For the Fremantle Herald
PULITZER PRIZE-winning play I Am My Own Wife examines the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who navigated through the Third Reich and Iron Curtain in a pair of high heels.
Not long after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, US playwright Doug Wright held a series of interviews with von Mahlsdorf, by then 65-year-old and carrying a remarkable story of survival, identity and loss.
Following a successful run on the East Coast, Black Swan Theatre Company is bringing the play to Perth on October 12-19.
“I Am My Own Wife is a powerful reminder of the complexity involved in being human. It is a reflection of the lengths to which human beings will go when survival and existence are under threat,” says play director Joe Lui.
“It is, above all, a mirror. We see ourselves reflected in playwright Doug Wright, rediscovering that no human being is all angel or all demon.”
Brendan Hanson will take on the formidable task of playing 36 characters in the “beautifully crafted and evocative play.”
“It’s a unique process doing a one-person play; normally I don’t learn my lines until the rehearsals commence but obviously that’s not possible with 70-odd pages of text,” Hanson told DNA Magazine.
Set designer Cherish Marrington says the stage will evoke the gloomy styles of “German Expressionist Theatre, Brutalist architecture and Film Noir.”
The play follows Wright as he meets von Mahlsdorf and she reflects on her grim and turbulent life, including her imprisonment for killing her brutal Nazi father with a rolling pin, after he threatened to shoot her and the rest of the family.
Von Mahlsdorf also helped a second-hand goods dealer clear out the homes of deported Jews and would often keep lamps, bronze busts and recordings of banned composers, like Mendelssohn and Offenbach.
In her autobiography, Mahlsdorf says the artefacts are “embodiments that mirror the history of the men who built them, who lived in them. Senseless destruction does away with a former way of life, the foundation of our spiritual and aesthetic culture, and irretrievably impoverishes our daily lives.”
Von Mahlsdorf eventually creates a homegrown museum, preserving a slice of bourgeois German culture, and in her own idiosyncratic way, helps to keep a fractured country intact.
In the basement of her museum, von Mahlsdorf runs a bar which becomes a haunt for gays, lesbians, transvestites, and prostitutes, and even a meeting place for the Homosexual Interest Group of Berlin.
Wright told Playbill magazine that he is interested in German homosexuality during the Third Reich because archive materials and first-hand accounts are rare, as the Nazis arrested around 100,000 gay men between 1933 and 1945 and often executed them.
In the play, Wright says he admires von Mahlsdorf for her ability to be so unapologetically gay in the face the Nazis, but as the conversation develops, von Mahlsdorf’s story starts to amass a number of contradictions and inconsistencies. As Wright struggles to make sense of the material, he asks von Mahlsdorf whether she is tempted to refinish a piece in her museum, but she tells him the imperfections are all part of history.