I can’t stand grade school plays. I know it sounds mean and un-parent-like, but there you have it. At least I’m honest -- although honesty itself may as well have saved its breath for all the difference it has ever made where my attendance at these tedious, interminable events is concerned. I don’t think that I’m alone either. I would bet that fully 70 percent of otherwise decent parents detest these theatrical extravaganzas in the same way that they detest receiving a summons for jury duty in the mail, and carefully maintain therefore an airtight reason for excusal.
Take my wife for instance (noting that I resist the Rodney Dangerfield punch line). She cannot possibly attend the play because she works. Overtime, if necessary. Feigning painful disappointment, she tells the boy that she cannot come, but assures him that Dad will be there -- which is a thing meant not so much for his consumption as for mine.
This season’s dramatic offering involves a presentation of favourite fairy tales and fantasies, and my son’s class has chosen The Wizard of Oz. I know this in advance because he has mentioned just 22 hours before the rise of the curtain that he needs a Tin Man costume. From this alone one gleans an appreciation of the careful effort and preparation that go into these programs, along with a pretty sure estimation of what one has gotten oneself into.
So I spend the eve of the big show shopping for tin man stuff. A funnel for his hat, silver spray paint, long gloves to cover the arms, and so on. Try explaining these needs to shop clerks who speak not a word of English. Try explaining that you’re turning your son into a tin man.
On the big day I arrive at 9 a.m. sharp, for despite my preceding efforts to pin down the hour in which my son will actually be on stage, the teachers have stubbornly refused to divulge this information. If they have to sit through it, so do we. I am hoping of course that my son’s performance will be first in line, allowing an early escape, but suspect, given previous experience, that they will save the best for last. With resignation therefore, I insert myself between the white-bloused shoulders of two proud mothers in the second row to the last, where my heavy sighs and occasional snoring will be a nuisance to as few people as possible. Teachers in the meantime bustle officiously about, as grave as ushers at a joint session of Congress.
The first play involves the three pigs and the big bad wolf. I can’t really hear what the children are saying, but I know the story pretty well. For this reason I cannot help but wonder why a story that features three pigs and one wolf has nonetheless required the presence of fifty-two children on the stage. Why, moreover, is the wolf wearing orange pyjamas?
Auditory problems have been ironed out by the time the next skit starts by the introduction of five additional microphones turned to full volume. Now, it can be pretty generally agreed upon that no Indonesian should be given a microphone to begin with, but to give one to a child is a sin pure and simple. Volume at a certain point ceases to clarify and begins merely to loudly obscure. Such was the case this day, wherein all that was uttered by the little thespians was turned to an ear-piercing quacking sound, which itself was further obfuscated by the raised voices of all the proud mothers who had soon tired of the tedious program and turned to one another for endless gossip and gab.
I couldn’t hear the title of the next play, but I think it might have been Titus Andronicus. Either that or Alice in Wonderland. I can almost swear that at one point I heard one of the tykes exclaim “These words are razors to my wounded heart!”, but then later on I found myself fairly convinced that another had said “Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” Ultimately this theatrical selection wrapped up with a dance performance to the tuneful, albeit rather pointless lyrics of Dynamite, by Taio Cruz.
Three hours into the 90 minute program I wake with a start and push myself straight in my chair. I‘m hot, sore, diaphoretic, short of breath, and I swear privately to every god I can think of that I will never again attend one of these functions, even if I have to drink poison. Blaring across the stage is what appears to be a deadly battle between Egyptian-looking soldiers with Jell-O moulds on their heads. Martial trumpets and drums stab to the inner ear while countless children die horribly on the points of wooden spears, and are afterwards ministered to by long-haired girls in flowing white dresses. Which is something I found rather touching.
At last count, as far as I had been aware, there were six grades in my son’s school; and yet it seems clear that six or seven had been added on top of these, for as soon as one set of children marched off the stage, another set marched on, with no end in sight. I see the three bears, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Hanzel and Gretel, witches and magicians, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. How much of this was real and how much the stuff of troubled dream, I cannot say. All I know is that at some point a kind member of the exiting audience woke me, and that I was able at long last to rise to my feet and to utter my own heroic, well practiced line:
“Free at last, free at last. I thank God I’m free at last.”