(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

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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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Amadeus begins with the “savage whispers” and “snakelike hissing” of the Ventricelli, the two Little Winds who will appear throughout the play, spreading rumors. At first the sounds are indistinguishable, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and foreboding. Then the words “Salieri” and “assassin” emerge, followed by talk of Mozart’s death, or murder, and finally the questions that the play will attempt to answer dramatically rather than definitively: Did Salieri murder Mozart? If he did, why has he waited thirty-two years to make his confession? Like the words and then the questions, Salieri emerges only slowly from the obscurity to which history and Peter Shaffer’s stage directions have assigned him. He steps from the darkness to address the audience, Ombri del Futuro (men of the future), directly, asking them to become visible, claiming to need them desperately, yet rather playfully inviting them to listen to his final composition, “The Death of Mozart: Or, Did I Do It?”

At this point, Salieri steps out of his dressing gown and into the year 1781, a young man again. The Salieri of scene 2 is a troubling figure, at once self-deprecating and haughty, even cynical. This division goes deeper, however, for the Salieri who speaks to the audience both is and is not the young man who had made a bargain with God: In exchange for God’s making him a composer, he would dedicate his art to God and his life to serving God and man. The Salieri who addresses the audience is that young man turned inside out, his naïveté into cynicism, his love into hate.

The Salieri of 1781 is an esteemed and prolific composer in the court of Joseph II, emperor of Austria. He accepts what he assumes is God’s beneficence, including his role as servant; he is well educated and well rewarded but a servant nevertheless. His complacency measures all too precisely the level of his ambition (to be Kapellmeister) and artistic achievement. The arrival in Vienna of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart challenges all Salieri’s assumptions: social, religious, and aesthetic. Mozart’s character, like Salieri’s, is two-sided. He is the child prodigy grown into a musical genius yet simultaneously a vulgar young man given to scatological chatter, sexual excess, and general ill-mannered behavior.

Listening to Mozart’s Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, Salieri wonders, “What is the need in the sound? Forever unfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it utterly,” only then to wonder how and why the God with whom Salieri made his bargain could have chosen to speak through such an instrument as this “creature,” this “obscene child.” The doubleness of Mozart’s character—the vulgarity of his behavior coupled with the incomparable beauty of his music—disturbs Salieri so deeply because he believes so strongly in the world of neoclassical order and conventions, not of modern ambiguity and innovation.

Salieri’s recognition of Mozart’s genius causes him to feel naked, empty, and jealous. Worse, he feels betrayed by God, fated, as he now believes, “to be the sole man alive in this time who shall clearly recognize Your Incarnation.” To a large degree Salieri is right. He can appreciate and...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Shaffer’s plays combine stagecraft and metaphysics in equal measure as if in an attempt to play the one against the other, with Shaffer hedging his bets in a modern version of Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth century “wager.” Significantly, Amadeus is Shaffer’s most speculative and his most technically advanced play; of its technical achievements, three are especially noteworthy. Two are implied in Shaffer’s own description of the play as “a fantasia on events in Mozart’s life”: history (or biography) and music.

In Amadeus, Shaffer uses music more extensively and integrally than in any of his other dramas. Brief selections from Salieri’s and, more frequently, Mozart’s works are heard...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In the twentieth century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's reputation grew considerably. His works, which include a variety of...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The play is structured like a deathbed confession, similar to Monticello's in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Cask...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1781: Joseph II is Emperor of Austria.

1918: The Austrian monarchy is abolished as a result of the political...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the biographies of Mozart and Salieri. Was Shaffer's portrayal of the two composers and their relationship accurate?


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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

An overwhelmingly popular film version was released in 1984. Amadeus was directed by Milos Forman and starred F. Murray Abraham as...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Classical Music: The Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: Norton Introduction to Music History, by Philip G. Downs (1992), presents a...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brustem, Robert, Review in New Republic, January 17, 1981.

Gelatt, Roland, "Peter Shaffer's...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Arens, Katherine. “Mozart: A Case Study in Logocentric Repression.” Comparative Literature Studies 9 (Summer, 1986): 141-169.

Brown, A. P. Review of Amadeus. The American Scholar 61 (Winter, 1992): 49-66.

Cooke, Virginia, and Malcolm Page, eds. File on Shaffer. London: Methuen, 1987.

Denby, David. “Mozartomania.” New York 17 (September 24, 1984): 93-96.

Giankaris, C. J. “Drama into Film: The Shaffer Situation.” Modern Drama 28 (March, 1985): 83-98.


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