Some time after the Berlin Wall came down, playwright Doug Wright received an intriguing letter from a journalist friend stationed in the newly reunited city. The letter mentioned a “true character” who “may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed.” It piqued Wright’s interest and led him to a rural suburb in former East Berlin to meet with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite antique collector who had remarkably survived both the Nazi era and the subsequent Communist regime while holding on to her unique identity and precious collection of century-old antiques.
“She had us for tea in her basement and started to spill the story of her life,” Wright recalls. “That night I knew I had to put her on stage.” Thus began a creative adventure that paved the way for Wright’s debut on Broadway. I Am My Own Wife, which garnered critical kudos during its three month run this summer at Playwright’s Horizons, re-opens at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway this week.
Most people know Wright from Quills, the 2000 movie about the Marquis de Sade, which he adapted from his own Off-Broadway play. Wright says he was going through “a dark time” in his life when he first encountered Charlotte: The Dallas born writer, who fled Texas to write for the theater in New York, had launched his career with the production of Buzzsaw Berkeley at the WPA Theater but had then gone through a “dispiriting” period working in television on the West Coast. He had just returned to New York to write plays again, “borrowing money from my parents’ retirement savings to stay afloat,” when he discovered the outrageous German transvestite whose given name was Lothar Berfelde.
“I think I wanted to write a play about her because, like so many gay men and women growing up in this country, I feel that there’s an absence of role models and a really murky sense of our own history,” Wright explains. “I thought she offered a fascinating glimpse into a concealed past. Here she was, so fiercely singular and eccentric and so committed to her transvestism. I thought she could serve as a powerful corrective for all of our gay self-loathing.” But Charlotte’s story proved more complicated than that — so thorny, in fact, that it gave Wright a severe case of writer’s block.
Charlotte agreed to be interviewed for a play about her life. Between August 1992 and January 1993, Wright flew back and forth to Berlin to record what turned out to be more than 500 pages worth of transcribed tape. During this period, it became clear that Charlotte had secrets to hide: Even before the news hit the German press, Wright discovered that she had been a minor informant for the Stasi — the feared East German secret police — and that she may even have betrayed a close friend. Surprisingly, it was Charlotte herself who gave Wright access to her Stasi file. “To this day,” says Wright, “I am not sure why she gave me the file — if it was because she thought she had duped everyone and it wasn’t incriminating or if she was seeking some kind of absolution, if she was even aware of her own culpability. But the file was really startling.”
Upset by the unexpected revelations and unable to proceed with the Charlotte project, Wright distracted himself by writing Quills, which opened at the New York Theater Workshop in 1995 and which he adapted into a Golden Globe-nominated screenplay five years later. But Charlotte, who had already proved that she was no quitter, was still destined to become a Broadway hero(ine).
“In the end,” says Wright, “she was as profoundly human as any of us. She did make compromises to lead this iconoclastic life; she protected her museum and she protected her own, very atypical identity through these notorious regimes. Those are huge accomplishments, and to think naively that she could have done that with minimal sacrifice denies the magnitude of the achievements themselves. No, she did those remarkable things at a deeply painful price,” Wright declares. “I didn’t want to face this initially but then I realized that the original intention I had of writing this piece of hero-worship was more propagandistic than artful. I thought, ‘If you really do admire her, if you really love her, then you should be able to withstand the full truth of her life and not just selective portions of it.'”
I Am My Own Wife was first brought to light in 2000 at the Sundance Theater Laboratory in Utah, when Wright was invited to bring his transcripts and try and make a play of them. “I had no proper vision of the form it would take and I thought it would be greedy to ask for more than one actor when I hadn’t actually written a play yet,” the author explains. So he invited director Moisés Kaufman, who had previously demonstrated a flair for adapting transcripts into theatrical text (in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project) and actor Jefferson Mays, a cast member from the original New York production of Quills, to come to Sundance.
“He called me out of the blue and asked he if I wanted to be in a play that he hadn’t written yet,” recalls Mays. “I leapt at the opportunity to play the part of a 65-year-old East German transvestite!” On the first day of rehearsal, Wright asked Mays to read from the transcripts and the actor altered his voice to pose the author’s questions and then to imitate Charlotte’s answers. Recalls, the playwright, “I heard this remarkable transition in character and I thought, ‘My God, Charlotte had to adopt so many different guises to tell her tale.’ So it made intuitive sense to me that it should be a one-person show from the first day.” After three weeks of work, Wright, Mays, and Kaufman had fashioned the first act of a viable play. “We all had so much fun,” says Wright. “We painted our nails and wore pearls to rehearsal every day and we called ourselves ‘the wives.'”
For Mays, whose previous work was primarily in regional theater, the part of Charlotte has proved to be one of the biggest breaks of his career. A former member of Anne Bogart’s SITI Theater Company, Mays had worked collaboratively on theater pieces before. But helping to create I Am My Own Wife and embodying nearly 40 characters in addition to the lead role while holding the stage on his own was a singular experience. “It is very odd to be having one’s Broadway debut entirely alone,” he remarks. No less unusual is the fact that the script requires him to impersonate the playwright as well.
According to Wright, “I was terribly self-conscious of putting myself in the play, but I wanted the play to reach beyond mere character study. I wanted it to ask fundamental questions about how we report history and how the motives of the historian often drive what we remember and what we don’t. In order to ask thematic questions that big, I needed the historian present as a character. I also thought, ‘If I am going to have the arrogance to put [Charlotte] on the page and present it as in any way dramatic or definitive, then I have to have the courage to put myself down. That will keep me honest.'”
Playing Doug Wright was difficult, Mays reports: “It’s easier to imitate a person you don’t really know and, oddly enough, I think easier to mimic someone second hand from someone else’s imitation. Knowing Doug as well as I do, it was challenging to channel him. But he was completely open to the idea and, indeed, masochistically encouraged me initially to go the route of gross caricature before arriving at something suitable for the stage.” Wright laughs and adds, “I said to Jefferson, ‘You can take all my business calls and go on most of my first dates!'”
The second act of the play, which was developed at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse and subsequently fine-tuned in a pre-New York incarnation presented by Chicago’s About Face Theater and Museum of Contemporary Art, reflects the writer’s shift in perspective on the Charlotte von Mahlsdorf story. “I think the first act tries to establish her on her terms and the second act starts to look at her in a more objective way,” says Wright. “She gets her platform and then I get mine.”
Mays concurs that the altered focus of the second act throws into relief the uncertain nature of history. “We always talk about the writing of history as though it were a creative act, which indeed it is,” he says. “I have never been more aware of the ambiguity of the stories that we tell as people, the degree to which we all invent ourselves and protect ourselves through the mythologies we create. This holds true on a personal and, certainly, a national level.”
As far as Charlotte’s story telling was concerned, Wright says, “there was a ritualistic cadence to all of her anecdotes — a kind of measured, careful style. In interviewing her, I felt at times that she was a kind of jukebox of stories. You’d say ‘Tell me about your father’ and you’d get one anecdote; or you’d say ‘Tell me about the first time you ever put on a dress’ and you’d get another anecdote. She never embellished, never altered, never retracted, and this only added to her enigmatic nature. You learned less through what she said and more through the telling silences or the evasiveness of her gaze. Sometimes, she would mentally check out in the middle of a tale; that’s how you could tell that hers is, in part, a fabricated life.”
Nonetheless, Charlotte and Wright established what he considers a real friendship. Says Wright, “I think my essentially mild-mannered nature put her at ease — and her profound affection for my translator.” On many of the interviews, particularly in the early stages before Wright learned to speak German, he was accompanied by his friend Jeff Schneider: “He attended every late-night session with Charlotte, so when our language barrier broke down, he was there to translate. He’s a very handsome blade, Jeffrey, and I think Charlotte had a little crush on him. There were a few times when I visited her on my own; her face would fall a bit and she would say, ‘Isn’t Jeffrey coming?'” Even after the interviews were done, Wright continued to correspond with Charlotte, requesting and receiving documents and photos. “I had plane tickets to go and see her to confirm some of her story in April 2002,” Wright says, “but she died before I could make that trip.”
The successful stage play based on the indomitable, cross-dressing German antique collector has now landed its writer, actor, and director on Broadway for the first time. Wright is still enraptured by the audience reaction to I Am My Own Wife during its Off-Broadway run. “The response has been gorgeous,” he enthuses. “I wrote out of rage for so long — plays like Quills, watbanaland, even Unwrap your Candy, which has a certain malevolence. I think this is the first play I ever wrote out of love. I had grown accustomed to seeing theater patrons walk out sort of blanched and nervous, casting worried glances and wondering what kind of madness lurks within. With this play, people leave truly heartened, and I get hugs and kisses.”
For the play’s transfer to Broadway, the creators strove to maintain the intimate feeling that the audience is visiting Charlotte in her house/museum in Mahlsdorf. The central focus is still on Mays’s tour de force performance and, of course, on the lady herself. Quips the author, “we are basically letting granny tranny trod the boards and see how she fares.”