I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright

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Vince Gatton as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Vince Gatton as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

I Am My Own Wife
by Doug Wright

starring Vince Gatton, directed by Andrew Volkoff
Barrington Stage Company, Stage II

As a teenager under the Third Reich and son of an enthusiastic and rising party member of brutal ways, Lothar Berfelde found himself maturing into an especially difficult situation. From a very early age, he had felt himself to be a girl in a boy’s body. Disgusted by Lothar’s precocious effeminacy, his father had forced him to join the Hitler Youth, but eventually a Lesbian aunt enlightened him about cross-dressing and gave him an authoritative book on the subject, Magnus Hirschfeld’s book, Die Transvestiten (1910), which became his Bible, as it reminded him that he was not alone in the world. He killed his father with a rolling pin, as Väterchenthreatened to kill his mother and the entire family. After psychiatric examination he was judged sane and sentenced to four years in juvenile prison. East German society was no more tolerant of homosexuals, but Lothar was able to pursue his inclinations, changing his name to “Lottchen,” formally Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the Berlin suburb in which he had grown up, and where he continued to live, obsessively collecting furniture and other objects from the Gründerzeit, that is, the age of Bismarck, a period of growing national wealth and security, the “world of assurance” (viz. Am. “insurance”), as Stefan Zweig called it, which was to collapse with the First World War. Charlotte made a name for herself as a preservationist, rescuing old buildings from destruction. She was eventually granted one of them as a home and a site for her private Gründerzeitmuseum, which opened in 1960 and became as much a center of homosexual life as it was a place to enjoy the decorative art of a bygone age. In the basement she preserved the interior of theMulackritze, a notorious gay dive, which was closed by the authorities in 1963. Her way of life, which was far from inconspicuous, and the double-edged function of the museum made it necessary for her to tread a fine line with the powers that be, but she survived and enjoyed major public honors after the reunification of Germany.

She published an autobiography, titled Ich Bin Meine Eigene Frau, which made her and her story even more celebrated in the Germany of the 1990’s and among the gay community. On the other hand, stories about her activities as a Stasi informant clouded her reputation, and she became a controversial figure, threatened from several corners, and decided to move to Sweden. The autobiography was made into a semi-documentary film by Rosa von Praunheim, starring Charlotte herself; and Peter Süß, who co-authored her autobiography, wrote a play with the same title, also the same as Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, which for copyright reasons cannot be performed in Germany under same title. In German the title is a double entendre, meaning also “I am my own woman.” If you see the movie, which is excellent, you will learn a third interpretation of Charlotte’s Spruch and its context from Charlotte herself.

Doug Wright’s one-man play, which has been highly successful on stage and his won numerous awards, including the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize, is not only about Charlotte’s life story, which is obviously extremely well-known, but about Wright’s affectionate obsession with Charlotte and the lengths to which he went to meet her, interview her, and compile the material for his play. One actor (typically a young or youngish male actor) plays some forty different other roles for at least a line or two, dressed almost the entire time in Charlotte’s trademark black dress, sensible shoes, and pearl necklace. When the actor plays Doug, the role is made more concrete by fact that the actor is Doug’s age, and American, but he remains continually in Charlotte’s costume, suggesting that Doug has become so close to Charlotte that he wears her clothes. Perhaps the effect even goes so far as to imply that Charlotte is playing Doug. Only once does the actor appear in another costume, the male costume of Charlotte’s friend, Alfred, an antique collector and dealer, who, probably through Charlotte’s machinations, is serving a term in prison. But soon enough the scene and character change, and Charlotte appears again, taking off the male clothes, which she has only put on over her black dress. Neatly folded and resting on one of her museum objects, it remains onstage until the end.

Ultimately, casting a youngish male actor as the sixty-five-year-old transvestite is key to Wright’s perspective on his material. He wants us to see Charlotte from the standpoint of a gay American, who sympathizes with his difficult life, identifies with and admires his survival, and feels an attraction and affection for the old girl. Wright faces the dark side of Charlotte’s character honestly, but he will not let it diminish his sympathy for this person whom he knew personally and rather well. When doubts arise about the veracity of parts of Charlotte’s story, he voices his determination to believe her, an attitude one can’t help finding sympathetic in itself. Charlotte’s feigned indifference to accusations of complicity with the Stasi and her role in landing Alfred in prison could in itself affect us as repulsive, but we continue to support Doug’s loyalty to his character and friend. And yes, the play is skillfully constructed and concludes with a startling revelation which I shall not devulge, although so many people know it already.

Nonetheless I could not help speculating what the play would be like with an older male actor playing the part, or an older woman, even. This is not to say that Vince Gatton’s brilliant performance was not equal to pretty much every aspect of his role. His German accent was not always perfect, although it is usuallyvery good, and he does not attempt to capture the individuality of Charlotte’s own manner of speech in the language. (Anyone can get a perfectly good idea of Charlotte’s manner of speech from Rosa von Praunheim’s film. She spoke standard educated German, her northern origins apparent in her aspirated final “g’s.” She was no Berliner (-in) of the ilk of Wilhelm Voight or Franz Biberkopf. However, in the film, Charlotte has a particularly stiff and self-conscious delivery much of the time, which may possibly have been encouraged by the director to create a “documentary” impression. When Charlotte is filmed guiding a group through he galleries, she is much more relaxed.) On the other hand, Charlotte’s German should probably not be perfect, since we should never forget that we are seeing her through Doug’s designated representative. Vince Gatton’s charm and imagination proved far more important factors, not to mention his good looks, which brought to mind a younger, gentler Robert Ryan, almost ironed out into the boy next door—almost, but not quite. Gatton is perfectly aware that Charlotte could not have survived without becoming tainted with corruption, and he had great fun playing off her quiet gentility, her Kaffee und Kuchen side, against her energetic sex life in the gay underground of East Berlin, which included a delight in hefty spankings. His Charlotte makes her entrance in the familiar black outfit, her head enclosed in a black cap, which makes her appear as much of a housekeeper as a curator, constantly dusting her collection. In this Charlotte’s sexuality and her vocation come together. As she says, her life consists of Möbel, Museum, und Männer:furniture, museum and men.

There is one set, a museum gallery, handsomely designed by Brian Prather and perfectly constructed for the intimate stage of Theater II. At the back, right of center, is a door, through which Charlotte comes and goes. Further right and forward, there stands an Edison phonograph, which functions as the conversation piece through which Charlotte introduces herself. Over the door, projected phrases provide us with titles, often ironic ones, for the each of the play’s numerous scenes, creating a properly Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. There were no apparent compromises in this production, and certainly nothing to apologize for.

The Barrington Stage Company offered a polished and thoroughly entertaining production of this justly popular play in their new Stage II, an intimate black box theater, which they have set up in the V. F. W. chapter on Linden Street in Pittsfield. The building, by the way, dedicated in 1972, is a splendid example of the vernacular moderne of the period, with a polygonal café, which, decorated with production photos in each bay, serves the BSC admirably during intermissions. In fact, it almost seems as if the BSC has taken on some Charlotte’s preservation work, bringing artistically conscious people into this period treasure.

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