Notes on Joseph Brodsky’s “Democracy”
Portrait of Lenin drinking Classic Coke
Russian bear (stuffed)
Grouse in caviar gravy
Handcuffs made in U.S.A.
These properties grace the stage of Joseph Brodsky’s play, Demoracy, which opens with lesders of an unnamed Eastern Europian country seated in the office of their Communist Party’s General Secretary-the man they call “gensec.” Comfortably enjoying the privileges of their high positions, which entitle them to imported melon, grouse, Cuban cigars, jazz, and (when needed) American handcuffs, they savor their repast until one more, nemely democracy, arrives rather unexpectedly.
A telephone call from Moscow informs the Gensec, Basil Modestovich, that his small Soviet satellite has been declared a democracy. Panic erupts. The Gensec and his ministers know about French perfume, they appreciate handcuffs manifactured in Pitsburgh and jazz by Sidney Bechet, but they have no understanding of the democratic process. How could they, when their democracy is initiated from above, by another government, without the governed? The ministers have one choice: comply before Russian tanks force democracy upon them.
The situation is a comic variation on independence declarations and the bizarre politics that accompainied them across Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, when Joseph Brodsky wrote his satiric play. The late poet’s comic portrait of a collapsing empire has proven all too accurate, even prophetic, as Russian itself now rivals that satellite invented in the play, and the folly of post-Communist govements across Eastern Europe imitates (or lives up to) his satire. It is unfortunate that the play has yet to be published in book form. (It was serialized in several journals before Brodsky’s death-and remains reatively unavailable to readers and stage directors.) I co-directed a production of the play with Chris Hampton at San Francisco State University in 1995 and now offer a few observaions on Demoracy in that its superb humor and poetry will be more widely appreciated in the future.
The huge stuffed bear that hovers near the ministers of state in Demoracy suggests their offices are never far from the watchful gaze (not to mention the brute force) of the Kremlin, which this creature represents. But the animal is also a comic representative of Moscow-it could be a former circus performer-a fitting attribute, since the room is filled with clowns.
Basil Modestovich and the ministers of justice, finance, and culture who dine with him display characteristics of clowns, as they comically debate whether they comically debate whether their unexpected democracy is Athenian, Socialist, People’s, or a “new kond”. The patter of their conversation recalls Abbott and Costello’s vandevillian discussion of who’s on first, or the absurd circus dialogues of the Russian of the clowns Bim and Bom.
Brodsky never refers to his characters as clowns. And yet, besides their comic verbal exchanges, the text sets up a sequence of slaptick acts that deserve the masterful timing and comic body language of clowns like Geoff Hoyle and Bill Irwing (American), or Yuri Nikulin and Leonid Yendgebarov (Russian). Lazzi about gourmet food fill the play, along with opportunites for song and dance; in San Francisko our actors performed these gags in the manner of circus clowns.
Despite all their fancy footwork on new forms of government, Basil and the ministers are prepared to continue with more or less the same power and privileges for as the new democratic system they devise will permit. When the four vote on the “transfer to a democratic form of rule and economic reform, “twenty-two other ministers are missing; but that is much better, according to Basil, who must have studied American poll returns to know how often the right to vote is ultimately exercised by a minority of those eligble to a cast a ballot.
In the second act of Brodsky’s play, the ministers and President Basil discuss the prospects for computerized governance of the state. (Their computer programs are all provided by the West, naturally.) They look forward to a new administration freed from the failings of human error. Their greatest fear is that Luddites will destroy their central computer. To prevent this, Basil and his associates order a new atomic bomb, set to go off and destroy Luddites (and everyone else nearby) who try to dismantle the coveted computer.
In the face of these prospects for a mechanized post-Soviet future, where Western tecnology transforms past Communist control into an even more centralized and inhuman government, Brodsky’s satire itself is a sort of Luddite protest. The physical and verbal comedy with which he undermines an even more centralized and inhuman government, Brodsky’s satire itself is a sort of Luddite protest. The physical and verbal comedy with which he undermines an imaginary government’s authority is an early advance against the predicated technocracy. His weapons-mainly words-are to be launched by gifted actors against the increasingly inhuman state machinery.