Charlotte’s Web of Deceit: Dramatist Falls for Fake

A big fuss has been made about the brilliance of Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife , meticulously directed by Moises Kaufman at Playwrights Horizons, and it would probably keep everyone happy-including myself-if I could join all the enthusiasm. But I’m afraid that I’ve serious doubts about the highly praised piece.

In the essentials, Mr. Wright has based the play on the story of Lothar Berfelde, the German transvestite and museum curator who survived first the Nazis and then the Stasi secret police of East Berlin, and lived to tell the tale. But my doubts concern the “truth” Mr. Wright wishes to convey about the extraordinary case and whether the “harrowing” survival of his hero is, in fact, a sham.

The evening certainly promises the highly unusual and, on the face of it, a riveting story from the dramatist of Quills . Lothar, who was widely known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, lived as a woman for most of his life, until his death last year. (We shall call her Charlotte, as everyone did.) Her adopted name sounds like a prissy Brontë sister, and as played by the immensely skillful Jefferson Mays, she appears, at about 65 years old, surprisingly demure and asexual.

Charlotte is dressed very simply-without camp-in a black dress highlighted by a string of pearls, sensible shoes and a peasant scarf on her head. Her hands are the big, thick hands of a man. She doesn’t wear makeup. She’s not exactly a woman, or a man, but a neutral third force. A man in a frock doesn’t shock us nowadays, however. (Think of Eddie Izzard, but not too much.) Described in the play as “the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed,” the stage embodiment of the elderly, likable transvestite interviewed several times by Mr. Wright in Germany looks as innocuously normal as cherry pie.

I Am My Own Wife -the title comes from Charlotte’s proudly narcissistic claim-isn’t quite a play. It’s a one-man show that the author has subtitled in the text, “Studies for a Play About the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.” Yet the evening is presented as a play, with Mr. Mays impersonating several other characters, including the dramatist. “I was no less impressed by the mere fact of your survival,” Doug Wright says in a letter to Charlotte after visiting her museum in the grim old East Berlin district of Mahlsdorf. “I grew up gay in the Bible Belt. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich.”

It’s an amusing, though glib, observation, and it brings easy laughter. Charlotte is the collector of “Gay 90’s” antiques, Edison phonographs, vintage clocks, broken furniture, the collected debris of the past. “She doesn’t run a museum. She is one,” Mr. Wright says about her excitedly. He presents her at the outset as an unthreatening “character,” a sweet old lady with a certain coy mystery, a victim.

We learn that her beloved aunt, a lesbian who always dressed as a man, indulged Charlotte’s early transvestitism. But her monstrous father was a wife-beater. She tells us she clubbed the father to death, was jailed and subsequently escaped. (But no evidence has ever been uncovered to substantiate any of this in either court transcripts or newspaper reports.) Charlotte claims that she barely survived the Nazis, whose persecution of homosexuals and Jews is vividly chronicled. She then survived Communism and the persecution of the Stasi, though she was known to be a gay transvestite-and here, if not before, we hit a huge credibility gap.

Charlotte informs us-via her biographer, Doug Wright-that she ran a secret nightclub for many years for the outlawed homosexual and lesbian demi-monde of East Berlin in the basement of her furniture museum. If so, she would have been a heroine of underground freedom (and was celebrated as such). But how could the Stasi not have known about Charlotte or the club? And where did she get the money to buy her precious antiques?

My emphasis is on Mr. Wright’s starting point: the miracle of her survival. But he has only the mildest suspicions. “Now Charlotte,” he says eventually in the measured tones of an admirer who’s praying all turns out well. “I heard in the 70’s the Stasi came to you, and offered to treat you very well if you offered to give the names and addresses of the people who frequented your museum. I heard they actually promised you a car. Is that right?”

Whereupon Charlotte cautiously confesses that she signed a document from the Ministry of State Security agreeing to work as a secret Stasi agent. “And you had to sign it?” says Doug, hoping against hope.

“Isignedit,”sheanswers ambiguously.

That ought to be enough for the dramatist to look at his heroine in a very different light. She’s admitted to having been an informer for the most feared secret police since the Gestapo. “Sometimes you must howl with wolves,” Charlotte explains-a feeble justification, which the dramatist makes no comment on.

Mr. Wright-or Doug, as he’s referred to in the play-won’t confront the truth about her. As the first act comes to a close, he learns the German press has got its hands on the Stasi file. The evidence against Charlotte couldn’t be clearer: She was a “willing” and “enthusiastic” informer for four years. The museum was a drop-off point for the Stasi.

How does Mr. Wright take this latest, damning evidence? “Charlotte,” Doug says at the start of Act II, “I’m afraid-for me-your Stasi file is an exercise in frustration.” An exercise in what ? And by then-for me-the play was an exercise in avoidance. But look what happens next.

We learn about Charlotte’s relationship with a black-market clock dealer, Alfred Kirschner. When Kirschner is caught by the authorities and jailed, Charlotte explains that he begged her to testify against him to save her own skin. And surely by now we can’t be expected to buy it. But the apologetic Mr. Wright hopes otherwise.

“Charlotte,” he says to her, mustering his courage, “I know this is difficult. And I know I’m an American from thousands of miles away …. ” (Ah, that American-not the ugly one, the simple-minded one from the other side of the moon.) “I didn’t even really know what the Cold War was until it ended,” he continues. “So I’ve no right to sit in judgment. But about Alfred Kirschner …. ”

Mr. Wright, a word in your ear: Do sit in judgment. It’s time . If, by your mid-30’s, you didn’t know what the Cold War was until it ended, where had you been? That the line gets another cheap laugh from the audience is one thing. Couldn’t you at least have troubled to read a book about the period before trotting off to see the sainted Charlotte in Germany?

And so I lost all confidence in the play and Mr. Wright’s slack, self-serving muddle and hero worship. I didn’t see Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as a uniquely fascinating, “quaint” survivor at all. At best, she’s a tired, evasive footnote to history who happens to be a transvestite; at worst, she’s a collaborator with blood on her hands.

Toward the end of the evening, the dramatist has the grace to quote the furious words of a dissident he names as Josef Rudiger: “I spent two years at the Stasi prison in Bautzen,” Rudiger tells us. “They dislocated my shoulders from my sockets; they forced a catheter up my urinary tract and filled it with alcohol. And still, I uttered no one’s name but my own. Complicity in this country should always be treated as a criminal act. Hasn’t the 20th century taught us that much?”

Such a man is the true hero; such is the true martyr. It was the one time I felt the blurred, sentimentalized issues in the play come to blazing life. But Mr. Wright sides with the martyr of glass instead. “I need to believe in her stories as much as she does!” he exclaims about Charlotte. He needs to believe that “Lothar Berfelde 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.”

He needs, in other words, to believe in the survival of Charlotte at any cost. As a gay man, Mr. Wright identifies with her cause, and the sympathetic audience-let it be said-stood cheering at the end. What happened to moral responsibility? Whatever happened to right and wrong? Would the audience have been as sympathetic to Charlotte had she turned in Jews to the Nazis, instead of homosexuals and dissidents to the Stasi? Why is she somehow “acceptable”? For the best of reasons, and the worst of reasons, Mr. Wright has bought into the cause of a signed-up Stasi informer and written a morally dubious play. Charlotte’s Web of Deceit: Dramatist Falls for Fake