Jul 2002 Journal

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First-time playwright (profile)

To while away the time spent stuck in traffic en route to interview Charlotte Eilenberg, I reflect on the refugee input into British playwriting. Working purely from memory, I come to the conclusion that it is quite meagre. Many years ago there was Frank Marcus's Killing of Sister George, but its content - a melange of showbiz intrigue and lesbianism - was infinitely remote from refugee concerns. Several decades later came Diane Samuels's Kindertransport, which signally tapped into our collective experience. The playwright is, however, of East European ancestry, and watching her work I found it devoid of the sensitive insights of Gerda Mayer and Lotte Kramer, the poetic chroniclers of all our yesterdays.

Charlotte Eilenberg is, by contrast, the genuine second-generation article, with solid Berlin middle-class antecedents. Her pharmacist grandfather owned a block of flats which he was forced to sell in 1938. Delighted to find a buyer willing to pay a sum not a million miles away from the asking price, he cracked open a bottle of champagne and shared some hearty toasts with the purchaser. Two days later the buyer's solicitor wrote to the grandfather's solicitor: 'In view of your client's attempt to get our client drunk, we have decided to offer substantially less than the price previously agreed.'

By this time Charlotte's father was already in England, where he studied engineering. He had a successful career in industry, married an English woman, and together they raised two children. When she was little, Charlotte lived in a large detached house in Kew and attended an exclusive private school. She grew up in a tightly knit community of refugees who had originally met at a Berlin Tanzschule as teenagers (and whose own parents had been friends). Many of them 'married out', and spent a large part of their social lives dropping in on each other and sharing holidays.

From school Charlotte went on to Sussex University to read French and History of Ideas. She arrived at Brighton when student radicalism had passed its peak, but drug-taking was much in vogue. During her time there she became enthusiastically involved in student drama productions. The consequence of this was that she worked in the theatre - including stints at the Edinburgh Festival - for about ten years after graduating.

At this point, Charlotte realised that the thespian calling was not for her, and took up the job of a press officer - first for the high-profile Almeida Theatre in Islington, and later for the Hampstead Theatre. At around the time of her career change, she married and started a family.

Charlotte submitted the script for The Lucky Ones - which has a fictitious plot embroidered with autobiographical details - under a pseudonym, and it was accepted for performance. It received very good notices (pace our June issue) and played to full houses. She has already adumbrated the outline of a second play, but rather balks at the effort involved in turning mental constructs into rounded characters. Meanwhile she is quietly hopeful that The Lucky Ones will be performed in Germany - the country that could aptly be described as the play's birthplace.
Richard Grunberger

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next article:Desperately seeking solidarity (Part 1)