A “Wicked” Good Time – if you don’t think about it too much

A “Wicked” Good Time – if you don’t think about it too much

By: Craig Smith

“Where I come from we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.  We call it History.”

So says the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  If you don’t recognize this quote, then chances are you’re only familiar with the classic movie The Wizard of Oz and not with the more recent Broadway sensation Wicked.  If that’s the case, then you’re missing out…both on a fantastic theatrical experience and a fascinating illustration of postmodernism in the marketplace.  But while Wicked has postmodern elements, its whole premise rests on something that is decidedly not postmodern.  Even if you aren’t familiar with this intriguing “prequel”, this short peek behind the curtain may be helpful as you seek to be a light for Jesus in the midst of our culture.

While I read the book by Gregory Maguire (on which the musical was loosely based) several years ago, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to see a production of the Broadway musical.  How shall I describe it? It was phenomenal!  I really can’t say enough about the quality of the production or the brilliance of the script itself.  It was far and away the best theatrical experience of my life.  In addition to the stirring music and genuinely touching story-line, the skillful weaving of new back-stories into the familiar plot of The Wizard of Oz was breathtaking and deeply engaging.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar with Wicked, maybe I should back up a bit.  Here’s the basic idea behind Wicked:  “Long before Dorothy dropped in, two other girls meet in the land of Oz.  One, born with emerald green skin is smart, fiery and misunderstood.  The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular.  How these two unlikely friends end up as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch makes for the most spellbinding new musical in years.”[1]

Basically, Wicked creates the back-story for all the characters and events we’re familiar with from the movie, The Wizard of Oz.  In the process of doing so, however, it makes one thing abundantly clear:  everything you thought you knew is wrong.  Elphaba, who eventually became the “Wicked Witch of the West” was no such thing.  She was a passionate young woman ostracized for her skin color, studiousness and compassion.  She became “wicked” when the powers that be failed to corrupt her to their purposes and launched a PR campaign to turn the general populace against her lest they listen to her story and become enraged with the current regime.  This current regime was headed by the Wizard who wasn’t just a rather pathetic fraud, but a genuinely devious individual with obvious and intentional parallels to Hitler.

Only the most callous members of the audience could fail to root for Elphaba.  Everything the poor girl does is either misunderstood or deliberately twisted around to be used against her.  When her sister tries to cast a spell on someone and ends up destroying his heart, Elphaba saves his life by changing him into the Tin Man.  But does he thank her?  No, he hates her for what she has done to him.  When she saves a young lion cub from horrible experiments, he blames her for turning him into the Cowardly Lion by not letting him fight his own battles.  By the time that Dorothy absconds with the shoes from the Wicked Witch of the East, who incidentally is Elphaba’s sister, murdered by the Wizard while trying to trap Elphaba, no one can really blame her for snapping and becoming obsessed with getting the shoes back – they’re all she has to remember her sister by.  More importantly, by the time the show is over, almost everything you thought you knew about the events and characters from The Wizard of Oz has been turned on its head.[2]

If the show is about anything more than an amusing story and incredible music – and I think it is – it comes down to this:  what you think is true probably isn’t.  The quote from the Wizard that started this article is an excellent encapsulation of the central motif of Wicked and, interestingly enough, of postmodernism in general:  so-called “truth” (or history) is a construct created for their own purposes by those who have the power to do so.   Therefore, what we call “truth” really has little or no connection to what actually was, or is.  By playfully getting audiences to re-think the story of The Wizard of Oz, Wicked suggests that all truth-claims are really just self-serving illusions.  In this sense, Wicked could easily indoctrinate viewers into a postmodern worldview without their ever having been aware that this was happening.

However, real postmodernism goes somewhere that Wicked doesn’t.  Genuine postmodern thinking denies the existence of any objective truth so that skepticism about a particular version of the truth is the gateway to the belief that there is no real truth at all…it’s all a matter of perspective.  But Wicked doesn’t quite go there and, in fact, deviates from philosophical postmodernism in one critical way:  by telling us the “rest of the story” it maintains that there is a real story – i.e. there is truth – to be known.  In that sense, while Wicked is postmodern on the surface, it also – and perhaps inadvertently – denies a central tenet of postmodernism.  More importantly, in this way, Wicked provides us with some helpful insight into how we can and should address issues of ultimate reality and objective truth in a culture that so often denies their existence.

Let me explain:  Wicked doesn’t have a great deal to say directly about morality beyond some general ideas that loyalty, faithfulness and kindness are good things.  However, under the surface of the musical is one undeniable moral conviction:  twisting the truth is wrong.  Much of the audience’s sympathy for, and connection to, Elphaba derives from the fact that she is the victim of misunderstanding and deliberate misrepresentation.  We can relate to Elphaba because we’ve all felt the sting of similar injustices. 

But at the heart of this conviction that twisting the truth is wrong lies a bedrock belief that there is a truth to be twisted.  In other words, truth exists and is defined as that which matches up with the way things really are.[3]  This truth might be difficult to get to.  It might be deliberately obscured.  It might be complex and require careful sifting.  But it exists…and it matters.  It is only knowing the truth that allows us to revise our understanding of the so-called Wicked Witch or to root for her as she fights to overcome superficiality, prejudice and injustice.  So in the end, what may be a postmodern agenda in Wicked ultimately pales in comparison to a dependence on, and an affirmation of, the existence and importance of truth.

My whole family saw Wicked and we had some great discussions about it the next day as we were driving.  Perhaps the most interesting part of that discussion related to the way that postmodernism does something that forms the basis of my favorite quote from the original Wizard of Oz.  Perhaps you remember the part where Dorothy becomes aware of the little man scuttling around behind the scenes, operating the big mechanical head that purports to be the Wizard of Oz?  Remember what the Wizard desperately commanded?  “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

You see, postmodernism wants us to pay no attention to what’s going on behind the curtain because, if we do, we’ll spot the fraud rather quickly.  As an example, consider this:  the one unambiguous moral conviction in Wicked is that twisting the truth is wrong.  But the whole production depends on twisting the truth of the original Wizard of Oz!  In the original story, the Wicked Witch of the West was genuinely evil.  She wasn’t misunderstood, she was evil.  Insofar as we can speak of “truth” in a fictional story,[4] the truth is that she was bad.  But in Wicked they’ve twisted that truth into something entirely different.  In the Wizard of Oz, Glinda was truly good, but in Wicked she was a spoiled, self-centered ditz (although, to be fair, she was growing past that by the end of the show).  You see what I mean?  The whole plot required twisting the “truth” of the Wizard of Oz but the one clear message of Wicked was that twisting the truth is wrong!  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Postmodernism says that history, and truth-claims in general, can’t be trusted. It says that truth doesn’t exist.  But if history can’t be trusted because it often involves a misrepresentation of the facts, then we’re acknowledging that there are actual facts which means that there is actual truth, so… Aghh!  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

It’s not that postmodernism has nothing too meaningful to say about the world in which we live.  It does and in some sense, postmodernism makes us aware of certain naïve tendencies we all have.  For instance, it is true that history is written by the winners and that it often involves oversimplification and, in some instances, outright lies.  But does this mean that history is always wrong or that there is no such thing as historical truth?  Of course not.  I know that my understanding of Hitler and his beliefs are simplistic and perhaps not entirely fair in some respects.  But does that mean that the Holocaust wasn’t evil?  I know that there’s usually another side to the story and that reality is usually more complex and convoluted that we like to think.  But does that mean that no story is more true than another?  At the end of the day, the very things that postmodernism denies (like absolute truth) must exist or postmodernism cannot say anything at all (like its critiques of the accuracy of historical claims).

I left Wicked with a profound sense that truth matters and that it matters to everyone.  The most ardent postmodernist will cry foul as soon as you start to misrepresent and twist his statements to your purposes.  Our job, as bearers of light in a culture of dark despair, is to draw attention to this fact and to the importance of truth as we see it at work in our everyday lives.  From this foundation, then, we can begin to draw our friends, family and fellow-travellers down the road to the cross where ultimate truth and ultimate love meet and where, when we pull aside the curtain, we find simply a God who has been showing us His true face all along.

[1] From the Wicked official website.

[2] While it’s quite beyond the scope of this article to really discuss, it’s worth noting that Wicked introduces a fascinating artistic concept:  taking an established work of fiction and deliberately altering the moral qualities of its characters as well as changing the meaning and significance of its events, while not actually altering these “hard” elements themselves. 

[3] By the way, for those of you who are interested, this is known as the Correspondence Theory of truth.

[4] This is a rather interesting notion all by itself.  The Wizard of Oz is obviously a work of fiction and not of truth.  But the author of that story clearly intended his characters to be interpreted in particular ways.  If you read them in different ways you were missing his point.  And if you understand what he intended but deliberately choose to twist the story into something else then isn’t this a kind of lie?