On Tuesday night, we attended an extraordinary, spell-binding performance of I Am My Own Wife (Wikipedia), a play written by Doug Wright. The venue was the small and intimate Baxter Studio upstairs. It was packed; I don’t think there was a single empty seat. It is a one-wo/man show (although that one man takes on a whole host of roles), starring Jeremy Crutchley, my all-time favourite South African actor, and it is wonderfully directed by Janice Honeyman.
The play dramatises the life history of a famous German transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, birthname Lothar Berfelde, who was born on 18 March 1928 and who died on 30 April 2002 at the age of 74. It is set in Berlin during the 20th century. It thus spans the entire period of the Second World War and its aftermath, right through the years of the German Democratic Republic (1949-1990). Charlotte would no doubt have witnessed the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and its collapse in 1989, followed by the years of German reunification, although those events aren’t fleshed out much in the play.
As a transvestite living in East Berlin at a time when non-heterosexuals (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites, ec.) were criminalised, persecuted, and even executed, it is a miracle that she survived both the Nazis and the Communist regime.
I Am My Own Wife is based on a series of actual interviews between US playwright Doug Wright and Charlotte during the early 1990s. The play was originally produced Off-Broadway in 2003. Thereafter, it transferred to Broadway, winning several well-deserved prizes in the subsequent years. (Wikipedia: Doug Wright)
I’ve just seen on the Baxter Theatre website that its run has been extended to 15 August 2009 due to public demand. Now that’s an endorsement!
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the play yet and are still planning to see it, please don’t read any further. It’s an extraordinary play, and I don’t want to spoil it for you by revealing what happens.
To give you a brief summary of Lothar Berfelde’s/Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s biography:
Her childhood was a difficult one. Her father Max was a member of the Nazi Party, and a very militaristic and strong-willed man, who frequently beat his mother. Fortunately, Lothar had an Aunt Luise, whom s/he adored; she dressed as a man, allowed Lothar to dress up as a girl, and first taught him about transvestites – actually giving him a book about them, which he later passed on to Doug (the playwright) to read.
In 1944, when the bombs were falling all over Berlin, Lothar’s mother ran away (women with children were being evacuated). His father Max demanded that Lothar/Charlotte choose between them. When Max threatened to shoot the rest of the family (mentioning a brother and/or a sister), a terrified Lothar beat his father to death. S/he received a four-year prison sentence for this. S/he did not serve his/her entire sentence, but escaped from prison at the end of the War, when Russian bombs destroyed the prison in a bombing raid. This was the time when the Allies arrived in Berlin.
Lothar was about 16 years old at this stage, and began to dress more openly as a woman, calling herself Lottchen or Charlotte. She also began to collect all kinds of things from the houses and households that had been bombed-out and abandoned by people fleeing the city – furniture, mechanical musical machines such as phonographs and grammophones, all kinds of clocks, kitchen utensils, costumes, sewing machines, mirrors, coal heaters, chandeliers, lamps, etc.
Around that time, she moved into the abandoned and derelict manor house of the Von Mahlsdorf estate, which she renovated painstakingly over many years. Gradually, her collection took over more and more rooms in the house. In 1960, she opened her so-called Gründerzeit Museum to the public, giving them guided tours during which she told the stories of the items she had collected.
“In the Germans’ mindset, the epoch [of the Gründerzeit] is intrinsically linked with Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Bismarck, but it did not end with them (in 1888/1890) but continued well into the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was the Golden Age of Germany, when the disasters of the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars were remedied, German scientists were developing new technologies faster than anyone else, German industrialists were developing new methods and products that no other nation could compete with, and German merchants were once again taking over market after market around the world. This was the time when particularly the German middle class rapidly increased their standard of living, buying modern furniture, kitchen fittings and household machines, of a standard not to be outshone for generations.” (Wikipedia: Gründerzeit)
This is precisely the era – the Golden Age of Germany – for which Charlotte feels such a great affinity and love. And that’s also exactly how Jeremy plays her: as an elegant lady, never flamboyant, brash or flashy. This is definitely no drag queen romp as in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. On the contrary, Charlotte is a soft-spoken and dignified lady, with fine sensibilities, a keen eye for beauty, and a deep love of the art and culture of the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century.
While watching the play, there was never one moment where I thought of Lothar/Charlotte as a man (which in retrospect was odd, because Jeremy is definitely a man 😀 ). Nor did I think, “I’m watching a man dressed up as a woman.” I also never had any sense that Jeremy felt anything other than tenderness and affection towards the character he was portraying, even when some of her actions (killing her father in a shocking display of violence, and betraying her friend Alfred Kirchner to the Stasi) must have been reprehensible to an outsider.
Charlotte’s personality comes out right from the first moment of the play, when she opens the door, and steps out onto the stage. She looks directly and a little playfully at us, her audience, engaging us, seducing us to enter her world and to share her passion for the reminders of a more beautiful, more elegant past that she has collected over the years.
In the first scene, for instance, she tells us the story of the Edison cylinder phonograph, which she has in her collection. Caressing it lovingly, she reveals how it used, not the long-playing records of later grammophones, but cylinders, which were originally made of wax, and a sapphire stylus, which was later replaced by the diamond.
And with the telling of that story, she already had us (me) hooked. I wanted to find out more.
Each Act is almost an hour long, with a 15 -minute interval. The plot is less chronological than it is thematic. The different scenes are given a title, rather like a chapter heading, which is projected onto two screens on either side of the stage. This reminded me a little of the old black-and-white movies, where a change in scene was signalled by including title frames in the story.
For instance, there is one rather amusing scene headed “The three M’s”. In this, Charlotte explains that she lived her life according to three priorities – “Museen, Möbel und Männer” (Museums, Furniture and Men) – and in that order. So, when she has an encounter with a man who offers her sex ‘with whips’ (!), she admits that, although she is very tempted indeed to meet him, she has a pressing prior arrangement with a clockmaker, and that, if she were to be late for that appointment, it would be “einfach unhöflich” – simply impolite.
Throughout, Charlotte wears a long black dress, a pearl necklace, black stockings and sensible black shoes. Her hair is wrapped up in a black scarf. It is only at the very start of the second half, that Jeremy, in the role of the imprisoned Alfred Kirchner, a friend of Charlotte’s, wears a kind of beret and loose trousers and a shirt over his dress, although he removes these as soon as he changes back into Charlotte.
Other than that, there are no changes in costume, which means that the changes from one character to another have to be signalled exclusively through changes in Jeremy’s voice, deamenour, facial expression, mannerisms, movements, body posture, way of speaking. He has to inhabit each character completely and utterly convincingly – even more so because there is no other actor on stage to pick up the slack. All our eyes are on him. I can only imagine how challenging that must have been, and how much practice had to go into making it all seem so effortless. (Although I guess that there are certain practical advantages if you’re arranging convenient rehearsal times for a one-man show! 😀 ).
According to the programme notes, there are 40 characters in the play (I didn’t have time to count them) – some of them are fleshed out in great detail, others are mere flickers in the storyline. Occasionally, Jeremy uses a prop to anchor a character – like the spectacles worn by Charlotte’s old friend and fellow-collector Kirchner, or the silver mini-cassette recorder used by Doug during his interviews, or the pencil and paper placed on her writing desk by an officer from the Stasi (the fearsome Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry for State Security, which was based in Berlin). At other times, he physically moves from one chair to the next, or from one position on the stage to the next, to indicate that there is a dialogue between different characters.
Other signals of the start of a new ‘episode’, which are seamlessly integrated into the play, are the background music, sounds, and lighting. Each piece of music is perfectly suited for the relevant period of her life. And for me it is particularly the music that I find so fascinating, because it resonates so deeply and instantaneously with my own German ancestry and upbringing. The older songs, dating back to the 1930s, 40s and 50s, have that slightly scratchy and whiny sound you get from old grammophone records. I’m so pleased, that they didn’t attempt to ‘clean up’ or ‘sanitise’ these songs, as it is exactly the texture of the sound, with all its flaws and imperfections that whips us back in time so intensely and emotionally.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is an amusing scene where Charlotte first ventures into the West, carrying a little tourism booklet, and identifying various gay cafes, nightclubs and restaurants along her walk. The music playing in the background is the catchy Dschinghis Khan, the German song performed by the group of the same name as Germany’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1979. (I couldn’t help giggling when I later saw the video on YouTube, as it was so typical of that era, when women wore big shoulder pads and had even bigger hairdos. And the words are just hysterically funny – and despite that, I couldn’t stop myself from singing along… Go figure. 🙂 )
When she gets to know her interviewer Doug better, Charlotte reveals, mischievously, that the basement of her museum now houses the Mulack Ritze, a notorious night club, which used to be located in Mulack Stret in the Berlin neighbourhood known as ‘Mitte’. When that venue was shut down in 1951 (the building was demolished in 1963), Charlotte decided to save all the fittings and every single item of furniture, transporting these carefully to her house in Mahlsdorf. She could not bear to see it all destroyed. Understandably, given Charlotte’s own sexual orientation, her museum quickly became a meeting place for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc. of East Berlin – as well as artists and performers in theatre and film.
In 1992 she received the Bundesverdienstkreuz, which is the Federal Cross of Merit. I’m not sure why exactly she received it, but “it is the highest tribute the Federal Republic of Germany can pay to individuals for services to the nation” (Website).
With increasing fame, though, Charlotte’s personal history came under public scrutiny – and to the sometimes vicious attention of the media and the paparazzi. In the midst of this hullaballoo, her Stasi file came to light, casting Doug into deep turmoil, as he asks himself – “Is she a good person or is she a bad person?” Of course, during the time of the GDR pretty much every citizen was under surveillance, with even family members reporting on each other, and friends revealing secrets about friends.
“When informants were included, the Stasi had one spy per 66 citizens of East Germany. When part-time informer adults were included, the figures reach approximately one spy per 6.5 citizens.” (Wikipedia: Stasi)
Not surprisingly, suspicion, fear and paranoia, were the order of the day. It was a terrible time, so poignantly captured in the 2006 German movie Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). According to the Stasi file on Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, she was an inoffizielle Mitarbeiterin – an unofficial collaborator, but the play does cause confusion about the extent to which she actually did give information to them. We are left wondering, whether she was in fact subtly subversive, pretending to go along with the Stasi’s demands (in the hope that they would leave her alone to continue building up her collection), but not really giving them much reliable or accurate information. It sounded like a dangerous balancing act.
There is one emotionally charged scene, where Charlotte is being interviewed on German television by a brash, gum-chewing young presenter (Siggi, I think, he called himself), who seems to think the sun shines out of his … er… whatsit. (I felt like klapping him, honestly.)
Charlotte’s own demeanour – composed, polite, refined, a little taken aback by her interviewer’s loutish behaviour – creates a dramatic contrast, that symbolises, to me, a very real clash of cultures. By this stage, we as the audience have been drawn so far into her story, that I felt myself overcome by a great fondness for her, and a sudden desire to shield her from the barrage of questions of the paparazzi who were hounding her.
As Charlotte shrinks away from the brightly flashing cameras, she tries desperately to retain her composure and to reply politely to everyone’s questions, but no one is really listening to her. She ends up pressed against the wall, wishing she could escape, and looking terrified, and I experienced a powerful urge to protect her and to send all of them packing. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
On one level, you know that there is only one actor on the stage, and yet, he managed to flip in and out of Charlotte’s body and point of view, into the roles of the various other characters, embodying each of them so convincingly, that it FELT as though there was a whole crowd of people in this small space. It felt as though he was both inside and outside Charlotte at the same time.
Now that is formidable acting.
Towards the end of the play, the reason for the play’s title is explained. Charlotte’s mother says to him, “It’s all very well to dress up as a girl when you’re younger, but now it is time to grow up. When are you going to find a man and get married?”
To this, Charlotte replies that she is not going to get married at all: “Ich bin meine eigene Frau. I am my own woman… I am my own wife.” The German word “Frau” is ambiguous: it can be translated as either “woman” or “wife”.
Throughout the play, Jeremy switches rapidly from English to German and back again. As I grew up fully bilingual, I hardly noticed when it happened. Most of the German expressions used are translated, and even those that aren’t are comprehensible because of the context.
I particularly marvelled at Jeremy’s German accent – it was almost flawless. Just very occasionally I could hear that it wasn’t his mother tongue (such as when he pronounced “Kuchen” as “Küchen” with a different ‘u’ sound and a different ‘ch’ sound – though perhaps that is a German pronunciation peculiar to Berlin?!). But in a strange way, I found it fitting, too, because it seemed to mirror (in reverse) the way Charlotte spoke in English, and how she carefully chose her words, almost as though she was not entirely comfortable in that language. It set up an intriguing dynamic!
At the end, Doug is grappling with how to portray Charlotte in his play. On the one hand, he is entranced by her personality and spellbound by her story, full of admiration for the mere fact that she has survived two of the most oppressive regimes in the world. (This is beautifully encapsulated by a faded sepia photograph of Charlotte as a young boy, probably taken during a visit to the zoo: it shows him sitting casually between two large lion cubs, which have their paws on his knees. He is gazing straight at the camera, with a soft, happy smile – a very symbolic image.) On the other hand, she has admitted that she had been coerced by the Stasi to become an informer, and that, by denouncing her friend Alfred Kirchner (although he apparently asked her to, willingly sacrificing himself), she has caused his imprisonment and most likely his premature death.
So he asks the question: How should he portray her?
It is Charlotte herself who provides the answer to this: At the beginning of the play, Charlotte opens a wooden box containing miniature pieces of furniture, all delicately executed. As she removes each item from the box, she sets it carefully out on a tray, all the time speaking about the various pieces and her passion for collecting items of furniture. She places this tray ontop of a cupboard, where it remains for the rest of the play.
Then, at the end, she carries the tray with the beautiful, fragile-looking furniture back to her writing desk in the middle of the stage, and lovingly returns each item back inside the box, before closing the lid. It is a beautiful, melancholic image that we have come full circle and that the play is about the end. (And I was very sad when it did.)
As she holds up the pieces, gazingly fondly at them, Doug asks her: “What do you do when you find a piece that is chipped or tarnished, or one that is broken and cannot be repaired? Do you throw it away?”
She replies that each scratch, each crack, all the signs of damage, of wear and tear, actually enhance the beauty of the piece, because it means that it has lived and survived. And that he must show each piece – and thus by extension her character too – ‘as is’.
I think that’s a good answer.
Baxter Theatre: Baxter theatre
Press Release: Press release
July 2009 – Writing Studio: I Am My Own Wife: A Profound Experience
03 July 2009 – Cue: Gender-bending ode to a quiet subversive (Review from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown)
04 July 2009 – Weekend Post: Wonderful one-man drama (Review from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown)
16 July 2009 – Die Burger: Afrikaans review of I am my own wife
17 July 2009 – The Times: Backstage with Jeremy Crutchley
18 July 2009 – The Times: Mister Personalities
20 July 2009 – Arts Review: Review: I Am My Own Wife
21 July 2009 – The Argus: Crutchley enthralls as he proceeds to spin Charlotte’s web
21 July 2009 – Tonight: Crutchley spins Charlotte’s web
23 July 2009 – Cape Times: Subtle portrayal of a quiet life
23 July 2009 – Weekend Post: ‘I am My Own Wife’
08 August 2009 – ArtZone: I Am My Own Wife run extended