I saw an amazing show last night. I have rarely felt that I am watching not only a theatrical event, but a testament to humanity, and it’s complexities. The show is “I am my own wife”, the examination of the life of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a man who lived as a transvestite in East German Berlin from the early years of World War II to until shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I had seen the Rosa von Prauheim film of the same name, "Ich bin meine eigene Frau",, in the early nineties a couple times, intrigued not only by the style of the film, but by Charlotte himself, who appears in the film instructing the actors how to play him in different parts of his life. Since the release of that film, Charlotte was given the medal of honor, appeared on talk shows, and became a hero. Subsequently, it was found out that he was working for the East German secret Police as a spy, and may have been responsible for the incarceration of one of his closest friends.
There are too many incredible aspects to Charlotte’s life to report here: He was a collector of German furniture and furnishings circa 1890-1900, had a 27 room museum that housed his collection, saved a famous bar from demolition by bringing all the furnishings to his basement and having gay gatherings there, killed his Nazi Father, had an incredible lesbian aunt who was responsible for giving him Magnus Hirshfeld’s “Die Transvestite” and a sense of who he was. I won’t recount more here—it’s a stunning story. The title can be translated as "I am my own wife", which Charlotte tells his mother when she asks if he will marry, or as "I am my own woman", which seems as apt, if not more.
It is told in a bravura performance by Jefferson Mays, who plays 34 characters, including Charlotte and the playwright himself. And he is utterly believable—wonderful, in fact. The play itself is based on interviews Doug Wright conducted with Charlotte between 1992 and 1993. And as a play, it’s somewhat frustrating in what it doesn’t answer. We are unsure by the end what is true or not. The play raises the questions, but can’t answer them, as it is a life we are seeing, and not a drama. It’s somewhat more of an interview and an inquiry than a play. And it’s fascinating.
One of the more harrowing stories is how Charlotte and her friends are attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads in her own home after the fall of the wall, precipitating his move from Germany. He appears on a talk show, with a fun silly host, and completely changes the energy of the show.
Doug Wright wisely does not try to answer many of the questions we have, or delve too deeply into any side aspect of the story, from the gay movement to Nazism. Through Charlotte’s story we get all of that. And, on some level, we come to the same conclusion he does. In the play, he says (I’m paraphrasing) “I need to believe she survived Nazism and Communism, the two most oppressive regimes in Western History, and did it in a pair of heels”. I felt that need as well. The story is too good. And even if not all of it’s true, a lot of it is.
Wright leaves us with a story of a picture he received after Charlotte’s death. It is Charlotte as a 10 year old boy, Luther (I believe), on a park bench flanked by two lion cubs. He tells us how they could have hurt the young boy, as they are big enough, but he is staring straight ahead smiling, and he is completely relaxed, an arm over each cub. It’s a haunting image. Even more haunting is that a large version of the photo is in the lobby to see as you leave the theater. I have rarely felt such a force of history.
I felt at the end of the show that I was standing and clapping for not just a great performance, but for an extraordinary life.