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  Parody (Greek, ‘side-road’), in all the arts, is basing one\'s creation on a piece of work (by oneself or by someone else) which exists already. The new piece derives energy from the old as well as adding something of its own. Equally, knowledge of the old adds to our enjoyment of the new, and irony may well be an important part of the effect.

At their simplest, parodies simply burlesque their originals. Favourite methods are to treat pompous or pretentious material in a silly way (as in Ibert\'s send-up of Mendelssohn\'s Wedding March in his music for the farce An Italian Straw Hat, or the innumerable burlesques of Shakespeare), or to treat a trivial subject in a bombastic way (as in Pope\'s mock-Homeric epic The Rape of the Lock, or Dochnányi\'s Variations on a Nursery Song, which turn ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ into a grandiose piano concerto). There is, however, a much deeper and subtler use of parody, which is evident in all the arts. This involves taking elements from the work parodied, deconstructing it as it were, and then weaving them into the texture of your own new work, as if they were your own material.

In works of this kind, humour is seldom the intention. Irony is there, but its effect is less to make us laugh than to remind us of other contexts for the piece of work we are experiencing, to add nuances and overtones. In the Middle Ages, Christian church musicians often wrote parody Masses, making popular tunes of the day the basis for complex and deeply serious contrapuntal webs of sound. Virgil\'s Aeneid and Joyce\'s Ulysses parody the Odyssey, both in general (the idea of a journey which is also an existential quest) and in particular incidents and details. (Joyce also parodies other writings of every kind, from tabloid journalism and novelettish fiction to Jesuit tracts and transcripts of psychoanalytical sessions).

Substantial parody of this kind has been a major resource of all arts in the 20th century. The arts have fed off themselves, and off each other, in a way previously unparalleled. It is as if works of art in general have become a resource, a continuum from which every new work emerges, and with which every spectator is at least marginally familiar. It would be possible to understand the elliptical and jerky narrative of Kafka\'s The Trial, for example, or the block construction in music by Stravinsky or Messiaen, without knowing that both are influenced by Eisenstein\'s structuring of film narrative by jump-cuts and juxtaposition rather than by developmental flow. But, today, almost everyone is to some degree aware of film cutting, and this enhances our enjoyment of other mediums. (Eisenstein himself acknowledged debts to Büchner\'s stage-play Woyzeck.) This is the sense in which Yeats\'s chamber plays, Eugene O\'Neill\'s Mourning Becomes Electra or Eliot\'s dramas parody Greek tragedy not merely in style, but in specific scenes and themes; in which Picasso\'s Les demoiselles d\'Avignon refers to identifiable heads in a particular exhibition of African masks; in which William Golding\'s Lord of the Flies descants unnervingly on Ballantyne\'s Coral Island; in which Berg\'s violin concerto weaves a half-hour textural web from a Carinthian folk song and a Bach chorale, borrowing not just melody and harmony but a whole aura of emotion and significance. It happens, equally, in the popular arts. Enjoyment of Peter Bogdanovich\'s film What\'s Up Doc? is enhanced by our memory of the film it parodies, Howard Hawks\'s Bringing Up Baby; crucial scenes in Kubrick\'s savage A Clockwork Orange parody Singin\' in the Rain; dozens of bands in the late 1980s made new songs by ‘deconstructing’ bass lines and riffs originated by such artists as James Brown, Kate Bush and Queen; Tolkien\'s The Lord of the Rings (itself parodying works as disparate as Beowulf and H.G. Wells\'s War of the Worlds) is the matrix from which thousands of novels, computer games and role-playing games have been born. KMcL



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