The musical Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (the character from The Wizard of Oz) … from her perspective. In the show, we learn that Elphaba (that’s the Wicked Witch’s name) isn’t so “wicked” after all. She was born green and so everyone in Oz treated her poorly and picked on her. She was born with the gift of magic, but her talents scared the citizens of Oz so they treated her like a villain and she became an outcast. The “fact” or “truth” is not that Elphaba simply is wicked; instead the way people talked about her and treated her made her seem wicked. The story is an excellent example of a “rhetorical view” of communication.
In the musical, the “wonderful wizard of oz” sings a song to Elphaba about how he came to be “wonderful.” His attitude in the song demonstrates nicely the “rhetorical view of communication.”
“Wonderful” from the musical Wicked
I never asked for this or planned it in advance
I was merely blown here by the winds of chance
I never saw myself as a Solomon or Socrates
I knew who I was:
One of your dime a dozen mediocrities
Then suddenly I’m here
Respected – worshipped, even
Just because the folks in Oz
Needed someone to believe in
They called me “Wonderful”
So I said “Wonderful” – if you insist
I will be “Wonderful”
And they said “Wonderful”
Believe me, it’s hard to resist
‘Cause it feels wonderful
They think I’m wonderful
Hey, look who’s wonderful –
This corn-fed hick
Who said: “It might be keen
To build a town of green
And a wonderful road of yellow brick!”
(spoken) See – I never had a family of my own. So, I
guess I just – wanted to give the citizens of Oz everything.
Notice how the wizard realizes that communication made him wonderful. (They called him wonderful so he is wonderful.) Before he got to Oz, his role, his primary performance was being a “mediocre,” “corn-fed hick.” But the people of Oz needed a leader and they believed it was him, so suddenly he became wonderful through the magic of communication. Lanham said that from a rhetorical perspective reality is what we make, what we accept as reality. It’s not something that just exists for us to discover. The wizard gets that. That doesn’t necessarily make him a fraud or a liar, but because he has a “rhetorical view” on life and communication and identity he understands that the “reality” of his wonderfulness is constructed, not natural.
ELPHABA: (spoken) So you lied to them.
WIZARD: (spoken) Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren’t true. We call it – “history.”
Elphaba sounds a little like Plato. As if the wizard is deceiving, manipulating, and lying–or using rhetoric to muddy up the truth. But just like Lanham’s “rhetorical view” of communication, the wizard understands that most of what we believe is an “illusion” of sorts. Everything is equally rhetorical. That dosn’t mean it’s not “real” or that everything is an evil “lie.” But it is a different way to think about reality.
(sung) A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist
This part captures the “rhetorical view” perfectly. The wizard shows us why words invent ideas and knowledge instead of simply transmit them. Depending on perspective or culture or history, etc. we can easily come up with multiple “truths” about the world. Communication allows us to alter and shape reality, knowledge and truth.
They call me “Wonderful” so I am wonderful
In fact – it’s so much who I am it’s part of my name
And with my help, you can be the same
His final message to Elphaba is simple. Communication helped invent the reality that he was “wonderful” … and she can have the same thing. Unfortunately for her, the way people talked about her and the ways she performed created a different reality–she became “wicked” instead of “wonderful.”
Here’s the music if you’d like to listen along…