Democracy's cultural ripples, page to stage

Forget "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman!" Now, "it's a book, it's a play, it's an opera, it's Democracy!"

There are reasons to catch the new words and music on the subject, even if one Woodrow Wilson sentence from 1917 says it all for today's US foreign policy: "The world must be made safe for democracy."

It's a book - a current favorite of President Bush, "The Case for Democracy," by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. The president reportedly told the author he had reached page 221 and used the theme in his second inaugural and State of the Union addresses.

It's a play - Britain's National Theatre production of Michael Frayn's "Democracy," now a Broadway hit and a wry rubric for turmoil in the divided Germany of the 1970s.

It's an opera - Scott Wheeler's "Democracy: An American Comedy," given its well-received world premiere by the Washington National Opera in January. The time is 1875, during the scandal-prone second term of Ulysses S. Grant. One reason to pay attention to democracy on stage and page is the reminder that democracy is not only an end but a means - and for what? Earlier in the century, Alexis de Tocqueville's classic "Democracy in America" had applauded democracy for "what it causes to be done," unleashing energy that can produce wonders. "Under its sway the grandeur is not in what the public administration does, but in what is done without it or outside of it."

Members of the public administration go astray in the opera "Democracy." When officials and liquor interests join in fraud, President Grant goes so far as to put protection of an aide above the truth. But two women use freedom to put integrity above their hearts' desires. One rejects a senator whose ethics she cannot condone. The other rejects a minister whose religion she cannot pretend to accept. Tocqueville might recognize their seriocomic grandeur.

The winking libretto is by Romulus Linney (father of actress Laura Linney), drawing on his 1968 play "Democracy." The play, in turn, drew on Henry Adams's late 19th-century novels, "Democracy" and "Esther." One of the droll high points is a picnic that brings a motley spectrum of upscale democracy to Mount Vernon, with a portrait of George Washington in silent contrast, as is a portrait of Lincoln in other scenes. Small wonder that Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, once wrote: "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin."

Evolution is said to be on the run anyway in today's cautious classrooms. But democracy - as both end and means - is alive and discussed. President Bush says he's in tune with Mr. Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy," subtitled "The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror." The idea is that making the world safe for democracy is not only a goal on behalf of unfree nations but a strategic means for keeping America and other free societies safe for democracy.

This brings up another reason for being aware of democracy's cultural ripples these days. You can have democracy without naming it. "Democracy" does not appear in the US Constitution. And naming it is no guarantee of having it. Remember the German Democratic Republic? That was repressive East Germany. East Germans planted a spy in the entourage of Willy Brandt, chancellor of free West Germany (1969-74). That's the nub of Mr. Frayn's "Democracy" in New York, with a sure-footed American cast headed by James Naughton as Brandt and Richard Thomas as the spy who sort of loved him.

But the context is the game of democracy by politicians of various stripes. For all the secrecy and corruption, the audience benefits from a theatrical device that provides the transparency so often clouded by misusers of democracy. When the spy reports to his controller from the midst of the action we, too, hear what is going on.

Brandt, for all the exploitable flaws, seems to have positive intentions, trying to bring a divided country together while recognizing that even individuals can be divided within themselves. Who could argue with lines like "Have the courage to be compassionate"?

Yet it's hard to be sure when or if actor Naughton's expertly played Brandt is being sincere. This may be director Michael Blakemore's intention. Or it may be that we've seen too much of Mr. Naughton sincerely selling acid reflux medicine on TV. Nothing against democracy though.

Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.

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