I Am My Own Wife

John Cronin in Prime Cut's production of 'I Am My Own Wife' by Doug Wright.

John Cronin in Prime Cut's production of 'I Am My Own Wife' by Doug Wright.

I Am My Own Wife is a one-man show about Lothar Berfelde, who lived his life from his early manhood as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Though the play is based on a real person, Doug Wright dramatises his writing and research process rather than simply telling Charlotte’s story. The play follows his first meeting with Charlotte at the Gründerzeit Museum that she created and managed in East Berlin, through his decision to write about her life and the story she told him, to her exile and her eventual death.

John Cronin in 'I Am My Own Wife'.The Gründerzeit is the period from 1890 to the early 1900s, lovingly immortalised in the mansion Charlotte renovated in Berlin, filling it with artifacts of the period, aiming at complete authenticity. The basement of the museum contained a bar, which staged Weimar cabaret performance throughout the Communist period. After his first visit to the Museum, however, Wright realised that Charlotte is the real archive, and decided to write a play about her experiences. Her survival as a transvestite living as a woman under an assumed name under two totalitarian regimes astounds him, while his own experience of growing up gay in the American Bible Belt seems like a pale reflection of her experience. On his subsequent research visits he gathers her memories of life in Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany, finally uncovering some uncomfortable episodes in her biography.
Wright’s decision to focus the piece on the research process rather than on the story Charlotte tells takes the play from a documentation of a life to an exploration of the nature of authenticity, identity, and truth. This is reflected in the use of broken English and German in the dialogue, the structure of the plot, the monodramatic performance style and the set design of Prime Cut's production.
There are thirty-six characters in total, including Charlotte’s family members, her friends, Doug’s translator, and various others, all vividly and skillfully realised here by John Cronin. The decision to structure the work as a one-man show destabilises naturalistic characterization and foregrounds the subjective nature of the story: the characters exist only in Charlotte’s (or Doug’s) memory. This instability is further expressed in the characters’ switching between languages, speaking broken English or broken German, and sometimes misunderstanding each other. This linguistic device expresses the unstable and contingent nature of language and meaning. How, given these problems with language, is Doug ever to arrive at the ‘truth’ about Charlotte? How much can we trust what she says? Director Emma Jordan’s programme note summarises this succinctly: “Charlotte has been with me for quite a while now and the closer I get, the more she eludes.”
John Cronin in 'I Am My Own Wife'.Charlotte’s elusiveness, and the distortions of memory, personal narrative, war and totalitarianism, find a visual expression in Ciaran Bagnall’s beautiful design. The wedge-shaped set with its Gründezeit décor of elaborate chandelier, three large gilt-framed mirrors on each wall and carved wooden furniture is not a realistic representation of a domestic interior. Although the initial impression is of symmetry, in fact the perspective is skewed and foreshortened, suggesting a fictional world that is similarly askew, where things are not what they first appear to be. The mirrors show the audience themselves on stage, create multiple Charlottes, and distort the world they reflect. They are a clever means of commenting upon the complexity of the play’s structure, where little is as it first appears.
A work like I Am My Own Wife is very dependent on the performer, and Cronin brings a charm and warmth to his portrayal of Charlotte. Clad in a black dress, tights and head-scarf, he moves nimbly around the stage, often addressing the audience directly, communicating the character’s awareness of the grim humour of her situation. Charlotte is at times a young boy defying the Russian soldiers; or she is the young son of a violent and frightening father; or a young man, realising his sexuality and identity in his lesbian aunt’s wardrobe. The courage required to live as Charlotte lived is made subtly and gently apparent in moments when she shrugs off her critics and tells her anxious mother who wants her to marry, “I am my own wife”.
The final image is of a rich and varied collection of historic objects – Charlotte’s museum – in the flies above the set, while a recording of Doug and Charlotte plays on a phonograph. Prime Cut has created a well performed show where the design and direction are coherent and unified. It is a strong piece by one of the most consistently interesting independent theatre companies on the island.
Lisa Fitzpatrick lectures in drama at University of Ulster.
  • Review
  • Theatre

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright

20 Sept - 6 Oct, 2012

Produced by Prime Cut Productions
In The MAC

Directed by Emma Jordan

Set and Lighting Design: Ciaran Bagnall

Sound Design: Philip Stewart

Costume Design: Una Hickey

With: John Cronin