Doug Wright

I Am My Own Wife

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I Am My Own Wife Summary

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The 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife is the work of renowned playwright Doug Wright. The play premiered Off-Broadway in 2003 and eventually opened on Broadway, starring Jefferson Mays. Wright based this work on his conversations and interviews with the enigmatic German transvestite (although Charlotte would today more accurately be described as a trans woman) and antique dealer Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, as well on Charlotte’s 1992 autobiography, also titled I Am My Own Wife (or I Am My Own Woman). The play’s title is from an anecdote Charlotte tells: when she was forty, her clueless mother asked “Don’t you think it’s time you settled down and found a wife?” to which Charlotte answered, “But, Mutti, don’t you know that I am my own wife?”

In portraying Charlotte’s ability to successfully navigate life in Germany during both the Nazi era and the subsequent Communist regime while living as openly gay and in defiantly dowdy drag, the play requires its sole actor to play around forty different roles. However, since the play is written from Charlotte’s perspective, each of these roles is doubly acted – the star of the play is playing first Charlotte, and then Charlotte’s version of each of these other characters.

At first, Charlotte seems to Wright to be a true hero – a survivor of the Nazis and the Communists in East Germany. However, it soon becomes clear that making her way through that climate unscathed required making many morally dubious choices. To contextualize this ability to survive, Wright’s play not only chronicles Charlotte’s life, according to Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times, it also creates “a vivid portrait of Germany in the second half of the twentieth century, a morally complex tale about what it can take to be a survivor, and an intriguing meditation on everything from the obsession with collecting to the passage of time.”

The play’s first act opens as Doug Wright learns about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, then a sixty-five-year-old who had been living as a woman for her entire adult life, from his friend, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Doug slowly comes to the realization that he would like to write a play about Charlotte. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Doug begins a series of conversations with Charlotte, eventually obtaining her permission to use them as the basis of his one-man show. The play recreates these conversations, mixing in Doug’s observations and conclusions.

We follow Charlotte from youth to adulthood, watching as Charlotte, who was born Lothar Berfelde, kills her abusive father when she is still a young child. Later, Charlotte is accosted by Nazi SS officers, whom she successfully persuades to let her avoid the fate of many other LGBTQ people during the Holocaust.

After the Communist regime comes into power when, in the wake of WWII, Germany is split in half, Charlotte ends up on the East German side of the divide. Charlotte pursues her interest in art and antiques, becoming a well-known antiquities dealer. Eventually, her knowledge grows to the point that she becomes the foremost expert on the Grunderzeit period of German furniture design (a period spanning approximately 1835-1918). Charlotte is held up as a cultural hero and queer icon.

However, as the first act continues, Doug senses there is more to Charlotte’s story than she is letting on. Through independent research, Doug sees that some of what she has told him is a lie –she managed to survive being openly gay during Communism by collaborating with the Stasi, East Germany’s infamous secret police. The act ends with Charlotte signing a deal with the Stasi to inform on her friends and family.

The second act explores Charlotte’s connection to the Stasi in more detail. We learn that for many years, she delivered reports implicating those she knew. As these unpleasant details about her past emerge, Charlotte experiences no remorse. Instead, she seems emotionally disconnected from her actions in a way that reveals her lack of empathy. All she seems to care about is the antique furniture she specializes in.

In 1997, after the Berlin wall falls, Charlotte moves to Sweden. However, seven years later, she goes back to Berlin to visit the Gründerzeitmuseum at Gutshaus Mahlsdorf – a museum Charlotte created in the 1960s to display the furniture she loves. While walking through the displays, Charlotte suffers a massive heart attack and dies. On her death, the rest of her furniture collection is moved into the Gründerzeitmuseum.

The play ends with Doug expressing his frustration at Charlotte’s elusiveness and his mixed feelings about her.