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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Under the #Mask. By John von Daler

                    I stood in my underwear and a great chesty coat in the costume room at the theater. The coat was buttoned in the back, with long, heavy, hairy, black arms sticking out of the green shoulders. On my head, the seamstress had placed a huge helmet, also green with protruding eyes and large, grotesque feelers. In my right hand I held my violin and bow while my left hand was making forays into the jungle I was within, working through the hair, the knobs, the extended insect arms, trying to find out what it was like outside this great costume. I was to be a huge violin-playing grasshopper in a total-theater production of Faust. But this was an unhappy grasshopper.

                "But I've got to be able to hold the violin on my left shoulder with my chin!" I wailed as I knocked my masked head into the huge black arm that extended from my left shoulder. "That arm has got to go!"
                In fact, it is no easy thing to become a symbol.  Here I was on the verge of representing the plagues of Egypt (our locusts were grasshoppers), but I still stubbornly refused to take on any universal significance without the costume designer having to make big changes.

                The seamstress looked up at me with the kind of eyes you see in wildlife films when a doe gives up saving her fawn from being killed by a mountain lion: You are gone, dear - but life goes on!
                The costume designer, a man ten years my elder, broke off decorating a naked siren draped in fishnets on the other side of the large white room.
                "What's going on?"
                I put down my violin on a table and eased my grasshopper helmet off my head.
                "I can't play the violin with an arm growing out of my left shoulder!"
                He looked me in the eye for a few seconds.
                "Well, you are just going to have to learn how!"
                We stood glaring at each other. Actually, we were on amicable terms when we met otherwise, so this tug-of-war was a new aspect of our relationship.
                Dramatically I reached out and grabbed my violin, swinging it forcefully up against the offending arm with a loud clunk! The violin extended out into the room and away from me, its slender neck still caught in my grip.
                "I have to play a cadenza with both an echo pedal and a delay pedal while perched on top of a moving wagon as the rest of the band backs me up from the other side of the room. Please, please don't give me one more problem by making it impossible for me to hold on to the fiddle! If you want this costume and a violin solo you can come and play it yourself!"
                The man, in fact a kind and very talented soul now unpleasantly confronted with this angry and rebellious symbol, turned around and faced the other wall. He stood a moment with his back to the seamstress and me. Then he turned to face us again.
                "During his landing in a wheat field our grasshopper turned just a moment to watch a lady-friend land beside him. His long left arm hit the earth a little too violently and broke off. That is the way with nature. Remove it!" And he turned around and trotted back to his naked siren.
                So new life got breathed into the meaning of my costume. After all, symbols are just metaphors that have come to life in a story. And, like any good symbol, I thought religiously of my own significance as I played my solo every evening. That pleasant rogue, Karen Blixen's Kasparson from "The Deluge at Norderney" joined me each night to have his say: “Not by the face shall the man be known, but by the mask,” he whispered in my ear as my bow attacked the strings. And he added, "You play pretty well for a wounded grasshopper!"
                Much to my disappointment, nobody in the audience ever asked me what had become of my left insect arm. Wish they had; I had the story right on my lips.

                My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces below. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!



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