Since ancient times, the irrepressible attraction that gravitates between two young lovers has always manifested itself time and time again, over and over again above any obstacle.
It is fascinating to realize how much modern man owes to the ancients and their great stories. In the face of the greatest conflicts, their feelings and ours are the same. In the springy and irregular timeline, the irrepressible attraction that gravitates between two young lovers manifests itself again and again, over and over again above any obstacle.
In 1957, the famous musical comedy “West Side Story” (“Love Without Barriers”) by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein, premiered. The plot was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1587). In this musical, contention does not arise between rival families, Capulets and Montagues, but between the Jets and the Sharks, two gangs of young men who fight for power and territory in New York’s “west side”. One gang is made up of native-born Americans, sons of immigrants of European and Asian origin, the other of Puerto Rican immigrants. The conflict emerges when Tony, former leader of the Jets, an American of Polish descent, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks’s leader, all this, more than half a century before the speech focused on raising a wall along the southern border of the United States.
Just like ” West Side Story” is freely based on “Romeo and Juliet”, this one, in turn, is inspired by several sources, among them, the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe, present in the fourth book of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (4 A.D.). It is about a young Babylonian couple, whose love ends in the tragic suicide of both. Pyramus and Thisbe lived next door to each other. Despite their parents’ prohibition, they transmitted their love to each other through a crack in the wall between the two dwellings, a crack through which they planned to flee. The meeting point was in front of a white mulberry grove. After escaping, she arrived first, and during the wait, she saw a lioness approaching, and hid. The feline returned from hunting with a bloody mouth, and was seeking to quench her thirst and drink from the source. Thisbe’s veil fell to the ground as she rushed to hide. The lioness was attracted to the cloth and played with it, soaking it with blood. When Pyramus arrived at the encounter, he noticed the tracks of the beast, and found at his feet the wet purple traces on the cloth of Thisbe, whom he thought had been devoured. Heartbroken by sadness, and by the guilt of having arrived later, Pyramus drew his sword and plunged it into himself. His blood, which flowed from his body with vigor, was absorbed by the roots of the mulberry tree, and colored its fruits. It is said that since then the mulberries are red. Thisbe came out of her hiding place, and after seeing the inert silhouette of her beloved, she ran towards the bloody sword, took the weapon and let herself fall on its tip. Because of the tragedy, the parents of the couple, regretful, agreed to keep the ashes of the lovers in the same urn.
Sixteen centuries later, Shakespeare’s Juliet will swallow a flower potion that will induce an artificial coma, with the purpose of pretending to be dead and avoid contracting the marriage imposed by her father with Prince Paris, scheduled for the next morning. The potion had been prepared by Friar Laurence, who was trying to help Juliet reunite with Romeo, her beloved. The plan fails when Romeo, from a distance, fails to notice the simulation. So, when Romeo hears the rumor of Juliet’s death, runs to the mausoleum where the young woman lies unconscious, and realizing that she is out of breath, he drinks a deadly poison. Juliet awakens, and before Romeo’s corpse, she buries her beloved’s dagger in herself. As in the case of Pyramus and Thisbe, the parents of the young couple become reconciled, and agree on a posthumous tribute to the couple, and in their memory a golden statue is built.
In the 20th century, the musical “West Side Story”, one of the most modern examples of this branch of deep shared roots, ends when Tony is shot with a gun in the back, and dies in the arms of Maria who, finally, will continue her life. This musical comedy was made into a film in 1961, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, and won ten Oscars, including Best Picture. The film’s soundtrack spent 54 weeks at the top of the Billboard chart, a record unmatched by any other album.
Within this tradition of tragic romances, Richard Wagner had rescued from the underground a medieval story in his opera “Tristan and Isolde” (1859), created in honor of another of the great couples of universal literature, a story that also culminates in the decease of the two lovers, where Tristan, the male, just like Pyramus and Romeo, surrenders to despair. The old canon foreshadowed: man departs first.