Democracy's Cultural Ripples, Page to Stage

By Nordell, Roderick | The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Democracy's Cultural Ripples, Page to Stage


Nordell, Roderick, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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