimes muddies what really happened. In one key scene, Brandt takes Guillaume on vacation in Norway. In reality, West German intelligence had already identified Guillaume’s spying activities, and Brandt willfully fed him disinformation. Frayn, though not lying about this, mumbles it slightly, emphasizing instead a moment of intimacy bordering on homoeroticism. Truth, for Frayn, is about psychological depth, not facticity.

But the play is accessible, discussing technical aspects of German history without getting bogged down in dull repetitive detail. The characters are engaging and humanely rounded. Reminiscent of Greek tragedy, Frayn’s depiction uses a decades-old scandal to illuminate a frankly shady aspect of freedom: the people we elect must often perform acts unworthy of our support. The events happened over forty years ago, but they feel like they're happening right now.

This play may not be for general audiences; its slow, contemplative pace and its interest in a political figure most Americans have never heard of could put off casual theatre-goers. But for dedicated fans of history, politics, and theatre, this articulate and thoughtful play will leave you with plenty to chew on. Frayn’s straightforward message, backed with austere staging, will linger long after the final curtain has wrung down.

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