Friday, November 20, 2009

Crazy in Love

  In his Devil’s Dictionary, American author Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) defined love as “temporary insanity curable by marriage...”. Whether Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1827-1886) was insane before being abandoned by her lover on her wedding day, or whether the shock she incurred as a result thereof sent her over the edge, remains a mystery. At any rate, from that fateful day on, she never left her house. She left the wedding cake as it was on the table, ordering that it never be touched. She spoke to no one, books were her only companions, and the door was left slightly ajar, in case her betrothed might one day return. This went on for thirty years, when at last Miss Donnithorne left the confines of her home - to be taken to her grave.

    Sounds pretty crazy, doesn’t it?

    According to Mr. Bierce, one has to be insane to want to marry in the first place. Indeed, there are many female characters in opera who get very bent out of shape if their romantic strategies do not play out as they’d expected - Lucia, Lady MacBeth, Ophelia, to name a few. 

    I am currently rehearsing the title role in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, a one-woman opera by Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1939),  in Krefeld. This town in North-Rhein Westphalia, once known for its booming fabric industry, manufactured the silk and velvet for Napoleon Bonaparte’s garb. Now it is worn down and smells like Miss Donnithorne’s cake must have after about four years. Daily, I walk the drab streets of Krefeld on the way to work. I have discovered a few local yokels, crazy women whom I affectionately call Miss D. I try to imagine what may have driven them mad.  Then I wonder, is my Miss Donnithorne Moment inevitable? Will I notice the instant in which I turn from sane to insane?


    My first Miss D. sighting in Krefeld was a woman who must’ve been about 80 years old. As many octogenarians do, she wore a wig and makeup, except this woman hadn’t adjusted her cosmetics for her age. She had the wig of a 30-year old, fashioned after one of Dolly Parton’s coiffures, and she used the makeup palette of a teenager. Pants tucked into her winter boots and a jacket that was far too big made it look like ‘gangsta granny’ was what she was going for. This was not a good look for her.

    At which point did she cease to recognize the aging process? I applaud her for not using botox or other forms of age camouflage, but the fact is, there comes a time when a person must start looking - and dressing - their age. Eighty is not the new thirty. Did Eliza Emily ever consider herself to be a day older than the age she was on her wedding day, or did time stand still for her, too?


    Every Tuesday and Friday, Krefeld’s Market Street bustles with shoppers going to the fresh farmers’ market at the end of the block and sometimes you get caught up in the crowd. Otherwise, it’s a rather sleepy street with plenty of room for pedestrians. It was on one of these off days when I was walking behind a young woman and couldn’t help but notice her odd behavior. By now, I’ve started to enjoy happening upon these modern-day Miss Donnithornes. In fact, I’ve begun to incorporate their mannerisms into my performance. This woman was so incredibly skinny that she was almost invisible within her parka which came down below her knees. Looking over her bony shoulder with her big, round eyes, she periodically peered out from underneath the brim of her awkwardly large hat to see if I was still behind her. Noticing her nervousness, I tried not to follow too closely. Honestly, though, how much personal space does a woman of her frame require? 

    How might the real Miss Donnithorne have felt, were she walking down a crowded city street for the first time after having been sequestered in her home for years and years? Quite frightened, to be sure.


    It was on Market Street where I encountered yet another Miss D. This one was also 80, or near to it. She was smartly dressed in a coat with a fur collar and a matching fur hat, and typical old-lady shoes. Nothing about her struck me as odd except for the fact that she was pushing her little lap dog around in a baby stroller.     
    The real Miss Donnithorne must have had dreams of starting a family when making her wedding plans. I’m curious if this old woman may have suffered the trauma of losing a child, and since then she’s been pushing little Fifi around in a baby carriage.


    They say that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. I have to recall one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Fisher Kingwhere Jeff Bridges’ character asks one of his new homeless friends, “Did you lose your mind all at once, or was it a slow, gradual process?” The mustachioed, cross-dressing cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter looks at him serenely and replies, “I’m a singer by trade.”

    The Miss D. who has had the biggest impact on me is a woman I saw sitting at an outside table of a café on a blustery, sunny day. Wearing a rather nice ivory-colored jacket, the silvery-blonde haired woman had a pleasant expression on her face, albeit a bit forced. I suspected she might be crazy when I noticed she was bobbing her head up and down periodically, looking nervously at the people passing by. For fear of catching the virus that all my colleagues seem to have had, despite the sun, I chose an inside table on the upper level of the café. I didn’t notice that she’d passed me on her way up, but on her way downstairs returning from the washroom, I couldn’t help but noticing my counterpart’s struggle to appear normal. She looked like someone who was drunk pretending to be sober, as if to say, ‘Look how effortlessly I can descend the stairs,’ all the while holding the handrail for dear life. Maybe she was just a drunk person with a nervous tick. But then, something gave her away. 

    As I was walking past the café a few days later (I’d since seen her sitting there on a few occasions, wearing the same clothes), I gave her a smile - the kind you give strangers when passing them on the street. She reacted as if she wanted to say, “Oh, hi!” but she repressed herself, remembering that the most ‘normal’ behavior would be to just politely smile back. I felt she was aware of her insanity, and was trying hard to conceal it. Because of her nervous tick, she inadvertently gave me the upward nod of the head - the kind you give someone you know, but have no time to talk to. Noticing her mistake (for we do not know each other), she corrected her friendly facial expression to a disinterested half-smile - the kind you give a stranger - thereby exposing the gap from her missing front teeth.

    Her jacket being the same color as my costume, and her hair being the same color as my wig, I felt as if I was looking into the imaginary mirror that has been a pervading element in our rehearsals for the past few weeks. Her piercing glance gave me the impression that perhaps she took me for deranged. Had my Miss Donnithorne Moment come and gone?


    My worries of being bat-shit crazy quickly dissipated the other morning as I was waiting at the light to cross the street. Next to me was a woman on a bicycle, and on the other side of the street a middle-aged couple was waiting to cross in our direction. As the light turned green, we all set in motion. As is common on major streets in Germany, there was a lane intended for bicycles painted red on the asphalt. The pedestrian couple crossed the street, disregarding the fact that they were on the bike path. The woman on the bike shouted as she rode happily into the distance, “Move over! The red lane is for cyclists - forever and EVE-E-E-E-ER!!” 

    In sickness and in health. Till death do us part.


Tune in live to the Grahamophone!

... as “Miss Donnithorne” at Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach, December 12, 17, 29 and January 3.

(photo by Matthias Stutte)

No comments:

Post a Comment