I Am My Own Wife was the first one-person show ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, which it did in 2004. The main character of Doug Wright's award-winning play is a German transvestite, who goes on to become a celebrity in his/her own right, to the point of being declared by some a national German hero. The play was published in 2004 by Faber and Faber. Wright, who is included in the more than forty characters portrayed (by one man), went to Germany in 1993 to meet and record conversations with the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), upon whose life the play is based. The playwright struggled for several years after meeting with Charlotte, trying to conceptualize how to turn the material he had into a play. There were so many different facets of Charlotte's life, including some that were not very flattering—among them, news stories that confirmed that Charlotte had been a Nazi spy.
Wright called together two of his closest friends and brainstormed with them. Those friends were Moisés Kaufman, an award-winning director who would go on to direct the play, and Jefferson Mays, who would astonish audiences with his versatility in acting out all forty or more characters and eventually capture his own award, the Tony. I Am My Own Wife tells a story that spans Charlotte's childhood in the 1930s through the erection (1961) and deconstruction (1989–1990) of the Berlin wall, which separated Communist-controlled East Berlin from West Berlin. Through the eyes of Charlotte, the audience gains a glimpse into life in Germany as it is transformed first by the Nazi regime and then by the bombings of the Allied Forces. The play opened off Broadway in May 2003 and moved to the Lyceum Theater on Broadway on December 3, 2003. It stayed on Broadway for almost a year and enjoyed 361 performances. As of the summer of 2005, it was still on national tour.
Wright's play, I Am My Own Wife opens in silence. Charlotte stares out at the audience, smiles slightly, and then disappears. The stage is empty for a short time before Charlotte reappears. She carries a large antique Edison phonograph, sets it down, admires it, and finally speaks. She proceeds to lecture the audience on the topic of the phonograph, giving a history of how it was developed and how it works.
Charlotte becomes quiet again; this time, when she speaks, she has been transformed into John Marks, the bureau chief of the Berlin office of U.S. News & World Report. John writes a letter (which is read) to Doug Wright, telling him of Charlotte. John changes into Doug, who is in Berlin with John and is talking into a tape recorder. The two men are heading toward Mahlsdorf, where Charlotte lives in East Berlin. On their way, they pass remnants of the Berlin wall, which has been torn down.
Doug morphs back into Charlotte. She holds some doll furniture in her hands and describes it. She continues to do the same with other antiques. She explains that after every disaster in Berlin, she would go through the rubble and save artifacts. Charlotte changes into Doug. He reads a letter that he has written to Charlotte. Doug is back in the United States but wants to revisit Charlotte and interview her if Charlotte will allow it. Charlotte writes back and agrees. Doug, now in East Berlin, asks John to translate for Charlotte his questions about her background. Charlotte waives the translations and begins to answer the questions directly in English.
She talks about her Tante Luise and how she encouraged Charlotte's cross-dressing. Through Tante Luise, Charlotte learned about a book that states that everyone has various proportions of male and female elements in their bodies. Some people do not fit in the normally defined classifications, being neither fully male nor fully female. Tante Luise gave Charlotte the book and told her to read it. Charlotte talks about World War II, when Berlin was heavily bombarded by Russian splatter bombs. The German S.S. officers were looking for boys to recruit. One officer asks whether Charlotte is a girl or a boy. As Lothar (Charlotte's given name), the audience hears the sixteen-year-old claim that he is a boy, but the officer decides Lothar is too young to shoot.
Charlotte says that her father was a Nazi and that he was brutal. In 1943, while Charlotte and her mother and siblings are living with Luise, Charlotte's father visits them. He has a revolver and threatens to kill his wife and children. Luise counters with a gun of her own, which she fires. The father leaves. Luise declares that it is a shame she missed. Charlotte is sent back to Berlin to help renovate the family home to accommodate war refugees. While she is there, Charlotte is confronted by her father, who insists that Charlotte choose between him and her mother. When Charlotte chooses her mother, her father locks her in her room. Charlotte escapes and finds her father sleeping, whereupon she beats him to death. She is sentenced to four years in prison. Charlotte is in prison when the Russians bomb it. The prisoners are told by the guards to run, which Charlotte does. The Allied Forces are approaching Berlin. Russian soldiers are handing out free food.
Doug begins another visit with Charlotte. He follows her down a series of steps that opens up to what looks like an old-fashioned tavern. Charlotte describes the tavern and tells Doug how she bought all the furniture and brought all the flooring and walls over to her house to save the tavern from being destroyed by the Nazis. The Berlin tavern, since the time of Emperor Wilhelm II, had been a favorite hangout for homosexuals and transvestites. Once the Berlin wall was constructed, homosexuals and transvestites in East Berlin had no place to gather. So Charlotte secretly opened the tavern, which was then in her basement, as a place of entertainment. Charlotte painted the windows black to keep the Stasi (Berlin secret police) from spying on them. Doug interjects the fact that when the Berlin wall fell, Charlotte had the only cabaret in all of East Germany, which she ran for almost thirty years.
The Cultural Minister of Berlin appears and gives Charlotte a medal for the work she has done in preserving historical pieces. Charlotte is thrilled not just for the honor but also at having the ceremony broadcast on national television, thus demonstrating to all of Germany that even a transvestite can work. Doug asks Charlotte what it was like to visit...
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