Thoughts & Musings

Do I Contradict Myself?: I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright (2004)

©2009 by Eileen Warburton

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Growing up in the ’60s and 70’s as a gay young man in Dallas, Texas, Doug Wright (b. 1962) was always aware of being different, outside the ordinary and the acceptable, feeling a little frightened and seeking the courage to be himself. So, in 1992, when his friend John Marks (then Berlin bureau chief for US News and World Report) told him the extraordinary tale of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Wright was so mesmerized that we might call it falling in love. Writers choose their heroes as through the looking glass: the subject that reflects their own deepest need awakens their most compulsive creativity.

And here, like a gift for Doug Wright, all tied up with a pink bow, was Charlotte. Born a male, Lothar Berfelde, in 1928, she had openly lived her adult life as a woman, espousing her “third sex” identity through the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Germany, when homosexuals and transvestites were being murdered in concentration camps and on the streets. She continued simply to be her transgendered self through the bombing of Berlin by the Allies, through the division of Germany, through life behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany, through the fall of the Wall in 1989. She had also pursued an exceptional interest in the artifacts of German history, creating and saving an amazing assortment of furniture, clocks, fine art and cultural schlock. Most astonishing, she had preserved intact in her own basement the only surviving Weimar cabaret in all of Eastern Germany, the Mulack-Ritze, which she then actually RAN as an active gay/lesbian bar under the very nose of the repressive Communist regime.

For Doug Wright, Charlotte was a noble figure, a great role model for struggling gay people everywhere. “Her quiet heroism,” he writes in his reflective introduction to the play (“Portrait of an Enigma”) – maintaining an unwavering sense of herself during such repressive times – could be a boon to gay men and woman everywhere . . . she was a bona fide gay hero.” The young playwright pursued her – tape-recorder ever at the ready – with awe, with gratitude, with dogged determination to do justice to her extraordinary life. “I wanted my play to be a paean to Charlotte,” he writes.

At the same time that Wright was building a trusting, filial friendship with this now-aging German transvestite, Charlotte was being celebrated as a culture-hero in the newly united Germany. She received adulation and awards, was interviewed on television, was profiled in magazines, and lectured widely (often with starry-eyed Doug Wright in tow).

And then, two years into his project, Wright was confronted with new data. Charlotte’s Stasi file (the nasty confidential report kept on German citizens by the East German Secret Police) came to light. Indeed, Charlotte trusted Wright to be the first reader. It became clear then that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf had been willingly complicit with the Soviet authorities and had acted as a spy. At least one “friend” was destroyed by her deliberate actions. Her own explanation of how this came about was false and self-serving and Wright began to be aware of the lies and contradictions in Charlotte’s story. Her German reputation as the sweet “tranny-granny” was challenged by disappointed citizens, gay and straight alike. Charlotte became evasive to Wright, shielding her story, avoiding discussion or tough questions.

Wright, as a man, was disillusioned, confused, and hurt. Wright, as a playwright, was paralyzed. Tortured years passed in which he couldn’t write his play.

It is a great, great blessing that theatre is such a collaborative art. As Wright agonized over “the truth” about Charlotte’s life – if indeed there was a “truth” – a director friend, Robert Blacker, pointed out that the real story was not about Charlotte, or Germany, or the history of 20th century tyranny, but was about Doug Wright’s “ongoing obsession with a remarkable character.” The story, said Blacker, was Wright’s “love affair with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.” Blacker’s observation set Wright free to treat the complicated enigma of Charlotte as a three-dimensional human being.

“Liberated,” as Wright wrote afterwards, he turned to a further friend/collaborator, Moises Kaufman. Kaufman, who would brilliantly direct the first 2003-04 production of I Am My Own Wife, is the playwright of the award-winning plays, The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Moreover, he is the co-founder of the “tectonic” approach to theatrical production in which the playwright and company use the raw data of biographical life to construct the theatrical experience. Documents and witnesses of all sorts are each given equal weight. This allows, nay, encourages the audience to approach the subject from a huge variety of contradictory perspectives. The subject, thereby, is not presented as a flat answer, but as a complicated mystery. Good, bad. Intelligent, stupid, Dark, light. Kind, cruel. Simply real and constantly intriguing.

Using Kaufman’s tectonic approach made it possible for Wright to include all the conflicting data from his hours of tapes, from the public and private record, from the differing witnesses, from the so-called experts from one field or another, from Charlotte herself, and from his own instincts. There doesn’t have to be a single smooth answer, only the testimony of the data.

Having such abundance of perspectives made present in differing voices is an extraordinarily challenging, ambitious tour de force for an actor. This is appropriate, for Charlotte von Mahlsdorf herself was an exceptional, lifelong actor, committed to playing a role of her own making that defied other social constructs. If much of her story is semi-fictional, this is because her entire life was in some sense a fiction. That is, her assumed gender and behavior was a creative invention in which she was consistent. Rather than being manipulated by the surrounding environment to conform to society’s demands, Charlotte manipulated that environment to support the character she had chosen to be. As her darker, more selfish, even violent side is revealed by the documents and data, she is still what Doug Wright believed her to be at the beginning of his quest: a person “maintaining an unwavering sense of herself during such repressive times.” It is simply that to be so required craft and compromise as well as “quiet heroism.” It is testimony to Wright’s growth as a writer that he worked through his early idealism to come to a mature vision of this fascinating figure.

The public and the critics thought so, too, incidentally. In 2004 I Am My Own Wife won: the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, the Drama League Award for Best Play, the Lucille Lortel Awards Outstanding Solo Show, the Tony Award for Best Play, the Lambda Literary Award for Drama, and, not least, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has been in constant production somewhere in the world since 2004, with particularly noteworthy productions and award-winning solo performances taking place in Eastern Europe, behind the old Iron Curtain where Charlotte von Mahlsdorf invented and lived out her self for so many triumphant years.

For further reading:

Von Mahlsdorf, Charlotte. I Am My Own Wife: The True Story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.  (Cleis Press, in English, 2004).

Mays, Jefferson; Von Mahlsdorf, Charlotte. I Am My Own Wife: Studies for a Play about the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.  (New York: Faber and Faber, 2004)

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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