As far as I know, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is not a household name in El Paso County, even in German non-traditional households. But thanks to Doug Wright she’s getting better known, and my guess is our audience members will not soon forget her. She is not just your ordinary East German transvestite.
Charlotte was born a male, Lothar Berfelde, 1n 1928. His childhood was unusually difficult, growing up with an alcoholic father, an avid Nazi, and being forced to participate in Hitler Youth programs. After going to live with his lesbian aunt when he was 15, Lothar began to understand and accept his sexual difference. From then on he dressed as a woman, permanently assuming the name of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in 1971. Living openly as a transvestite, Charlotte somehow managed to survive the brutal tyranny of both the Nazi and Communist regimes. She also became a serious collector of German antiques and furniture. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Charlotte was not only a survivor but something of a celebrity. Her home became a public museum, and she was awarded the Order of Merit, her country’s highest honor for her work in preserving German culture.
Charlotte’s remarkable story is vividly told in Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife. For the playwright, Charlotte was a remarkable subject, and an inspiration. He thought her story would not only be interesting, telling it would do good. He thought "her quiet heroism—maintaining an wavering sense of herself during such repressive times—could be a boon to gay men and women everywhere . . . In an age where politicians still routinely decry homosexuality and ‘fag’ remains the most stinging of playground epithets, Charlotte’s dogged insistence on her own sexuality could prove downright curative, an antidote for a community too often besieged by public condemnation and internalized self-loathing. She was a bona-fide gay hero."
With these sentiments in mind, Wright researched his subject and period. He even managed to meet Charlotte and interview her (she died in 2002). The play he wrote, I Am My Own Wife, fulfills its author’s intentions. Charlotte is indeed remarkable and admirable, a heroine of diversity culture. It’s no wonder this production has been specially sponsored by The Gay and Lesbian Fund, whose mission is to promote equality among people regardless of their sexual orientation and difference. Charlotte was always different, always open about her difference, always more than equal to her life’s many challenges, and somehow able to leave a legacy that enriched her nation’s heritage. That makes her a hero by almost any definition.
But as it turns out Charlotte was not just a hero. In the course of his research, the playwright gained access to the file the East German Secret Police had kept on Charlotte, and there he learned that she had been a willing informant, a spy who worked for the Stasi to protect her safety and preserve her museum. She had even, it seems, turned in a close friend who was sent to prison. In a flash, the playwright’s hero had become a villain. The play was stopped in its tracks. It only got going again after a conversation at a writer’s retreat six years later, when Wright discovered a new approach to his subject. Instead of fashioning a straightforward dramatic biography, he included himself in his own play, as "a kind of detective searching for Charlotte’s true self." He realized that the meaning of any story depends as much on the teller as what is being told. He realized that no absolute objective conclusion about Charlotte’s character might ever be possible.
And so I Am My Own Wife presents no fixed or definitive assessment of Charlotte von Malhsdorf. Rather it is a sequence of vivid fragments organized by a playwright working, like Charlotte herself, almost as a curator of his subject, and, like Charlotte, preserving his object with its polish, nicks, cuts, stains and dignity intact. As Charlotte herself said, "you must save everything. And you must show it—auf Englisch—we say---"as is." And as is, Charlotte is a real piece of work—as Erik Sandvold says, she’s "a mixture of incredible charm, almost scary will, and tenacious survival instinct." And that’s not all.
Character matters, we like to say, even and especially in judging our presidents. But we also know character is a complex matter. Take, for example, the many available portraits currently on display of Sarah Palin, the most recent subject of our national attention. Sarah isn’t just Sarah – it also depends on who’s doing the looking, and in what context you place her. The same, of course, might be said of Charlotte. One of the great achievements of Wright’s play is that it brings a truly remarkable person into view. One of a kind. But the other great achievement lies in the way it honors the complexity and bias of character judgment—that’s the sort of enlarging truth, and reflection of humanity, you won’t find often in the news media. It’s one reason why the theatre exists.