I’ve read I Am My Own Wife before and seen it in production, but I really wanted to read it again as it feels like a clue for how I progress with the biographical play I am currently working on.
Playwright Doug Wright spent years researching and trying to write about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf before he found a way to get a life that was impacted by World War II, the Cold War and Communism to fit into a play.
Charlotte was a cross-dressing elderly woman when Doug Wright first met her. She’d survived the Nazis and living in East Berlin under the watchful eye of the Stasi as an open transvestite, collecting antiques for her home museum. Her survival under two brutal regimes, both of which could easily have had her shot or gassed for ‘deviancy’, intrigued the writer and he became obsessed with her story.
It was an epic tale, spanning decades and regimes, and Wright ended up creating a brilliant piece of theatre by paring it back to the essentials: the only way he could write about Charlotte was to write about his obsession with her. He chose to have the cast of hundreds played by one male actor (in Charlotte’s trademark black dress and pearls) and he wrote himself into the script so that the audience could see both his infatuation and his disappointment when he found out the contents of her Stasi file.
It’s a tour-de-force role for the actor and the writing is ingenious in the way that the characters talk to each other, through the one body. (This was probably facilitated by the extensive workshops Wright had with the actor and director who would eventually play and stage the piece.)
DOUG: John! … Don’t you see? She doesn’t run a museum, she is one! The rarest artifact she has isn’t a grandfather clock or a Biedermeier tallboy. It’s her. So, please. If I come in June, can I still crash on your floor?
(A pause, and then Doug speaks into his recorder, triumphant.)
Tape Fifteen. June 20, 1993.
(Charlotte smiles enigmatically, and gestures for Doug to follow.)
CHARLOTTE: Careful – you must watch the stairs. Today you follow me at your own risk. I show you das Geheimnis – the secret – of meinem Grunderzeit Museum.
DOUG: (into tape) Charlotte’s disappearing down a series of steps; I guess I’m supposed to go down after her. Christ, it’s steep. Now we’re in the basement, I think, of the house. It’s dark. She’s lighting a gas lamp.
I love the way Wright acknowledges the enigmatic nature of Charlotte and the fact that he never was sure what was true of what she said and what she’d invented. He was blocked for a while by the revelation that she hadn’t been the altruistic eccentric he’d thought her to be and that she might have sold her friends to the Stasi for personal profit, but in the end he lets the questions sit with the audience, for us to come to our own conclusions.
DOUG: Does a piece ever get so old – so damaged – that you throw it away?
CHARLOTTE: Nein. You must save everything. And you must show it – auf Englisch, we say – “as is”. It is a record, yes? Of living. Of lives.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Cast: 1M (playing numerous roles)