More Master Thieves: Mozart, Shakespeare, and Arthur Laurents

16 Sep

Romeo, he said to Juliet, “You got a poor complexion.

It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!”

Juliet said back to Romeo, “Why don’t you just shove off

If it bothers you so much.”

Bob Dylan

When this blog began, we looked at plagiarism issues in the three part series If I Was a Master Thief Perhaps I’d Rob Them, which explored Bob Dylan and the role of appropriation in the creative process (and which also explored what this might teach us about writing and teaching writing). Here is some more on the issue, beginning with the “stolen” West Side Story:

First we have some interesting thoughts on plagiarism from Matthew Yglesias who is responding to Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto:

To me, and I think to most people, it’s a good thing that the authors of West Side Story were able to put their work together without constantly looking over their shoulder at whether or not things were getting too close to Romeo & Juliet or needing to somehow deny that that’s what they were doing. The fact that the work is more-or-less explicitly a retelling of an already classic cultural landmark gives it a kind of additional resonance.

And here’s kos expanding on what Yglesias said while responding to a Helprin quote.


It would be one thing if such a revolution produced Mozarts, Einsteins, or Raphaels, but it doesn’t. It produces mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down […]


Interesting that Helprin would cite Mozart, who hailed from a world in which composers borrowed heavily from each other, not to mention built upon existing works: Every single one of his operas were based on someone else’s stories. He certainly didn’t write the stories of Don Giovanni or the Marriage of Figaro.

And even the music was sometimes borrowed from elsewhere. People think Mozart was the composer of “Twinkle twinkle little star”, but he actually wrote 12 variations for piano of the French tune “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”. In other words, one of Mozart’s most famous tunes is not really his, but “borrowed” or “inspired” by an existing folk melody.

Next kos cites Adam Baer’s account of the previous origins of The Magic Flute. Not only is borrowing essential to the creative process, but Baer argues that it allows old and even obscure works to have new life:

Ironically, The Beneficent Dervish lived on only because it was lifted: If Mozart had never lived, it surely would have disappeared into the ether.

As quoted earlier in Master Thief, Lawrence Lessig (no “mouth-breathing moron”) says, “You pay respect to tradition by incorporating it. But you make the tradition compelling by doing so in a way that makes everyone want to understand more.”

(More  from Yglesias here. Read the kos piece here. Find the Baer article here.)


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