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					Witness to the Persecution A Model of Conversion From the Musical, Wicked
Presented by Suzanne Ross COV&R Conference, Riverside, CA June 20, 2008

Our mission at the Raven Foundation is to communicate mimetic theory to general audiences using the language and images of popular culture because we believe that to be effective, we need to enter into the conversations people are already having. Rather than insist upon conducting the dialogue about mimetic theory on our terms, we search for places in the popular culture where the dialogue is already taking place and slip into it with as little fuss as possible. Often we find that our contribution involves making a new connection or bringing a latent insight into consciousness. In the case of the hit musical comedy, Wicked1, we have found a forum for dialogue about mimetic theory that also serves as a vehicle for experiencing its transformative effect. Mimetic theory has the tendency to convert its adherents. What I’d like to present to you today is a few examples of how the musical Wicked accurately answers the question, conversion “from what to what”, and also provides a model of conversion perfectly in tune with mimetic theory, pun intended. I’ll conclude by suggesting that the vehicle of musical comedy is a perfect vehicle for moving us from a discussion about conversion to an experience of it. Let’s begin with a summary of what is meant by conversion in mimetic theory. The theory clearly defines the condition that necessitates conversion as the practice of scapegoating violence within the sacrificial system. The functioning of the system is dependent upon the truth of the innocence of sacrificial victims being concealed by myth. The key therefore to untangling involvement with the system is in the revelation of that truth. As Prof. Girard has pointed out convincingly and repeatedly, once the victim’s innocence is revealed the persecutors’ scapegoating zeal evaporates and they emerge as if from a trance to recall incredulously the wickedness they were capable of while under the sacrificial spell.

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Wicked. Prod. Marc Platt. Musical. Universal Pictures, the Araca Group, Jon B. Platt, and David Stone, 2003. 1

Conversion then has a decidedly intellectual quality to it for it is a process of acquiring knowledge of a particular type. Professor Girard describes conversion as “a form of intelligence, of understanding.” (EC p. 45) and indeed, the discovery of the truth of the victim’s innocence has the power to effect a profound conversion. Yet the discovery process is a slow and painful one. Why? Because as Girard put it in Evolution and Conversion, “The discovery of [the victim’s] innocence is unwelcome because it coincides inevitably with the discovery of our guilt.” Few actively seek the reversal of one’s self-identity from innocent to guilty, from victim to persecutor. In fact, most actively resist this knowledge by retreating behind their conviction in their own goodness. We can define conversion in mimetic theory then as the “discovery that we are persecutors without knowing it”2. Persecutors within the sacrificial system identify themselves as agents of righteousness, as the good, the just, the upright citizens who are playing by the rules. The persecutors are good people, at least in their own estimation, and so do not perceive a need for conversion. The title of my book about the musical, Wicked, reflects this paradox: “The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things”. The particular problem offered by mimetic theory’s insight into conversion, is that it is good people who needed to be converted from our practice of being good as it is defined within the sacrificial system. Such conversion requires a redefinition of goodness itself and contains an inseparable element of resistance to the entire process. Let’s move to the model of conversion offered in, Wicked. As I discuss the show, I will give you highlights of the lyrics and key plot points and hope that for a fuller discussion you’ll turn to my book. The writing team of Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Winnie Holzman, who wrote the “book” or dialogue, tackled the redefinition of goodness directly. First, the two main characters are the witches from the story by L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” -- Glinda, the good witch, and Elphaba, the

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René Girard, Evolution and Conversion (London: Continuum International Publishing, 2007) 45.

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wicked witch. It is Elphaba who, in the popular movie version of this story, is killed by a bucket of water thrown by Dorothy, the good little girl from Kansas. In the same movie, Glinda is the Good Witch of the North who befriends Dorothy and protects her from the most wicked of the witch’s deeds. The musical gives us the back-story to these events filling in how Elphaba became utterly wicked and how Glinda became the paragon of goodness. As the show unfolds, each undergoes a profound conversion process that results in reversals of who and what they thought were good and evil when the show began. For our discussion today, I will focus primarily on Glinda, for she is the show’s narrator and most mimetic of the characters. The curtain rises not on the beginning of this back story, but on the endgame of Elphaba’s death with the Ozian mob fresh from the scene of her liquidation to sing the first words of the show: “Good News! She’s Dead!”, a wonderfully mythic lyric. The musical will reveal this celebration to be a sacrificial one and the process beings within minutes with Glinda’s arrival. She is now the ruler of Oz and she interrupts the celebration to quiet and reassure the crowd that the threat is over, the witch is truly dead. Someone in the crowd calls out, “Glinda, how does wickedness happen?” and Glinda rephrases it into the question that launches the musical: “Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” This is an excellent question, but one that is rarely asked within the sacrificial system. But Glinda not only dares to ask it, she also offers the truthful, myth-busting answer, risking becoming the mob’s next target because she is speaking from the other side of conversion. Elphaba, the wickedest witch in all the land, had once been her instant enemy and Glinda her willing tormentor, but she is now a converted persecutor who can bear witness to the facts of the persecution. Glinda’s journey to acquire that knowledge is what the show is all about. To emphasize how truly profound this structure is, I’d like to remind you of a comment from Deceit, Desire and the Novel about the structure of novels that diagnose mimetic desire:

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“… the conclusion is always a memory. It is the eruption of memory which is more true than the perception itself… Every novelistic conclusion is a beginning.”3 With Wicked, the curtain rises on the conclusion and after two acts of pitfalls and dangers, silly pranks and willful murder, the curtain falls with these hopeful words from Glinda: “Fellow Ozians, friends, we have been through a frightening time. And there will be other times and other things that frighten us. But if you let me, I’d like to try to help. I’d like to try to be… Glinda the Good.” This ending contains the hope of a new beginning for Glinda and all of Oz. Here’s a glimpse of how the plot unfolds. Glinda’s flashback begins with Elphaba’s birth and quickly leaps ahead to the first day at Shiz University where she and Elphaba meet. She was known as Galinda then and she is the most popular girl at school, always surrounded by a cloying clique that giggles and fawns over her with matinee idol devotion. She is blond, pretty, stylish, and from a wealthy and aristocratic family. She herself has ambitions to become a sorceress, which is why she is at the university. Elphaba is presented as Galinda’s opposite: she is dressed in unfashionable black, her hair is coarse and her manners clumsy. Worst of all, she is green-skinned which makes her different from all the other citizens of Oz and an outcast from their society. She is not even at the university as a student herself, but as a companion to her sister Nessarose, who is confined to a wheelchair because of a birth defect that left her unable to walk. Elphaba’s only ambition is to be recognized for who she truly is, but she is a ready made scapegoat for Galinda who deftly uses the unfortunate green girl’s arrival on the scene to cement the solidarity of the clique that has formed around her. According to mimetic theory, popular and ambitious Galinda is the perfect candidate for conversion. Professor Girard points out this possibility:

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René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965) 297.

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“We could say that if one is hyper-mimetic, one is in a better position to understand oneself as a puppet of mimetic desire, simply because the caricature one has become makes it easier to understand the systematically self-defeating nature of one’s own behavior.”4 Galinda is indeed presented to us as a caricature of mimetic desire and her hypermimeticism can be described as a relentless drive to personify goodness. As the politicians love to say, Galinda is playing by the rules and expects to be rewarded. What rewards is she hoping for? The ones promised by the myth of the good girl: that she’ll be popular, happy, and marry a prince. We will see how this pursuit leads to disappointment and makes room for conversion, but in a further diagnosis of her need for conversion, Schwartz and Holzman treat us to a stark display of mimetic rivalry. Galinda and Elphaba hate each other at first sight, and the hate is intensified by the revelation of shared ambition. Galinda has openly expressed her desire to be in the prestigious sorcery seminar but it is Elphaba who is granted admission and Galinda who is denied, much to the surprise of both girls. Once accepted, Elphaba discovers that it was something she had wanted all along and when comic confusion brings the girls together as roommates, their rivalry erupts into an open declaration of war. As if they are falling into romantic love, the girls sing a duet about falling suddenly into loathing with an energetic glee that gives meaning to their lives. It came on fast, they observe, but with any luck it will last their “whole life long”. From her vantage point atop the social pyramid, Galinda is keenly aware of how the sacrificial system works and she sings about it in her song, Popular, which may be the most popular song in the musical among pre-teen and teenage girls for they recognize themselves in Galinda’s litany of how to be the most popular girl in school. If one listens closely to the lyrics, one can detect an implicit self-critique. Trying to help Elphaba improve her image, Galinda sings:

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Girard, Evolution and Conversion 88.

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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!5 Galinda says that being popular is not about aptitude and has nothing to do with brains or knowledge. It’s simply about how you are viewed. The discerning listener must wonder if Galinda sees through her own popularity as clearly as she does that of others. Does she wonder if she’s brainless and empty inside? If the praise and adoration of others is so easy to manipulate, why does she covet it? Perhaps the rewards of being good are not worth so much effort, but her doubts will remain unvoiced until later in the show. For its next move, the musical will now make explicit what was hinted at in these opening scenes by unambiguously naming the sacrificial mechanism. We are introduced to a professor at Shiz who is a talking goat who gives his students a lecture on scapegoating. As if that isn’t obvious enough, the Wizard offers us his version of the sacrificial mechanism later in the show: “Everyone knows the surest way to bring people together is to give them an enemy.” What Schwartz and Holzman are doing is

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Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Winnie Holzman.

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connecting mimetic desire with conflict and the all too inevitable scapegoating solution and amid the comedy routines, songs, dance numbers, and startling special effects, they are offering their audiences the language to talk about it. Indeed, the image of a talking goat fairly hits us over the head with their point, but the intense resistance that good people within the sacrificial mechanism have to acquiring the truth of their role as persecutors seems to require such directness. Nothing less than straight talk will do in such circumstances, but straight talk runs the risk of sounding like accusation. Indeed, most people react to the concept of scapegoating by accusing others of doing it, while denying their own participation. How can one be coaxed into a place of receptivity rather than denial? With the arc of Glinda’s character, Wicked provides one answer. By portraying Glinda as spunky, funny and courageous, the show invites the audience to love and admire her. As they identify with Galinda’s hyper-mimetic pursuit of popularity, power, and her love interest, the Winkie prince, audiences see themselves in her, laugh and cry with her, and also find themselves cringing at her worst excesses. They expect more of her, as they expect more of themselves, yet they can no more condemn her than condemn themselves. As audiences live vicariously through Galinda, Schwartz and Holzman lure them into identification with her not to reinforce their sense of themselves as good, but to challenge this most beloved self-deception. At the opening of Act 2, Galinda has changed her name to Glinda in a vainglorious attempt to show solidarity with her professor, the talking goat. We find her at a party to celebrate her engagement to a handsome and wealthy prince. She has played by the rules of the sacrificial system and has acquired every possible outward signifier of popularity that she knows of: she is engaged to royalty, she is a powerful sorceress and she holds a top position in the Wizard’s government. Yet all of this comes at a cost. Glinda has willingly sacrificed her friendship with Elphaba in order to achieve these things she believed were her heart’s desire. But Glinda isn’t happy. That in itself is not unusual. Unhappiness is the all too common result of the pursuit of things. What is unusual yet predicted by mimetic theory is that Glinda, by virtue of her hypermimeticism, finds herself admitting to her unhappiness. She pauses at the pinnacle of achievement in the middle of what should be the celebration of her life to wonder what was lost and which bridges were crossed to make her dreams come true. But beyond her
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Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel 296. Italics in the original.

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entanglement with mimetic desire, Glinda has spent time with her scapegoat, she has attended classes with Elphaba, gone to parties with her, and been forced to share her dormitory room with her. Glinda has been forced to get to know the person behind the green skin, the wounded heart behind the unpopular facade, and this has changed her. In Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Prof. Girard pointed out that “The title hero of a novel must be reserved for the character who triumphs over metaphysical desire in a tragic conclusion and thus becomes capable of writing the novel.”6 By that definition, Glinda is indeed heroic, for she has willingly endured the suffering entailed in facing her own unhappiness and in admitting her own complicity in the suffering of others. Galinda the persecutor has been converted to Glinda, the witness to the persecution. So Wicked has identified three things that create the possibility for conversion: the first is hypermimeticism, the deep commitment to being good and with playing by the rules of the sacrificial system; second the courage to admit to rather than deny the feeling of bankruptcy that results; and third, time spent with the one against whom you have formed your sense of your own goodness, time spent with your scapegoat. Glinda can no longer scapegoat Elphaba. The closing scene returns us to the opening, with Glinda facing the angry mob, but now her story has been told. Has the Ozian mob been converted by Glinda’s retelling of the story of the wicked witch? Do they regret their rush to judgment, their jubilation at Elphaba’s murder? In that opening song, when the mob is celebrating the Good News that the witch is dead, they sing “No one mourns the wicked/ No one cries: “They won’t return!”/ No one lays a lily on their grave.” Of course, that is the value system of myths. Heroes do not mourn the demise of their enemies. But Glinda is a different kind of heroine. She dares to reveal Elphaba’s innocence to the resistant mob and encourages them to engage in mourning the loss of the green girl who only wanted to be loved and accepted. Whether or not the mob has been converted from celebration to grief is an open question at the end of the show. What is not in doubt, however, is that the audience is mourning with Glinda. Audience members of Wicked are most likely fans of the old time movie when they were eager celebrators of the witch’s death. I am one of them! I rejoiced when the good girl from Kansas, a girl just

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Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel 296. Italics in the original.

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like me, defeated evil and was granted her wish to go home. It never occurred to me to doubt the hard reality of a formula that promised that the fulfillment of my heart’s desires ran through someone’s death. In the movie, the witch was wicked and deserved to die. But in the musical, the witch’s innocence is undeniable and the truth of my role as vicarious persecutor is undeniable as well. This musical comedy created a receptive space for met to accept the truth about myself that I had resisted knowing for so many years. What made this kind of revelation possible is due in part to the nature of musical comedy itself. In discussing Oedipus and the function of Greek tragedy, Prof. Girard wrote; “Once upon a time a temple and an altar on which the victim was sacrificed were substituted for the original act of collective violence; now there is an amphitheater and a stage on which the fate of the katharma, played out by the actor, will purge the spectators of their passions and provoke a new katharsis, both individual and collective. This katharsis will restore the health and well-being of the community.”7 If Greek tragedy is the handmaiden of sacrifice, musical comedy may be the vehicle for its undoing. According to Winthrop Frye’s theory of archetypes of literature, comedy’s guiding premise is that conflict has its roots in confusion and misunderstanding which describes well the frenetic search for a victim who is both cause and cure of a mimetic crisis. Comedy’s inevitable happy endings are predicated on the belief that peace is achieved not through a dose of chaos-ending violence but through enlightenment, through the aa-haa moment when the characters realize that their rivalries and conflicts were the result not of willful evil on the part of their rivals but on misunderstanding. As with conversion, the happy ending depends on making explicit facts that have been obscured. By employing the form of musical comedy, Wicked is able to slowly dissolve the resistance of the learners to seeing themselves as persecutors. Music breaks down defenses and softens the heart. Exhilarating dance numbers with a large, energetic

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René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972) 290. 9

chorus focus our attention so that we cannot turn away. Comic situations engage our empathy and our laughter at the ridiculous extremes of mimetic rivalries before revealing how the ridiculous can lead to catastrophe. Comedy’s heroes are not the victorious good triumphing in battle against evil. Wicked ends with Elphaba withdrawing from her head to head combat with the Wizard and entering a self-imposed exile from Oz, to which she can never return. While Glinda is now taking over the reigns of government, she has redefined for herself and for the audience what it means to be good. Rather than celebrate the death of the witch, she has dared to lead the mob away from their self-righteousness toward regret and grief. And she has admitted that she owes much of who she is to her friendship with the wickedest witch in all of Oz. Just before the final action unfolds, Elphaba and Glinda sing a farewell song to each other that sounds again like a love duet, but this time any trace of mimetic rivalry has vanished. They sing openly of the way they have been influenced by one another, saying that though they may never see each other again, they will always be with each other, like a handprint on their hearts. I have attended this show seven times, and each time this song is performed there are tears and audible sniffles throughout the theater. This is not the satisfying conclusion of a sacrifice that ends with a unified crowd at the expense of a victim. It is the bittersweet conclusion of the conversion process that recognizes the gravity of moral failings and the promise of a new way of being in community. When the audience rises to its feet to thunder their approval, it is to convey their love to the performers for guiding them on a journey of conversion. Attending musical theater is not an intellectual exercise. Seeing Wicked is not like listening to a lecture about the elements of conversion. Musical theater, in particular the musical theater that is Wicked, is an experience of conversion. While theater has roots in the sacrificial, it is also part of the tradition of revealing the truth behind myths and when done as insightfully as this show, it may offer its audiences a taste of what it might be like to live not with the exhilaration of scapegoating but with the joy of peace.

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