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I Am My Own Wife : A Play Paperback – Bargain Price, February 9, 2004

3.8 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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About the Author

Doug Wright's Quills received the 1995 Kesselring Prize for Best New American Play from the National Arts Club and a 1995 Village Voice Obie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting. Wright also wrote the screenplay adaptation of Quills, making his motion picture debut. The film was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review and was also nominated for three Oscars. Some of Wright's other plays include Interrogating the Nude, Watbanaland, The Stonewater Rapture, Dinosaurs, and a musical, Buzzsaw Berkeley, which features songs by Michael John LaChiusa. Wright has a bachelor's degree from Yale University and an M.F.A. from NYU. A member of the Dramatists Guild and the New York Theatre Workshop, he has taught playwriting at NYU and Princeton University.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I Am My Own Wife
ACT ONE
(The French doors at the rear of the room open, and standing before us is CHARLOTTE VON MAHLSDORF.
 
She is, in fact, a man, roughly sixty-five years old. CHARLOTTE wears a simple black housedress with peasant stitching, a kerchief on her head, and an elegant strand of pearls.
 
She gazes at the audience for a moment; the tiniest flicker of a smile dances on her lips. Then, surprisingly, she closes the doors as quickly as she appeared, and is gone.
 
A pause. The stage is empty again.
 
In a moment, the doors reopen. CHARLOTTE reappears. Cradled in her arms is a huge antique Edison phonograph, complete with an enormous horn in the shape of a flower. She grins, satisfied, and sets the phonograph on a small plinth.
 
She steps back for a moment to admire the music machine. When she speaks, it's in broken English, but thecadences of her voice are delicate; there's a musical lilt to her inflection. She has a German accent.)
A LECTURE ON THE PHONOGRAPH
CHARLOTTE: Thomas Alva Edison was the inventor of the first talking machine of the world, in July of 1877. And, you see, the record is not ein Plattenspieler; nein. It is a cylinder made of wax. And this record is working with a hundred and sixty revolutions per minute, and is playing four minutes long. And the record is made by the National Phonograph Company in Orange, New Jersey. At one time, I had over fünfzehntausend cylinders.
 
(CHARLOTTE indicates a painting of the Edison phonograph with an attendant dog, its ears cocked to listen.)
 
And you see on the wall a painting: the dog Nipper, His Master's Voice. The most famous trademark in all the world. Next month, this phonograph will be half a century old.
 
(She begins to turn the handle on the phonograph, readying it for play.)
 
For fifty years, I've been turning its crank.
The loudness depends on a big or a small horn. Metal horns are better for bands and the voices of men. And thewooden horns, they are better for the strings and the voices of the female. Die Sopranistin. And Edison's phonograph has in the needle a little sapphire.
 
(She plucks a tiny disposable needle from a drawer concealed in the phonograph. She holds it up to the light, and says emphatically):
 
Nicht Diamant, nur Saphir. And when it grazes the record it sounds so nice.
 
(She installs the needle on the arm, then delicately places the arm on the wax cylinder. The machine begins to play--an old German waltz, scratchy and exquisite.)
 
In the Second World War, when the airplanes flew over Mahlsdorf, and the bombs were coming down, I played British and American records. And I thought, They can hear in the airplanes that I am playing Edison records. I thought, If they hear me they will know I'm their friend.
 
(A pause as CHARLOTTE revels in the music.
 
Then--abruptly--the music stops. CHARLOTTE is supplanted by someone else, a thirty-something newsman named JOHN MARKS.
 
JOHN has the intrepid spirit of a Saturday serial matinee hero. His voice has a Texas twang. His masculineedge stands in sharp contrast to CHARLOTTE's demure nature.)
THE WORLD FLIPS UPSIDE DOWN
JOHN: From the desk of John Marks Bureau Chief, Berlin U.S. News & World Report September, 1990.
 
Dear Doug,
It's a funhouse over here. You can't imagine. The Berlin Wall falls and the world flips upside down.
All the great and powerful leaders are turning out to be clowns. Erich Honecker, one of the most feared and respected dictators in the world, has in one year become a fugitive. He wanders around the grounds of a Soviet military hospital in his pajamas. Secret police files kept on East Germans for four decades are being released, and it turns out husbands spied on their wives, children on their parents, dissidents on each other.
 
(He steps forward, and adopts a more confidential tone.)
 
Now, in the midst of all this craziness, I've found a true character; she's way up your alley. (And, believe me, I use theterm "she" loosely.) I'd love to interview her--make her my first official article for U.S. News & World Report. But I'm afraid my editor will say her story's too extreme. Still, I think she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed.
Have I piqued your interest?
 
Love, John
 
(Another abrupt shift. DOUG is a playwright, in his mid-thirties, with an eager-to-please manner and a somewhat mellifluous voice.)
 
DOUG: "Piqued" indeed.
August 8, 1992. I've been in Berlin for two days now. I'm sleeping on John's floor. Today we went to the Reichstag. There were demonstrations, because Cristo wants to cover it in pink tulle. Now we're in John's car, headed toward the east.
 
(DOUG glances out an invisible window, as though he were riding in a car with JOHN.)
 
Through the windshield, I can see fragments of the infamous wall still standing. Slapped onto one in bold paint are the words "Art Survives."
A sign whizzes past: "Mahlsdorf." It's a grim place; vastapartment complexes rise like cement gulags. Then we turn a corner, and it's like we've turned back the clock two hundred years or more. Standing before us is a huge, weather-beaten mansion made entirely of stone. About a hundred tourists are gathered at the front door. Suddenly, with a creak, it opens.
 
(DOUG morphs into CHARLOTTE. She fingers her pearls. Music from an Edison Amberol wafts through the air.)
DAS GRÜNDERZEIT MUSEUM
CHARLOTTE: Wilkommen in meinem Gründerzeit-Museum. Welcome to my Gründerzeit Museum.
Here, people can always come to see my collection. Everything from die Gründerzeit; this was the period in Germany between 1890 and 1900. Wie soll ich sagen ... "the Gay Nineties." Petroleum lamps and vases, gramophones, records, matchboxes, telephones, ink wells, Polyphones, pictures, credenzas, bureaus, and, of course, clocks.
No matter what people want to see or hear, I'll show or play it. Some people, they come to see me. Ich bin Transvestit. But soon they look at the furniture.
Folgen Sie mir bitte, ja?
 
(CHARLOTTE pulls the doors of the museum open.)
 
CHARLOTTE: This old door? It is not original, nein. I saved it from a house on Prenzlauer Street. Before the Russians blew up the houses, I took such things.
 
(As CHARLOTTE enters the museum, DOUG addresses the audience directly, recounting the adventurous step into the unknown.)
 
DOUG: She ushers us into the foyer of the museum. The ceilings are high, at least fifteen feet. We're huddled together like schoolchildren. For the next two hours--room by room, object by object--she guides us through the house.
 
(CHARLOTTE seats herself at a small, ornately carved wooden table. From beneath it she pulls a velvet jewelry box. She places it squarely in the center of the table. With great ceremony, she opens it.)
 
CHARLOTTE: Come in, please. There is room for everyone, yes?
 
(CHARLOTTE pulls a, small, lovingly carved, elegantly furnished doll dresser from the box. She holds it sweetly in her palm and approaches the audience, holding it out for inspection.)
 
CHARLOTTE: Here we have eine alte Anrichte. A cupboard, yes? Und dieses Möbelstück is made of oak, in the style ofneo-Renaissance. But this was not handmade; this was factory-made. So-called mass production. And the trim? People would tear it off; they would burn it. They did not like the scalloped wood, the tiny turrets, the ornamental molding. "Too old-fashioned! Too difficult to dust!" But me ... I had a feeling for such things. And so I saved it.
 
(She removes a tiny lacquer cabinet of lighter wood.)
 
Und hier haben wir ein Vertiko. An old sideboard, ja? It was designed and built by ein Tischlermeister, Otto Vertiko, in achtzehnhundertfünfundneunzig.
 
(She pulls out a tiny bust on a pedestal.)
 
And this is a bust of Wilhelm II, the last German emperor. During the Second World War, they wanted to melt it down for munitions. And so--with my school friend Christian--I pulled it from the bonfire, yes? It looks like a bronze bust, but it is only zinc. Galvanized. Not so expensive.
 
(Next, a miniature clock with an open, suspended pendulum.)
 
In French, this clock is called "regulatour." Because it is regulating the time. And auf Deutsch we say "Wandulir", oder "Freischwinger." Because the pendulum isn't encased in a glass box; it's freely suspended. Of course, American...
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; 1st edition (February 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571211747
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571211746
  • ASIN: B0007D9V82
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.4 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,916,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I Am My Own Wife is a rare work that does not merely draw a one noted portrayal of its heroine but fully explores their more questionable aspects and confronts how we record history and the difficulty of finding truth about one individual. Wright had the sense initially that he had discovered a spotless hero in the transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a survivor of both the Nazis and the Communists in East Germany. However, as he discovers that she has perhaps been an informer for the secret police, the lies she has told the playwright unravel and there is little certainty in her autobiography.
On the page, it is difficult to get an idea of what the experience of the play is actually like live, which is easily one of the most stunning plays i've seen in New York. Since the text is composed of what would appear to be scenes between multiple characters, reading it you may imagine something quite different than what is intended and you may picture actual moments between a group of people interacting onstage. However, since the play is written to be performed by one actor as a live event it becomes more about the complexity of a single individual rather than relationships between people. Since the play is meant to be performed with one important exception by a transvestite dressed in merely a simple black dress and a string of pearls, it appears as though one person comes to be so many different things in different situations. Like the nature of Charlotte, the main character, we get a sense as an audience that individuals are not merely one thing or another, but rather their nature is fluid, malleable, and often depends on who is perceiving it.
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"I am my Own Wife" is the new play (2004) by Doug Wright (screenplay writer of Quills) based on his interviews and friendship with the late gay German crossdressed hausfrau, Lothar Berfelde, better known as Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf. A magnificent one-man show that mesmerized Broadway, actor Jefferson Mays played thirty-five separate characters.

The title comes from 40-year-old Charlotte's answer to his mother's clueless plea "don't you think it's time you settled down and found a wife?": "But, Mutti, don't you know that I am my own wife?"

Do buy (and go see) this play! It is well-written, entertaining, very "theatrical," and you will enjoy reading and discussing it with your friends. I also recommend Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf's autobiography. (See my "So You Want To . . . be Your Own Wife" guide to find more materials related to Charlotte's life and times).

HOWEVER . . . it may sound contradictory, given what I've said, but I have a lot of problems with the central character of Charlotte. I've thought for days about this play and the story. I was very attracted to it because of the sheer theatricality of the situation and the character, not to mention the frisson of the "non-drag-queen-drag-queen." But, despite myself, I have been bothered by something that hasn't struck me quite right.

Charlotte is astonishing because this dowdy cross-dresser survived both the Nazis and the subsequent communists to become the leading expert on the Grunderzeit period (approx. 1835-1918) of German furniture design.

That said, there is something strange at the core of this piece: this central character of Charlotte, this hopefully sympathetic trope for beauty and the everlasting human spirit, despite survival at all odds (or maybe because?
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Format: Paperback
Nothing can match seeing "I Am My Own Wife" on stage. I had the distinctive privilege of scooping a ticket to a recent performance at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, and it was among the most memorable theatrical experiences I've ever had. Moises Kaufman's direction is simple yet incomparably graceful and subtle. And if Jefferson Mays doesn't receive a Tony for his miraculous portrayal of some forty-odd characters, then there is no justice, in awards giving or the world. But if you can't see it live, I beg of you to read the beautiful and challenging words of Doug Wright's play. The beginning is almost mundane: an elderly German transvestite, discussing her antique furniture collection. As the story unfurls, we begin to hear, through the eyes and ears of the astonished author, the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes as a transvestite. Her dark and fascinating tale of survival pins you to your seat, as the intricate detail and low-key wit of the words fleshes out this true heroine. Or is she? As the first act comes to a close, documents begin to surface that falsify many of Charlotte's stories. In fact, she may have worked for the Communist secret police in order to survive. Is Charlotte to be trusted and admired, as she denies all the accusations? The choice is yours. But as he explores notions of shared history, the elusive nature of truth, and the real definition of heroism, Wright unearths unnerving and provocative truths that reverberate within your soul long after the curtain falls, or the last page is turned. Don't let the seemingly esoteric subject matter fool you. The story of "I Am My Own Wife" is all the more distinguished because of the universiality of its reach and the power of its final message.
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