Michael Frayn on Democracy

MW  It was in this same theatre, in 1998, that you opened Copenhagen, another play about real people and an event in 1941. Democracy is about real people and events a little later. Do you see this as a companion piece to Copenhagen?

MF  I certainly didn't conceive it as a companion piece, but I suppose it is somewhat similar. There is a radical difference: in Copenhagen all three characters are ghosts, coming back from beyond the grave, trying to reconstruct a real event that did occur, but is endlessly disputed. In this play the events are presented as being actual events, happening in front of your eyes, so it's a different structure in that sense. But I've used the same rather loose technique that I had in Benefactors of both dramatising scenes and feeling free, if that's a better way of doing it, to have a character say directly to the audience “this happened, then that happened”.

MW  In Benefactors, in 1984, you brought some of your own history to bear, though it was essentially about two fictitious couples. Recently, you've been writing plays that are steeped in real events. Why the change?

MF  I don't know. Not any conscious plan; I was just caught by the story of Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen, and I've been thinking about the story of Brandt and his resignation, how he was brought down by his assistant, Guillaume, for some time.

MW  Did the success of Copenhagen make this easier to write, in a way, in terms of finding a way of dealing with actual people that makes sense on stage?

MF  I think maybe I was given a bit of confidence by Copenhagen. I was very inhibited, when I began to write Copenhagen, by trying to write people who actually existed, because I knew however much I researched, I could never go back and meet them, hear the way they talked, and catch their tone of spoken voice. At the start, it felt very stilted. But as with all fictitious characters, in the end they seemed to take over, to start speaking. I don't suppose my Heisenberg and Bohr bear very much relationship to the originals, but they have some being of their own. In fact, as I've written, the night Copenhagen opened in New York, I went backstage and met a very tall, handsome, charming man who said, “I am Jochen Heisenberg, Werner Heisenberg's son”. I was extremely intimidated because for the last two and a half hours he'd been watching my feeble attempts to represent his father. He said two remarkable things. First of all, he said, “Your Heisenberg is nothing like my father. I never saw my father express emotion about anything except music.” That was a chastening reminder that it's very difficult to capture real people. Then he went on to say, “But I understand that in a play you have to have characters who are more forthcoming than that.” I thought that was a very profound comment on the point of writing fiction about real events. It does give you a chance to bring out the things that don't get said in life, the things that no-one quite catches hold of, because life goes very fast and it's very difficult to seize it, to know what's happening as it happens. It's only when you look back on it that you begin to make some sense of it. In a fiction, you can suggest patterns that you think were underlying real events, and emotions that were underlying people's behaviour but never quite got expressed. So when I came to write Democracy, I think I did feel a bit more confident about tackling real people in fictitious terms, but I still found it appallingly difficult to do, particularly because I know that one or two of these characters are still alive, and quite what they are going to make of themselves, I don't know.

MW  You mentioned your interest in Willy Brandt. Why him out of all European leaders, and Germany out of all countries?

MF   For a long time I've been absolutely fascinated by Germany. I like Germany very much, and I'm very absorbed in its history. Modern German history is absolutely crucial to Europe. Germany is right in the middle of Europe, and European history, for better or worse, has happened around Germany. As I've said in the Postscript to the published play, the only period of German history that seems to interest the British very much is the Nazi period. But what absolutely catches my imagination about Germany is the post-war period: how Germany has recovered from the total physical and moral destruction of 1945. I always find it moving, when I go to Germany, to think that out of that sea of rubble, Germans have built not only one of the most prosperous but one of the most stable and decent societies in Europe. So I've always been riveted by modern Germany, and particularly by Willy Brandt, who was an immensely attractive public character, known not just in Germany but around the world. He was a character of many contradictions: terrifically charming public figure, immensely seductive leader. But he had fatal weaknesses: not just his drinking and his womanising, but his colleagues also complained of his indecisiveness. And he was a depressive. Although he could have that tremendous outgoing charm in public, he had periods when he simply could not speak for depression, when he had to retire to bed with what were described diplomatically as “feverish colds”.

Divided characters like that are always interesting, and what is particularly interesting about the story of Willy Brandt is that he was brought down by another divided character, Günter Guillaume. Guillaume was both a devoted servant to Brandt, deeply attached to him, served him with immense faith and effectiveness, and also identified very strongly with the fortunes of the Social Democratic Party, but at the same time was working as a spy for the Stasi. He was pursuing two radically different goals. He was on the one hand trying to support Brandt, on the other hand to undermine him. And it doesn't seem to have caused him any great problems of conscience. We all have managed to pursue different possibilities at the same time, we're all very conflicted characters in that way, but he was more strikingly and dramatically conflicted than most. It's a terrific story, whatever you make of the play.

MW  The play, and Michael Blakemore's production, do provocative things with duality and division. The set itself is divided as the play takes place in a divided country which, the play suggests, Willy Brandt helped to make whole. Was that suggestion controversial?

MF  Yes. Amazingly, one critic on the Right, John Gross, and one on the Left, the Marxist Terry Eagleton, have suggested that it's historically untrue that Brandt contributed to the reunification of Germany and to the end of the Cold War. They say the credit was all down to Ronald Reagan for making the Cold War too expensive for the Russians to carry on, and I would not deny that for a moment. The ending of the Cold War was a very complicated event. But I think there's a very good case to be made for saying that the first step in the winding down of the Cold War was Brandt's success in persuading his fellow-Germans to adopt what he called the Ostpolitik (the Eastern policy) of reconciliation with the East, specifically expressed in the form of treaties with the Soviet Union, with Poland and with East Germany, and to recognise East Germany as a separate state. I talked at length to a wonderful man called Peter Merseburger who is Brandt's most recent biographer and a very shrewd political journalist. He was correspondent for German Television in London for a long time, and was in Bonn, covering a lot of the events described in the play. He says he thinks that, although on the surface it was paradoxical that Brandt recognised East Germany, that recognition did in the end undermine East Germany. It meant that the Russians began to trust West Germany, began to think “OK, they're not going to launch efforts to regain their lost territories in the East; we can trust them.” So that they were less ready to prop up the East German satellite, the DDR, when it began to fall apart. Previously, when there had been popular risings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, indeed in East Berlin in 1954, Soviet tanks had arrived very promptly to put them down. When the DDR began to fall apart in the late 1980s, there was no military support from the Russians at all. That's why it collapsed. I think there's a very good argument for saying that it was Brandt who initiated that process, and certainly it's what he was credited with in East Germany. After the fall of the Wall in 1989, he became an immensely popular figure in East Germany, because people saw him as the original architect of this event.

MW  You have written about spying and spies before, and, indeed, recently wrote a novel called Spies. I gather that you, on several occasions, could have been a spy. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that, and why spying works in fiction and in the theatre.

MF  Maybe I am a spy, as Willy Brandt tells Guillaume in the play. I think spying is a good metaphor for what all of us do all the time. All the time we are looking at each other and trying to judge each other's feelings and motives. We have to; it's the only way we can survive with each other. We have to decide all the time, “Is he sincere, or is he not sincere? Is he really aggressive or is he not aggressive?” Most of the time we make these judgements absolutely unconsciously. Even, walking down the street, if you see someone walking towards you, you make an unconscious, subliminal judgement as to whether they are a threat or not, whether you're going to step left or right, or make them step out of the way. And sometimes we do it consciously. Well, spies of course, have to do this very consciously, and write up reports of what they have seen. Guillaume is a very interesting spy because he was told by his control that what they were really interested in was not plans of new aircraft, although they wanted anything he could get his hands on; what they really wanted was for him to listen and watch out for the way people behaved, the gossip in the office. Since he actually worked in Brandt's Chancellery, they wanted him to give a feel for things so that they knew whether they could trust Brandt in this amazing new policy he'd launched. He had been a great Cold Warrior, had been governing mayor of West Berlin, had defended West Berlin against absorption into the DDR, so they were naturally very cautious about his proposal. Interestingly, they asked Guillaume to use his judgement as a human being to look at what was going on in that office. That seems to me a dramatic version of human behaviour in general.

MW  What do you think it was that brought an end to Brandt's Chancellorship?

MF  Well, the occasion was certainly Guillaume's unmasking. Guillaume was finally arrested as a spy, and within weeks of that, Brandt had resigned, saying that he had to take political responsibility for it. But why? Did it really cause his downfall? I think all historians of the period agree that it wasn't simply Guillaume who brought him down, it was a very, very complicated set of circumstances. This is one of the interests for me in modern German politics: that they are so complicated. Germany is a federal country; each Bundesland has its own politics, its own parliament, its own set of politicians. They all have to combine in some way into federal politics in Bonn. Also, German politics depends entirely on coalition. Every German government since the war has been a coalition. Keeping coalitions together is an extra layer of political complexity. Also, as I've suggested earlier, Brandt himself was a very complex person, and the causes of his resignation are incredibly complicated − particularly within his own party, the Social Democratic Party − partly due to the contradictions within his own character. Guillaume acted as a catalyst in all this, he kind of revealed the situation and made it untenable. Brandt himself often said that he wouldn't have resigned if he hadn't been trying to give up smoking. He bitterly blamed Herbert Wehner, a devious figure who was the éminence grise behind the Social Democrats in Germany, and also his own wife, because they failed to dissuade him from resigning when he asked them if he should.

MW  There were certainly moments on opening night, and I'm sure every night, when there's a ripple of laughter from the audience at something that seems absolutely true of Britain today, not just of the Ostpolitik of several decades ago. Is that just there to be picked up, or were you aware of it while you were writing it?

MF  Some critics have suggested that Democracy is supposed to be a comment on the Labour party's current difficulties. Well, I finished writing this play well before the Iraq war, so it cannot consciously be intended as a comment on the current situation, but there are some parallels. Both Brandt and Blair are attractive public figures, charismatic politicians who have carried the electorate with them at one stage in their careers, and both have had sudden losses of popularity when the electorate has turned against them. You might think, looking at the confusion that occurred within the inner political circles in Brandt's second term, that there are some parallels with what's going on backstage here in Blair's government. But I wouldn't push it too far, they are also very very different.

MW  How did you decide what to call the play? Copenhagen was named for the place where it's set, and this is named for the political system that it's about.

MF  Well, had the German government been situated in Berlin at the time, I think I would have called it Berlin. But Bonn is a bit flat, I think. Democracy is really what it's about. The play is about how difficult it is for everyone to come to any common policy on anything, not just in political life but… how you arrange the furniture in the living room or where you go on holiday. Anything that involves more than one person involves a type of political debate, compromise, trying to guess what other people's real feelings are, trying to be tactful. It's a difficult process and inevitably involves compromise and error. So, the play is partly about the democracy of all social life, but I think human beings are kind of democracies within themselves. Each of us has all kinds of different possibilities within himself or herself, and getting those possibilities together, getting some practical behaviour to emerge from all the possible selves one has inside oneself, is as difficult as public democracy.

MW  I've sometimes heard the term 'men in suits' used disparagingly, and I think one of the extraordinary things about this production is that it's ten men in suits, and yet the audience are on the edge of their seats the entire time. When you were shaping the play, did you worry about that at all?

MF  I did worry a bit. I hate the idea of writing a play that's entirely male characters; it's absolutely awful. But it just is the case that there were very few women in German politics at the time. As I've said in the Postscript, if German politics hadn't been quite so closed off from normal demographic reality, Brandt's government might have had a rather better fate than it did. But there simply were no women directly involved in the story at all, even though what finally brought Brandt down was his womanising, his taste for extra-marital activities. There were a lot of woman just off-stage, as it were, and several remarkable women on the fringes of the story: Brandt's wife was one of them; Guillaume's wife, in a very different way, was another. But they don't actually come into the story I'm telling here, and finally, with much agony of spirit, I decided I had to follow the story. As you say, it's ten men in suits.

MW  Last year, when Tom Stoppard's trilogy about 19th-century intellectual history across Europe, The Coast of Utopia, was in the Olivier, he talked about the difficulty of translating research into drama. He of course did it across nine hours and twenty minutes. I was wondering, with something like this, how do you make the research into the drama?

MF  Very slowly, stage by stage, with much agony. There were many many drafts of this play, and the only way I managed to do the research in the first place was to take on a research assistant. I've never had one before, but there is so much material about this period. There are archives full of it in Germany, huge archives of newspaper cuttings, of television material. Although I read German pretty fluently, I find it very difficult to skim-read in German, to look through a book and see if there is anything of interest to me. I found a most remarkable man, Stefan Kroner, who had been dramaturg on one of the German productions of Copenhagen. He turned out to be dazzling: impressively quick, incredibly diligent, and immensely intuitive, able to guess what was going to be of interest to me. He boiled all this stuff down − there's still masses and masses of material, my study is stacked with files of stuff he sent me − so I could just about manage it.

MW  Are there any plans for a German production of Democracy, and if so, would you put any material in that you perhaps had to leave out here?

MF  There is a plan to open the play in Germany on, I think, 6 May 2004, which is the 30th anniversary of Brandt's resignation. It's a picture of Brandt as a whole man; I hope you end up liking him, but all his weaknesses and blemishes are there too. I hope it won't seem too painful for people who knew him. And it will be the text as seen here, except that here, Michael Blakemore persuaded me to simplify some of the names, to take out all the acronyms − SPD, DDR, and so forth, which he thought it would be very difficult for a British audience to pick up − and instead to say East Germany, Social Democrats, or whatever. But in Germany the terms are familiar, so we'll go back to that.

MW  We should talk about your collaboration with Michael Blakemore across… is it eight plays?

MF  Yes, one of the major areas of research on the play was Michael and I trying to work out how many plays we had actually done together. When I got the proofs of the programme, I saw that his and my biogs said we had done different numbers, but we've settled on eight.

MW  Do you involve him in the process? Do you send him drafts and does he help shape it?

MF  I try to get the play as finished as I can before I show it to anyone, even to my wife, Claire Tomalin, then, if it's a play, to Michael Blakemore. Michael is always the second person I show it to. But then I go through it with him, line by line. He makes me read it to him, which is a very painful process because I have no talent whatever as an actor. In fact I have a kind of negative talent, I cannot hit the right stress even in my own lines. It's a very miserable process but it means each line gets looked at and examined. Michael asks me stupid questions, like, “Why does she say that?” and I say “It's obvious why she says that.” Then I realise it's not so obvious, so I say, “All right, I'll take it out.” He usually persuades me to do a certain amount of re-writing, but it's usually particularly to do with simplification.

Audience question:
Did you intentionally wait until Brandt had died, or did it take that long to write?

MF  No, Brandt died in 1992, but it wasn't until about three years ago that I thought of writing the play.

Audience question:
Is your next work going to be a play or a novel?

MF  I'm writing a screenplay for the film of my last novel, Spies. What will happen after that, I don't know.

Audience question:
Are the archives on recent history more freely available in Germany than they would be in this country?

MF  Government papers probably are. Most of the archive material I was using was not internal government sources, but newspaper files or television files. But one colossal source of material in Germany now is the old files of the East German government, particularly of the Stasi, the ministry of state security, which are now in the possession of a West German authority and available to researchers. But the files of the Stasi that remain (many were destroyed when the DDR collapsed), are so numerous, there's such a huge hoard of them, that although the archives are full of West German researchers, there are kilometres of papers that haven't been examined yet. The East Germans were obsessed with spying. I certainly didn't make any attempt to get into the Stasi files personally, but Stefan Kroner did, and he drew on expert secondary sources and German academics who had looked at the files, and brought out some amazingly interesting material.

Audience question:
Picking up what you said earlier about Heisenberg, would you say that your Willy Brandt is closer to the real man than your Heisenberg was?

MF  I wouldn't like to say. Of course, one thing that makes it easier to get closer to Brandt is that there is enormous television coverage of him, so you can look at hours and hours of him speaking, usually in public but occasionally with his family or in private. You can get rather more of an idea of what he was like as a human being than you can of Bohr and Heisenberg.

Audience question:
Having grown up thinking that Richard III looked like Laurence Olivier, what do you think your responsibility is to future audiences who may see your play but never have heard of Willy Brandt?

MF  I think the responsibility of the author is to make absolutely clear what he's claiming. I think it's perfectly fair to write fiction about real events provided you make clear that it's fiction, and I have, in my Postscript. But the play is based on historical events and the historical records. All the dialogue in this play is fictitious, even Brandt's public speeches. I've used the real speeches, but have foreshortened them, pushed them together, to make a coherent text on a particular subject. But most of the conversations in this play certainly never happened and couldn't have happened. I don't suppose for a moment that Brandt and Guillaume talked together the way they do in this play, and I can't honestly imagine any sane human being thinking they would. But I hope, if there is someone, my disclaimer in the text makes it clear.

MW  Has Germany sent an embassy to see it?

MF  I believe the German ambassador is bringing a party in about a fortnight's time.

Audience question:
The German ambassador was saying the other day that he thought the teaching of students in this country about the second world war, and Nazi Germany, without talking about post-1945 times, was tantamount to racist teaching. Likewise, on the other side, I was always surprised that when I was in Germany I could find out more about British parliamentary affairs from German papers than I could from any of our British dailies. How has this play made you feel about the British parliamentary system and the differences (I think superiorities) of democracies in other European countries?

MF  I can see, strangely enough, the drawbacks of coalition politics, which is what Germany depends upon. But I must say they have provided Germany with remarkable stability. It's a very complex story. One of the things that has been the basis of German political success since the war is their constitution. It's not called the constitution, it's called the Grundgesetz, the basic law, because they didn't want to imply constitutional acceptance of the division of Germany. That basic law was only written very reluctantly because the Occupation Authorities said they had to write a constitution. They then wrote a terrific constitution, which has served Germany very well. This country has always prided itself on the lack of a written constitution. Well, I can't help feeling that if we had a Grundgesetz here, we might do a bit better. The constitutional court in Karlsruhe is a very formidable body. For instance, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the authorities began to prosecute people who had served in the Stasi; they brought a case against Markus Wolf, the famous director of the foreign intelligence service, and he was found guilty. The case was then overturned by the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe who said, “We have no competence to judge people who were citizens of the DDR at a time when they were not citizens of West Germany.” A remarkably bold decision in the face of a lot of popular sentiment in Germany. And I think what you say is true about the best German papers, too.

Audience question:
The contrast in the plays that you have written is really quite fascinating. Just looking at Noises Off and Copenhagen has led my wife and me to look at what drives and entertains the author. My wife feels that the linking factor is ambiguity − looking at the same subject from different points of view. It would be nice to have the author's own view of what he is doing.

MF  It's very difficult to know what one's up to oneself. One simply writes what comes into one's head and somebody else has to sort out afterwards why one did it. I was very surprised when somebody interviewing me about Copenhagen, after the event, said they were struck by the fact that I'd used the same structure as in Noises Off − that is to say, the same event played three times over. It had never occurred to me before. Stories fall into your head and seize your imagination and it's very difficult to know quite why until afterwards. I can now think of philosophical justifications for Noises Off but I'm not sure I had them clearly in mind before I wrote it.

MW  You do write plays about multiple perspectives, don't you?

MF  Since drama consists of different characters reacting to each other, it seems natural to see the action from the viewpoint of each of them. In a novel, it seems quite natural to see it through just one. Particularly in my novels, there's often just one central character, and everything is refracted through his or her eyes. But on the stage, it's not like that. You've got ten people here, they are ten separate individuals, and it seems very natural to see the world from all those different viewpoints.

Audience question:
Do you see the downfall of Brandt as an exclusively German affair, or in a wider international context? I'm thinking of a number of more or less left-wing governments that there were around the world at the same time and the reactions that some westerners took against accommodation with the eastern bloc and the policy of detente.

MF  It was only Brandt who resigned, not his government. The SPD continued in power under Helmut Schmidt and they were all committed to the policy of Ostpolitik, to the eastern treaties, which were all sedulously adhered to. So it didn't have any direct effect, didn't change the German government's policy. But it was a great loss because he was so trusted by people in different countries. He had an absolutely spotless political past, he was a very charming man, spoke extremely fluent English and French, was practically bi-lingual in German and Norwegian. He was an immensely international man, and a very reassuring figure to a lot of people who were still very suspicious about Germany. Some people, unbelievably, still remain suspicious about Germany, but we're talking about the 1970s, and he was one of the people who turned around feeling about Germany.

Audience question:
One of the unique things about Brandt and his generation was that he was absolutely untainted by fascism, he had given up his German citizenship and fought with the Norwegian resistance during the war, opposed Communism, and had stood side-by-side with Adenauer when Kennedy made his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We see these as great virtues, but a lot of people in Germany saw these as flaws. The Right hated him because of his wartime record and the Left hated him because of his opposition to Communism, and because he was instrumental in ditching Marxism from the SPD. I wondered if this inherent contradiction was part of the riddle of Brandt?

MF  Just to go back to one point − Brandt never fought with the Norwegian resistance; this was a libel on the part of the right-wing press. He was in Norway as a representative of the Socialist Workers' Party, and when the Germans invaded Norway, he managed to escape to neutral Sweden and remained there for the rest of the war, still doing Party work. He never fought against his fellow Germans. But it's quite true that the German Right never forgave him his exile, nor his Norwegian allegiances. He did get Norwegian citizenship, which he gave up, and he did come back to Germany wearing Norwegian uniform because it was the only way he could get back into Germany after the war. And it's true that there was suspicion of him on the Left because he did indeed, with Herbert Wehner and Helmut Schmidt, persuade the SPD to abandon Marxism and take up a rather Blair-like middle way. However, such was his charm and force of character, rather like Blair coming into office in this country, he did carry quite a lot of the people on the left with him, and just scraped into office in 1969. By 1972, when they went to the country again, the SPD did increase its share of the vote considerably and he was treated like a hero, like a god in some places. Then the catastrophic loss of support, and I don't think people on the far Right ever forgave him or warmed to him, particularly the people who had lost their homes in the eastern parts of Germany, which had become parts of Poland and the Soviet Union. Millions of people who were thrown out, or their relatives, felt very bitter about their treatment, and found it impossible to forgive anyone who would condone that. Also those who had relatives inside the DDR and thought the policy of the West German government should be to force reunification of Germany (though how it was to be done, no-one could tell) and they found it very difficult to forgive as well. So he was a divisive character, but he did, just by sheer force of personality, unite quite a broad swathe of German opinion.

© National Theatre

Democracy opened in the Cottesloe Theatre on 9 September 2003, transferring to the Lyttelton Theatre on 12 February 2004

Matt Wolf is the London theatre critic for Variety