Monday, October 05, 2009

I Am My Own Wife

Wright, Dough, I Am My Own Wife. New York: Faber And Faber, Inc., 2004.
by Susana Cook

Both truth and lies and reality and fiction become interwoven in I Am My Own Wife. The introduction by the author prepares us to see a piece of documentary theater: The life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. He is interested in showing to the world this very unique human being. “If her life didn’t merit two hours on a New York stage, he reasons, who would?” The play is a piece of political theater, where politics are spelled out very clearly. The characters talk politics and describe specific and real historical moments.
The author makes a crucial decision in the script: one person will play all the characters. This is a one woman show-- or a one man show--or a one transvestite show. This decision is significant at so many levels. All the genders, personalities and stories live inside this character. The versatility of Charlotte as a transvestite, and as a person who had compromised her ideals to work as an informant for the Stasi regime in order to survive, makes her the charming and adorable character that people get to hate and love again. We are used to seeing solo shows, where the actor changes wigs, voices and characters. But the characters in this play are not doing monologues, they interact fluently, building a very alive and multilayered story.
Charlotte owns a lot of objects that have witnessed important parts of history and she is part of that history. Her museum is almost like another character during the play—the only objects in the set. The symbiosis of Charlotte with the objects and the history they represent becomes evident during the play. “ She doesn’t run a museum, she is one! (36) Says Dough. Charlotte has an amazing monologue where she describes herself as becoming the objects that were left behind by the people who were killed or kicked out by the Nazi and the Communists regimes: “When families died, I became this furniture. When the Jews were deported in the Second World War, I became it. When citizens were burned out of their homes by the Communists, I became it. After the coming of the wall, when the old mansion houses were destroyed to create the people’s architecture, I became it.” (18).
The character of Dough, the playwright, becomes as important as the character of Charlotte. He needs Charlotte to be a hero for gay and transgender people. The playwright is doing research, interviewing Charlotte, trying to build the story of this incredibly symbolic character. During his search and during the play the heroine falls apart, becomes a liar and a fraud. Then Charlotte rises up again, in all her complex dimension and duplicity.
The play looks at the history of Germany and WWII through the life of a transvestite. “Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, had lived openly as a cross-dresser under the twentieth century’s two most conformist regimes—the Nazis and the Communists—for almost her entire life.” (X) Describes the author in Portrait of an Enigma.
The character of Charlotte is very important, and the need of the playwright, a gay man in search of a hero for his mistreated community, is very important too. Both stories interact during the play, and both stories are relevant. Dough is ready to forgive and understand Charlotte, but he is not ready to make her a fictional hero. He needs her to be real, a historical figure that will become a hero for all transgender and gay people. She is the character of a play, but it’s very clear that we are listening to the story of her life in real East Germany during WWII, the third Reich, the Communist regime, the coming and the fall of the wall. “I grew up in the Bible Belt; says Dough to Charlotte; I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Thrid Reich. The Nazis, and hen the Communists? It seems to me you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.” (19).
The author wants to tell a story of survival—creating an icon of transgender visibility and pride. However, the story becomes an enigmatic biography. Many questions remain unanswered. We’ll never know the real story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In a way—and probably against the author’s intentions-- she becomes a fictional character, interacting with an author that is trying to make her real, and is convinced that she can serve a great purpose: to be a hero for the gay and transgender community, who are thirsty for heroes who challenged the system and prevailed.