Reading between the lines: The Wizard of Oz
By Rosheen Fatima
We take a walk down the yellow brick road to read between the lines of the well-loved classic.
Over a hundred years old, the classic children’s novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ planted itself into the hearts and minds of the young and young at heart. The tale by Lyman Frank Baum took on a life of its own, and spawning two stage musicals (‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Wicked’), various shorts and films (MGM’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Wiz’, and The Muppets’ ‘Wizard of Oz’), and even more books about Oz (by Baum himself and also Gregory Maguire’s ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’). There’s more: This tale of Dorothy has also inspired countless songs and television shows. Dig around the seedy depths of the internet, and you’ll even find Oz-themed erotica – a couple of which aren’t too bad.
Such is the depth with which this tale has permeated our global culture. But many of us take the books, films and musicals at face value, devouring them as pure entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but you should also realise the impact this classic children’s story has had on the world.
Originally produced in 1900, the book was turned into a film in 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression in America. The parallels between 1930s America and the film’s poverty stricken Kansas positioned Oz as an escape from both those dreary worlds. And when Dorothy clicked her heels and said ‘There’s no place like home’, the film became a symbol of hope. The American Library of Congress even held an exhibition to celebrate the book’s 100th anniversary in 2000 and rankopedia.com’s users ranked it as number eight in a list of films with the biggest cultural impact.
When something becomes popular culture, it naturally generates a host of conspiracy theories and parallel associations. Some people see things where there are none. But are the curious tales that surround ‘The Wizard of Oz’ merely the result of fans’ overactive imagination? Or is there a grain of truth to the myths about the musical? Thought it was just a children’s story, did you? As the Wicked Witch of the West says, ‘You’ll believe in more than that before I’m finished with you.’
The Populist theory makes a lot of historical sense and has created quite a debate amongst Baum scholars. The theory first came to light in the 1964 article by Henry M Littlefield, ‘Parable on Populism’, in which the author drew parallels between the characters in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and various groups in American society at that time. Dorothy, according to this theory, symbolises the American people who are tormented by the Wicked Witch of the West (financial powers) and travels with the Scarecrow (naive farmers), the Tin Woodsman (dehumanised factory workers) and the Cowardly Lion (Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan) to meet the Wizard of Oz (Republican National Committee chairman Marcus Alonzo Hanna). Littlefield then goes on to find the symbolism of everything in the land of Oz, including the ruby slippers (silver in the book) as the Populist’s economic solution and the yellow brick road as the gold standard (a monetary system in which economic units are measured against a fixed weight of gold). According to historians, Baum was a Populist supporter, and went as far as attending their marches. A fact that Littlefield, an educator and historian, may have been inspired by. This theory has been explored further by other scholars and is still going strong today, despite Littlefield’s claim that he was merely trying to help his students learn history.
Heard enough? Well there’s more. A theory that resonates more globally is the association of the film to the LGBT community. Judy Garland became a gay icon because of her personal life as well as her work in the film. Her character Dorothy is seen as accepting of all, regardless of their differences. In fact, the term FOD (friend of Dorothy), which originated during World War II, is still used today in LGBT circles to describe a gay man. It is also speculated that the LGBT movement’s rainbow flag was inspired by the song ‘Over the Rainbow’, most likely due to the lyrics which long for a place where ‘dreams really do come true’. The film is also rife with quotes that can be taken as cheeky innuendoes on the LGBT lifestyle, such as the Scarecrow’s line ‘some people do go both ways’, the lyrics ‘Come out, come out’ and the Cowardly Lion’s line ‘I’m just a dandy-lion’.
There are many more less popular theories out there that surround this classic (including a Freudian one that alleges that it represents Dorothy’s sexual awakening, and another about Pink Floyd’s album ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’). Is there any basis to any of them, or are they all hogwash? Well, there’s only one way to really find out. And since there’s no place like home, test out all these theories with Pan Productions’ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (Pentas 1, KLPac. Apr 28 – May 6). Nell Ng directs Tria Aziz, Stephanie Van Driesen, Peter Ong, Radhi Khalid, Zalina Lee, Mano Maniam and Suhaili Micheline in this musical. So, arm yourself with some pop culture knowledge, a heart and a little courage, and take these theories for a whirl down the yellow brick road.’
'The Wizard of Oz' musical runs at KLPac from April 28 to May 6. See event listing for more info.