British Drama

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.

Drama Review – Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter

When I read the list of characters in Ashes to Ashes I felt flattered. The great Harold Pinter imitated me. He also crafted a play encompassing only two characters. Unfortunately for yours truly, all the similarities between the two of us end there. Works such as Ashes to Ashes show why Pinter earned the Nobel Prize in literature; becoming the only British playwright to be so honored. (Shaw and his hero Beckett were Irish.) And this play isn’t even his best. It still bears the hallmarks of an outstanding Pinter drama.

I remember a lyric David Gilmour included in Pink Floyd’s “Sorrow”: “There’s silence that speaks so much louder than words.” I’m wondering if he read Pinter at the time he wrote it. Pinter wouldn’t be Pinter without including pauses throughout the text. They’re one of the very few stage directions he included in his work. He used them rather liberally as in this exchange.

Rebecca: Oh yes. I kissed his fist. The knuckles. And then he’d open his hand and give me the palm of his hand…to kiss…which I kissed.
And then I would speak.
Devlin: What did you say? You said what? What did you say?
Rebecca: I said “put your hand round my throat.” I murmured it through his hand, as I was kissing it, but he heard my voice, he heard it through his hand, he felt my voice in his hand, he heard it there.
(Silence) (Page 5)

And this is the beginning of the play.

WOW! What a method to draw attention to great dialog. The interesting thing is that the pauses and silences are just as important to the text as the dialog. Pinter used them in a way comparable to how a composer would use a rest in music.

Ashes to Ashes atypically included a line that stood out to me.

Devlin: A man who doesn’t give a shit.
A man with a rigid sense of duty.
There’s no contradiction between those last two statements. Believe me.
Do you follow the drift of my argument? (Page 47)

I don’t, but this gave me something to work on if I chose to do explications du texte again.

Another section that showed Pinter’s genius occurred when Rebecca discussed a divorced couple she knew. Devlin asked her questions that she ducked. Pinter could’ve easily resorted to his pauses and silences to convey that. Instead, he used clever dialog with the pauses added at critical times in the conversation.

Rebecca: (…) He says he misses the kids.
Devlin: Does he miss his wife?
Rebecca: He says he’s given the other one up. He says it was never serious, you know, it was only sex.
Devlin: Ah.
And Kim?
And Kim?
Rebecca: She’ll never have him back. Never. She says she’ll never share a bed with him again. Never. Ever.
Devlin: Why not?
Rebecca: Never ever.
Devlin: Buy why not?
Rebecca: Of course I saw Kim and the kids. I had tea with them. Why did you ask? Did you think I didn’t see them? (Page 61)

Dialog like that shows why people like Harold Pinter win Nobel Prizes and people like me can only admire them. I think I’m going to leave the writing plays with only two characters to him.

The Royal Court Theater first performed Ashes to Ashes in 1996. The strength of Pinter’s writing at this stage of his career impressed me. While an outstanding play in its own right, Ashes to Ashes doesn’t compare with the quality of Pinter’s earlier works. With the exception of Shakespeare’s plays, The Birthday Party and Betrayal were the best dramatic works written in the English language. The man’s talent was quantum. Ashes to Ashes would serve as a good introduction to his plays.