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The Politics of “Wicked”

January 17th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Caleb Smith

Earlier this summer, it was announced that the upcoming movie adaptation of the 2003 hit Broadway musical Wicked will be released in two parts, beginning in 2024. This is the latest news about a project long awaited, for which fans were already impatient when COVID-19 brought innumerable works to a screeching halt, or at least an ambivalent pause, two years ago.

While in our current climate my own expectations for the films are not held particularly high, I have long been a fan of Wicked and have most of the music memorized. Much of the pleasure is purely aesthetic, or specifically musical, for the obvious reason that in that respect it is truly a splendid production. But this is not to discount the story and characters, which are in fact enjoyable and well-done. The story centrally focuses on the relationship between Elphaba, eventually known as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda (formerly Galinda), who obtains the epithet “the Good.” (On that note, from here on out there will be spoilers.)

While the musical deals mostly with the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda, I have found that their “political relationship” is also a fascinating element of the story, with perhaps some valuable lessons for those of us who, though not in possession of magical powers, nonetheless are part of a polity. Much of the plot, particularly in the second act, is driven by political happenings, even if the focus never really leaves the characters and their relationships.

The first act builds up a sense of strange happenings and some political controversy over the Animals (that is, the speaking ones), concluding in the revelation that Oz’s “Wonderful Wizard” is in fact spying on his citizens, performing magical experiments on animals, removing the power of speech from talking Animals, and otherwise abusing his position to consolidate his power. At this revelation Elphaba and Glinda go their separate ways: Elphaba embraces her history of isolation and magical power to lead resistance against the corrupt regime, while Glinda, in her ambition,[1] takes up a position with the Wizard, becoming a beloved figurehead and something of a spin doctor.

A naïve reading of this moment and its relationship to the rest of the story suggests it is simple that Elphaba is wise and virtuous whereas Glinda is compromised and vain. Elphaba is willing to risk her hopes and dreams to face off against injustice, whereas Glinda will “grovel in submission to feed [her] own ambition.” Such a picture seems further confirmed by the entirety of the song “Popular,“ which makes Glinda appear a vain and foolish girl concerned only with winning favor. This certainly provides some inspiring examples and rhetoric to hard-line, anti-establishment ― perhaps even pro-revolution ― approaches to political engagement.

However, I am increasingly convinced that this is a very shallow reading of the story and the characters in multiple ways. For one, Elphaba is far from a complete moral contrast to Glinda, something suggested by their shared love of Fiero. Early on, in “The Wizard and I,” we hear Elphaba sing of her dreams for the future, and they are much less modest than merely reversing her past loneliness and ostracism. She imagines the Wizard observing her superiority to the bigoted masses, along with a celebration throughout Oz all to do with her (though this may well have been an actual, painfully ironic glimpse of a vision). The last verse goes further:

And so it will be for the rest of my life
And I’ll want nothing else ’til I die
Held in such high esteem
When people see me, they will scream
For half of Oz’s favorite team
The Wizard and I

So Elphaba exhibits, both here and later, some signs of an inflated ego. She views herself not simply as an outcast but, in a sense, as the superior outcast of whom the world is not worthy until they recognize her merits. Moreover, the wisdom of her actions is called into question by a number of their consequences. Not only does she fail to achieve much of anything in her career against the Wizard, but even the good she intends to do rarely improves anything on the whole. Her best efforts turn everyone against her, and while it is undoubtedly true that this only happens by scapegoating and propaganda, it remains ambiguous whether all she did was entirely unworthy of any blame. The question she poses to herself with an “ice-cold eye” about whether she was “really seeking good, or just seeking attention” does not actually receive a clear answer. Whether some of her deeds were truly driven by righteous defiance in the face of evil rather than the thrill of arrogant, conscience-approved zealotry with insufficient prudence is far from certain.

Glinda, by contrast, though seemingly unserious and narcissistic (especially to begin with), exhibits several signs of something more to her character. Even “Popular” hints as much with her apparently vindicated claims about popularity and public life:

When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features
I remind them on their own behalf
To think of
Celebrated heads of state or
Specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!
They were popular! Please ―
It’s all about popular!
It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me!

When Glinda speaks of popularity as “shrewd,” this may not be a throwaway line, a “black-pilled” worldview, or a justification for own vain pursuits. Rather, it is a realistic assessment of a complicated world where people are naturally ordered to worship (in the older, looser sense that may justly be applied to men) more than to study and reason in detail. Even a great, virtuous man with wise ideas and policies will ordinarily fail to effect his designs if he is not loved by the people he wishes to serve, precisely the fate which befell Elphaba.

Elphaba’s fate contrasts sharply with Glinda’s. Glinda, by remaining in her seemingly compromised position, was able to actually execute the good Elphaba sought to do. With the people’s hearts in her hands, Glinda had the effective power to finally depose the Wizard and Madame Morrible when the time came. Though she certainly erred, and was by no means free of vices, her own course set her up for a meaningful success, fulfilling even Elphaba’s goals and perhaps giving Oz a chance at a better future.

This is not to say that it would be fair to reverse the superficial moral reading of the story entirely, making Glinda the wise hero and Elphaba the tragic fool. On the contrary, “For Good” makes it clear that neither Glinda nor Elphaba was without fault or without good. Each of them had errors to apologize for, and each had to credit the other with changing her for good. Both of their virtues, and perhaps even both of their faults, were needed to finally accomplish the reformation of Oz, and without their personal friendship, nothing they accomplished together would have been possible at all.

Applications to how we think of politics in our own context probably already suggest themselves at this point, but allow me to make them explicit. The first implication which struck me when I began thinking over the plot Wicked long ago was the vindication of Glinda’s claims and methods. She turned out to be right that popularity did the heavy lifting and that without it Elphaba was doomed to fail. This might suggest the political implication that everything is and must be a simple popularity contest, that any kind of compromise might be permitted to get the work done, or that there is no need or place for idealistic revolutionaries, or even reformers.

However, as I just noted above, such an account is too simple. If Glinda brought deliverance to Oz, it was only at the moral influence and instigation of Elphaba. Glinda had real ambition, and there is no telling how much she might have compromised without Elphaba as her nagging conscience through her school years. If Glinda ever deserved to be known as Glinda the Good, surely Elphaba made her such (or at least contributed). Likewise, Elphaba was ultimately a failure if considered on her own, with only a private happy ending to show for everything she went through, but by her friendship with someone Very Very Popular her life’s work came to something.

These things are an allegory: for these are two sorts of statesmen; the one is the “compromising” establishment politician, which is of Washington, and the other is the zealous, crusading idealist, which is of, uh, somewhere else. Often, it seems our preferences for one or the other depends largely on our contexts and personal temperaments. Sometimes we elevate such preferences to the level of principle, insisting that all who enter public affairs must conform primarily to one side or the other.

However, Wicked suggests that this common move is misguided. Glinda, whatever her motives, needed to be in the Wizard’s court to accomplish the good she was finally able to do. Likewise, Elphaba, whatever justice there may have been in attributing to her delusions of grandeur, needed to take her zealous path for the same end to come to pass. The mixed up and often demented dynamics of a fallen world do not often yield straightforward fruit in one best way. Rather, the confusion of vices and virtues which lead people along different paths, even entirely different “programs,” all will need to cooperate for many goods to be possible at all.

Regardless of what is right for many individual men, then, on the whole society needs both Elphabas and Glindas. A society run entirely by people like Glinda could hardly avoid deteriorating into the most oppressive and cutthroat madhouse, with everyone of power or wealth stepping on each other and using whatever they have in the name of ambition. A society run entirely by Elphabas, however, would be impossible to sustain. Moral zealotry is self-intensifying and easily becomes blind to reality, and without continual pushback from “practical” people, it may at last consume everything, even itself, in a totalitarian campaign of purification. If a society is to remain functional at any level, it will need both kinds of people working together or, barring that, frustrating each other, so that out of the two sets of virtues and vices, the possibility remains for the good on each side to contribute something to better whole while the worst of each side mitigates the other.

Realizing this gives each side reason for pause before judging the other too harshly. If we recognize that we need each other, and that whatever side we incline to has its own characteristic weaknesses and errors, we may humble ourselves. Out of such humility, we may find it easier to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. Those in the Wizard’s court may learn not to begrudge those who seek greater and swifter reforms, knowing their zeal is fuel without which perhaps no change will come even slowly. Those campaigning for a new order on their broomsticks may learn to appreciate the slow and complicated labor of those seeking to make changes happen by the existing means piece by piece. Elijah and Obadiah may learn that they need each other.

“Each other” is perhaps the key term here, for it is not simply the common existence of Elphaba and Glinda which liberated Oz. If they had remained enemies all their lives, no good would have come of it. Their separate projects may well each have burned out and been forgotten. What gave their opposite labors potency in tandem was precisely their friendship. Glinda proposes that Elphaba was brought into her life because she would help her most to grow, and Elphaba likewise admits that so much of her came from what she learned from Glinda. The communion of soul, that sharing of heart and mind, which constitutes friendship was the essential ingredient for whatever good either of them made for themselves. We may find that in our own context, faced by all manner of disagreement and confusion about the way forward, with different options such as that of Benedict, Boniface, Bombadil, and still others, what will truly empower us to move forward will be friendships knitting together the particular persons in each camp, that we might accomplish together, even while playing separate and contradictory roles, something more than any of us might ever manage if we all followed the same playbook. Perhaps friendship will save the world.

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  1. Perhaps.