What is it about The Wizard of Oz that makes it so popular now? There was the new production at the Festival Hall last year. Now there is the success of Wicked. Well, I have a suggestion. It is to do with economic collapse.
The idea that Frank Baum actually wove his tale around the monetary battles of the 1890s only emerged in 1963, but I’m sure it is right. Although Oz stands easily on its own as a tale, it was also a subtle tract urging more money in circulation on behalf of the agricultural workers (the Scarecrow) and the industrial workers (the Tin Man).
Baum was involved in the battle between the supporters of gold standard money – authoritative and scarce – and silver money (much more plentiful). So Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road wearing the Witch of the East's magic Silver Shoes (they were red in the Judy Garland film) – shoes that neither she, nor the Witch of the North, nor the Munchkins understand the power of.
The poor deluded residents of Oz are required to wear green-tinted glasses fastened by gold buckles. They see the world through the colour of money. Oz, of course, was the well-known measure of gold – the abbreviation for ounces – and the Wonderful Wizard, the personification of the gold standard, was finally revealed as a fraud.
This is how Baum saw the wizard-bankers who defended the gold standard: “Toto jumped away ... in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.”
All of which is a way of saying that The Wizard of Oz is about economic crisis, and about the hope of a different way. The 1939 film certainly implies that, but the original tale is also about the pomposity and delusions of bankers.
So, there I was in upstate New York a week before my eldest son was born, giving a talk about the future of money and referring liberally to the Wizard of Oz. Afterwards, an American publisher took me aside and suggested I write an updated version, still a mythic story in its own right, about also about money – a Wizard of Oz for the age of derivatives trading and Goldman Sachs.
Well, five years on, I have done. It’s on sale now, published through The Real Press. It includes a short essay about the meaning of the original Oz, my speech at the launch of the Brixton Pound last year, and some wonderful illustrations by Karin Dahlbacka, which are worth all the rest put together! Take a look at it: