Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745

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Amadeus is not a traditional biography- or period-centered realist play. Peter Shaffer himself calls his play a fantasy. The narrative frame of Salieri recollecting and relating his mercurial relationship with Mozart as a confession to the audience is an invention by Shaffer that functions to drive the plot. The invention incorporates rumors that have circulated for centuries, as even around 1800 intrigues surrounding Mozart’s death included rumors of a murder plot. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart was evidently known well enough for people to suspect him of poisoning his rival. The implication of Salieri in Mozart’s death was often popular, as the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin even wrote a dialogue, Motsart i Salyeri (pr., pb. 1832; Mozart and Salieri, 1920), naming Salieri as Mozart’s murderer.

Even though it is only one of the better-known of the composer’s middle names, the very title Amadeus is almost the crux of the play. Amadeus can mean “loved by God,” and this name becomes the springboard that Shaffer develops into obsession: Salieri has loved God from youth onward and has devoted his entire life to serving God, whereas Mozart, who behaves as a crude fool, seems blessed by God with an incomparable gift. Salieri’s obsession with Mozart, then, grows not merely out of simple jealousy but also out of a sense of injustice because Mozart inexplicably seems to have been granted divine talents that Salieri believes should rightfully be his. This perception is heightened as a narrative device since the play unfolds as a series of flashbacks to events that occurred decades earlier, when Mozart was still alive. The interplay between Salieri and Mozart—who changes in Salieri’s eyes from a musical genius worthy of worship to an incorrigible buffoon whom Salieri grows to hate—becomes the central tension of the drama.

Public reaction to the play was mixed, as it was to a 1984 film adaptation. Many musical professionals walked out of the theaters, believing Shaffer’s work was a travesty that caricatured the life of one of art’s greatest geniuses. The play primarily relies on imagined music, whereas the film incorporates Mozart’s scores throughout. What many who panned Amadeus failed to see, however, was that the play does not represent the historical Mozart; instead, it represents Salieri’s memory of Mozart, a caricature created by the rival composer to justify his jealous hatred and remind himself of his own mediocrity. Thus, the play portrays Mozart as a composer who wrote almost effortlessly at one go, whereas Salieri wrote with great effort and endless revisions and corrections, because that is how it seems to Salieri.

One inescapable question Shaffer seems to ask throughout Amadeus is, would the historical Salieri have ever wondered how his own vapid music—despite its superficial elegance—could survive, regardless of his long service to God and the imperial court, in the face of Mozart’s timeless genius? A realization that one’s work would be lost to history might drive many people vindictively mad, as it drives Salieri mad in Shaffer’s play. The sad juxtaposition of the genius Mozart and the journeyman Salieri in Amadeus may not portray the former composer as positively as his afficionados would prefer. However, the absurd, irreligious jester represents a stark contrast to Salieri, who appears to be simply diabolical in the play and is treated more as a conflicted and religious man of stricken conscience in the film version.

Both the play and the film were enormous box office successes, bringing Mozart’s music to a far wider audience. Indeed, the film was a blockbuster and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Where the play makes minimal use of Mozart’s music, the film’s soundtrack incorporates majestic performances of that music wherever appropriate. One great irony of the drama Shaffer fully intended is that Mozart was shown even in caricature as one of history’s most loved composers, however vastly unappreciated he was at times in his own life. Salieri, however, would ultimately be as forgotten as his music, despite all his machinations and intrigues to keep Mozart from the musical world Salieri wanted to control. Even in this Salieri failed. Who would not fail contriving to suppress Mozart’s incomparable music? To a degree, each audience is gradually led by Shaffer’s blunt thesis to realize that most people are jealous of genius and, faced with a rival like Mozart, would probably act much like Salieri.

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