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Story of transvestite wins drama Pulitzer

Playwright Doug Wright based his story on the true experiences of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived the Nazis during World War II.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In “I Am My Own Wife,” playwright Doug Wright describes its title character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, as “the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed.”

Wright’s play won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama Monday. It tells the story of a real-life German transvestite, born Lothar Berfelde, who survived not only the Nazis but the Communists, without relinquishing her unusual sexual identity.

“I Am My Own Wife” was born out of taped interviews Wright conducted with Charlotte from August 1992 to January 1994, providing more than 500 pages of transcripts.

“When I first meet her, I felt like I had truly found an unsung gay hero,” the openly gay playwright said Monday in a telephone interview from New York Theatre Workshop, where he was directing a reading of a play.

“And as a boy growing up in Bible Belt Texas, I’d always felt very negatively about my own sexuality and I thought, ‘Here’s someone who lived an uncompromising life in the face of the two most repressive regimes that Western culture has ever produced.”’

It took Wright, who went to Yale University and did graduate work at New York University, nearly 10 years to complete the play, which opened on Broadway in December after a run last summer at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.

“I feared her (Charlotte’s) story was beyond my grasp. I felt, that as an American, I simply couldn’t understand the complexities of Europe during the two world wars and subsequently the Cold War,” he said.

“Then I realized that there was as rich a story in the tale of my relationship with Charlotte and that by telling it through my own eyes, I could actually encompass the full measure of its contradictions and its intrigues.”

Although there is only one actor (Jefferson Mays) on stage, Mays portrays a parade of characters, including Charlotte’s sadistic father, a lesbian aunt, Nazi officers, East German police, American soldiers and even the playwright himself.

Wright said both Mays and director Moises Kaufman were integral in the actual evolution of the play, which had productions at both the La Jolla Playhouse in California and at the About Face Theater, a small gay theater in Chicago, before coming to New York.

“Their blood courses through this play along with my own. I feel that all three of us are celebrating this honor today,” Wright said.

The 41-year-old Wright is best known for his play, “Quills,” about the Marquis de Sade and which later became a movie starring Geoffrey Rush.

Charlotte, who died in 2002 at the age of 74, became a celebrity in Germany after the Berlin Wall tumbled down, but the wall’s collapse also revealed some unsettling news: Charlotte may have been a spy for the East German police, a question the playwright does not shrink from exploring.

“When I scrutinized Charlotte’s life, she ended up being a far more vexing hero, as all heroes tend to be when they meet our scrutiny,” Wright said.