Amadeus by Peter Shaffer combines fiction and history to detail the final years of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play also focuses on Antonio Salieri, an older composer who, propelled by jealousy, plots the tragic downfall of his rival, Mozart.
Was Mozart Murdered?
Probably not. Despite the rumors, most historians are content with the more realistic notion that Mozart died of rheumatic fever. This fictionalized account of Mozart's untimely demise premiered in London in 1979. However, the storyline is nothing new. In fact, shortly after Mozart's death in 1791, rumors spread that the young genius was perhaps poisoned. Some said it was the Free Masons. Others claimed that Antonio Salieri had something to do with it. In the 1800s, Russian playwright Aleksandr Pushkin wrote a short play, Mozart and Salieri, which served as a primary source for Shaffer's play. Despite the rumors, most historians are content with the more likely notion that Mozart died of rheumatic fever.
Despite the play's critical accolades and bountiful ticket sales in London, Shaffer was not satisfied. He wanted to make substantial changes before Amadeus premiered on Broadway. There's an old American saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But since when do British playwrights listen to grammatically incorrect proverbs? Fortunately, the painstaking revisions improved the play tenfold, making Amadeus not just a fascinating biographical drama, but one of the most glorious rivalries in dramatic literature.
Why Does Salieri Hate Mozart?
The Italian composer despises his younger rival for several reasons:
- Mozart was child prodigy whereas Salieri struggled to become great.
- Mozart seduced a beautiful singer, a pupil of Salieri's
- Salieri made a bargain with God to become a great composer.
- To Salieri, Mozart's genius is God's way of mocking the disgruntled Salieri.
There are many remarkable rivalries in stage history. Sometimes it is simply a matter of good versus evil. Shakespeare's Iago is a disturbing example of an antagonistic rival who, like Salieri, pretends to be the friend of the hated protagonist. However, I'm more interested in rivals that respect one another to some degree.
The romantic rivalry in Man and Superman is a fitting example. Jack Tanner and Anne Whitefield verbally battle each other, yet underneath it all lurks a passionate admiration. Sometimes rivals are forged by a rift in ideologies, as with Javert and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. But of all these rivalries, the relationship is Amadeus is most compelling, mainly because of the complexity of Salieri's heart.
The Envy of Salieri:
Salieri's diabolical jealousy is mixed with a divine love for Mozart's music. More than any other character, Salieri understands amazing qualities of Wolfgang's music. Such a combination of rage and admiration makes the role of Salieri a crowning achievement for even the most distinguished of thespians.
The Immaturity of Mozart:
Throughout Amadeus, Peter Shaffer cleverly presents Mozart as a childish buffoon one moment, and then in the next scene, Mozart is transfixed by his own artistry, driven by his muse. The role of Mozart is filled with energy, playfulness, but an underlining desperation. He wants to please his father - even after his father's death. The levity and soulfulness of Mozart demonstrates a striking contrast to Salieri and his brooding schemes.
Thus, Amadeus becomes one of theater's ultimate rivalries, resulting in beautiful monologues that describe music and madness with bittersweet eloquence.