You might remember a couple of years ago I wrote about Ministers of Grace the debut play by Shakespeare parody playwright Jordan Monsell, which gives a Shakespearean twist to Ghostbusters (more about that here), but now, he’s back with Shakespeare’s Oz a Shakespearean take on, you’ve guessed it, The Wizard of Oz. More accurately, really, it’s a melange of The Tempest and the Wizard of Oz with both plot lines vying for attention and converging in Oz. As the prologue, a rewriting of Henry V wonders, can the stage hold ‘the vasty fields of Oz’ as our thoughts are called to ‘deck our lass’ Dorothy ‘jumping o’er times’.
But it is clear Monsell knows his Shakespeare as evident in his fluid integration of lines and ideas which are appropriated and adapted for his own Baumspearian purposes. Shakespeare’s Oz is not just an early modern English language take on Oz but nods to Shakespeare plays are littered throughout the text, thus when the Professor is trying to deduce where Dorothy has come from, he neatly summarises the opening scene setting scenes of Hamlet: ‘your… uncle did murder thy father and has taken your mother as wife?’ almost as though the professor himself is so imbued in Shakespeare he can think of no other logical reason as to why Dorothy might have fled from home, before his accurate prophetic reading kicks in. And on the fortune telling crystal we are greeted with snippets of Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra and echoes of The Tempest, and the first occasion I can recall ‘undiscovered country’ used to mean an accessible before death location. Inexplicably Dorothy announces that they are ‘not in Sussex’ anymore, though the reason for Sussex being selected as the origin is never fully made clear. The play text is interspersed with witchy woodcuts from early modern sources furthering an early modern aesthetic in a sort of tea-bag painting to make a text look older than it is fashion, as well as illustrations by the playwright himself, suggesting this is a text to be enjoyed for its textuality as well as its dramatic potential, it also recreates the sense of whimsy and the pictorial importance to story in the illustrations of children’s books.
Beyond wondering how this play would work on stage, what I found most interesting were the way that in true appropriation fashion, Shakespeare’s Oz showed that giving Ozian characters Shakespearean lines provided fascinating insights into characters from both realms by virtue of the implicit parallels they draw. This is downplayed by Monsell who focuses rather on their humour he hopes they will elicit:
‘it is my hope that if you are holding this book that the words within have renewed your interest in these authors, and that a Caliban quoting Cowardly Lion made you smile and forget about your troubles if only for a brief moment’
(With the final few words loaded with meaning during the present Covid-19 pandemic). And yes, this play does provide the escapism Monsell hopes for, but it does more than this too. The characters who, subplot like, comment upon and converge with the struggles of the heroine, demonstrate something of this. Thus, the scarecrow when he is lacking in brain quotes Richard II when he speaks of telling sad stories, highlighting the woeful ignorance of one and, through a slightly more sympathetic reading, the poignancy of Richard in Richard II abandoned unable even to protect his own field even as he journeys abroad to other lands. The tin man reconfigures Jacques’ ‘sans heart, sans everything’ speech when he tells of his dismemberment at the hands of a Sycorax-meets-Macbeth’s-witches wicked witch, adding a further layer of poignancy to the final age of man in the lack of care it is associated with in his tale. But perhaps the most sustained reveal more about the Ozian characters and particularly The Tempest’s Prospero. The alignment of Nikko with Ariel, and by implication Prospero with the Witch, provides an interesting reading of the moral nature of Prospero in his use of magic and in his manipulation, control, and desire to seek revenge. The tyranny of the Witch and her mistreatment of others is especially revealed when she quotes Prospero, recalling his treatment of Caliban in The Tempest through magical threat and punishment as well as Ariel’s entrapment by Sycorax, and this tyranny or at the very least inadequacy is revealed too in the Wizard as the lion with painful recollection recalls, of the wizard, ‘I loved thee’ before he was damaged by the Wizard’s hunger for power. Certainly, these parallels challenge us to consider the driving forces of characters both in The Tempest and Oz and their moral conduct. The parallels follow through to Nikko too who takes from Ariel’s lines as he too yearns for freedom from magic wielded by witch or wizard’s arms as he declares ‘merrily shall I live now’. Freedom in both The Tempest and Oz though is of course conditional. While Prospero does not melt into thin air at least not before the play’s end, the Witch does, as tyranny is punished, and forgiveness is not posited. Throughout Shakespeare’s Oz through parallel, reference and direct quotation Monsell engages playfully with his two sources. And ultimately, Monsell shows very directly how appropriations and adaptations of texts can re-enliven meanings or foster new meanings in the source text as new texts like Shakespeare’s Oz make-new with Shakespeare.