I Am My Own Wife
I Am My Own WifeINTRODUCTION
I Am My Own Wife was the first one-person show ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, which it did in 2004. The main character of Doug Wright's award-winning play is a German transvestite, who goes on to become a celebrity in his/her own right, to the point of being declared by some a national German hero. The play was published in 2004 by Faber and Faber. Wright, who is included in the more than forty characters portrayed (by one man), went to Germany in 1993 to meet and record conversations with the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), upon whose life the play is based. The playwright struggled for several years after meeting with Charlotte, trying to conceptualize how to turn the material he had into a play. There were so many different facets of Charlotte's life, including some that were not very flattering—among them, news stories that confirmed that Charlotte had been a Nazi spy.
Wright called together two of his closest friends and brainstormed with them. Those friends were Moisés Kaufman, an award-winning director who would go on to direct the play, and Jefferson Mays, who would astonish audiences with his versatility in acting out all forty or more characters and eventually capture his own award, the Tony. I Am My Own Wife tells a story that spans Charlotte's childhood in the 1930s through the erection (1961) and deconstruction (1989–1990) of the Berlin wall, which separated Communist-controlled East Berlin from West Berlin. Through the eyes of Charlotte, the audience gains a glimpse into life in Germany as it is transformed first by the Nazi regime and then by the bombings of the Allied Forces. The play opened off Broadway in May 2003 and moved to the Lyceum Theater on Broadway on December 3, 2003. It stayed on Broadway for almost a year and enjoyed 361 performances. As of the summer of 2005, it was still on national tour.
Doug Wright was born in Dallas, Texas, and it has been reported that, in 2005, he still spoke with a slight Texan twang. He received his bachelor's degree from Yale in 1985 and then went on to New York University, where he completed his master's degree in 1987. When Wright was interviewed by Gerard Raymond for the Advocate, after having won the Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife, Wright stated, "I keep calling my boyfriend every two hours and saying, 'I still have my Pulitzer!'" In fact, Wright's play won a long list of prizes that year, including the Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, and the Drama League Award.
Wright should be used to winning prizes. He first captured an Obie for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting and the Kesselring Award for Best American Play with Quills. This 2000 play focused on the subject of the Marquis de Sade and his time spent in prison. In this story, a friendly priest brings quills to Sade so that he can write. After the play was produced on the stage, Wright adapted this work as a screenplay. The movie version, which was Wright's motion picture debut, also won praise. It was given the Paul Selvin Award and received three Academy Award nominations. Other plays of Wright's include The Stonewater Rapture (1990), Watbanaland (1995), and Unwrap Your Candy (2001).
In the interview with Raymond, Wright talked about his attraction to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the subject of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Wright told Raymond that when he first met Charlotte, he thought of her as a mentor to him. She had survived so much more than Wright had. "I thought that all the negative conditioning I had endured as a young gay man growing up in Texas," Wright said, was offset by Charlotte's extraordinary experiences of survival. In the early 2000s, Wright was at work creating screenplays for Warner Brothers. When asked by one reporter if he would return to the stage, Wright answered in the affirmative. He claimed to have stored in one of his desk drawers enough material to keep him writing plays for a long time.
Wright's play, I Am My Own Wife opens in silence. Charlotte stares out at the audience, smiles slightly, and then disappears. The stage is empty for a short time before Charlotte reappears. She carries a large antique Edison phonograph, sets it down, admires it, and finally speaks. She proceeds to lecture the audience on the topic of the phonograph, giving a history of how it was developed and how it works.
Charlotte becomes quiet again; this time, when she speaks, she has been transformed into John Marks, the bureau chief of the Berlin office of U.S. News & World Report. John writes a letter (which is read) to Doug Wright, telling him of Charlotte. John changes into Doug, who is in Berlin with John and is talking into a tape recorder. The two men are heading toward Mahlsdorf, where Charlotte lives in East Berlin. On their way, they pass remnants of the Berlin wall, which has been torn down.
Doug morphs back into Charlotte. She holds some doll furniture in her hands and describes it. She continues to do the same with other antiques. She explains that after every disaster in Berlin, she would go through the rubble and save artifacts. Charlotte changes into Doug. He reads a letter that he has written to Charlotte. Doug is back in the United States but wants to revisit Charlotte and interview her if Charlotte will allow it. Charlotte writes back and agrees. Doug, now in East Berlin, asks John to translate for Charlotte his questions about her background. Charlotte waives the translations and begins to answer the questions directly in English.
She talks about her Tante Luise and how she encouraged Charlotte's cross-dressing. Through Tante Luise, Charlotte learned about a book that states that everyone has various proportions of male and female elements in their bodies. Some people do not fit in the normally defined classifications, being neither fully male nor fully female. Tante Luise gave Charlotte the book and told her to read it. Charlotte talks about World War II, when Berlin was heavily bombarded by Russian splatter bombs. The German S.S. officers were looking for boys to recruit. One officer asks whether Charlotte is a girl or a boy. As Lothar (Charlotte's given name), the audience hears the sixteen-year-old claim that he is a boy, but the officer decides Lothar is too young to shoot.
Charlotte says that her father was a Nazi and that he was brutal. In 1943, while Charlotte and her mother and siblings are living with Luise, Charlotte's father visits them. He has a revolver and threatens to kill his wife and children. Luise counters with a gun of her own, which she fires. The father leaves. Luise declares that it is a shame she missed. Charlotte is sent back to Berlin to help renovate the family home to accommodate war refugees. While she is there, Charlotte is confronted by her father, who insists that Charlotte choose between him and her mother. When Charlotte chooses her mother, her father locks her in her room. Charlotte escapes and finds her father sleeping, whereupon she beats him to death. She is sentenced to four years in prison. Charlotte is in prison when the Russians bomb it. The prisoners are told by the guards to run, which Charlotte does. The Allied Forces are approaching Berlin. Russian soldiers are handing out free food.
Doug begins another visit with Charlotte. He follows her down a series of steps that opens up to what looks like an old-fashioned tavern. Charlotte describes the tavern and tells Doug how she bought all the furniture and brought all the flooring and walls over to her house to save the tavern from being destroyed by the Nazis. The Berlin tavern, since the time of Emperor Wilhelm II, had been a favorite hangout for homosexuals and transvestites. Once the Berlin wall was constructed, homosexuals and transvestites in East Berlin had no place to gather. So Charlotte secretly opened the tavern, which was then in her basement, as a place of entertainment. Charlotte painted the windows black to keep the Stasi (Berlin secret police) from spying on them. Doug interjects the fact that when the Berlin wall fell, Charlotte had the only cabaret in all of East Germany, which she ran for almost thirty years.
The Cultural Minister of Berlin appears and gives Charlotte a medal for the work she has done in preserving historical pieces. Charlotte is thrilled not just for the honor but also at having the ceremony broadcast on national television, thus demonstrating to all of Germany that even a transvestite can work. Doug asks Charlotte what it was like to visit West Berlin after so many years of living behind the Berlin wall. Charlotte then proceeds to read from a Berlin travel guide. She mentions several bars, cafés, and bookstores that cater to homosexuals and transvestites. When she is done, Doug asks her about her reputed collaboration with the Stasi. Charlotte describes how the Stasi came to her. The Stasi insisted, Charlotte says, that she write a statement, which they dictated to her and made her sign. The signed statement confirms that Charlotte willingly agreed to work with the Stasi. She would become their spy.
Doug tries to get further details from Charlotte about why she agreed to spy. Charlotte offers little, other than to relate what Tante Luise used to tell her. In essence, Luise advised that Charlotte should do whatever was necessary to survive. John speaks next. He tells Doug that the German press has gotten hold of Charlotte's Stasi file, which confirms that she was definitely an informant. The file also reveals that Charlotte informed on one of her friends, who was subsequently sent to prison.
The act opens with the character Alfred Kirschner. He is reading a letter he has written to Charlotte. Kirschner is in prison for having sold antique clocks to American soldiers. He also relates some of his experiences in jail. He thanks Charlotte for encouraging him to not give up.
Doug asks questions about Charlotte's Stasi file. He is confused and asks Charlotte to straighten out some of the details. Charlotte begins to tell the story of her relationship with Alfred, how they met and how they worked together to sell the old clocks. When Kirschner fears that the Stasi knows what he is doing, he stores the clocks at Charlotte's house. Kirschner tells Charlotte to deny having any connection with him, which is what Charlotte does. When the Stasi come, Charlotte tells them the clocks belong to Kirschner, and they arrest him.
Charlotte then acts out one of her visits to Kirschner while he is in jail, claiming, to the guards, that she is his wife. Charlotte explains that Kirschner named her in his will. After his release, Charlotte helps Kirschner find a place to live in a nursing home. The Nazis have taken everything from his home. He dies later, leaving Charlotte only his bills.
John and Doug briefly discuss Charlotte's Stasi file. A Stasi agent appears and reads items from the file itself, which refute Charlotte's claims. The file states that Charlotte informed on Kirschner to the Stasi over a period of at least five months. This information helped the Stasi make their arrest of Kirschner. Doug takes the file to Charlotte to confront her, but Charlotte evades all his questions. Voices from an invisible loudspeaker can be heard. Politicians and other citizens are discussing whether her medal of honor should be taken away from Charlotte now that the news of her being an informant has been made public. Some people find it disgraceful; others say the whole discussion is meaningless, since many people informed on others during the Nazi era.
Ziggy Fluss, a talk-show host, interviews Charlotte, calling her "Trannie Granny." He asks whether the rumors are true that she is moving to Sweden. Charlotte confirms this. She says that she is leaving because of the violence in Berlin. She recounts how her museum was vandalized by a group of neo-Nazis. About thirty of them scaled the wall of her backyard and terrorized her guests. A neo-Nazi talks: "Hitler forgot to shove you in an oven in Sachsenhausen!" Charlotte returns to her narration of the event, telling Ziggy that she attempted to defend herself by swinging an ax. As she explains this, she tells Ziggy that she shouted at one of the intruders: "I have met you before! When I was sixteen years old!" The police came, she says, but no one was arrested.
Charlotte talks about the atmosphere in East Berlin. She claims that anti-Semitism has returned, as has homophobia. Ziggy listens but then asks whether her leaving Germany might also have something to do with the reaction to her Stasi file. Charlotte deflects the question. As Charlotte leaves the studio, she is confronted by reporters. They ask her about her father's death, the Stasi, and all the furniture she has. The reporters suggest that she has lied about her father, has collaborated with the Stasi, and was paid for her work with stolen furniture that was taken from people who were wrongfully forced from their homes. One reporter even suggests that Charlotte has lied about her sex, that she really is a woman. Again, Charlotte does not answer any question directly. She does make one solid statement in reference to whether she is a man or a woman. She says that her mother once told her that it was time to get married. Charlotte told her mother: "I am my own wife."
A psychiatrist, Dieter Jorgensen, offers a psychiatric diagnosis of Charlotte, concluding that she is mentally ill, suffering from autism. "Her stories aren't lies, per se," Jorgensen states. "They're self-medication." Next follows a discussion between Doug and John. Doug confesses to John that he needs to believe in Charlotte, no matter what is in the Stasi files or what the media says. "I need to believe in her stories as much as she does!" Then Doug adds: "I need to believe that things like that are true. That they can happen in the world." Doug is impressed just by Charlotte's mere survival as a transvestite in a Nazi and Communist world. However, Doug admits that he does not have a clue how to put all the information that he has gathered about Charlotte into a play.
Doug turns on a tape. Charlotte is talking about the old furniture she has collected. She says that one must leave the furniture as it is, with all its marks and blemishes. And that one must show it "as is." Doug relates that Charlotte did move to Sweden, where she lived for seven years. In April 2002, she decided to return to Berlin for a visit. While she was there, she died of a heart attack in the garden of her old home. Before she died, Charlotte sent an envelope to Doug that he received after her death. There is no letter inside, but rather an old photograph of Charlotte (Lothar) as a young boy, sitting between two tiger cubs. The play ends with the sound of one of Doug's tapes. On the tape, Charlotte is talking about Thomas Alva Edison and his invention of the phonograph.
Herr Berfelde is Charlotte's father. He was a government official in the Nazi regime and was reportedly very cruel to his wife and his children. At one point he threatens to kill his family. In retribution, Charlotte steals into his room one night and murders him. Later, when Charlotte is confronted by threats from neo-Nazis, she goes after them unafraid, remembering how her father had threatened her. Herr Berfelde thus exemplifies the brutal threats that Charlotte confronted throughout her life.
See Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
The Cultural Minister is one of many characters who appear briefly onstage. The Cultural Minister, however, is a pivotal character, in that he honors Charlotte, demonstrating a complete turnaround in Germany's attitude toward transvestitism, nontraditional gender roles, and homosexuality. He appears briefly to present the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, a medal of honor, to Charlotte for her efforts in conservation. Later, Charlotte discloses that on this day she was recognized for all her work. She liked this honor because it showed the country that a transvestite could also work just like any other person. Not too long afterward, however, the bestowing of this medal of honor comes into question as the news of Charlotte's having been an informant leads to an outcry from the public, protesting that Charlotte is not a good candidate for the medal.
Ziggy is a Euro-pop, hip talk-show host who interviews Charlotte for his program. The show begins on an upbeat note, with Ziggy referring to Charlotte as "Trannie Granny." However, as Charlotte discusses the recent invasion of her home by a neo-Nazi group, the conversation takes on a darker atmosphere. Ziggy attempts to find some validation for the neo-Nazis, trying to excuse their destructive acts based on the frustrations they have been feeling since the Berlin wall was brought down. Charlotte does not allow Ziggy to go too far in this defense.
Ziggy also calls Charlotte on one of her stories. Charlotte tells Ziggy that she is leaving Germany and moving to Sweden to get away from the violence in Germany. Ziggy is a little too hip to accept this, though. He knows that Charlotte has lost face in Berlin because of the opening and public viewing of the Stasi file, which reveals that Charlotte was an informant. Ziggy does not let Charlotte bow out gracefully.
Dieter Jorgensen is a psychiatrist who studies Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's case and declares that she is autistic. It is not clear whether Jorgensen actually meets with Charlotte or if his conclusions are drawn from merely reading about her. Jorgensen's statement is added to the play's conclusion to demonstrate the variety of opinions about Charlotte and the contradictions in her stories.
Alfred Kirschner is a friend of Charlotte's. Some people claim that they might have even been lovers at one time. Kirschner, like Charlotte, collected antiques. He devised a plan to sell old clocks to the American soldiers, which was illegal in Germany. Although Charlotte helped Kirschner with the plan, it has been suggested that she informed on him; Kirschner was sent to jail.
In Charlotte's account, however, Kirschner told Charlotte to free herself of any connection with him so that she would not also go to jail. Charlotte's Stasi file, though, contradicts this story, making the claim that Charlotte set Kirschner up, informing on him and his activities for several months before he was imprisoned. There is little indication from Charlotte's version of events that her friend was aware of this. Rather, as Charlotte reads Kirschner's letters, nothing but friendship is indicated. Kirschner's ordeal and Charlotte's role in it become a pivotal point in the play, as Charlotte's reputation and truthfulness are challenged.
Tante Luise is Charlotte's aunt, her mother's sister. She lives in East Prussia. Charlotte and her mother stay with Luise to escape Charlotte's father's brutal beatings. Luise eventually threatens the father with a gun when he appears with a shotgun. She is a lesbian and encourages Charlotte to explore her own definition of sexuality. She gives Charlotte books to read about studies that claim that female and male distinctions are not black and white.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
Charlotte is the main character. She was born a boy but has dressed as a woman most of her life. She is an antique collector; her home resembles a museum, and she gives tours to visitors. Charlotte is an enigma in many different ways. First, there is the question of her sex. Is she male or female? Did she inform on her friends? And, finally, there is the question of how to judge Charlotte. Is she a hero worthy of a medal of honor? Or is she a fraud?
In creating this play, Wright was torn about how to represent Charlotte. He admires her in many ways, thinking of her as his own mentor, in terms of how to live unafraid. However, he recognizes elements in Charlotte's personality and in her past that were very flawed. In Charlotte's reflections on the ways one should deal with "old furniture," Wright discovered how to portray Charlotte, flaws and all. Charlotte is a survivor, doing what she considered she had to do to stay alive.
John Marks, the Berlin bureau chief of U.S. News & World Report, is a friend of Doug Wright's (in real life and in the play). John is the one who tells Doug about Charlotte and encourages him to come to Berlin to interview her. Throughout the play, the character Doug turns to John in order to reflect on some of his thoughts. John's friendship with Doug encourages him and helps him find his way when he gets lost.
The author of this play is also portrayed as a character. This offers legitimacy to the play, which is presented in pseudo-documentary style. By putting himself into the play as the character Doug, the author allows the audience to take a step out of Charlotte's story and reflect on some of the things that Charlotte says. Through Doug, the audience learns about contradictions in Charlotte's story. The audience also learns of some of the challenges that the author had to face in presenting Charlotte's story. Because all characters are played by one person, the character Doug also acts, at times, as a narrator, providing background details and information about the settings.
The theme of oppression begins with the presentation of Charlotte's father, who bullies Charlotte's mother, aunt, and siblings. Oppression follows a course through Charlotte's life, most specifically the psychological oppression that she experiences when she realizes that she does not fit into the mold society has created for her. Once Charlotte realizes that she is different from most people around her, she is repressed in fully acting out what she believes is her true self. Is she a boy or a girl? She dresses like a girl, but when asked by the military officer, she says that she is a boy.
As an adult, Charlotte witnesses the oppression practiced by the Nazis, who were known to gather up homosexuals and transvestites and imprison them in concentration camps. The nightclubs are closed, and even though Charlotte rescues and reconstructs one in her basement, she must paint the windows black so that no government officials can see in. Whether it is fear of admitting what she feels or fear of physical punishment, oppression is the undercurrent when Charlotte must write and then sign an agreement with the Stasi to spy on her friends. The subsequent imprisonment of Kirschner is another reminder of oppression. In this case, it is severe oppression for having done something rather trivial (selling old clocks).
In the introduction to the published version of his play, Wright comments on his own sense of oppression growing up as a gay man in Texas. He admires Charlotte for dealing with far more oppression than he ever dreamed of facing. He emphasizes oppression in his play so that the opposite experience, that of freedom, can shine forth. Despite the oppression that Charlotte suffered, she was able to create a somewhat successful life. She maintained a large home, entertained, had friends, and in the end became something of a hero.
Homosexuality, Transvestitism, and the Transgendered
Wright has stated that he is interested in the history of homosexuality. So when he had the chance to interview Charlotte, he knew that she would supply him with information that was very hard to come by. Material is extremely sparse on the plight of gay people and on others like Charlotte who did not fit the standard gender roles during the Third Reich in Germany. However, Charlotte, having experienced this world, could offer Wright a living history of a moment in time that very few people know about firsthand. This play explores various questions: What was life like for homosexuals and others of nonstandard gender in Germany during the Nazi era? What did it require to stay alive as an openly gay man, lesbian, or transvestite? What were the changes in such people's private lives?
The theme of nontraditional genders runs through the first half of the play, but by the time the play reaches its conclusion, this theme is immaterial. The focus is no longer on how this particular transvestite survived but rather on who Charlotte is and on the truth of her story. In other words, by the end of the play, it makes no difference whether Charlotte is straight or gay. The audience is fascinated merely with Charlotte's humanity. Why does she not answer questions directly? Why does she tell untruthful stories? What need are her imaginary stories fulfilling? This, in some ways, may be the major point of the play. Whereas transvestitism appeared to be so important at the beginning of the story, when the story closes the audience is left to ponder whether the real truth is that transvestitism should be of little significance to anyone except oneself.
There are many mysteries in this play. Wright sums them up in the introduction to the published version of the play, "Portrait of an Enigma." Then he writes about his experience of attempting to capture Charlotte's personality and life in a play. Wright has said that he was tormented by the many puzzles of Charlotte's life. He could not solve any of the riddles. He would ask Charlotte direct questions, but she always found some way to elude giving answers. Wright would research and find that the facts contradicted what Charlotte had told him. However, the records in which Wright found these outside facts were themselves suspect.
Because Wright could not solve any of the mysteries, he has to leave them unsolved. Not everything in life has an answer. He will not draw any conclusions, or at least he will not present them. Instead, he allows the mysteries to stay within the play. Audiences would have to come to their own conclusions. Mysteries, in and of themselves, cannot be solved. One has to learn to live with the uncertainty that mysteries present. Mysteries solved are no longer mysteries. Wright's play remains open-ended, which allows a wide expanse into which anyone who is curious can wander. It is as if Wright is saying through his play, "This is the story of a very interesting person's life. You can take it or leave it."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Charlotte was a collector of antiques. Some of her favorite pieces were old phonographs. Read about the beginning of recorded sound. What were the first phonographs like? How has the recording of music changed over the years? Write a report and present it to your class.
- Berlin has gone through many changes since World War II. Read a history of Berlin from the mid-1930s to the present day. Make a presentation to your class about the major changes in politics, government, society, and the arts since the 1930s. Create a timeline to highlight the more significant points.
- Research three repressive societies, such as North Korea, China, and Nazi Germany. How do they compare? How were they or are they different? Pay special attention to the activities of the secret police in each country. What restrictions and punishments were or are imposed on the citizenry? How did or does repression affect the arts and culture? Write your report.
- Berlin was once known for its cabarets. What kind of entertainment was provided in cabarets? Try to uncover some of the music that might have been played in a cabaret. Watch a movie, such as Cabaret (1972), that portrays typical cabaret scenes. Then create your own performance to entertain your class.
Charlotte is both a victim and a perpetrator of brutality. Her father was very hard on her, both physically and mentally, but she herself sought revenge in a very brutal way. Brutality did not figure only in her early years. She lived in Berlin, which was almost completely demolished during World War II by the Allied Forces. By some accounts, more than 80 percent of the buildings in Berlin were destroyed. There is also brutality at the end of the play, when Charlotte recounts her experiences with neo-Nazis who storm her garden and threaten her guests. Most of the members of her party disappear, but Charlotte recognizes the force of brutality and retaliates much in the same way that she did with her father—brutally. Like the theme of oppression that is used to highlight the ultimate freedom, brutality contrasts with Charlotte's genteel nature. Her overall demeanor is that of a gentle grandmother figure. By emphasizing the brutality that lies dormant within her, Wright displays a complex and therefore intriguing character.
Multiple Roles, One Actor
Wright's I Am My Own Wife supports a forty-person cast of characters. These characters are all acted out by one man. With only minimal changes in costume (the addition of a hat or the removal of a string of pearls), the many different characters are distinguished from one another by physical mannerisms, intonation of voice, and accent. For example, the main character, Charlotte, often offers the audience what is described as a very sly smile. The audience becomes familiar with this smile, so that the actor merely has to flash this facial expression to let the audience know that the character of Charlotte has returned. The character of Doug is recognizable by his slight Texan accent. Other dialogues are presented in loud voices or through different body stances or gestures.
The constant switching from one character to another plays into the overall sense of mystery. The audience has to take an active role in keeping up with the suggestions that imply the arrival of each new character. This sense of mystery filters back to the main character too. Charlotte, to some degree, also switches from one character to another as she narrates the story of her life, presenting the audience with another challenge of trying to decipher which of Charlotte's characters (and stories) are true.
Wright presents his play as a pseudo-documentary, which looks as if it were all based on fact, as would be true in a real documentary, but has been manipulated so that it fits more easily into a dramatic narrative or storytelling mold. The details of the play may be as Wright experienced or heard them. However, in the retelling of his experiences, Wright must take poetic license to bring the elements of the play together in a more succinct story form. Although the details might be very close to the truth, he edited many boxes of recorded tapes made of his conversations with Charlotte. He had to choose which of the interviews best exemplified her character and tell her story in a somewhat entertaining, or at least engaging, way.
By using this form, the play takes on an element of authenticity. It appears as if Wright is presenting actual events that took place in real life. That is the documentary part. The invented element provides the play with the typical parts of a dramatic presentation, such as a beginning, middle, and end. In other words, the play tells a story. The audience is not sure which part of the play is truth and which part has been fictionalized. An author might use pseudo-documentary to bend a true story toward a particular idea, making certain implications. Or an author might choose pseudo-documentary to make a fictionalized story appear to be based on fact.
Although the physical stage set for this play is one simple room, the overall setting, as created by the stories of Charlotte, conveys a feeling of what life was like in Nazi Germany and Communist-controlled East Germany. The brutality, oppressiveness, and secrecy of this wider context help illuminate the actual world in which Charlotte's life unfolded, giving the audience more material to help them understand what Charlotte's life was like and to comprehend why she felt she had to do what she did.
There is another element in the stage set that is also implied: Charlotte's large collection of antiques. The stage is not filled with furniture, as might be expected; rather, the stage directions call for doll-size furniture. Thus, the actor can talk about how a certain piece might have come into Charlotte's collection or convey a certain appreciation for the workmanship of a piece merely by holding up a small, toylike table or couch. In both cases—the world of East Germany and the antique furniture collection—the setting is an illusion in the audience's mind.
The mood of the play swings from light emotion, such as humor, to heavier and more complex feelings of despair, frustration, and anger. It could be said that the various moods of Wright's play are its strongest element. There is a sense of compassion when Charlotte retells incidents from her youth, whether it is the love and respect of a favorite old aunt or the disgust of having to deal with an unsympathetic father. However, the overall mood of the play is that of confusion. When, near the end of the play, Doug offers the information that Charlotte may not be telling the truth, all the former moods coalesce into one, or at least all the moods are overshadowed by confusion. Once doubt is introduced, the audience must go back and reevaluate what mood they might have felt earlier. This sense of doubt lingers to the end, leaving the audience in a perplexed state, which may be the whole point of the play.
Berlin is the capital of Germany and its largest city, with more than three million inhabitants. Before World War II, however, more than four million people called Berlin home. Adolf Hitler planned to reconstruct most of the buildings in Berlin during his rule (1933–1945). He found Berlin ugly and had visions of creating an entirely new city that he wanted to call Germania. When Allied Forces bombed the city, Hitler thought it was a good thing. It would save Germany the cost of demolishing the old buildings that he so disliked.
Most of Berlin was destroyed by the Allied Forces. In 1944, the city was divided four ways with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union taking control of different zones. Governance was maintained in West Berlin by the Western countries, while the Soviet Union controlled East Berlin. As the relationship with the Soviet Union deteriorated, tensions mounted in the city. At one point, the Soviet Union blocked the passage of goods to West Berlin, and food and other supplies had to be airlifted in. Then, in 1961, in an attempt to keep East Berliners (as well as people from East Germany) from escaping, the Soviet Union began to build the Berlin wall. The Berlin wall was ninety-six miles long and was first made of barbed wire. By 1975, the concrete version of the wall was fully in place. Over the years, almost two hundred people were killed trying to escape beyond the wall, but it is estimated that about five thousand people made it out successfully. In 1989, most of the wall was torn down, except for sections that remain as memorials.
The term Stasi is taken from the German word Staatssicherheit, which means "state security." Stasi were East Germany's notorious secret police and were stationed in East Berlin. The group was founded in 1950 under the leadership of Wilhelm Zaisser. The Stasi, often referred to as one of the most effective security police forces in the world, was fashioned after similar forces in the Soviet Union. Many members of the Stasi were former Nazi S.S. officers. When the Stasi was dismantled in 1989, the police hastily attempted to destroy all their files. Their files were either shredded or torn by hand. However, these torn documents (sixteen thousand bags of them) were discovered by the new German government, which commissioned a group of people to restore them. By 2001, only three hundred bags of files had been put back together again.
Wright has stated that it was hard being a homosexual in the southern United States, where a fear of homosexuals is often based on a deep-seated belief that homosexuality runs counter to the teachings of the Bible. Homophobia, or the fear of homosexuality, is not limited to the South, of course, but that is where Wright grew up. When Wright, raised in a climate of homophobia, came across the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, he became fascinated with it. Here was a man who dressed as a female for most of his life, and who did so under the oppressive and repressive regimes of Nazi and Communist governments. Both governments persecuted homosexuals and transvestites. It has been estimated that, during the Nazi reign, there may have been more than 100,000 homosexuals and transvestites who died in the concentration camps. Homosexual and transvestite prisoners were forced to wear pink triangle badges to identify themselves in the camps, a practice that has since been converted to a positive symbol: the pink triangle has been adopted by gay men and women as an emblem of solidarity.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a real person, who was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 and lived most of her life in Berlin. Physically, Charlotte was a man, but she considered herself to belong to what she called a third sex, as described in the introduction to the published version of Wright's play about her. Charlotte felt that she was a "female spirit trapped in a male body" and always referred to herself as "she." She lived in a "mammoth stone mansion" in what would eventually become East Berlin after the division of the city following World War II. It was in this mansion that Charlotte gathered the bounty of her passion for collecting old furniture and other relics. In a review of Charlotte's autobiography, with the same title as Wright's play, Thom Nickels, writing for the Lambda Book Report, states that Charlotte's philosophy about life was this: "Antiques and furniture before love, before sex, before sufficient food to feed her own face, even."
Charlotte is often described as an unusual kind of transvestite. Nickels sums up this difference: "There are no glamour wigs in her closet, no makeup in her medicine cabinet, no saucy gowns to wear in gay bars or outrageous drag queen antics or caustic comments while camping it up." Rather, Charlotte was more easily compared to a cleaning woman, dressed simply and most frequently in a very plain black dress. She did not dye her hair, and, in her later years, it was completely white. Her only extravagance was a simple pearl necklace.
I Am My Own Wife ran on Broadway for almost a full year. The critic Michael Feingold, in his review for the Village Voice, finds it to have beauty that he describes as "extraordinary," especially in the way that Wright portrays Charlotte, who was, as Feingold points out, a murderer and an informer. There are contradictions in the play and moral issues that go unanswered. Allowing Charlotte's contradictions (being both a murderer and a national hero) to coexist, however, makes the play more interesting. As Feingold puts it, "This is a play which is in some ways not a play, and a piece of drama which is in all ways a piece of theater. And its beauty … falls into the category of always being two things at once." Feingold says that Charlotte is "a truth that invites you not to believe it, off-putting and welcoming, utterly frank and phony sounding, in the same instant." Wright "has not hesitated to include all the worst and most discreditable information regarding the puzzle of [Charlotte's] survival."
The first line from the New York Times critic Bruce Weber's review of the play reads, "Of all the peculiar entries in the Broadway derby this fall, perhaps the most peculiar is Doug Wright's fascinating one-actor play." Weber wrote his review as the play was premiering on Broadway. He wonders how many of the Christmas holiday tourists would be drawn to see it. "How many visitors from the heartland of America," writes Weber, "will be eager to pass up the bling-bling of a Broadway musical for this quiet, dramatic tale about an East German transvestite played by an unknown male actor speaking in heavily accented English and wearing a black dress and a string of pearls?" Immediately following this statement, Weber goes on to invite the many New York visitors to do exactly that. Actually, Weber urges them to do so. The play tells "a terrific story," Weber writes, and he concludes by calling it "the most stirring new work to appear on Broadway this fall."
Many critics are so fascinated with the subject of Wright's play that they focus almost entirely on the character of Charlotte and forget to say much about the play. Added to the distraction is the fact that Jefferson Mays's performance (as the lone actor in the play) was so outstanding and Moisés Kaufman's direction of the play was so clever. In his review for the New Yorker, for instance, John Lahr manages only one line of praise for the play. "The one-man show is a notoriously intractable species of entertainment," Lahr writes, "but Wright … marshals his words with command." The critic praises Kaufman and commends Wright for his portrayal of "an eccentric who seems herself to have been a work of semi-fiction."
Stefan Kanfer, a writer for the New Leader, takes an interesting position when reviewing Wright's play. Many critics have pointed out that the play leaves many questions unanswered. Kanfer praises Wright for doing so. There is a line in the play in which Charlotte asks how anyone can evaluate her. Kanfer states that "to his credit, Wright never did. He simply recorded what he saw, organized the material into a coherent narrative, and presented it as a one-man show."
Hart is a freelance writer and published author with degrees in English and creative writing. In this essay, she looks at the various mood swings in Wright's play, mapping how they change and how they might affect the audience.
In the published version of Wright's play I Am My Own Wife, the playwright offers an introductory essay, "Portrait of an Enigma." For the reader (as opposed to a member of a theater audience), this provides a clue to the overall mood of Wright's play. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the subject of the play, was indeed puzzling. Is puzzlement also the mood that Wright intended for his play?
There is a mystifying element that hovers over this play, one that is difficult to miss even if one has not read Wright's essay. Imagine sitting in the audience, watching a live performance of this play; one probably would sense a perplexing mood right from the opening moments. It would begin with Charlotte's first appearance on stage. She is, first of all, obviously a man clothed in a black dress. Even more puzzling, she stands and faces the audience for a few moments without saying a word. She just stares at the people, much as they are staring at her. This is definitely a unique and fascinating opening. Most actors avoid eye contact with audiences, because they want to give the appearance of existing in a different world from those who are sitting watching the play. Often, they quite ignore the audience.
After staring for a few seconds, Charlotte's expression changes, as "the tiniest flicker of a smile dances on her lips. Then, surprisingly, she closes the doors as quickly as she appeared, and is gone." After experiencing this opening, how could anyone not guess that the intention of this play is to make one feel a bit baffled? From the beginning, Wright has his audience members' attention, as they try to figure out what is going on. Who is this man dressed in women's clothes? Why was she staring at us? What did that smile mean? Is she hiding a secret? Where has she gone, and when is she going to return? These questions grab the audience's attention and keep the audience involved. As all good mystery writers know, one has to keep people guessing. The mood of confusion is working well.
The mood changes throughout the play, however. When Charlotte reappears onstage, she demonstrates that she can be an educator or an entertainer, depending on how she appeals to the audience. She is definitely engaging, and so the mood of the play becomes more relaxed, lulling the audience into a more receptive state, yet not totally removing the edge of mystery. As Charlotte talks, she reveals an interesting and unique personality. She has lived through very difficult times and has gained a wealth of information and experience.
Mystery returns again when Charlotte morphs into another character, John Marks. She does so not by changing costumes but rather by standing more erect, dropping her German accent, and taking on a slight Texas twang. "What is going on?" the audience might be asking. Before they can figure it out, John transforms into Doug. Then Charlotte returns shortly thereafter and carries on a conversation with Doug. The single actor on the stage is, in fact, talking to himself, but he is pulling off a dialogue as if someone else were onstage with him. At this point, the mystery has itself transformed and spiraled, until it indeed becomes a challenge. The members of the audience are not only guessing about what is going on, they are also working hard to keep up.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Before he wrote I Am My Own Wife, Wright created the play Quills (1996). The play is based on the story of another controversial real-life character, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), a French aristocrat who wrote pornography and practiced rather brutal sexual acts. His name inspired the word sadism.
- Charlotte von Mahlsdorf wrote her own version of her story in her autobiography, also called I Am My Own Wife (1995). The critics question the veracity of the story, but truth or fiction, this book has been praised as no less than a good read.
- For a different take on transvestites and a lighter read, try the pulp-fiction author Ed Wood's Death of a Transvestite (1999), about a murderer on death row who, as his last wish, asks to be able to dress in drag.
- Moisés Kaufman, who directed Wright's play, wrote a successful play of his own that deals with a young man who was not as lucky as Charlotte and did not survive. The Laramie Project (2001) is based on a true story, that of a homosexual man who was murdered.
Charlotte dominates the stage for the next segments, as the mood of the play settles down once more. The people watching the play sit back in their seats and enjoy the return to a relaxed mood, as Charlotte offers a tour of her museum-like mansion and a brief and intimate history of life in Berlin before World War II. Curiosity is aroused when Charlotte begins to reveal tidbits of her personal history. The mood changes once more. The curious mood, however, quickly gives way to tension. There are brutal moments in Charlotte's history. She talks about the war and about fearing for her life first when confronted by a military officer who threatens to shoot her and then when similarly confronted by her father. Charlotte speaks of the oppressive nature of living under Stasi surveillance, especially when one is gay. The mood is tinged with fear. This brings out a sense of empathy in the members of the audience, as they listen to the horrors that Charlotte has endured. The relationship between Charlotte and the audience is changing: they are drawing closer together. Whereas she was an enigma at the beginning of the play, she is now coming closer to being someone to admire, a point that is emphasized when she is given a medal of honor. Charlotte then talks about her association with the Stasi, the secret police. She tells the audience that she was forced to become a spy. Audience concern for Charlotte's welfare increases as the mood becomes tinted with sympathy. The first act ends on this note. The mood is somber.
As act 2 opens, the audience is introduced to Alfred Kirschner, who is writing a letter to Charlotte from prison. Curiosity is again piqued. Who is this man? What is his relationship with Charlotte? Why is he imprisoned? Answers come quickly. Charlotte provides the history of her relationship with Kirschner as well as her role in putting him in prison. It is a sad tale, one of victimization. When Kirschner tells her not to become involved in his troubles with the Stasi, Charlotte says that she obeys. It makes no sense for both of them to go to jail for illegally selling old clocks. On its face, this is a simple but sad story. Charlotte believed that she had no choice. She later writes letters to Kirschner to help keep his spirits up. She even tells the prison guards, when she goes to visit, that she is Kirschner's wife. Poor Charlotte, the audience might be thinking. She may have been in love with Kirschner.
John returns to say that what Charlotte has said about Kirschner does not tally with the facts. Charlotte's Stasi file shows that she had been spying on Kirschner, gathering information in order to set him up for the arrest. What is the mood of the play now? This news is shocking, and the audience is thrown back into bewilderment. Audience members must mull over everything they have heard so far and reevaluate their feelings for Charlotte. They might again be asking, Who is this woman? What part of her story is true, if anything? How could she turn in a friend?
One can almost sense the audience pulling back. Until the revelation that she has betrayed Kirschner, Charlotte seemed sweet and endearing. Now she appears cunning and maybe even a little lethal. The knowledge that she has killed her father takes on a different color. A sort of gloom sets in, perhaps even a sense of disgust. After all, the audience was beginning to trust Charlotte. All the questions have returned, and now there is also a feeling of having been betrayed. But perhaps Charlotte can clear this all up. Indeed, the Stasi could be the ones who are lying. Unfortunately, Charlotte does not entirely rise to the occasion, when Doug gives her a chance to clear herself. She evades questions or offers answers that do not quite dispel the confusion. She appears to be a fallen hero. Even her fans turn against her, and a disillusioned mood prevails. There is still a hint of curiosity—Charlotte remains an enigma, but is she still interesting?
In a final attempt to bring the audience back to Charlotte's side, Wright provides a horrifying anecdote. Charlotte relates how she was attacked by neo-Nazis; for this reason, she is leaving town. The radio-talk-show host who is interviewing her, however, does not quite buy her neo-Nazi story. Are you leaving, he asks Charlotte, or are you running away? Doug states that he wants to believe Charlotte; he still admires her for what she has gone through. The play ends with a message from Charlotte that might win over certain members of the audience. Charlotte, in essence, suggests that she is only human and has weaknesses just like everyone else. Wright presents this idea to us through Charlotte's instructions on how to display and care for antique furniture. As Charlotte puts it, it is the wear and tear, the scratches and imperfections, that make a particular piece interesting. Once again, the audience is puzzled. Their mood is a little marred from the experience of the play, much like the antique furniture. In what mood does the audience leave the theater? That is another mystery.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on I Am My Own Wife, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following review, Ellenzweig discusses the source documents used to create I Am My Own Wife and praises Jefferson Mays's portrayal of Charlotte and the entry of Wright as a character in the play.
In general I don't like drag, yet there are times when a man in a dress does something transformative: he comes to embody something other than a camp cliche. Such is the case with the one-man production written by Doug Wright, I Am My Own Wife, currently on the boards at New York City's Playwrights Horizons. Here we have a man in a severe black dress presenting the extraordinary figure of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a male-to-female transvestite who survived the Nazi regime as a teenager only to live nearly all her adult life under the repressive Communist boot of East Germany.
Wright is the author of Quills, a play about the Marquis de Sade that he adapted for the screen in a much-lauded film starring Geoffrey Rush. With I Am My Own Wife, the playwright has had good fortune in his collaborators. Wife is directed by Moises Kaufman, whose previous credits include Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project. Both of those productions relied heavily upon an architecture made of documents—court records, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, taped interviews—to build a coherent historical text in which the drama took place. The source materials for I Am My Own Wife, which Kaufman has helped to shape along with Wright, include the playwright's interviews with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, letters the two exchanged over ten years, newspaper accounts of her life, and her East German Stasi file.
None of this would have amounted to much had Wright and Kaufman not had Jefferson Mays to play Charlotte and all the other characters in the piece—including representations of the playwright himself and assorted Nazi and East German Stasi police, American soldiers, heartless homo-hustlers, an antiques-dealing conman, and Charlotte's lesbian aunt. What Mays does is nothing less than to "channel" Charlotte in her declining years and bring her to us whole: the cadences of her speech and German accent; her manner of walking and physical gesture. She is not a caricature, though she is a character. She's not a lovable old tranny, but we are cast under her spell nonetheless. All this Mays achieves with an economy of means in a performance that is at once controlled and spirited. He can go in a flash from Charlotte describing in piquant timbre the antique phonograph machines she collects, some from as far back as Thomas Edison, to assuming the innocence of a Midwestern GI on duty in Cold War Germany or the bullying presence of Charlotte's abusive father. And all this in the same black dress, with pearls.
While there are many characters in this one-person play, all of them acted by Jefferson Mays in quick incisive strokes, it is his embodiment of Charlotte von Mahlsdorff—born Lothar Berfelde—that holds us in thrall. As the owner of an antique furniture "museum" in East Berlin, Charlotte's collection of cylinders and discs from a bygone era, together with her well-stuffed and well-crafted chaises and chairs, are her witnesses to the history that fate has condemned her to survive. An early, brutal transgression committed in self-defense has forced Lothar into youth detention until a lucky escape. A lesbian aunt, conversant in the sexology theories of Magnus Hirschfeld, hands Lothar a study on transvestitism and commands him to make it his bible. A gay antiques dealer, a fellow obsessive of early Edison cylinders, enlists Charlotte in a get-rich-quick scheme involving young American soldiers eager to send elegant kitsch back home. The East German Stasi police discover his export violation and enlist Charlotte as an informer. All the while, Charlotte herself has made her basement a clandestine recreation of a Weimar-era nightclub, a venue for gay and lesbian trysts.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Charlotte is lauded as a national German heroine until her Stasi connections are made public. In a country where informing on one's neighbors was widespread, if not universal, the aging transvestite is now roasted over the coals in the media.
By having "Doug Wright" enter the narrative as a character, the play explores the dramatist's evolving relations with Charlotte and becomes an inquiry about truth and fiction—how much of what she has told him about her past, and therefore told the audience, is verifiable? For example, we have witnessed a scene in which her dealer friend has given her permission to inform on him—as a way of saving herself. Larger questions of reality and illusion are at play here, for is not Charlotte's entire life a deeply committed performance? Is she not at all times the biological Lothar embedded in the female-gendered Charlotte?
I Am My Own Wife uses all the stagecraft at its command—kudos to its scenic and lighting design, and to its sound engineers—to awaken from a simple stage the moral complexities of one man's life intersecting with the 20th century's two worst totalitarian scourges. Wright, Kaufman, and Mays have collaborated to (re)create a compromised hero/heroine whose life was both a beacon and a shadow.
Source: Allen Ellenzweig, "One-Woman Show," in Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Vol. 10, No. 5, September-October 2003, p. 50.
Feingold, Michael, "Unnerving Berlin," in the Village Voice, Vol. 48, No. 23, June 4-10, 2003, p. 55.
Kanfer, Stefan, "Wrong Mistakes," in the New Leader, Vol. 87, No. 1, January/February 2004, pp. 41-43.
Lahr, John, "Boys Won't Be Boys," in the New Yorker, Vol. 79, No. 15, June 9, 2003, p. 106.
Nickels, Thom, "House Frau," in Lambda Book Report, Vol. 13, No. 3, October 2004, pp. 25-26.
Raymond, Gerard, "His Own Pulitzer," in the Advocate, May 11, 2004, p. 81.
Weber, Bruce, "Inventing Her Life as She Goes Along," in the New York Times, December 4, 2003, Section E, p. 1.
Wright, Doug, I Am My Own Wife, Faber and Faber, 2004, pp. ix-xxiv, 9, 70, 75, 78.
Beck, Gad, An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
Homosexuals were persecuted during the Nazi regime in Germany. Being both gay and Jewish, Beck had no reasonable expectation of surviving. But he did, and his story is quite remarkable.
Peukert, Detlev, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life, Yale University Press, 1989.
This book is an insider's view of life during the Nazi regime in Germany. Peukert takes a special interest in the German youths who found ways to oppose the Nazis. One of those ways was through music.
Maran, Meredith, 50 Ways to Support Lesbian and Gay Equality: The Complete Guide to Supporting Family, Friends, Neighbors—or Yourself, Inner Ocean Publishing, 2005.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf found a way to survive in a world that took homophobia to the extreme. In the early twenty-first century, the environment is not quite as drastic as in Charlotte's day, but adjusting to or fitting into modern society as a homosexual, transvestite, or other nontraditionally gendered person is still a challenge. This book offers essays about the gay world by people who study it and by those who not only live in it but also actively and politically support it, with timely suggestions on how to live with homophobia.
There are not many books written about transvestites. Prieur's is one of the few. She did her studies in Mexico in a community of transvestites and homosexuals at the outskirts of Mexico City.