(This article is written by Ryan Mann a Hudson High graduate of 2001 who was good friend with Bridie Carroll who is apart of the show Wicked now playing in Cleveland, she graduated from Hudson in 2000)
Currently, Clevelanders are pouring into the beautiful State Theater at Playhouse Square to see the Tony award winning musical Wicked. The show—and the book that inspired it—is a witty drama that tells the backstory of Oz: what happened “before Dorothy dropped in.” Personally, I have seen the show several times in several cities, with varying degrees of enjoyment; however, during my most recent viewing, I was impressed with the insightful nature of the narrative. Like most art forms, this musical can and should be watched on many levels. This time, I watched Wicked through the lens of literary critic and anthropologist René Girard.
Girard is arguably the freshest voice in his field and his insights are influencing psychology, theology, sociology and many other areas of study. He contends that, throughout human history, a powerful force has been at work, shaping every culture—from clans and tribes like the ancient Aztecs, through the World Wars of the twentieth century, up to today’s schoolyard bullies. This force Girard calls the scapegoating mechanism. Within social groups—like the city of Oz—tensions and strife arise. To bring peace, an individual, like Elphaba, or a sub-group, is targeted (usually by referencing some non-essential difference, e.g. race, nationality, etc.) and then blamed (scapegoated); the scapegoat is then cast out, and often killed. After the scapegoat is cast out, the winning group creates a story or myth that intentionally veils the truth of what took place to achieve the peace, namely the arbitrary selection of the victim and his/her rejection. From the Holocaust to water cooler conversations, Girard’s scapegoating mechanism can be seen; we humans tend to establish harmony at another’s expense.
But in today’s world, most of us stand up for the victim. If René Girard is correct, shouldn’t the myth blind us to this violence, this system? Well, according to Girard, we now hear the victim’s voice, and we side with her plight not because we have matured from our barbaric past, but because of the Judeo-Christian story. This story, beginning with God’s chosen people Israel and culminating in the gift and revelation of Jesus, is unlike all others that came before it: scripture is told from the perspective of the victim and not the winning myth-makers.
A brief refresher: according to the Gospels, God, in Jesus Christ, enters into the human story, not as a military leader, like Julius Caeser, but precisely as the victim. This revelation is displayed when the Roman officials and the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time—natural enemies—attempted to solve their social distress at Jesus’ expense. Jesus intentionally accepted the role of scapegoat and entered into this social mechanism so as to jam the gears and undermine it from the inside out, revealing that God sides with the scapegoat. In the Resurrection, Christians believe that Christ the victim came back from the dead and said, “Peace.” He offers forgiveness instead of retaliation, thereby ending the cycle of violence. This story, told from the victim’s perspective, has affected all later generations and cultures by giving us the vision to see the deception whispered by scapegoating violence.
With all this in mind, let’s return to Wicked. In the Girardian light, the story of Wicked unveils the myth that was the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz. Towards the beginning of Wicked’s narrative, we find out that “something bad is happening in Oz,” divisions and strife are threatening the social order. Within the halls of the school Shiz, we sense the strife, and we see the scapegoating mechanism beginning to grind its gears as Dr. Dillamond (a goat, by the way) is singled out and forced from the school. Later on, the scapegoating mechanism is on full display as we, the audience, witness the Wizard, a deceitful man, Madame Morrible, a power seeker, and Glinda, a girl weak in moral character, point at Elphaba as the cause of the social distress. The people of Oz, duped by this trio, believe in the necessity of killing Elphaba, the “wicked” one, and a literal witch-hunt ensues. Why? Because Elphaba is the one accused of being the cause of the distress. The audience, however, sees what’s taking place; we side with Elphaba. But why? Because we live in a world that, for 2,000 years, has been influenced by the Gospel. Revelation has taken place and now the victim in any story is seen and heard. In the case of Wicked, the audience gets to see the world through Elphaba’s eyes and we get to hear—beautifully I might add—the cry of her voice. Because of this, unlike the rest of Oz, we fail to be blinded by the myth being spun by the Wizard, Madame Morrible and the others. In the end, Elphaba is outcasted and goes into hiding with Fiyero; the myth of the “Wicked Witch” settles over Oz, “peace” returns, but we the audience—and I would add Glinda as well—know what really happened. A scapegoat was “killed,” and nobody in Oz mourns her plight because she “had to die.”
This time of year, Clevelanders have the opportunity to be entertained by some top-notch talent and a great musical. But we also have the opportunity to see an ancient mechanism of violence rear its ugly head as well as witness this mechanism’s current inability to fully work. René Girard claims that we have this vision because of a baby boy born 2,000 years ago and whose birth many of us will celebrate on the twenty-fifth. While Wicked’s opening and closing numbers proclaim that the “Good News”—the definition of the word “Gospel”—is the death of the Wicked Witch, Christians know and profess that the real good news is that God became the victim in Jesus, that victim came back from the dead and forgave us, thereby providing us a way out of the cycle of violence. Perhaps then, for us in Cleveland, Wicked has visited us this time of year, not by “winds of chance,” but by Providence. May all of us be a people of peace…but not as the world gives it.