'Wicked' History

‘Wicked’ history: Historian traces musical’s theme to Central New York Suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage

Article by Sue Boland, Matilda Joslyn Gage Center.
Published in The Post-Standard, Syracuse, N.Y., February 2, 2010.

Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it “history.”

So says the Wizard in the musical “Wicked,” based on Gregory Maguire’s novel about the witches of Oz. Maguire created Elphaba’s name from the initials of L. Frank Baum, author of  “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The history of Baum’s connections to Syracuse is certainly true, if not well known. Many people don’t realize that the inspiration for the witches of Oz came from Baum’s mother-in-law, feminist leader and author Matilda Joslyn Gage.

From 1861 to 1888, Frank Baum lived and worked in several locations in the Syracuse area. In 1882, he married Maud Gage, and they soon had two sons. During the summer, they would visit Maud’s mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, at her home in Fayetteville. After Gage’s husband Henry died in 1884, she spent winters with Frank and Maud.

Gage Center Executive Director and historian Sally Roesch Wagner has traced the influence of Matilda Joslyn Gage on Frank Baum. “Gage was, in many ways, the intellectual mentor of her son-in-law,” Wagner says. “While the family read and discussed spiritual, philosophical and cultural information and ideas, Frank was storing up images and issues that would later inform his writing.”

While the three lived in Fayetteville and Syracuse, Gage was working on her book, “Woman, Church and State.”

Baum learned from Gage about the dual morality of witches, symbolized in “Wicked” by the beautiful Glinda the good witch and the wickedly green Elphaba. When Dorothy first meets Glinda in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, she is frightened and exclaims, “But I thought all witches were wicked.” Glinda explains, “Oh, no; that is a great mistake.”

In her chapter on witchcraft in “Woman, Church and State,” Gage asserts that a witch could be good. This was a radical idea in the 19th century. Gage traced the horrific history of centuries of torture and witch burnings that stemmed from a widespread religious belief in “the extreme wickedness of woman” who would sell her soul to the devil in exchange for the knowledge of witchcraft.

Gage’s feminist genius was to flip this history on its head and declare that a witch was not evil but “a woman of superior knowledge.”

When Baum created Glinda, a good witch, he was challenging his readers to consider where her goodness came from. As Baum’s biographer, Michael Patrick Hearn, notes in “The Annotated Wizard of Oz,” Baum did not believe in Satan or the devil. Glinda’s power came from within herself, just as the Scarecrow’s brains, the Tin Woodman’s heart and Lion’s courage were attributes they already possessed.

Maguire writes on his Web site, www.gregorymaguire.com, that he chose to write the story of the Wicked Witch of the West because she “challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.”

The authors of the musical “Wicked,” Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz, pick up on this theme. As the Munchkins celebrate Elphaba’s death, Glinda asks, “Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”

Elphaba appears to be wicked because she has taken a stand to help the animals and exposes the wizard’s lies. Likewise, Gage and the other suffragists were called “heretics” and “infidels” for wanting equal rights. Near the end of her life, Gage wrote that all she really wanted was freedom – freedom to think for herself.

As Elphaba realizes her power to defy the laws of nature, she sings: “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game?. . . And if I’m flying solo? At least I’m flying free!”

Matilda Joslyn Gage Footer