The Wizard of Oz is currently showing at Quintessence Theatre, 7058 Germantown Ave. It was extended through Jan. 5. For tickets, visit quintessencetheatre.org
The character of the wonderful Wizard of Oz was introduced into American popular culture in 1900 in a children’s book written by L. Frank Baum. That wizard, Dorothy and the gaggle of other characters have romped through numerous published sequels, foreign languages, stage adaptations (most notably “Wicked,” running today as the second-highest grossing musical in history) and screen versions, including, of course, the beloved 1939 film.
Baum’s characters emerge from a specific and complicated time in American history. The current production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Quintessence Theater in Mt. Airy inspires an investigation of the political and historical references behind the story.
Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919) grew up comfortably in upstate New York. A dreamy child, he dabbled as a young man in writing, acting and sales, but without much success. In 1886, he and his young wife moved west to the town of Aberdeen in what would soon become South Dakota. After an unsuccessful business venture, he settled into journalism and observed the Northern Plains during a period of tremendous change.
Still smarting from the upheaval of the Civil War, the country was experiencing tremendous change, with rapid industrialization, growth of cities, economic fluctuations and a more powerful centralized federal government.
The waves of immigrants arriving at American shores were either pulled into the booming industrial cities of the East and Midwest or joined native-born people who were migrating westward to the fertile lands of the vast Mississippi river valley. The Homestead Acts after the War encouraged settlers to venture even further into the dryer central and northern Plains, including the Dakota Territory.
After the War, the focus of our army shifted to supporting that westward expansion and controlling the newly settled areas. That movement pushed relentlessly against the treaty boundaries that had been periodically forced upon Native Americans, leading to regular and bloody confrontations.
Settlers found in that region a land that presented tremendous opportunities, but also huge challenges: tornadoes, droughts, floods, insects, searing heat and bitterly cold winters. Harvests varied and crop failures were frequent. Farmers routinely borrowed to buy more land and new equipment, and were thus burdened by debt.
Throughout the post-Civil War period, the number of farmers in the U.S. continually increased, as did the number of acres farmed. With greater efficiencies of scale and improving farming equipment, those farmers’ combined efforts lifted annual U.S. agricultural production, sending record amounts of U.S.-grown wheat and beef to markets on the east coast and abroad. That production, however, inevitably resulted in downward pressure on grain prices toward the end of the century, increasing the strain on farmers.
All these movements came together in the 1890s in a tornado of bad news and political unrest.
The hard-scrabble white Southerners joined with Midwest farmers into a powerful voting block in the Democratic Party. Joined by the mining regions of the West, they supported a more expansive and inflationary monetary policy, including adding silver to the national currency. They opposed the east coast banking and industrial establishment, which favored the tighter monetary control of the gold standard. These bitter disagreements revolved around the two precious metals, which symbolized clashing world views. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan pounded that home in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech of 1896.
In 1893, the U.S. experienced one of its periodic financial panics, which lead to a significant economic depression through 1897. Banks and railroads collapsed, unemployment soared and prices for agricultural commodities dropped. This led to further political unrest, encouraging populism and distrust of both the
eastern business elite and Washington, D.C.
By that time, Baum had moved with his family to Chicago and gradually found success writing children’s books. But he took with him powerful memories of his times in the Dakota Territory, and incorporated those into his writing.
Baum’s book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” has been seen as both a charming children’s book and an allegory of that period of economic change and anxiety.
Dorothy is the “everyman” central character who is displaced from her home just as so many people were moving into and around the U.S. She must both learn to rely on her own wits and join with others to return to safety. Each character she meets is struggling. The Scarecrow represents the beleaguered farmers, who have little faith in their own abilities. The Tin Man represents the industrial worker, who requires oil to keep running. The Cowardly Lion represents William Jennings Bryan himself, who spoke boldly but rarely succeeded. They learn that the seemingly almighty Wizard is as blustering and ineffectual as the presidents of the United States.
The Emerald City represents Washington, D.C., and its green color represents greenbacks, or paper money. “Oz” is the abbreviation for the word ounce, which is how gold and silver are measured. The Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard that is supported by the eastern establishment. Dorothy’s shoes in the book were made of silver (changed to ruby in the film).
The Wicked Witch of the West represents the unpredictable forces of nature faced by the Midwest farmers. She is killed when Dorothy throws water on her, perhaps representing the irrigation systems that aided the farmers in their efforts to tame the drought? The Wicked Witch of the East represents the eastern elite. The flying monkeys represent Native Americans, who were seen by the farmers as pesky and dangerous but were gradually being defeated. And Gilda the Good Witch represents the power of hope, despite adversity.
Since the book was published, there have been many interpretations of this story and its characters. Some writers have also focused more on specific places or people in Baum’s life as inspiration. Others have referenced “Alice in Wonderland,” with its exaggerated characters, or Washington Irving’s earlier folk tales of the Hudson River Valley.
Baum’s genius was to use his life experiences to create a uniquely American fairy tale that is both specific to an anxious time and place, but also universal. The world presents challenges and we must work together to find safety. A simple lesson from L. Frank Baum that is tremendously important in our own time.
George McNeely was, until recently, on the board of Quintessence Theater.