Letter from New York

The prospect of watching 10 middle-aged men in gray suits (there were no women in the cast) debating and conspiring like Roman senators and re-enacting the German politics of three decades ago may have sounded daunting. All the same, Ioanna Gavakou, an actress living in Washington DC, and myself took the good advice of Robert McNamara, a knowledgeable director, and went to NYC to watch the must-see play of the season «Democracy.» Another Brit import. This intellectual thriller by playwright Michael Frayn, which demands we pay attention and also strongly tests our knowledge of politics and history, is currently playing – strangely enough – with enormous success on Broadway. Even though the peaceful but dull respectability of the money-making 1960s and ’70s in the Federal Republic has nothing of the flamboyant Nazi period, so popular for film and stage, the story of Willy Brandt and how he was brought down by his assistant Guillaume seems to hold the interest of vast audiences. Strange. Not only Americans seem to be carried along by the story of how Brandt’s confidant Gunther Guillaume found himself spying on the chancellor for the East Germans. «Democracy» – whose action is set between 1969 and 1974 – was also a success when it opened at the National Theater in London in September 2003. Two of Michael Frayn’s works have been successfully produced in Greece: the audacious theatrical farce «Noises Off,» in Athens and Thessaloniki, and his contemplative intellectual roundelay «Copenhagen,» which is still running for the second year at a small theater in Exarchia. No doubt Brandt was one of the most appealing public figures of the 20th century. He certainly contributed to the reunification of Germany and to the end of a very complicated event: the Cold War. I was living as a student in West Berlin when he was the governing mayor of the city, and when he led the resistance to the efforts of the Soviet Union to undermine and intimidate it so that «free Berlin» would not be absorbed into the East German state surrounding it. I remember the «student movement» of 1968, which swept all the way across Europe and the USA, but had began in Berlin. I also recall Brandt’s resignation from the federal chancellorship in 1974. And I still see one of the main characters of this period when I go to Berlin, Markus Wolf, 82, once dubbed the «Man Without a Face» because few in the world knew what he looked like. Nicknamed «Mischa,» the name of the former East German spy chief (whom, strange, though not fishy, circumstances have conspired for me to still consider a friend), he is often mentioned in the play. Act 1: Kretschman (Guillaume’s intelligent controller from the East to Guillaume): «Mischa Wolf asked me to give you his personal congratulations.» «This is the biggest feather in his cap yet. Our own man in the federal chancellor’s office.» In his memoirs, Markus Wolf (the original for Karla in John Le Carre’s spy tales) recalls: «The discovery that one of my agents had infiltrated Chancellor Brandt’s private office abruptly ended Brandt’s career at the helm of Germany. That is a responsibility that I bear and that troubles me after his death. The question of why I did it, accompanied by the reproach» – to Brandt, of all people – «is one with which I will always be faced.» Can it be that the bottom line is that the Stalinist leaders of the East needed to keep Willy Brandt in power, as has been often said? Is that why Markus Wolf called the Guillaume affair an own goal? The play does not contribute to such questions. However, let’s remind ourselves that Brandt’s remarkable reign in the early ’70s characterized him as a leftish chancellor. In the play, Brandt is seen as a classic tragic hero with a charisma. He is the statesman who spent the Second World War outside Germany, and who had a fine political instinct. Frayn’s focus is historical politics, but his play is not without contemporary echoes – and not only for the Germany of the ’60s and ’70s. Haven’t we also known here bland leaders who seemed to believe their own vapid, sonorous slogans? Aren’t we acquainted via television with fixers and go-betweens who bribe and blackmail behind the scenes? Don’t we hear, all the time, of intelligence services that are anything but intelligent? And what about gifted leaders who have been damaged by their sexual voracities? (In the play, we learn about Brandt’s failings through others who talk about his womanizing, his drinking and his weaknesses.) Democracy’s depiction of «realpolitik» only seems to confirm what – some – people think about modern politics: that it totally lacks any kind of guiding principle and vision, and that it is a backstabbing, plotting, compromising and blackmailing practice. Or, as George Bernard Shaw once put it (in his «Maxims for Revolutionists»): «Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for the appointment of the corrupt few.» Yet, that was expressed in a faraway 1903, and surely cannot be valid anymore…

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