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By Josiah M. Hesse
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By Kate Gibbons
The subject of I Am My Own Wifeis German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928 Berlin, a collector of antiques who survived both World War II and the Communist years in East Germany. But the play is as much about author Doug Wright's relationship with von Mahlsdorf -- the fascination he felt on first encountering her in the early 1990s and touring her Gründerzeit Museum, with its nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century furniture, clocks and ancient gramophones and Victrolas. For him, von Mahlsdorf was a gay icon of sorts, a keeper and cherisher of history, someone who had "navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western World has ever known -- the Nazis and the Communists -- in a pair of heels." She rescued the pieces that ended up in the museum from the homes of deported Jews and, later, from those fleeing to the West. When the Communist government closed down the famed Mülackritze Cabaret, haunt of writers and artists, she re-created it in the basement of the museum in 1963. After the reunification of Germany, she was given the Federal Service Cross for her restoration work.
But Wright discovered that von Mahlsdorf had also served as an informer for the Stasi in the mid-1970s, providing the information that sent a fellow antique collector to prison. This cast an ambiguous light backward on everything he knew about her, reviving in his mind rumors that some of her acquisitions had been shady, causing him to wonder about her dramatic account of having killed her brutal Nazi father with a rolling pin as a teenager to protect herself and her mother. Questioned about these things, von Mahlsdorf said the antique dealer had urged her to give his name to the authorities and save herself. On other topics, she seemed evasive.
Actor Erik Sandvold's careful, pressed-lipped characterization reminds us that von Mahlsdorf could only have survived by presenting a meticulously constructed exterior to the world. But the problem with the play is that we never really feel we know her. What we do understand is Wright's idea of her, his desire for a role model, his disillusionment and, finally, his finding a way to honor his protagonist's work and validate her life.
The approach is workable -- the author essentially stands in for the audience in evaluating his subject -- but I think it's also the reason this interesting and intelligent play, winner of both a Tony and a Pulitzer, left me unmoved. I don't need to be told how ambiguous both memory and history are. What I want is to understand the world as von Mahlsdorf saw it, and this is possible only through the use of fiction.
I've had a sense of how murky the moral territory was in Eastern Europe during the Soviet repression ever since visiting Czechoslovakia a few years after the Velvet Revolution. Dissident playwright Vaclav Havel was president; one of the most inspiring things I saw was this message scrawled on a wall: "Havel na hrad" -- Havel to the castle. It must have been written during or shortly after the upheaval. But the heady days of celebration were over. I listened to a panel of noted writers who had been forced to distribute their work in secret under Communism. They said they were no longer seen as fighters for freedom, but as something of an embarrassment. Almost everyone in Czechoslovakia had collaborated with the regime to some extent -- you pretty much had to, to get by -- and people resented these writers as a living reminder of their own complicity.
A corrupt regime corrupts the populace. Those able to resist are genuinely brave, but they are also often those with options: money, mobility, reputation, contacts in other countries. Resistance can be situational, too. The same citizen who speaks out in one set of circumstances or during one decade may capitulate in another. World reaction was harsh when Gunter Grass revealed that he had joined the Waffen SS at seventeen, and yet it strikes me as impossible to judge the actions of a teenager in a propaganda-suffused and violently militarized country.
We all like to think we'd stand up for principle no matter what. But in practice, we make small accommodations daily to keep our jobs or stay out of trouble. Fortunately, the stakes are relatively trivial for most of us.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, at least as revealed in the play, never seems as engaging or as heroic to me as she apparently did to Wright. But her fall from grace doesn't seem particularly astonishing, either. Still, there is something deeply interesting in the spectacle of a unique individual life buffeted by history, and the endless acts of accommodation, greed and self-protection required to survive. I'd have loved to understand the inner world of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. But of course, she was older and more scarred than the playwright, and adept at covering her tracks.
Sandvold plays not only von Mahlsdorf but several other characters, including the protagonist's lesbian aunt, an American reporter and the playwright. He gives an amazing and emotionally committed performance. While some of the subsidiary characters are less realized than others, they will doubtless become sharper as the run of the play continues. The second act is more diffuse than the first, both in the writing and the acting, although the ending is quietly effective. And Wright does find a sort of redemption for von Mahlsdorf. Early in the play, she makes an error common to German speakers of English, saying "I become this furniture" when she means that she acquired it ("Ich bekomme"). At the end, as she explains that she never refinishes her pieces because scratches and imperfections are an integral part of their history, we realize that, yes, she has become her furniture. She is the curator of both the artifacts and their history.
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