Saturday, 23 January 2010

Wicked- A Comparative Analysis

Last night I went to see Wicked at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney and, having read the book by Gregory Macguire on which it is based a couple of years ago, and this being the second time I have seen the musical, and having the whole thing fresh in my mind, I thought I might share some thoughts.

Wicked is a post-modern riff on characters and themes from the Wizard of Oz. Its major conceit is reversal- The Wicked Witch of the West is put forward as the hero, whereas the heroes of the original are portrayed as petty, duplicitous, compromised or of small import. Unlike some, I have no particular beef with post-modernism per se, (though I do with some of its fruits) and am perfectly happy to take such conceits at face value and see what is done with them. Indeed, this technique of reversal is suprisingly easy to do- a friend of mine a while ago thought of taking a similar tack with The Lion King and turning Scar into the hero (which could work- the outcast uncle, next in line to the throne, with plenty of ability and political experience for the position and a grand dream of uniting in a kingdom of mutual toleration and peace the two races of lions and hyenas who have been separated for generations by unfounded mutual prejudice, is pushed aside in a coup by the late king's long-lost son who has no political experience whatsoever, is as full of hate for the hapless and marginalised hyenas as anyone else and has come back from years of sowing wild oats in a far-off country to claim the throne for his own self-interested purposes).

Though having this same conceit of reversal, the book and the musical are quite different, so I shall treat of each in turn. The musical first. Underneath the Broadway glam, it is more than anything a meditation on the nature of public perception, both in present political life and in the view of the past by the present, i.e. history. Indeed, the Wizard sings an entire song on this latter theme. "Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist," he declares. This theme is embodied in the reversal that is the core of the story. The Wicked Witch, Elphaba, is portrayed as a noble figure who, as the story progresses, goes on to conduct a crusade for the rights of talking animals, who the Wizard's government is trying to suppress. Consequently, the Wizard launches a smear campaign against her, levelling at her every weapon of propaganda and using all possible means to destroy her credibility and, ultimately, dispose of her. Dorothy, portrayed largely off-stage, is only the final and (so it at first appears) most successful of these means.

Contrary to John C. Wright, I do not see the story as an attack upon innocence. I too have fond memories of watching the Wizard of Oz as a child (as my family has for three generations- my grandfather skipped school to see it back in 1939!) and was, like most children, terrified by the flying monkeys and exultant when the Witch met her doom. I don't think retellings like Wicked necessarily mar or undermine that experience. In any case, Wicked is not a simple case of calling good evil and evil good. Elphaba in the musical never really embraces evil at all. The closest she comes is near the end of the Second Act when, in a bout of disillusionment and frustration at how inneffective her efforts have been and how all her deeds have failed to produce the good she had intended, she sings "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" and declares, "No good deed will I attempt to do again." But even after this, none of her actions are particularly evil. She turns her love interest Fiyero into the Scarecrow so that attempts to torture or kill him will prove futile, briefly imprisons Dorothy in an effort to reclaim her sister's shoes (to which, she indignantly claims, Dorothy has no right) and then stages her own death amd goes into self-imposed exile. In the middle of all this, she and Glinda share a reconciliation. Not much evil here at all. If one wants to look for a glamourising of evil, one would be better served by seeing films like Seven Pounds or Jumper.

I think, if Wicked is an attack on anything, it is not innocence but the media that it sets its sights on. It would also be fair to say that it strongly encourages revisionist history. This may or may not be a bad thing. While the mention of revisionist history probably makes most people think of Holocaust denial (which, by rights, is not worthy of any description that includes the word 'history'), it is worth remembering that it can also encompass such things as Eamon Duffy's paradigm-shifting study on the English Reformation, 'The Stripping of the Altars'. For that matter, the Church is no stranger to media hype, as we would call it now, which is why there is a Devil's Advocate in every investigation of the causes of saints. So the encouragement of revisionist history inherent in the musical is, I would say, a strictly neutral thing.

On the other hand, it might be argued that Wicked encourages moral relativism. Dorothy does what is right in her eyes in The Wizard of Oz, but here we see that even the Wicked Witch was only motivated by good intentions. So goodness just depends on your perspective. This may or may not be the view of Stephen Schwartz (or Gregory Maguire for that matter), but if so, they write better than they think. Elphaba's inherent nobility is not relativised at any point. She is painted as a true victim, contra mundum, who, in an almost Shakespearean touch, seeks to do what is right but finds everything she does goes awry.

One point where the charge of moral relativism might achieve some traction is in the character of Glinda. Glinda is depicted as the popular girl at school, and never outgrows her deep hunger for popularity. This leads her to side with the Wizard's regime, in spite of her (on-again, off-again) friendship with Elphaba and the fact that she secretly sympathises with her. But her ambition and love of fame always win out over her better nature. In spite of this, she is a largely sympathetic character to the audience, never really being depicted as a villain, though she is more often than not in their company and is actually capable of great nastiness. This is a servicable argument. But it falls short, in spite of the fact that the musical is arguably the story of the relationship of these two women primarily, because Glinda is always seen as having taken an inferior path to that of Elphaba. Where Elphaba (somewhat ironically) has a clear moral compass and is willing to sacrifice her ambition on the altar of her principles, Glinda compromises and gets caught up in the moral ambiguities of the political process and of public perception. Where Elphaba, like the good man in Plato's Republic, is largely content to be good but be thought wicked, Glinda is determined to be thought good though she compromise her own goodness in the process. And the audience is clearly meant to regard the former position as morally superior to the latter.

_ _ _ _ _

To the book, then. Gregory Maguire's book is a very different animal to the musical. Much more complex. Much more mature. Indeed, in many ways, I enjoyed the book more. The conceit of reversal is still the same, but different things are done with it, and the plots are very dissimilar. Whereas the Elphaba of the musical remains in many ways adolescent- moved by romantic interest, motivated to a very large extent by the political idealism and activism so characteristic of youth- the Elphaba of the book, though passing through those stages, is a more mature and adult character. By the end of it, she is 38, and certain of her later actions and thoughts would not seem out of place in someone undergoing a mid-life crisis. As in the musical, Elphaba at first opposes the governmental policies of the Wizard and fights against them, taking up the cause of the talking animals and becoming an agent in some kind of anti-Wizard organisation. She also finds love with the character of Fiyero (a very different person in the book from the same character in the musical), though in this case Fiyero has had an arranged marriage and so their affair is in fact adulterous. But the plot takes a turn the musical doesn't when Fiyero follows Elphaba on one of her political missions, unbeknownst to her, and gets himself captured and killed in the process. Transfixed by grief, Elphaba leaves her life of political activism and takes refuge in what is, to all intents and purposes, a monastery. There, she stays for a few years, giving birth in the process to a son. Eventually, with a quintessentially post-modern sense of displacement, alienation and longing for she-knows-not-what, Elphaba sets out with her son to find Fiyero's wife and seek her forgiveness. She takes up with a travelling band who are headed in that direction and, while with them, begins to take on the classical characteristics of a witch, i.e. the persona of a solitary and aloof woman who doesn't much like company but can commune with beasts. When she finally reaches her destination, Fiyero's wife, Sarima, takes her and her son in, but refuses to discuss Fiyero at all, thus witholding the forgiveness Elphaba seeks and preventing her from obtaining any kind of closure on her past misdeeds. In spite of this, Elphaba continues to live with Sarima and her children and they become a kind of quasi-family unit, with Elphaba being a sort of eccentric and reclusive aunt-figure. Later, Elphaba goes to visit her sister and father in Munchkinland and, upon her return, finds that Sarima and the family have been taken prisoner by the Wizard's army in her absence. Desiring to get them back but unsure how to do so, she takes up residence in the family castle on her own. Shortly after, word reaches her of her sister's death and she goes back East for the funeral, where she meets the Wizard for the second time. Back in Fiyero's castle, Dorothy turns up, but she and her companions misinterpret Elphaba's welcome and slay the animals she sends to bring them to the castle (first dogs, then crows, then bees- here following Baum's novel and not the 1939 movie). When the flying monkeys succeed in escorting them, Elphaba, wracked with grief at the pointless deaths of her familiars at the hands of this girl, and having been informed that Dorothy has arrived to kill her on the Wizard's orders, is not sure how to approach her. She knows there is something other-worldy about the girl; indeed, Dororthy seems almost like an angel of death, bringing destruction in her wake, but Dorothy tells her that, though the Wizard told her to kill her, she herself had other ideas and wants to ask forgiveness for killing her sister. To Elphaba, this seems like the cruellest stroke of all; for she wanted the same thing from Sarima, who took her in and showed her every kindness, refusing her nothing save forgiveness, and how can she give to Dorothy the forgiveness she never received from Sarima? In her dismay, she accidentally lights herself on fire, and Dorothy, crying "I will save you!" tosses water on her and thus inadvertently kills her.

Inherent in the book are some of the same themes of public perception that characterise the musical, but there is more than that, and the themes are more complex. The book is far more concerned with the nature of evil, as opposed to the perception of evil. Elphaba slides closer to evil here also, though again, by the end, she is still a far cry from the unremitting villainy of Baum's Wicked Witch. Late in the book, in a scene that rather evokes Charlotte Corday, Elphaba seeks out Madame Morrible, her old headmistress who she knows to be responsible for the murder of an Animal professor and who, Elphaba suspects, has been manipulating events behind the scenes far more than anybody realises. She intends to kill her, regarding it as a quasi-act of tyrranicide. Her leaving behind of the moral high ground is symbolised and highlighted by the fact that, on gaining admittance to see Madame Morrible, she lies for the first time in her life. But when she finds Madame Morrible, she discovers, to her great frustration and ire, that the woman died of natural causes not five minutes before she arrived. Seeing this, Elphaba bashes in her skull with a trophy and then, determined to gain the credit for the 'murder', repairs to the house of the local Margreave (whom she knew at school) to confess the deed. Thereupon, the Margreave invites her to supper and, in a surreal scene, Elphaba and the guests argue about the nature of evil while the Margreave's wife deplores the fact that they are treating so abstractly the murder of an old woman in her bed, and becomes progressively more upset. Amidst lots of metaphysical talk, Elphaba gets in the last word:

"The real thing about evil,' said the Witch at the doorway, 'isn't any of what you said. You figure out one side of it- the human side, say- and the eternal side goes into shadow. Or vice versa. It's like the old saw: What does a dragon in its shell look like? Well, no one can ever tell, for as soon as you break the shell to see, the dragon is no longer in its shell. The real disaster of this inquiry is that it is the nature of evil to be secret.'"

The remark stands in marked contrast to her exaggerated efforts to have a crime she wanted to commit but didn't pinned on her. The secret is precisely that she did not perpetrate the evil that she wanted to, and that she is trying to attach to herself an evil which she didn't do. In this episode, Elphaba is not depicted nearly so nobly as in the musical, but there is ambiguity, even in her own self-understanding. Similarly to Charlotte Corday, she believes that the death of Madame Morrible will remove a great evil from the world and is remorseless about the deed itself, but her great desire to be known as a murderer after the fact even though she isn't is bizarre and seems to be fed on the one hand by guilt over her sister's death and her own largely ineffectual life and on the other by a feeling that might be expressed as, "If everybody thinks I'm wicked, it may as well be for something I've actually done (or at least intended to do)". When there is nothing in the paper about the 'murder' the next day, she is disappointed. The whole incident is more psychologically complex than it is morally complex. And, in spite of my suspicion upon reading that this would be the watershed moment when Elphaba turned to the dark side, she doesn't follow it up with any other misdeeds (although she does get somewhat narky with Dorothy later on, this is largely from fear and confusion, and she never actually raises her hand against her).

Wicked the novel oozes the standard modern preoccupations. Alienation and guilt figure prominently; a sense of aimlessness and loss, of desperation to know the meaning of one's life (a very different thing from the meaning of life in a general sense) are all clearly present and wrestled with in various ways throughout. In this, Elphaba is a typically modern literary heroine, buffeted by the vagaries, mysteries and misfortunes of life, trying to make sense of it all. Many things are left unexplained and none of the themes are given a solid answer. The novel ends with two cases of redemption denied, that of Sarima towards Elphaba and that of Elphaba towards Dorothy. It is not implied that either case was impossible, but both were left undone until it was too late; the former being rendered impossible by Sarima's capture and the latter by Elphaba's death. An enjoyable novel, not because there is any joy in it, but because in many ways it captures the modern malaise, the melancholia of existence, the weariness of life after the fires of adolescent enthusiasm have died and one finds oneself saddled with a particular past, particular regrets and a host of unanswered questions, some personal and some metaphysical.


Anonymous said...

Not that I know if my advise would be any good, but IMO you should try the mental exercise of reversal more often. It would be good for you, at least.

Matt said...

"When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the d├ęcor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘predicament’ of reflexivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the ‘implosion of meaning’, the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘media’, ‘consumer’ or ‘multinational’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘placelessness’ or the abandonment of placelessness (‘critical regionalism’) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates - when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword" (’Postmodernism and “the other side”’, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A reader, edited by John Storey, London, : Pearson Education .2006)

GAB said...

Nicely put, Matt (or, rather, John Storey). Puts me in mind of something Robert Louis Stevenson once said (I forget where): 'Man does not live on bread alone, but principally by catchphrases.'

I suppose a mea culpa is in order on my part for stooping to the use of such buzzwords?

Matt said...

Not at all. I just liked the quote, and thought it was a good opportunity to use it...

Although I personally do find the term a little vacuous...