>If I only had a brain…


In the wake of a not too well received panto last year, this year he theatre Royal Brighton has the Wizard of Oz as its big festive show . For copyright reasons, they stick closely to the film script with only a few panto-ish touches supplied by producer (the Good Witch of the North looked suspiciously like a Good Fairy) and audience (the Wicked Witch of the East got roundly boo-ed on every appearance).
“You’ll be blown away” the poster said. Well, not quite. But it was a good time was had by all. My daughter and my niece knew the story and liked the songs, munchkins, flying monkeys, melting witches and other fairytale stuff. I liked it, of course, Wizard of Oz is actually a political allegory. A populist parable about the advance of financial and industrial capitalism in the late 19th/early 20th century US and a covert pre-Keynesian appeal for economic reflation by issuing currency backed by silver (as well as gold). As Hugh Rockoff of Rutgers University explains in The Journal of Political Economy (98: 739-60, 1990) Dorothy represents traditional rural American values, Toto the Teetotalers, an influential compoenent in the US Populist movement, the Scarecrow the farmers; the Tin Man the industrial workers; the Cowardly is Lion William Jennings Bryan the Populist Democratic and unsuccessful four time presidentiial candidate; the Munchkins are the citizens of the East Coast the Wicked Witch of the East is Democrat Grover Cleveland; the Wicked Witch of the West is Republican politician and later US President William McKinley; the Wizard Marcus Alonzo Hanna, chairman of the Republican Party; the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard; Oz is, of course, the abbreviation for an ounce of gold (or anything else).

Others see the 1939 film, a Depression era musical concoction with multiple writers which drew on various of the many Wizard of Oz books written by L. Frank Baum earlier in the century, as a a satire on the New Deal and the technocratic Keynesian fixes it (the fraudulent Wizard adulated by the people being FDR, whose magic is less effective than good ol’ family and rural values that finally will Dorothy back to Kansas). And, of course, there are more recent parallels. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s devasting reportage of the inadequacies and self-delusion of US occupation administrators cocooned in Iraq’s Green Zone, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, also has a WoOZ allusion (Is George W. the Scarecrow or the Wizard, though?).

For anyone interested, there’s an excellent overview of economic, political and religious allegories in the WoOZ by Quentin P. Taylor of Rogers State University, as well as a Wikipedia article on the same subject, and useful hub site with links to various critics’ essays here. And, if you’re really interested there’s also an academic book on the subject: Ranjit S. Dighe (ed.) The Historian’s Wizard of Oz — Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory, (Praeger Publishers, 2002). Wow.

In truth, however I was most taken with bit of social satire at the end when the Wiz tells the Scarecrow not to too worry about his lack of brain:

“Why anybody can have a brain – a very mediocre commodity. ( … ) Back where I come from we have universities – seats of great learning – where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have. But – they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma!’. “

He then awards the Scarecrow a Th.D., Dr. of Thinkology (Mind you, only an honorary one. – nothing too unethical here). Not sure if this is promoting wider participation in higher education drawing attention to the problem of degree inflation or just a good of populism anti-intellectual smack in the face. Still, I laughed anyway and was still smiling when forked out for some very overpriced magic wands on the way out…

Update: And, for anyone, who doesn’t like political and social allegory, there is a more or less politics-free radio essay on the Wizard of Oz, by Salman Rushdie for next week here on the BBC Radio 4 website.

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