In approximately 1594, William Shakespeare began to write one of the most well known tragedies in history, Romeo and Juliet. Arguably, no author to date has matched Shakespeare’s skill and beauty in the creation of this work. However, authors have regurgitated and will continue to regurgitate the theme, “star-crossed lovers”, for centuries. Martha Duffy remarks in “West Side Glory”, “Slang may change and violence escalate, but the theme of star-crossed city kids has never dated, nor has its appeal diminished” (p. 1). The only viable attempt is the work of modern dramatist Arthur Laurents. However, Laurents’ West Side Story originally written as an attempt to modernize Romeo and Juliet, actually became a work of skill and beauty in its own right. The emphasis is now removed from simply “modernizing” Romeo and Juliet; the emphasis is the creation of art through a similar theme, yet very differing styles and influences. The similarities abound within Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story; consequently, there are many deviations found in the plots, characters, and authors’ influences.
While certain aspects of the two works remain parallel, many deviations are found within the plot. In West Side Story, the first obvious difference, excluding time periods, is the “exile” situation. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is exiled due to public knowledge of his deed. West Side Story’s Romeo, Tony, becomes a fugitive because the public is searching for a criminal. In “Introduction, Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story: An Appreciation” Norris Houghton writes, ”As a result of this altered circumstance the plot of West Side Story begins at this point to deviate from Shakespeare’s drama” (p. 10). Another deviation in plot is the role of the Friar Laurence character, Doc, in West Side Story. Mr. Houghton also comments, “Doc, who is obviously intended as a counterpart of Friar Laurence, takes no comparably active role in the plotting” (p.10). Houghton also agrees, “More significantly, the false report that the boy receives of the girl’s death is carried by Anita through the gang as a willful act, not as an unfortuitous happenstance, such as befell Romeo because of the erroneous information Balthasar conveyed and the prevention of Friar John’s delivery of the secret of Juliet’s feigned death” (p.10)
The greatest alterations in the plot of West Side Story occur in the final scene. In Romeo and Juliet, the final moment is as expected from a Shakespearean tragedy, almost all of the main characters die. However, Houghton explains that Laurents totally abandons Shakespeare’s ideals in his final scene. “Laurents eschews Shakespeare’s scheme of the fake death of Juliet induced… to allow time for a reunion with Romeo” according to Houghton. Due to this abandonment, Laurents must create his own quasi-tragic ending. Laurents does create the desired ending, and with this creation he removes the slaughter and implants somewhat believable ending. At the end, Laurents’ Paris and Juliet (Chino and Maria) are still very much alive, and Tony does not take his own life; he is killed by Chino. Some suggest this ending to be a mere alteration to please the Broadway audience. However, Houghton agrees, “This can hardly be valid, for a truly sentimental ‘soap-opera’ denouncement would somehow have saved both protagonists from death and reunited them in life” (p.11).
The other obvious differences in the two works are the characters. The male characters are different obviously due to time period differences. They, just as the female characters, are also different in age. Houghton implies, “At fourteen girls may have been betrothed and wed in the sixteenth century; in ours it stretches credulity” (p.9). Also, Laurents’ Juliet character has a different character than that of Shakespeare’s. Maria is not willing to take her own life for love as explained shown by Mr. Houghton, “The contemporary playwright obviously feels that suicide is inconsistent with his heroine’s character, that her death by her own hand would only diminish her stature” (p.11). Also inconsistent with Shakespeare’s work is the use of Puerto Ricans verses Anglos rather than Capulets and Montagues. The use of parental figure in West Side Story is noted inconsistent as well. The parents of Romeo and Juliet play a considerable role in the Shakespearean work; however, the parents of Maria and Tony are mentioned only in passing. With these character differences, West Side Story becomes almost undeniably an original work.
As futile arguments of West Side Story being a modern Romeo and Juliet come and go throughout literary history, the one argument most often overlooked is the influences, both personally and socially, that are inflicted on the individual authors. People continue to believe Shakespeare created the theme of two “star-crossed” lovers. This idea is blatantly incorrect. Arthur Brooke wrote a narrative poem that influenced Shakespeare to create the Romeo and Juliet all literature students know today. Brooke’s poem, The Tragical Historye of Romeus and Juliet, amazingly enough, contained the theme of two “star-crossed” lovers. Likely to be accredited as Shakespearean influences are also Tristan and Yseult of medieval lore and Hero and Leander in classic legend. Shakespeare is not a deity and should not be worshipped as the sole creator of a theme such as “star-crossed” lovers. Shakespeare simply expounded on someone else’s idea, just as Laurent’s has done in West Side Story.
With influences of Shakespeare established and his belittlement below deity status, the argument of the true nature of West Side Story may begin. As a post-World War II dramatist, Laurents has many more dominating influences. Two particular writers with influence on Laurents are psychological realists William Inge and Robert Anderson. In A Critical Survey of Drama, Thomas P. Adler states, “Like them(Inge and Anderson), Laurents is primarily a playwright who focuses upon character” (p. 1100). Adler also suggests, “Laurents reveals a solid measure of Thorton Wilder’s influence, both in the generally optimistic philosophy as well as in the nonrealistic techniques of some of his later plays and musical books” (p. 1100). It is this optimism that helps to separate the tone and general mood of the two differing works.
To fully comprehend the magnitude of this original work, it is important to view West Side Story as a social comment rather than a modern Romeo and Juliet . The most influential objects in the life of Arthur Laurents are the post-war prejudice, social tension, and the truncated socio-economic classification of societal groups. In “The Arafues and the Rabinets”, Luis Smythe portrays the delicacy of unavailing this work. Smythe comments, “He waited until gang conflicts had subsided on New York’s upper west side before offering…” (p. 1). Mr. Houghton actually emphasizes the impact of this work on the ordinary citizen by writing, “The modern play deals with a tragedy through which we all are living” (p. 12). The sum of Laurents’ work is told through Maria as she stands by her fallen lover and cries, “We all killed him!”
The facts are clear, Arthur Laurents is not some second-rate copycat author. An analogy is made by Robert Brustein in “Whose Faust Is It Anyway?” Brustein says, “West Side Story is about as true to its source as Superman is to Nietzsche’s ebermensch” (p. 1). He is, in fact, a superb writer who, just as Shakespeare did, expounded on an over-used, sensitive theme of “star-crossed” lovers to covey the message laid on his heart to the best of his abilities. West Side Story is similar and different from Romeo and Juliet; it is not better nor worse. West Side Story is a wonderful creation of art by a man who should never be persecuted for his lack of originality, but should be praised for his intellect and ingenuity.