Michael Frayn’s Democracy is three plays rolled into one. The first two, a spy thriller and a quasi-docudrama about West German politics in the 1970s, are mildly amusing diversions for the cerebral. They would have little effect except for the third play, a modern tragedy of political idealism that evokes Racine as often as it does the morning papers, and that has prodded Frayn to some of his best writing to date. What’s wrong is that he continually takes focus away from this main drama, which seems to contain all the substance that drew him to the subject in the first place, for the sake of the other two, which are far more cursorily written, and in which the play’s themes are only noted in passing, like small towns viewed from a train window.
Frayn’s focal indecision in part expresses his view of his topic: For him, democracy is not a political system but a chaos of competing egos, in which every citizen is his or her own nation: “60 million separate Germanies.” This description is provided by Arno Kretschmann (Michael Cumpsty), the Communist spymaster handling Günter Guillaume (Richard Thomas), the East German émigré who worked his way up to being personal aide to Willy Brandt (James Naughton) during Brandt’s last term as West Germany’s chancellor, and whose exposure as an East German agent was the last straw in bringing down Brandt’s already shaky left-liberal government. Guillaume is Frayn’s ostensible main character. Like his loyalties, and like Germany at that time, Peter J. Davison’s set is split in half. Stage right, in the multi-leveled chancellery, West German politicians come and go, with Guillaume flitting among them, eager-eared and always handy when documents need Xeroxing. Stage left, before a dark void, Kretschmann sits at the Bonn café table where the two spies meet, sharing with Guillaume a running ironic commentary on the ins and outs of the parliamentary democracy that both men regard as a sitting duck for socialist takeover.
The logical expectation would be for the drama to center on Guillaume: how his political views alter with his growing knowledge of democracy’s day-to-day mechanics, his deepening admiration for Brandt, and his increasing awareness (thanks to democratic freedom of information) of the East’s increasingly disastrous conditions. But that would be to tell a story that didn’t occur. Instead, Frayn gives Guillaume only little jolts of recognition that seem to have no cumulative effect, and that make him seem implausibly naive as someone with daily access to West German news media. We never learn what motivated him to become a spy, or what faith, if any, he retains in Soviet-bloc socialism. Some notable spy cases have hinged on the agent’s desire for a lavish lifestyle; Frayn never tells us how much Guillaume is paid, or how having a large, clandestine second income affects his life. After Guillaume’s espionage is exposed, when the dark space stage left becomes his jail, he nearly disappears from the play; its final scenes focus on Brandt, high up on the top level stage right, a distant, tormented figure on a faraway peak.
Brandt’s torment comes the way torment should in a tragedy, from the mixture of his complex personality with the equally complex political ideal in which he’s vested his belief. Like Guillaume, he’s been a double agent—an anti-Nazi, in the war years, passing as a Norwegian—but in his case this prompts soulful reflections, of a sort that barely seems to touch Guillaume, on the nature of identity and the way modern civilization challenges it. Often wondering who he himself is, the charismatic Brandt grieves equally often over his inability to shape his factionalized party, let alone his nation, into an organism that balances order and freedom, stability and change. Democracy, as blue-staters are bitterly aware these days, is a recalcitrant beast to even the most beloved shepherd.
How Brandt is undone—by his time, by his party colleagues, by his own shortcomings, and finally by Guillaume’s exposure—is a genuine and moving political drama, in which Frayn, while respecting historical fact, has been able to create what’s nearly a towering central figure. That he should choose to leave Brandt merely a secondary item on the dramaturgical equivalent of a tasting menu makes no sense at all. The puzzle’s made worse because Frayn gives neither the political infighting around Brandt nor the colloquies between Guillaume and his handler anything like the vividness that ignites whenever Willy takes center stage. Whether strategizing over swing votes in the Bundestag, seducing female interviewers on the campaign express, or spontaneously kneeling in grief in the Warsaw ghetto, he’s a figure of historic meaning who deserves a drama of equal stature. Everyone else onstage, as scripted, is barely one step above a stick figure.
Some, though by no means all, of their stick-like quality comes from Michael Blakemore’s production, which is proficiently cast and moves the maneuvering officials around effectively, but rarely digs deeper; the drama is clearly articulated rather than explored. Cumpsty and Thomas are crisply efficient; Robert Prosky makes the avuncular parliamentarian Wehner a wickedly funny blend of S.Z. Sakall and Erich von Stroheim. The fullest performance, ironically, is the one that’s been most carped about, James Naughton’s Brandt. He starts out as the usual Naughton smoothie, but digs deeper emotionally as the narrative rolls on. Since Frayn has given him such rich soil to mine, he unearths emotional gold. The frightening notion that democracy might be an inherently unworkable system takes up memorable, harrowing residence in his eyes.