Critical Context

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The origins of Amadeus may be traced back to Alexander Pushkin’s short play Motsart i Salyeri (pr., pb. 1832; Mozart and Salieri, 1920), in which Salieri poisons Mozart not merely because Salieri envies his younger rival but also because he is appalled by the ease with which Mozart can be distracted from his art and squander his genius. Such legends characterize not only Pushkin’s play but many biographical studies as well, including Mozart (1975), by the German novelist Wolfgang Hildesheimer, which includes many of the same apocryphal stories found in Shaffer’s play.

Shaffer’s approach to his materials, sources, and subjects has often been controversial: the use of historical material in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (pr. 1964), his treatment of psychoanalysis in Equus (pr., pb. 1973), and his (or rather Salieri’s) characterization of Mozart in Amadeus. The very title of this play hints that its treatment of the composer will be less definitive than alternative, partial rather than complete. More important, Shaffer’s interest in his materials is never as great as his interest in their larger psychological and philosophical implications. Since The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Shaffer has presented his characters in the context of myth and archetype rather than history and realism. He desires not so much to verify what is factually true as to suggest and provoke by moving beyond fact to ambiguity and speculative freedom.

Just as Shaffer’s later plays have moved beyond the spatial, temporal, and formal restrictiveness of his earlier ones, so have they become increasingly expansive in their thematic implications. Equus, for example, begins with what Shaffer has claimed to be a true incident, an isolated act of violence perpetrated by a psychologically disturbed boy. It quickly develops into a troubling contemplative drama in which the line separating deviance from spiritual longing and myth from madness becomes increasingly indistinct as that avatar of the modern, the psychologist Dysart, grapples with the very longings that his discipline and his world have striven to deny. Amadeus recapitulates Shaffer’s earlier thematic and formal preoccupations but goes beyond them as well and typifies, in its own compositional history—very different London and American stage versions, and the screenplay that Shaffer co-authored with director Milo Forman—that search for an answer which parallels his characters’ search for “Absolute Beauty.” Such a quest drives Salieri and Mozart on: the one to madness, the other to death.

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Critical Evaluation