Monday, October 13, 2014

Goodness doesn't know

Yes, goodness knows
The Wicked's lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked cry alone
Nothing grows for the wicked
They reap only
What they've sown…
Last week I went with my family to see the musical Wicked.

It has some fab tunes (by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Prince of Egypt fame) – and, more than that, a thought-provoking story. The musical is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, which is in turn a subversion of L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the iconic MGM movie that has taken audiences over the rainbow and along the yellow brick road since 1939.

Avoiding major spoilers, let’s put it like this. The story takes that gloriously 2D baddie, the Wicked Witch of the West, and tells her story in a way that turns it on its head. Villainess becomes heroine. The witch, Elphaba, is a sparky, inventive and idealistic young woman with a gift for casting spells. But she is rejected for being different (in this case ‘like a froggy, ferny cabbage…unnaturally green!’) Sealing her fate, Elphaba falls foul of Oz’s corrupt political masters who play on general ignorance and fear to spin her as an enemy of the people – hence the version of the story we see on our TV screens every Christmas Eve. The way the plot manages to twist and turn all those familiar motifs – from scarecrow to broomstick to ruby slippers – is truly, well, wonderful.

The show opens with a spectacular musical ensemble as the citizens of Oz celebrate the witch’s recent death. (You can listen to it here, with lyrics here.)

Forget ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ – this number, with its blending of major and minor strains, is musically ingenious, and here’s why. Remember Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky? The genius of this poem is that the first verse, complete with all its made-up words, is identical to the last verse – but means exactly the opposite. The first verse is sinister and menacing, the last verse – though using exactly the same words – is joyous and celebratory. Well, Wicked’s opening works similarly (though in reverse). The opening number is a joyous celebration of the witch’s death. The closing number is the same song – but now the minor tones come to the fore and it takes on a sinister, even tragic feel, and the words become deeply ironic.

The reason? In the interim we've ‘got to know’ the witch. We've been told her story. We understand her. We love her.

So now we cannot celebrate her death, but only mourn her as a terribly maligned scapegoat.

It strikes me that Wicked has a thing or two to teach us about prejudice and scapegoats. Those who seek power – political or religious or social – need scapegoats. They need someone to blame, someone to direct the fear and hatred of the populace toward. Hitler and the Jews is a very obvious example – but there are examples closer to home.

Fear the immigrant. Fear the gay. Fear the scrounger. Fear the Muslim. Fear the ‘other’. Et cetera. Fill in the blank according to your brand of prejudice.

It leads to soundbites and spin at best, violence and persecution at worst. ‘Goodness knows’ (that is, of course, we know) ‘the wicked deserve everything that’s coming to them’.

Until you get to know them. And then you discover that – who’d have thought it? – they’re human too. And sometimes, they might just have a thing or two to teach us.

So, my reflection for today: don’t judge others. Get to know them. Hear their story. Grow to love them and they'll no longer be ‘them’, the other, but part of the big ‘us’ that is the human race.

Don’t judge others. And certainly not by the colour of their skin – even if it’s green.

1 comment:

Joe Morriss said...

Thanks for this thought provoking reflection, James. I also enjoyed listening to Ruth Barnett "Kindertransportee" at the Northampton Jesus Centre last week. She tells her story of surviving WW2 as a jewess an dhow she became a person of no nationality. She challenges people to find out about other people groups for themselves. Especially Irish and Romany travellers. I found this very relevant to myself as I have had opinions brought about by nasty confrontations with this particualr people group which tends to make one tar everyone with the same brush and reject them. Time for a rethink.