If beauty is truth, as Keats and Lorenz Hart used to claim, there must be an extraordinary beauty in the simultaneous assertion of two contradictory truths. And that extraordinary department of beauty, for which someone must have invented a name by now, is the principal source of drama. I mean drama and not theater: In the latter, beauty can be single and simple. Nor do I mean any of the ways, from dialectics to deconstruction, by which theorists have tried to “solve” the puzzle of this beauteous dualism: I mean a both/and, not an either/or with a synthesis or a symposium to follow. What I mean is—actually, it makes more sense to point to an object that exemplifies what I mean than to waste space trying to explain it; let the lexicographers and taxonomists face that challenge. The critic’s function is to point to the object.
So I point to Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, as directed by Moisés Kaufman and acted by Jefferson Mays, at Playwrights Horizons. This is a play which is in some ways not a play, and a piece of drama which is in all ways a piece of theater. And its beauty, which can definitely be called “extraordinary,” falls into the category of always being two things at once.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a transvestite who lived in Berlin. That is to say, she was born a boy named Lothar Berfelde, who early on adopted an interest in women’s clothing and female ways. This wasn’t easy, since Lothar was born in the early 1920s; he entered adolescence just as the Nazi war machine got rolling, and, having survived the war, found himself as a young man in the East Berlin district of Mahlsdorf, which would very shortly be on the wrong side of a wall that stayed up for three decades. Neither the Nazis nor the “Democratic Republic” headed by Erich Honecker was enthusiastic about homosexual men whose two consuming interests were women’s clothes and the furniture, especially clocks and gramophones, of the Kaiser Wilhelm era. No history-minded bookmaker handicapping Lothar’s chances of survival from 1938 to 1988 would have given him better than a hundred to one.
But somehow Lothar—Charlotte, rather—survived. The Nazis’ bureaucracy, famously rigid, was also famously slipshod and full of inconsistencies; a quick-witted teenager with a little luck could easily slip through the cracks. The Communist bureaucracy took a while setting up; during that while East Berlin was anybody’s game. By the time the Communist system, too, began to harden into its own infamously inferior sort of concrete block, Charlotte was a recognized expert on the decorative objects of the Wilhelmine era, running a museum of its classic objects in one of Mahlsdorf’s last surviving manor houses. For credibility, the East German regime needed to sustain cultural-heritage sites; and an expert appraiser of antique objects, however eccentric, was always useful to an impoverished system in which an injection of Western currency was the grease that kept Communism’s wheels turning.
Charlotte, in her quiet, obstinate way, went in at one end of this nightmare and emerged, shaken but whole, at the other. At which point the German media found her, just in time to be canonized as a gay rights heroine, and an American correspondent alerted Wright, who immediately saw Charlotte’s theatrical possibilities. But the theatricality of Charlotte’s story is the opposite of drama, since the governments of Hitler and Honecker are not equal in truth, morally speaking, to the desire of a male human being to survive as herself. At best, her memories of oppression and endurance could make melodrama: good girl-guy versus bad homophobe-guys.
As Wright explored, however, he discovered that some of Charlotte’s memories of her struggle looked less convincing in the harsh light of fact. Which is where—I have deliberately taken a long time to lead up to it—the drama of I Am My Own Wife begins. Charlotte is not only not a “real” woman; she is perhaps not even the woman she says she is. It may be that almost everything she says about her history is not true of her, and perhaps even not true at all. She says, for instance, that she murdered her tyrannical Nazi father for abusing her mother; the scene is acted out, rivetingly, in Wright’s play. But so is the confrontation in which a researcher tells Charlotte that no record of such a murder has been found.
Contradiction is of course a source of comedy as well as of drama, and Kaufman’s production opens with a gesture that sums up the cunning paradox of Wright’s script: Mays’s Charlotte enters, with his solemn, somnambulic walk, upstage, behind a scrim, at right angles to us. Veiled, distant, unconnected, he comes to the “practical” door in this translucent back wall, throws it open, comes through it, gazes front, and then—turns on his heel and walks back the way he came. The false exit, one of the oldest gestures in stage comedy, has a naturalistic meaning here—Charlotte has gone to get something she needs—but coming after the solemn and mysterious entrance, it has a bundle of deeper meanings too. This woman who is not a woman executes actions that are not actions, and makes connective gestures with us that don’t connect. We are not going to “know” Charlotte.
Indeed we aren’t, and neither is Wright, who will duly appear among the dozen-odd other characters Mays also plays. Because, as in one of those Henry James stories about painters with elusive sitters, Wright is in fact the protagonist of his own play. Charlotte, his principal subject, is his problem: two dramatic truths, living contentedly in conflict in the same person. Playing a batch of characters in one evening is common; Mays does it with grace and a speedy proficiency that is sometimes nothing short of dazzling. Yet what makes the performance great is his grasp of the contradiction that makes the play hypnotic: The Charlotte he embodies is a truth that invites you not to believe it, off-putting and welcoming, utterly frank and phony sounding, in the same instant. We don’t know whether to admire Charlotte or suspect her, hail her as a heroine or discredit her as a mythomane. Wright, at the end, says he admires her because he “need[s] to believe” that people like her can exist, and survive, under the worst circumstances of our times. But he has not hesitated to include all the worst and most discreditable information regarding the puzzle of her survival: Like so many East Germans, it develops, Charlotte took a turn at supplying information to the Stasi, the country’s secret police. She is a victim who is also a perpetrator and it is unclear to what degree she was under pressure—beyond the pressure of survival that every East German faced.
This is where the beauty of Kaufman’s production, formal and hieratic, comes into play. The survival of beautiful things, Charlotte’s obsession, is itself a stand against tyranny and brutality. But it can embody, as Charlotte does, an element of moral surrender to the same tyranny. Can a murderer and a spy be a medal-winning curatorial heroine? Or maybe, as the stylized elegance of Kaufman’s staging implies, beauty’s function is to provide a context, not an answer, for the moral question. While other characters bounce in all directions, Charlotte, in Kaufman’s blocking, is always in direct contact or at right angles to us. David Lander’s lights, and the doll furniture by Paul Eric Pape that stands in for Charlotte’s collection, match Mays in eloquent articulation of Wright’s riddle.