Drama Review – Amadeus by Peter Shaffer

The term masterpiece often gets overused into banality in our society. Applying it to Amadeus would be underutilizing it. Fans of great drama and historical fiction can appreciate this offering on multiple levels. It included quirky characters, phenomenal conflict and an unparalleled story line.

Through Amadeus, Mr. Shaffer presented the story of Antonio Salieri: a bitter, selfish narcissist who would defy his God in order to achieve greatness. He manifested this quest through the destruction of an unwitting rival. Initially, this character lived a pious existence devoted to the Lord. I found Mr. Shaffer’s story a bit of a twist on the Faust legend. Instead of selling his soul to the devil, the composer consecrated his life to the Almighty. In return he expected his deity to make him the greatest musician of his day. I found this very interesting coming from a character who acknowledged and indulged in his own gluttony.

This sanctimonious bargain sustained Salieri until a prodigy named Mozart entered the scene. The latter character possessed crass and immature mannerisms; undignified traits for a composer. He also had an unparalleled gift for music. As Salieri himself noted upon listening to his work,

It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child! (Page 28)

The Marquis de Sade created a character named Lord Gramwell. This individual sought to violate every social taboo society held. That’s pretty evil. Shaffer’s Salieri gave the ignoble noble a true run for his money. He pursued every conceivable act he could to eliminate his rival. His reason for doing so made him horrifying.

The title made this play an exceptional work of art. Not only did it share Mozart’s middle name it also referenced the traditional meaning of the word. Amadeus translates to “love of God.” Through original writing, the playwright wove this into the story’s main theme.

There are three types of conflict an author may pursue: person against person, person against nature or person against God. Mr. Shaffer chose the latter for this piece. Salieri expressed the following thoughts to conclude Act I.

When I return I’ll tell you about the war I fought with God through his preferred creature—Mozart named Amadeus. In the waging of which, of course, this Creature had to be destroyed. (Page 60)

Nice guy. It’s interesting that on the surface the play seemed to be a semi-autobiographical story about Mozart. Salieri’s conflict with God became the real focus of the drama.

The show’s resolution confused me a bit. In the end, Salieri regretted his eradication of Mozart. In spite of this, he still elevated himself above other people. Earlier in the play he explained the difference between his and his rival’s approaches to music. “We were both ordinary men he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends—and I from legends created only the ordinary.” (Page 83) At the end of the play he referred to himself as, “Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities.” (Page 117) For his last line he commented, “Mediocrities everywhere—now and to come—I absolve you all. Amen!” (Page 118) Even when associating himself with “average” people, the composer needed to feel superior to them. His conferring upon himself the ability to forgive placed himself on the same level as a deity.

Salieri may not have achieved the greatness he craved, but Amadeus did. For Mr. Shaffer’s outstanding work, the play received the Tony Award Winner for Best Play in 1981. I read the playwright’s sixth version of Amadeus. No need for Salieri to absolve him. Even after the show’s very successful initial run the playwright continued revising it. He deserves tremendous credit for his continued commitment to making his work the best it could be. Mr. Shaffer didn’t destroy other plays or playwrights in the process, either.

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