Our Wicked Culture
Theater / When you stop and think about it, Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz is a musical based on a book (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West) based on a movie (The Wizard of Oz) based on a book (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), yet for some reason, the play grossed more than $1.5 million at the Blaisdell during the final week of December alone. My question is: Why? Don’t we already know the story of Oz? Haven’t we had enough of this recycled culture?
The reality is quite the contrary, says Markus Wessendorf, Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM), who co-wrote and directed Uncle Vanya and Zombies (the mash-up of a classic Anton Chekhov play with a massive sub-culture obsession). For whatever reason, audiences like to see the same thing all over again in a different medium.
This isn’t restricted to just Oz. How many versions do we need of Les Misérables, Batman or Spider-Man? Comic books, films and even a Broadway production based on Peter Parker and his life have permeated pop culture while seeding a new generation of fanatics in 2012. (Sam Raimi, who directed the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, is also directing Oz The Great and Powerful, a film that looks at the life of the wizard before coming to Oz, out March 8.)
Wessendorf believes commercial pressures are part of the reason producers reuse ideas that have already proven popular. “If you pitch something already established in a different context, how could you possibly go wrong with it?” he says. But couldn’t that be the easy way out? Where has all the creativity gone?
Avoiding risky investments isn’t the only reason artists translate and revise successful stories, Wessendorf insists. “[Producers also] use popular genres to superimpose on classical [stories and] hope it will attract people to something more classical–perhaps a little boring or tedious,” he says. For examples of this recent niche that combines history and classic literature with current trends, he cites his play, which played at UH’s Kennedy Theatre in November, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (both a film and a novel, written by Seth Grahame-Smith) or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (also by Grahame-Smith). But with the story of The Wizard of Oz, “everyone knows it . . . people are familiar with the characters, like mythology.”
Could our pop culture heroes be the American version of the Greek pantheon? “Spider-Man, Batman, The Wizard of Oz–they all fulfill the same function,” Wessendorf says. It’s a bit unnerving to think we follow characters the way ancient societies worshipped their gods, but ask any pop junkie about Bruce Wayne and they’ll give you his life story.
Kathryn Hoffmann, Professor in the Department of Languages & Literatures of Europe and the Americas at UHM, says that the most popular stories, including myths, tend to live on, although, “They may well shift disciplines and inhabit other areas of the societal body. Myth reappears in fairy tales,” she says, transforming and returning “with new elaborations.” These stories, myths or otherwise, feed something in people.
Darin Payne, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at UHM, agrees and expands on the notion: “The observation that we keep coming back to the same stories or types isn’t as interesting as the fact that we can never remake something exactly as it was.” He agrees that “trends (or narratives or other manifestations of pop culture) that keep resurfacing must be filling a need of some kind . . . with the caveat that it’s extraordinarily complex to understand any need being filled.”
According to Payne, Wicked (the novel by Gregory Maguire) came about in the mid-1990s, “when tenets of postmodernism had reached a kind of mass-saturation point. As a culture, we’d finally come to a point of understanding that binaries of right and wrong, good and evil and truth and lies are really dependent on perspective . . . It’s no surprise, then, that Gregory Maguire’s take on the Wicked Witch of the West would call her whole evil nature into question.” By revisiting the stories we thought we knew, we can place our current agendas in the hands of beloved characters.
In terms of Oz The Great and Powerful, Payne guesses, “It will be a further act of revisionism, one more suitable to this decade. We are now living in a moment in which those who are considered ‘the great and powerful’ among us have been unmasked as frauds, as criminals and as unethical agents . . . it’s about time we re-imagined the role of the alleged great and powerful.”
But when asked why we just can’t get enough of particular rehashed plotlines and idols rather than new, original means of illustrating these ideas, Hoffmann says the reason is much too complicated to pinpoint. “I think some of the whys are personal,” she says, “and some of the whys are societal . . . Tales form not just in the minds of filmmakers, but in society.” It depends on our current condition, however changing, both collectively and individually faced. We recycle our mythologies to explain these changes. “What we are doing,” Payne says, “is remaking the scripts that tell us who we are and who we should be.”