The Surrogate of Film:
West Side Story and Shakespearean Otherness
Art is ever changing, constantly adapting to popular thought and using its power to interrogate, or further social norms. Every artist is faced with the choice to agree or disagree and tell a story from that chosen perspective. But what happens when the art created is based on works done over 350 years earlier? How does an artist embody popular thought well enough to interrogate it? This is the exact conundrum faced by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in their 1957 film production of West Side Story. In it, two rival gangs face off in the streets of the west side of Manhattan fueled mostly by the difference of race. Through the many similarities of plot points, West Side Story has become a very close representation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But how and why did this belief come to pass? What was seen by critics and moviegoers alike that made it so obvious that Wise and Robbins were interpreting life in Manhattan as if it were life in Elizabethan England? Star-crossed lovers, two feuding groups, a “nurse” character and violence coat both pieces of art, but underneath these issues lies a deeper, more important correlation that the filmmakers had to grab hold of, and that is the psychology of a period centuries before. In the context of 16th century England,West Side Story is a film that portrays the idea of the “other” with the same fear that Elizabethans would have, but before those correlations are made, more must be understood of the word “other” as it was represented in the period of 1558-1603, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
In general, the immigrant population experienced little interference from the crown, as long as there was nothing to be politically gained by disenfranchising and even deporting these individuals. As long as they proclaimed their Christianity, they were not interfered with. Even without her interference, life was not easy for the immigrant in Elizabeth’s England. In her article titled “Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination and Elizabeth I,” Emily C Bartels describes their lives stating “although they could gain some rights of citizenship, the Crown taxed or restricted their residency whenever political or economic expediency warranted” (305). For those affected, land, property, possessions, business or capital was constantly in danger of being seized for the good of the Queen. What exactly was behind her decisions to allow immigrants to stay or go? It was in fact dependent upon the Spanish. History shows that England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, marking the height of tension between the two naval powers. In 1596, Elizabeth began to deport immigrants to the Spanish in hopes of exchanging them for the release of English citizens held in captivity by the Spanish (Bartels 306-307).
Ideologically, immigrant people were merely a commodity for the Crown to manipulate in order to further her own efforts, but there were other attitudes that dominated English culture to further separate themselves from the rest of Europe. As a writer, Shakespeare set his plays in a variety of different lands outside of England, places such as
Denmark, Scotland, Italy, Greece and Egypt to name a few. In his book Shakespeare’s Cross-Cultural Encounters, Geraldo U. de Sousa makes light of Elizabethan attitude toward Venetian culture in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. In it, he describes Venice as an open ground for all walks of life and cultures to interact because of its mercantile nature. To the Elizabethan’s, he sates, “Venice embodies a contradiction…Venice as an open or cosmopolitan city whose citizens mingled promiscuously with the peoples of the world” (71). Elizabethans feared the idea of free alien interaction because it was seen as an opportunity for their own culture to be lost. Shakespeare’s Venice was then the embodiment of that fear, seen as “contaminated” by the presence of so many foreign tongues and religions (71). In simple terms, acceptance of the other and invitation into its culture would spell certain doom for the advancement of English culture.
This idea of contamination made its way into the realm of Elizabethan drama and manifested itself in the atmosphere of sex. Popular belief was that if cultures mixed in a mercantile scenario and caused contamination, to mix sexually would surely produce an outbreak of other among the culture. In her book Racism, Misogyny and the ‘Othello’ Myth, Celia R. Daileader lays out the three main rules to be followed in Elizabethan drama regarding the other and sex. She states “inter-racial sex is a prospect to be avoided by all means, in the minds of all characters…inter-racial sex is rarely raised as a possibility – and if so, is it emphatically thwarted…inter-racial sex never involves a consenting and a sympathetic white woman” (16-17). Preventing contamination meant restraining from or avoiding altogether the situations which may possibly
raise the option of the races combining sexually. The purpose of drama was to reinforce such ideology, which Shakespeare draws on in Othello regarding race as well as the English feeling of the dangers of mixing religions in Merchant of Venice.
While all of this is relevant information as to the plight of foreign people inside the English territory, how does all of this play into a story of rival gangs consisting of Polish Americans and their Puerto Rican enemies? The answer lies in the relationship of the Spanish and Elizabeth’s England. 1588 brought the greatest defeat in battle during the time of Queen Elizabeth. Horribly outnumbered in ships and man power, the English managed to defeat and force the retreat of the mighty Spanish Armada, and from that came constant pressure to stay ahead of and
aware of the possible repercussions of that defeat. By 1596, some of Elizabeth’s closest advisors were worried that her fervor toward the Spanish had waned, making England susceptible to possible attacks. Because of this, it was advised to capture a Spanish ship travelling in the Panama Canal with a great deal of treasure on board. Fearing that the Panama Canal was too far from home, Elizabeth instead approved a raid on a ship ported in the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico said to carry over two million dollars of treasure (Bartels 309). The mission may have failed, but the scar would remain. Tension between the English and Spanish in Puerto Rico would continue for the remaining years of Elizabeth’s reign on the throne. Puerto Rico, and its people, became tools of trade between the two countries and a point of conflict between the diplomatic exchanges of prisoners.
Puerto Rico is still in the same predicament today. It belongs to the common wealth of the United States, but is afforded no rights of a US territory. Frances Negrón-Muntaner writes of this fate in his article “Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses” saying that “the legalistic struggle over Puerto Rican subjectivity and representation is linked to the broader issue of colonial relations. As constituted by the legal apparatus, Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico are American citizens who cannot vote for president or have voting representatives in Congress. Puerto Rico itself belongs to, but is not a part of, the United States; it is bound by the law but has no rights under the law…Puerto Ricans are in point of face outside – or besides – the law” (86-87). Furthermore, as Keith Suter says in his article “Puerto Rico: Beyond West Side Story” “They have no power to make ultimate decisions to change their own constitution…but they can be drafted to serve in the US armed forces. As they say in West Side Story “Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America” (443). This sentiment can be transferred to the Puerto Rico of the 16th Century. Constantly being torn between the Spanish colony that it was, and then being transferred eventually to be a colony of a country called America. It can be described as the rather famous idea of “separate but equal” that would permeate America in the years following the release of the film. This sets up one of the underlying tensions in the film, that of citizenship vs. rights and the separation of the two rather than the combination of them. The is the same binary set up by Elizabeth when she first involved Puerto Rico in her fight against the Spanish empire back in the 16th century.
Puerto Rico’s search for identity lasted long after Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1601, continuing into present day 21st century, which would include 1961 and the film of West Side Story. An entire nation, belonging to a United States but being separated in rights and responsibilities. It is subject to standards not of its own kind, but has no say in those standards in the organized government they must follow. Much like the early days of Puerto Rico’s involvement with the English, and eventually Americans, independent cultural identity has been hard to come by. Putting the intention of each character aside, the focus of the film should not be on the truth of the situation as far as who is more guilty than the other in the violence of the film ,”but rather on the levels of deception, displacement and uncertainty that constitute identity formation processes and cultural production. The
film also allows an inquiry into the ambiguous relationships between Puerto Ricans and the United States; the Latinization of New York culture and, through it, all American culture” (Negrón-Muntaner 87). The correlation could easily be made that in the late 16th century, Puerto Rico was experiencing the same problem with the English rather than the United States. In picking up on this, Wise and Robbins demonstrate a very important aspect of adaptation while keeping the dominant ideology of the period intact.
Dominant ideology in England was quite clear in its view of the other among them, which was to avoid contact, allow limited rights and use as a commodity in order to further selfish purposes. What was Shakespeare’s stance in all of this other talk? According to his book The Tainted Muse, Robert Brustein touches on the depth of racism that Shakespeare himself may have had. He says “Shakespeare’s prejudice towards minorities, as one might expect, was less inflamed than that of other writers of the day. But it existed, even though Shakespeare managed to overcome his preconceptions at times through his special qualities of humanity and compassion” (173). Armed with this information, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins achieved the exact same goal from their film adaptation of West Side Story. While there was obvious racism among the characters, the film manages to humanize and sympathize with the other, in this case the Puerto Rican gang of the Sharks. Film can be used to transform the written word into visual stimulation, and it can focus attention on one aspect of the plot, or the author’s intention, but the best films do either while still maintaining the original as its source of creativity.
In order for their film to be successful, not only did Wise and Robbins have to remain true to the original plot of Romeo and Juliet, but also had to remain true to the ideology of the period to produce the most realistic product possible. Both directors were following the idea set forth by Thomas Cartelli and Katherine Rowe in their article “Adaptation as Cultural Process” in which they describe that every work adapted is not separate from the original, but birthed from it, in a sense mothered and nurtured by it. They say that “a work is properly
understood as a series of texts that may include print editions, textbooks…as well as non-print texts such as performance, opera…screen versions…and so on” (27). Film is hardly a stagnant box with defined parameters that all films must fit inside to be “good.” Rather film is a tool to redefine, or reinvent an original idea while paying reverence to that original through similarities with the original. Cartelli and Rowe describe this as “an adaptation, in that it reframes prior versions of that work in new environments, periods, materials, and for new purposes” (28). In the case of West Side Story, that new period was 1961 Manhattan in the environment of a civil rights movement that was sweeping the nation of America.
In essence, what directors Wise and Robbins were doing was keeping Shakespeare and his text as the “surrogate” to their creation of West Side Story (Cartelli, Rowe 31). Samuel Crowl says in his article “Shakespeare in Film” that directors must provide “narratives that not only speak powerfully over time to our own age but, even more important, seem to spring naturally from our own cultural milieu” (144). This is not to say that film should ignore the text as it was originally created, but that every text, no matter the medium it is presented in, should tell the same story reimagined and produced out of the culture of the current time. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins demonstrated this by their use of Shakespeare’s language. Marjorie Garber writes on the correlation between Tony and Riff, Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet and the idea of family reimagined in the film. She writes “Riff and Tony’s ritual greeting ‘Womb to Womb!’ ‘Sperm to worm!’…appropriating Friar Lawrence…by translating his words into a sexier, racier idiom…’The earth, that’s nature’s mother, is her tomb; / What is her burying grave, that is her womb’ (2.2 9-10)” (48). She continues by saying that only when Bernardo is killed is the idea of family among the gang of the Jets made making “the Shakespearean plot…clearly recognizable – part of the point was to have the audience see the relevance of then and now” (48). Only a difference in time was seen, not a difference in plot, and not a separation of Shakespeare’s original work from the film West Side Story.
The film also succeeds in its embodiment of the three rules of inter-racial sex laid out earlier. Maria is the object of Tony’s desire, but among all characters, it is frowned upon that he spend any time with her, let alone enter into a sexual relationship with her. Second, every opportunity that the two have to spend time by themselves is thwarted by some outside source. Whether it is Maria’s parents, or the death of Bernardo, some event intrudes in the development and cultivation of their relationship through quality time. Last, Maria is not a white, sympathetic woman, but the obvious other trying to survive in a world she does not agree with, but must be complicit with. By following the laws of early modern drama, and using that ideology to comply with the dominant ideology in America, Wise and Robbins embody the argument of Cartelli and Rowe that Shakespeare and his works are to be revered as the original text by the combination of elements of society in the then and now.
Film is equipped with great power, a power that lies in the eyes of directors. This set of men and women can decide what the viewer will be allowed to see, to focus on, and draw from them certain emotions. Textual writings have chapters, and in some cases several books to advance a story, while film has just the opening credits to express the emotion and direction a film intends to take. With Shakespearean film, all of the conventions and prejudices that the public has of Shakespeare enter the theater along with the viewing patrons, making the amount of time for directors to engage an audience exponentially smaller. In his article “Shakespeare in Film” Samuel Crowl describes directors with the task “to create a visual landscape, tone and atmosphere that imaginatively express the film’s Shakespearean narrative. They also want to establish the formal elements that will come to distinguish their personal style in translating Shakespeare into film” (161). In this case, underneath the spectacle of dance, music, acting and intention, lies the history that was drawn upon to create and bring to life West Side Story. Inside the film lies the history of a nation and its complicated relationship with two nations. The idea of other as separate but equal has been a concept that has survived from the years of Elizabeth and into the 20th century in America, represented by the story of Puerto Rican citizens and their Polish American rivals in the west side of Manhattan.
While it may be awkward to think of Shakespeare as a “surrogate” of sorts, when it comes to productions adapted from or harkening to his original works, it is an idea that needs to be respected. Throughout the history of our world, clashes of culture have resulted in harmony, prejudice, and civil war. The idea of supremacy based on a single determining factor was learned from the early days of humans as upright, speaking beings. Be it based on skin color, religious belief or political standing, humans have been subjecting each other to persecution for centuries. The plays of William Shakespeare certainly did have much to say on religion, race and politics. A voice that is still heard and adapted in today’s modern culture. As long as Shakespeare is adapted for the medium of film, he is the “mother” of the text that will create the text of film. West Side Storytakes the Elizabethan ideas of other and presents it in a new and interesting way, while still allowing Shakespearean thought and persuasions to be represented in dialogue as well as character representations. That is not to say that the original text is bastardized or discredited in any way, but rather that the original text, in this case Romeo and Juliet, is brought into the modern idea of “now” and reimagined for a broad audience.
Bartels, Emily C. “Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination and Elizabeth I.” Project Muse. 2006. Web.
Brustein, Robert. “Racialism: The Moor and the Jew.” The Tainted Muse. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. 173-204. Print.
Cartelli, Thomas, and Katherine Rowe. Adaptation As a Cultural Process. PDF.
Crowl, Samuel. Shakespeare and Film: a Norton Guide. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008. Print.
Daileader, Celia R. “White Devils, Black Lust: Inter-racialism in Early Modern Drama.” Racism, Misogyny, and the Othello Myth: Inter-racial Couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. 14-49. Print.
De Sousa, Geraldo U. “Textual Encodings in Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare’s Cross-Cultural Encounters. New York: St. Martin, 1999. 68-96. Print.
Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. “Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses.” Project MUSE. 2000. Web.
Garber, Marjorie B. “Romeo and Juliet: The Untimeliness of Youth.” Shakespeare and Modern Culture. New York: Pantheon, 2008. 33-61. Print.
Suter, Keith. “Puerto Rico: Beyond West Side Story.” Contemporary Review 289.1687 (2008): 442-48. Academic OneFile. Web.