Feel My Rage

Doug Wright channeled his anger from growing up gay in the Park Cities into bizarre and brilliant plays

Featuring an all-star cast with Joaquin Phoenix, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Caine and Winslet, the 2000 film was nominated for three Academy Awards—costume design, best actor (Rush) and best art direction. Some critics raved; others gave it vicious pans.

Wright's parents were undaunted by the depraved material. "My dad is proud of me to a comic fault," Wright says. "I could shit on a paper plate and he'd say, 'Son, you made a sculpture!'"

It was time to face Charlotte.

Doug Wright says he needed to "seize his own life."
Doug Wright says he needed to "seize his own life."
In Wright's film Quills, Geoffrey Rush plays the Marquis de Sade, stripped of everything to prevent his writing.
In Wright's film Quills, Geoffrey Rush plays the Marquis de Sade, stripped of everything to prevent his writing.

Glimpsing an intern gesturing at him from a door at New York Theater Workshop, indicating he was needed in the hallway, Wright shook his head no. The rumors had been circulating, but the possibility was something he didn't want to think about. Better to spend the day doing a table reading of an Austrian play he liked. Wright rounded up three wonderful actresses and an audience of 50 and refused to walk out on them.

Then a second intern came to the door, signaling that his presence was wanted. Wright shook his head again. Then a third intern. No, no and no.

Finally the artistic director came to the door. "I think you better leave," he said.

In the hallway, the artistic director handed him a phone and said there were 50 journalists waiting to interview Wright one by one.

"What's this about?" Wright asked.

"I think you know."

Minutes earlier, it had been announced that I Am My Own Wife, Wright's play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Wright hung up the phone and instead called his mom and dad with the news.

"It was pretty much unfettered joy," Wright remembers. "It was so personal. It's my own unabashedly confessional play about my own sexuality. My parents had seen me grow up gay. It was my sexuality that drove me to Charlotte, and then it was all sanctioned by the Pulitzer."

After Quills, Wright had returned to the project but remained overwhelmed by the material. In an effort to break through, he went to a writer's retreat in Wyoming. While he was whining that he had no authority to write about such oppression, the retreat director exploded at him. "You're right!" Robert Blacker told him. "You have absolutely no authority—moral or academic—to write about 20th-century Europe. No credibility whatsoever. You're an authority on one subject, and one subject alone: your ongoing obsession with a remarkable character." That meant putting the playwright in the play.

At first Wright resisted out of vanity. Having someone portray him? Then he worried that people would think he was being arrogant. But in the end, putting himself in the action was liberating. "I could discuss with the audience all my passion and confusion about the subject in my own way," Wright says, "even my own writer's block."

The twist was this: One actor would portray 34 people, including journalist Marks, Wright and, of course, Charlotte.

Wright collaborated with actor Jefferson Mays and director Moises Kaufman, presenting the evolving play before audiences in La Jolla and Chicago. By the time they reached New York, "I was cautiously optimistic that it would work," Wright says. Its first major production took place at the Playwrights Horizons Theater—which had commissioned it 10 years earlier.

The family went to New York for the opening. "The night that I Am My Own Wife opened on Broadway, we were waiting in the front of the theater for it to start," Max says. "Doug put his arm around me and said, 'You know, Max, this play can close tomorrow. And I can be going to buy a copy of The New York Times to read the review that killed it and get hit by a bus. My obituary would have to say a Broadway playwright. It's the happiest moment of my life.'"

The audience loved it, and the political subtext felt fresh in a country debating issues such as gay marriage and war. "I was ecstatic," Wright says. "People felt about her as I did. Suddenly it looked like my insane obsession with Charlotte was going to pay off." The Pulitzer felt "like a triumphant end to a long struggle."

Wright recently learned that I Am My Own Wife will be the most performed play in America for 2006. His fear that little theaters might not have actors who could portray 34 characters was unfounded. "It's a huge role, but what's been so heartening is to go to small cities and find that every community has its beloved character actor who can step into the role," Wright says. "It's having a rich life across the country."

Charlotte never saw the play. She had died two years earlier, freeing the acolyte to become an artist.

The woman who emerges from a dilapidated screen door onto the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater elicits a gasp from the audience. Around her head she's wearing what looks like a black sweatshirt, her face framed by the neck hole, the arms twisted into a kind of drape behind her head. Around her hips is a garment that could be an upside-down skirt, fastened with safety pins over ripped hose. A girdle peeks out below the skirt. She looks like a demented nun.
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