Monday 15 February 2016

Wizard of Oz: Displacement & Identity 1899/2016

“Wonderment & joy are maintained and the heartaches & nightmares are left out”

 – this is how writer L Frank Baum compared his fairy tale to those of earlier authors such as the brothers Grimm and Andersen.

 Baum´s own account of his intentions in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899 is clear so we should not try to read too much into his fairy story. Even so, as I start to rehearse the RSC version of The Wizard of Oz with my students there are themes which have a curiously topical and serious resonance.

Firstly, because I am teaching at an international school in The Netherlands where there are students from nearly 90 nations. Secondly, because we are living at a time when millions of persons, among them innumerable children, are living in a foreign land, far from their roots. I should say that these notes are my personal thoughts and are not meant to represent the school in any way.

The US government has posted a version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on line with the lovely illustrations by W W Denslow  

On page 44 Mr Baum puts these words in the mouth of his characters,

“No matter how dreary or grey our homes are, people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home.”

What is home for our students?
 Many of them have lived in several countries already in their short lives. 
Many of them have parents from two different countries and they have never lived long in either of those countries. 
For all of them English is the language they use to study and to communicate with their school friends, while for many of them it is not the language of their country of origin.

What is home for my colleagues? For some it is where they have elderly parents or siblings; for others it is where they have a property for which they are paying a mortgage; for others it is the place where special possessions have been left in safe keeping: a pet, a pony, a piano.

“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners …”.

This is not a quote from L Frank Baum in 1900 nor from a United Nations  worker attending the needs of Syrian refugees in 2016. 

Robert Cushman was a pilgrim who fled persecution in England in 1622 and was exiled in Leiden here in The Netherlands, a short train ride from my school.  During their exile, more than 30 family members died and were buried at the Pieterskerk, as shown on the plaque in the photo.

Exclusion can be suffered in many ways, whether its origin is in cultural difference or religion, race or gender.
I cannot help quoting a lovely line from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, delivered by the Scarecrow on page 38,
 “I am stuffed so I have no brains at all”. 

In these days of our so-called  knowledge  economy, far too many young people who have been labelled as stupid by our education system are experiencing this sentence the other way around, ie

 I have no brains at all, so I am stuffed.

I hope we will stay true to Mr Baum´s intentions as we work with our students on his wonderful story full of great and important themes such as friendship, courage and the imagination. I trust that our production at the end of June will avoid the nightmares and the heartaches and that our students and their audience will experience wonderment and joy. 

At least during two hours each evening for 3 days we will all know where home is: it will be what is conjured up in our hearts and minds by the wonder of Mr Baum´s imagination in the dark rows of theatre seats, each seat filled by a person with their own experience of displacement and identity in 2016.