Amadeus Revisited

Originally posted on the Harry Binswanger List, November 2013, as "Amadeus, Mozart, Schaffer, Pushkin"

When I first saw the movie Amadeus, I found it gripping but I couldn’t get past the nasty way it represented Mozart. I assumed the playwright, Peter Shaffer, was attacking genius, and I considered that unforgivable.

Almost twenty years years later, based on the strong recommendations of a couple friends, I watched the movie again. And I get it now: Amadeus isn't a historical representation of Mozart or of Salieri. It’s a speculation on what would happen to a highly competent, respected artist (here, Salieri) who’s suddenly confronted with a genius, a man whose work is so brilliant and innovative that the first man realizes he’s always been a mediocrity.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Salieri regards the ability to make music as a God-given gift. As a young man, he made a deal with God to forgo women for the sake of song. Salieri is incapable of seeing Mozart objectively, as a musical genius who’s also a cheerful, charming young man. In Salieri’s eyes, Mozart is a lewd, giggling half-idiot to whom God has given the gift of music specifically to torture Salieri. In the final turn of the screw, Salieri is (in the movie) the only man in all of Vienna who’s capable of understanding just how brilliant Mozart’s music is.

Given Salieri’s view of ability, the battle in Amadeus isn't between Salieri and Mozart. It's between Salieri and his God. Schaffer did an amazing job of concretizing that in the script. "Thank you, God," for the welcome march; burning the crucifix; "What do you think 'confutatis maledictis / flammis acribus addictis' means?"; and the very name of the movie, “Amadeus.” The point is nailed in the final moments, when Salieri rolls past his fellow lunatics, blessing them for being mediocre and calling himself their patron saint.

So Schaffer’s picture of Mozart isn’t an ugly one because Shaffer sees Mozart that way. It’s ugly because that’s how Salieri as Shaffer represents him sees Mozart.

The Wikipedia article on Amadeus notes that Shaffer based his play on a drama by Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri. The Pushkin play has only 2 characters and 2 brief scenes. Mozart is a normal guy who enjoys the company of Salieri, his fellow musician. Salieri is a mediocrity and knows it – ever since he met Mozart.

A pedestal to art I made out of facility,
And facile I became: my fingers gained
A dry obedient dexterity ...

In Pushkin, Salieri is clearly a second-hander. When Gluck created a new style,

Did I not give up all I’d known before,
And dearly loved and fervently believed in?
Did I not briskly follow him, without
A murmur ...

But then Mozart came along:

Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence, or prayer, but lights
Its radiance in a mad fool’s head, one full
Of pure frivolity?

Salieri realizes how great Mozart’s work is: “Mozart, you are a god, and do not even know it.” In Pushkin, Salieri kills Mozart because he knows Mozart is going to get better and better, and then DIE and leave no successor – a thought Salieri can’t tolerate.

I’m posting this because I’m still startled that my indignation over the characterization of Mozart made me completely miss the theme of the movie. If you can’t bear watching how Mozart is shown in Amadeus, I’m not saying  you should torture yourself by watching it again. But if you do watch it, read the Pushkin story first: it will help you appreciate how Shaffer fleshed out the story, and will make obvious the theme Shaffer meant to convey.

Mozart and Salieri is available as a Kindle book, in the collection Little Tragedies, available at http://tinyurl.com/mvwolyy .