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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama



Michael Frayn

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To purchase Democracy

Title: Democracy
Author: Michael Frayn
Genre: Drama
Written: 2003
Length: 134 pages
Availability: Democracy - US
Democracy - UK
Democracy - Canada
Democracy - India
Demokratie - Deutschland
  • Democracy was first staged at the Royal National Theatre, 9 September 2003, in a production directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Roger Allam as Willy Brandt and Conleth Hill as Günter Guillaume
  • Democracy was first staged on Broadway 18 November, in a production directed by Michael Blakemore and starring James Naughton as Willy Brandt and Richard Thomas as Günter Guillaume
  • Winner of the Evening Standard and Critics' Circle best play awards in 2003
  • Includes a lengthy Postscript by Frayn

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressively presented, solid drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 11/9/2003 Charles Spencer
Evening Standard . 21/6/2012 Henry Hitchings
Financial Times . 22/6/2012 Ian Shuttleworth
FAZ . 14/5/2004 Gerhard Stadelmaier
The Guardian A 10/9/2003 Michael Billington
The Guardian A 22/4/2004 Lyn Gardner
The Independent A 11/9/2003 Paul Taylor
Independent on Sunday A 14/9/2003 Johann Hari
The New Republic . 20/12/2004 Robert Brustein
New York A 29/11/2004 John Simon
NY Daily News A 19/11/2004 Howard Kissel
The NY Observer D 29/11/2004 John Heilpern
NY Post A+ 19/11/2004 Clive Barnes
The NY Sun . 19/11/2004 Jeremy McCarter
The NY Times A+ 19/11/2004 Ben Brantley
The New Yorker . 29/9/2003 John Lahr
Newsweek . 29/11/2004 Cathleen McGuigan
The Observer . 23/6/2012 Tom Lamont
The Spectator . 27/9/2003 Toby Young
The Sunday Times . 14/9/2003 Victoria Segal
The Telegraph . 21/6/2012 Jane Shilling
Time . 6/12/2004 Richard Zoglin
TLS . 19/9/2003 Terry Eagleton
USA Today A 18/11/2004 Elysa Gardner
The Village Voice . 30/11/2004 Michael Feingold

  Review Consensus:

  Very enthusiastic, with only a few dissenting voices

  From the Reviews:
  • "Democracy, is the most intelligent and gripping new English drama since, well, since Frayn's last stage outing with Copenhagen in 1998. You have to work hard at a Frayn play. Ferociously intelligent himself, he expects his audience to keep up with him. (...) The prospect of watching 10 middle-aged men in suits (there are no women in the cast) re-enacting the German politics of three decades ago may sound daunting, but attention never flags." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "The result is an uncompromisingly heavyweight piece. Frayn looks probingly into the knotty banality of politics. But the political narrative is only sometimes personally involving. While Frayn is psychologically astute, especially about the nature of betrayal, the play is too slow coming to the boil." - Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard

  • "As with so many Frayn plays, we get not non-stop drama but rather a series of narrations alternating with illustrative scenes, yet this structure never feels unnatural nor the story stilted." - Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times

  • "Democracy is scenic research, a historical suite from the card index box. Conflict does not even occur in the dialog. Conflicts are only quoted - from the files, or from the circumstances to which Frayn then adjusts the index cards when he imagines what would have been said if he had been present." - Gerhard Stadelmaier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Frayn's play is an elegant fiction based on documented fact. (...) Here he is primarily concerned with the elusiveness of human personality. Brandt himself emerges as a man of battling contradictions: a political idealist and a compulsive womaniser, a clear-minded visionary guilty of infuriating indecision. But Guillaume is equally mysterious" - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Frayn's play is not only the most intelligent and wry in London, it is also the most moving. This is a play so sophisticated, so at ease with itself (at least it is after the first clumsy 15 minutes when Frayn has to feed us much crucial information) that you often feel as if you are watching several plays at the same time shifting and refracting off each other." - Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

  • "The play is wonderfully alert to the piquant paradoxes and ironic twists of this intensely tricky period in Germany's conversation with itself. (...) Shaping a huge mass of material into intellectually stimulating patterns, Democracy offers a great deal more than a crash course in recent German politics." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "Nobody could accuse Democracy of being unchallenging. Michael Frayn's new play is so unashamedly highbrow (like his previous play, the masterpiece Copenhagen) that at times he almost seems to be defying his audience to lose concentration with long, dense descriptions of the exact make-up of Willy Brandt's coalition. Amazingly, the writing is so vivid that this never happens." - Johann Hari, Independent on Sunday

  • "The price he pays in Democracy for cutting such a wide swath of history is a certain clunkiness." - Robert Brustein, The New Republic

  • "(E)ngrossing: political but also personal, fascinatingly specific but also searchingly universal. Its often epigrammatic language can be ironic, bitter, philosophical, and even lyrically tender. It is a tragicomic lament for the parliamentary democracy it views as a utopian ideal, and also an elegy for one of its humanly imperfect champions, Willy Brandt" - John Simon, New York

  • "On one hand, it is about the intricate interplay of policy and chance that determines history. (...) On the other, it is a study of the backstage machinations that make politics, if not farcical, at least wryly, sometimes poignantly comic. This juggling act is what makes Democracy such a breathtaking play." - Howard Kissel, New York Daily News

  • "Democracy is rudimentary as a political play and tedious as a drama. In many repetitive, illustrative ways, Mr. Frayn’s basically true story of Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor, and Günter Guillaume, the East German spy who betrayed him, amounts to a non-play. (...) As a play of ideas, Democracy doesn’t stimulate or surprise." - John Heilpern, The New York Observer

  • "(A) true-to-life version of a modern Julius Caesar with a touch of Othello thrown in -- proves an A-plus, even though its subject seems unlikely. (...) Still -- casting flaws put aside -- Democracy remains a play to see and enjoy. It's theater at its finest." - Clive Barnes, New York Post

  • "Characters sometimes skip from dialogue to narration to post-facto reminiscence on consecutive lines. It gives the play a lively theatricality. In Brandt and Guillaume, Mr. Frayn has created two of the richest, most challenging roles in recent memory. (...) The triumph of Mr. Frayn's play isn't just representing complexity, it's teaching us to savor complexity -- to admire all those lovely shades of gray." - Jeremy McCarter, The New York Sun

  • "Michael Frayn's Democracy (...) is one of those rare dramas that don't just dare to think big but that fully translate their high aspirations to the stage, with sharp style and thrilling clarity. (...) With Copenhagen and Democracy, Mr. Frayn has singlehandedly rejuvenated the biographical drama by making its boundaries porous, so that against the odds it feels as universal as it does particular." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "In Frayn’s theatrical shorthand, where characters talk alternately to one another and to us, ideas are narrated, not demonstrated, which, for me, is a theatrical limitation. Democracy is really an essay with legs. Nonetheless, the playwright’s sinuous intelligence and his daring narrative design are in themselves a spectacle. Frayn is all finesse." - John Lahr, The New Yorker

  • "Though Democracy is smart and literate -- of course -- it's not as tightly coiled as the stunning Copenhagen." - Cathleen McGuigan, Newsweek

  • "Frayn's play is densely historical, an information-fat study of the "Guillaume affair" that upturned German politics in the 1970s." - Tom Lamont, The Observer

  • "(A)n interesting, but flawed, piece of work. (...) Where the play works best is as a meditation on the nature of democracy." - Toby Young, The Spectator

  • "At times it comes across as The West Wing meets the Eastern Bloc: hugely entertaining, packed with verbal parrying and effortless wit. (...) Frayn has the luxury of transparency with his characters, too, and his depiction of Guillaume, a servant devoted to two masters, is an empathic masterstroke." - Victoria Segal, The Sunday Times

  • "As a portrait of the messy expediency of realpolitik, Frayn’s play has an eerie ability to reflect the changing political climate. The travails of fragile coalition suffered by Brandt’s SDP have a curiously modern ring." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph

  • "Democracy is one British import that doesn't survive the crossing. (...) Frayn hasn't done his part to turn this political drama into an involving personal one. We never understand why Brandt, who scorns Guillaume at the outset, is won over by him, and thus we don't fully register the human tragedy of his betrayal." - Richard Zoglin, Time

  • "(T)he play plucks an absorbing piece of theatre out of its recalcitrant materials. (...) The wit and brio of the play's language are intriguingly at odds with its content." - Terry Eagleton, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)he play doesn't patronize audiences; if you feel that passionate exchanges about big ideas are best reserved for debating halls, this isn't your ticket. But you needn't be a policy wonk to appreciate Democracy -- just someone who realizes that history can be stranger than fiction, and at least as compelling." - Elysa Gardner, USA Today

  • "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 1980s, 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" - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Democracy covers the years during which Willy Brandt was Chancellor of (West) Germany, and specifically the role East German spy Günter Guillaume played in his administration (and, eventually, its undoing).
       Most impressive about the play is how it is presented. Where Copenhagen only had a few characters in orbit around one another, Democracy necessarily involves more -- and proceeds and unfolds step by step, as history is being made. Whereas in Copenhagen the central event was one in the past which is revisited (and reinterpreted) by the characters and whose truth remains uncertain, Democracy builds to an end which its audience knows from the beginning (it's historical, after all).
       The (stage-)setting explains much of how the play is presented:

A complex of levels and spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work.
       One imagines a dance of politics, a swirl of people in and out of the centre -- and allowing always for the many asides meant to be out of earshot of one or another group, allowing Guillaume to pass on his information to his handler (or Brandt and colleagues to talk about him behind his back). Effectively staged, this must be very impressive when performed.
       Frayn packs in a good amount of what happened: the rise and fall (and troubles along the way) of the Brandt administration are well covered. Amazingly, he manages without turning this into a school-history lesson, instead, effortlessly gliding through the years, taking in the major accomplishments under Brandt, but always focussing on the two personalities at the centre of the play and their interaction. (Frayn's generous Postscript explains his approach to the events, as well as what has been left out and what has been changed for the sake of the drama (generally involving people left out of the mix).)
       Guillaume is portrayed as an unlikely member of the Brandt administration, but instead of relying on career politicians they decided: "we need to broaden our horizons", as one person explains. A small-time SPD party worker whose only managerial experience is running a photocopying shop, he becomes one of the chosen few. Industrious -- always willing to take on any job (especially copying papers ...) --, if not well-liked, and with a canny ability to insinuate himself all over, Guillaume becomes an important aide to Brandt.
       The East Germans, who had planted him as a sleeper agent years earlier (and had actually placed their bets on his wife, who was also a spy), couldn't believe their luck. Amazingly, he also managed to escape detection for quite a while, Frayn showing him adept at deflecting that sort of attention
       The dialogue moves smoothly back and forth between Guillaume's interaction with Brandt and with his handler, as much description of events as actual dialogue. It's difficult to pull off, but Frayn manages. The weaknesses of the two men, the back and forth between them (and with others -- Brandt and his SPD competition (Helmut Schmidt among them), and Guillaume trying to hold onto his position in both East and West) is enjoyable, and there's a nice mounting tension as the house of cards grows higher (as the audience knows it will all come tumbling down).
       Democracy is an impressive drama -- and particularly an impressive stage-work, as Frayn expertly works with the form. Certainly worth reading, but especially worth seeing.
       (The book is, however, also useful for Frayn's extensive Postscript (complete with bibliography), giving a good deal of interesting background information, both about Frayn's interest in the subject and the Germany of that time.)

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Democracy: Reviews: Michael Frayn: Other books by Michael Frayn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Drama at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Michael Frayn was born in 1933. He is best known as a playwright. He has also written several acclaimed novels.

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© 2004-2015 the complete review

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