Corrupting Noel Coward’s lyrics a bit but celebrating the intent of his 1947 song that warns a woman against putting her child needlessly on the stage, I cock a snook at the young mommies and daddies who bring their relatively freshly-hatched babies, still in swaddling clothes to the theatre. Are you absolutely intent on destroying any chance of your child having a real love for the theatre? And why would you punish them thus?
It’s a mystery to me – not very different from the mystery as to why people insist on using their cell phones in a darkened theatre – conjoined with all those values of utter selfishness that many of our theatre-going audience exude. I’ve had this conversation many times. I’ve been asked to remove a posting on facebook by a theatre when I ranted about an 18-month-old child sitting next to me during a huge, loud musical at a big daunting theatre complex, specifically for an adult audience. The child in question teetered between extreme distress, overwhelming boredom and dizzyingly offensive bratty precocity. And then it needed a nappy change. I’m funny that way: the smell of other people’s poo doesn’t do it for me.
And indeed, the theatre was correct (and the post was removed): My comments would bring them bad publicity. While they can state on the tickets and the walls and the telephone and the internet until they are blue in the face that the production is not geared for children under a certain age, the relentless and arrogant idiocy of the paying audience member who insists on bringing their sproglet to the theatre, is louder: is the customer always right? Will the theatre earn a bad name if, at the door, an usher says, “I’m sorry madam, this child cannot go into the theatre?”
Invariably, and sadly, it will. Those members of our society who feel that their money can thrust them into any given situation are not shy. They’re also not unaggressive. Given the current state of the theatre in this country right now, no one can afford to create an unpleasant scene with a customer who barges their way into any scenario without the vaguest notion of how revolting their behaviour actually is. They are paying their way, aren’t they?
And you may argue your baby is exceptionally intelligent, which is why you take it to the theatre. Why, of course it is! It’s yours, isn’t it?
Your baby is a baby and its job is to kvetch and make a noise, to cry and have a short attention span. Plonking a child in a nappy onto a theatre seat in a dark theatre that will erupt into loud music and bright lights should be a sin that’s up there in terms of the multitude of ways in which incompetent and psychiatrically sick adults abuse children. Can you imagine how unbelievably terrifying it could be to be in that situation? Without the ability to talk properly or rationalise sensibly, or understand that the situation is about this great concept called entertainment, a little mite might well be terrified witless by the experience.
And that’s just the child. Your child is brilliant and beautiful and flawless because you made it. But not everyone in the world might see its brilliance or beauty or flawlessness, particularly when it’s running havoc in a theatre’s aisles or crying its head off. Other people have paid money to see a production and seeing the fruit of your union showing off under the stage lights is not what they’re here for.
And I say all of this in absolute cognisance of the genre of theatre directed at the so-called ‘0-year-old’. There is, indeed, such a thing, but it is arguably at this stage, a fledgling discipline in South Africa.
So, don’t bring your baby into the audience, Mrs Worthington. Wait a few years until it can walk and use a potty competently. Wait until it fits the moniker ‘child’ properly. Wait until its attention span has developed long enough for it to sit through a story and listen to it. The children’s theatre industry in South Africa is ripe with magic for your little one, but give him or her a chance to become a person first. For your child’s sake. And the world’s.