Each of Peter Shaffer’s three major serious plays The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1966), Equus (1975), and Amadeus, although totally different in situation, theatrical approach, and decor, have basically the same structure. An efficient, dedicated, man-of-the-world is forced into a conflict with an unworldly, intense antagonist, who embodies an entirely different set of mores and meanings. The protagonist “wins” the resulting confrontation, but it forces him into an acute critical awareness of his own weaknesses, the fragility of his beliefs, and the doubtful validity of his values, his direction, and his God. In his victory, he discovers his essential emptiness and impotency.
Thus, in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Juan Pizarro is overwhelmed by the Inca vision embodied in his prisoner, Chief Atahuallpa, and is demoralized when that vision is destroyed by the forces that he, Pizarro, unleashes. In Equus, Dr. Dysart “cures” his young patient, Alan Strang, and in doing so, as the psychiatrist sadly realizes, dissipates the passion and identification with natural forces that has animated Strang, replacing them with the dull normality of everyday middle-class life. Much the same, Antonio Salieri, seeing his rival, Amadeus Mozart, as a symbol of God’s mendacity, sets out to destroy the young genius, thoroughly corrupting himself in the process.
Early in his career, Peter Shaffer worked for a London music publisher and, in 1961-1962, he was the music critic for Time and Tide. Music, therefore, has always been one of his major interests and has frequently played integral, if less central roles in his plays. Given his preoccupations and background, Shaffer’s decision to dramatize the court intrigues surrounding Mozart’s meteoric career and disastrous personal life, as well as his bizarre, mysterious death, was a logical yet inspired one.
The historical situation pits two natural enemies against each other, the successful man of worldly talent against the inspired genius, and the known facts are sufficient to provide a solid historical context, while leaving a number of tantalizing, ambiguous questions for the dramatist to explore and exploit. (Shaffer claims to have read all the material available on Mozart’s life.) Without sacrificing “historical accuracy,” the ambiguities surrounding Mozart’s career and death leave the playwright free to use these personages and events to dramatize his deeper concerns about life and art, talent and genius, and, ultimately, man and God.
The question of historical accuracy is further mitigated by Shaffer’s decision to tell the story entirely from the perspective of the aged Antonio Salieri shortly before his death. The stage directions emphasize the fact that most of the play is presented “in recall” via the protagonist’s mind. Thus, it is Salieri’s Mozart that one meets, his memory of the events that one sees, and even his version of the younger Antonio Salieri with whom one must deal. For all of its elaborateness and complexity, Amadeus is essentially a monodrama, the garrulous confession of an old man attempting to “leave an impression” on a world that has forgotten him and a posterity even less likely to remember. Better than anyone else, Salieri realizes that his only claim to lasting fame is that he “murdered” Mozart, an assertion he only half believes himself.
When we first meet Salieri he is an aged broken recluse huddled in his room on what he believes to be the last night of his life. He gorges himself on sweetcakes and reminisces at length about his life. Having recently publicly confessed to the murder of Mozart thirty years earlier, he realizes that few either believe him or care. Even in his bitterness, however, Salieri appreciates the irony of his fate. The nature of God, or at least his characters’ views of Him, has been central to all of the major Shaffer plays; in Amadeus, God seems to be the extreme ironist and Salieri is the victim of His most subtle, ingenious, and cruel ironies.
As a young man Salieri makes a pact with God: if God grants him talent and fame, he will work very hard all his life, pursue virtue and holiness in His name, and will compose...
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