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The outsider within us

One wouldn't expect an elderly gay transvestite to be so beloved, but rooting for the underdog is a reminder that through insecurity comes strength.

June 12, 2005|Doug Wright | Special to The Times

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf scoops the last of her strawberry yogurt from its plastic cup. With a satisfying smack, she downs the last dollop. It's Feb. 2, 1993, and tonight I've been interviewing her for more than four hours. One day, I hope to forge a play from the disparate puzzle pieces of her life.

"It's late," she says in her signature lilt. She peers at me cautiously and asks, "You are going to take a taxi back to West Berlin, yes?"

Indeed I am. Charlotte lives in an eastern suburb, about 40 minutes by commuter train from the city's hub. It's a forbidding neighborhood: drab buildings with barren window boxes, and a surplus of disaffected youth, many of them skinheads. Naturally, I'm not fond of taking the subway to and from her home at odd hours.

"Do you mind if I share the ride?" she asks me. I'm surprised; it's almost 11 p.m. She explains, "I've been invited to a party in town."

Our driver is in his 50s, squat with closely cropped hair, a crumpled cap and a grizzled chin. His forearms are like giant drumsticks. I'm nervous. Will Charlotte invite his enmity? After all, he doesn't look especially open-minded, and Charlotte just happens to be a man: an elderly gay transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Communists as an open cross-dresser. To make matters worse, she's instantly recognizable; a bestselling autobiography and a documentary film have made her a cult celebrity in Berlin.

Brazenly, Charlotte sits up front, next to our new friend. I crawl into the back. The cabbie shoots an ominous look at me in his rearview mirror, then shifts the car into reverse with an insolent jolt.

I sit stoically during the ride, but Charlotte is merrily prattling on about a host of subjects: the weather, the demise of the East German automobile called the Trabant, drag balls under Kaiser Wilhelm, and Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph. Her merry cadences are the only sound, other than the roar of the motor.

I'm focused on the driver. What's running through his head? Nasty epithets? Is he smirking at this elderly gent in a lady's coat, trundling into town with her queer American friend? Will our ride culminate in an ugly incident?

Finally we arrive at Charlotte's destination: a swank apartment building near the Kurfurstendamm. She smooths her skirt as she slides out of the passenger seat. Beaming at me, she exclaims, "Danke schon!" Then she heads daintily up the steps, her hips swaying ever so slightly.

Once again the cabbie catches my face in the mirror. "Charlotte von Mahlsdorf," he says with a mixture of awe and unmistakable civic pride. "A true Berlin original, ja?"

In the years to come, I see it happen again and again: Charlotte, charming potential adversaries into submission. On a book tour in the East, a conservative tire magnate giggles like a schoolboy and kisses her hand. A middle-class mother with a baby on her hip asks Charlotte for her autograph. On a typical Sunday morning when Charlotte offers guided tours of her home, a rustic museum of late 19th century antiques, the crowd that mills outside waiting to gain admission is diverse: hipsters in leather, gay couples, straight backpackers and stout old German ladies with dour husbands in tow. Once this motley crew ambles inside -- as Charlotte effuses about credenzas and ink pots -- they all regard her with the same beatific smiles.

Why is such a willful eccentric so appealing to so many? For me, it's a crucial question. After all, I hope to mold her life into drama. And I'm not keen on merely preaching to the choir. I'd like the play to reach a broad audience. Naturally, I hope that my fellow gay men and women will find the piece meaningful, as a compelling chapter in our largely forgotten history. But I've always believed that if a subject is truly worthy, it will speak to everyone. Can my stage version of Charlotte boast the same charisma as the genuine article? Will the play attract an audience? Or will my leading "lady" be written off as a freak?

I'm consoled by one thought: Like the greatest and most enduring characters, Charlotte is larger than life. She reaches beyond the particulars of her time, place and idiosyncratic nature to embody lasting truths.

Her very life is a trope for history. A compulsive collector, Charlotte preserved the culture that she knew not by writing about it but by saving its remnants, precious objects that tenaciously survived the 20th century's two most lethal regimes.

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