Democracy by Michael Frayn

6 December 2007

This particular review is going to be more of a review of the play than of the playscript itself, but since I don’t normally buy playscripts, the fact that I’ve bought the latter is a sign of how much I would encourage anyone to see the former. (I’ve seen the play three times, twice in London and once in a touring company.) It’s one of those shows that I’ve a feeling I’ll try to see no matter when and where it’s being performed.

Democracy by Michael Frayn

Democracy is historical fiction…or rather, fictionalised history. It’s the story of Günter Guillaume, the East German spy who infiltrated the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Guillaume and his wife Christel, both officers of the Stasi, ‘escaped’ from East Germany in the early 1950s and spent several years building a cover for themselves as members of the SPD, the left-of-centre social democratic party in West Germany. Willy Brandt, formerly the mayor of West Berlin, became the first socialist Chancellor of Germany (since the 1930s) in October 1969. And by a stroke of good fortune (for the Stasi, at least), Guillaume gained a position in Brandt’s office shortly afterwards — and he eventually became Brandt’s personal assistant, with the kind of access to documents that would make any intelligence officer dizzy with delight. Democracy is mainly Guillaume’s story, but in a way is equally Brandt’s story, because the fortunes of the two men were so closely linked that the ups and downs of one seemed to spill over into the other.

Frayn’s play is fast-paced, a whirlwind of political life, showing how Guillaume has to bounce back and forth between his workday life in Brandt’s office and his clandestine meetings with his Stasi contact. Brandt’s private life is equally important to the play: Frayn’s depiction of Brandt’s frequent extramarital affairs with attractive journalists and party workers, his love of alcohol and bad jokes, and his ‘feverish colds’ (the accepted euphemism for his periodic cycles of depression) all combine to create an image of a deeply flawed but driven, almost hunted, political leader. The most tragic aspect of the whole story is the fact that Guillaume’s arrest and Brandt’s subsequent resignation was almost the last thing that the Stasi wanted. Brandt’s Ostpolitik had given East Germany a new standing in the international community, and Guillaume’s arrest was the equivalent of an own goal for East Germany. Democracy highlights this fact, and carries it through to the end of the play — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reuniting of Germany, and the final words from the play’s two protagonists:

BRANDT: We’re healed and whole. For a little while, at any rate. And for a little while everyone’s glad.
GUILLAUME: And wherever he goes, my shadow goes with him. Together still.

And in the stage production I saw, the lighting shifts to throw both men into shadow. A taller shadow for Brandt and a smaller one for Guillaume…but it is impossible to tell which one overlaps the other. It’s a fine and thought-provoking play, not least because it puts a fascinatingly personal dimension on the Cold War politics of East and West Germany.


One comment

  1. […] occasional observations of a contemporary historian, editor, writer, and bibliophile. « Democracy by Michael Frayn Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue by Michael Frayn and […]

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