- homepage link


Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife
Capturing the Artifact (An Editor's Note)
By Jonathan Kalb

I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
Playwrights Horizons


I have now read half a dozen admiring reviews of Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, all of them acute, persuasive, and intelligent (including the two published on, but none has mentioned what seems to me one central aspect of the play's power and appeal: that it plays out a wonderfully ambiguous twist on the genre of docudrama.

Consider this work as a theatrical counterpart to the film Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki's richly disturbing documentary about a family destroyed by accusations of child-molesting. Both Jarecki and Wright deal with subjects readily condemned by others (Wright's focus is the famous East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who was also a Stasi informer), and both share a deep appreciation of studied indeterminacy. That appreciation is why questions about polemicism swirl around each artist, ultimately dissipating for lack of evidence either way. I Am My Own Wife may be a brilliant solo performance by Jefferson Mays, a fascinating portrait of gay survivalism, and a moving self-exploration by Wright--all of which has been said--but it is also a peculiar documentary "trial" of sorts in which the playwright turns out to be ambivalent about submitting his suspect to our judgement.

To imply in the end, as Wright does, that Charlotte is to be treasured primarily as a walking museum (largely because she runs a museum of old furniture and furnishings, and is something of an antique herself) simply won't do. Too much evidence about possible untruths and half-truths has been presented by then for us to dismiss it, and such factual tidbits are always mildly alluring, if not titillating, in the information age. Moreover, the playwright has already protested too much about not judging his subject: "I've no right to sit in judgement," says Mays, speaking in Wright's voice. The effect of this remark is to ensure that the genie of judgement will never go back in the bottle, no matter what is said. It's as if part of Wright thought he had written a neatly self-referential play about writing a play on a difficult historical subject, but another part knew he had written a messily ambiguous report on his own strenuous efforts to withhold judgement as a researcher and playwright.

There are of course plenty of works that are ruined by their authors' ambivalence, but this is one that was saved by it, primarily because the play is built on impersonation. In a sense, the drama itself is dressed in a sort of "drag." Its preoccupation with judgement marks it as a moralizing project in the mold of Miller's The Crucible, Bentley's Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, and Hochhuth's The Deputy, but its decided effort to blur the line between victim and perpetrator marks it as a relativistic project in the tradition of Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Which tendency is the heart and skin of the play and which is its "costume"? That's just the undecidable point.

And perhaps this is part of what disturbed the writer Alexis Greene, who remarked in her article that she found Charlotte "fascinating, but veiled and not quite human" and that "we rarely glimpse [her] soul." Being fully human, to Greene, apparently means being morally accountable. Yet the humans who mean the most to us, Wright seems to be saying, are not necessarily so accountable; it's precisely there, in their unaccountability, that their humanness resides. Hence Wright's quintessentially theatrical impulse to embody such a person (or have Mays embody her) as meticulously as is humanly possible.


©2003-10 All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or distribute in any form without express permission. Hunter Department of Theater . 695 Park Avenue . New York, NY 10065 .