The opening lines in Peter Shaffer’s play about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are delivered by the story’s presumed antagonist, and narrator, Antonio Salieri, once a high-ranking and respected member of the court of the Habsburg monarchy as director of Italian opera in Vienna, a position of enormous power given the importance placed upon the arts by the European monarchies. Those opening lines were as follows:
“Mozart! Mozart! Mozart. Forgive me!
Forgive your assassin! Mozart!”
With those words, Shaffer’s play immerses the audience in the intrigues surrounding the Viennese court as they affected the life of one of history’s greatest composers. While not historically accurate, the play’s premise, that Salieri basically undermined Mozart’s position and caused his death, provides a great deal of the drama that attracted enormous audiences both to the stage productions and to director Milos Forman’s 1982 film adaption of Amadeus. Salieri’s narration depicts his intense jealousy towards the much younger and infinitely more talented Mozart, whose fate, largely unbeknownst to the young composer, rested squarely in the hands of the musical world’s leading practitioner of Machiavellian politics. Shaffer’s play depicts a scheming, vengeful Salieri who cannot countenance the fact that such enormous God-given talent resides in the body of one so young and almost psychotically immature. Mozart’s crudity and irreverence is a stark contrast to Salieri’s formal, almost constipating demeanor, and the latter’s affront at the critical success enjoyed by the former is more than he can bare, leading to the chain of events that Shaffer suggests led to Mozart’s death. To reiterate, then, the central premise of Amadeus is that Salieri schemed to undermine Mozart and to bring about the latter’s demise, although the play makes clear that Mozart’s ultimate fate was more a product of his own inability to mature as an adult and take responsibility for himself and his family.