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A Playwright Looks at Mozart: Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus C. J. Gianakaris British writer Peter Shaffer has earned an elevated position among today’s living dramatists. His Five Finger Exercise (1958), Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Black Comedy (1965), and Equus (1973) have educed uniformly popular and critical acclaim. It can be argued that none of Shaffer’s plays revolu­ tionized theater techniques in radical ways, as did the early works of Beckett, Ionesco, or Shaffer’s fellow countrymen Pinter and Edward Bond. Shaffer’s method is more evolutionary than revolutionary. But his works taken together define a fresh and virile version of total theater that effectively utilizes striking visual and aural qualities. Amadeus, Shaffer’s newest drama, further displays the play­ wright’s unmatched talent for conveying provocative topics through stunning theater effects. Nothing less than elemental matters facing human beings and their perception of God is involved. One result is that since first opening at Britain’s National Theatre in November of 1979, Amadeus has continued to play to full houses in London. The standing-room-only pattern was repeated with the play’s American premier at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., in November of 1980 and yet again after its Broadway opening in December of that same year. Critical appraisals of Amadeus, both in London and particularly in the United States, mostly have ranged from positive endorsement to wild raves, with but a small minority of reviewers voicing serious reservations. Speaking for many who saw the London production was Bernard Levin of The Times of London, who declared that “those who go to it pre­ pared to understand what it is about will have an experience that far transcends even its considerable value as drama.” In a similar vein, Frank Rich of the New York Times called the 37 38 Comparative Drama later Broadway version a “triumphant production” that “fills the theater with that mocking, heavenly silence that is the over­ whelming terror of life” (18 December 1980).! How does Shaffer so effectively engage his audiences in Amadeus? The answer is the same as with his best earlier works: the dramatic presentation of a fascinating conundrum regaling human behavior drawing on the special metaphoric and physical attributes available to the theater. On the surface, Amadeus begins with the legend-blurred circumstances surrounding the tragically premature death of Mozart. Nagging questions have lingered since that occurrence in 1791, including the matter of Mozart’s relationship with Antonio Salieri, his colleague and competitor in the court of Joseph II. During the last weeks of his life, the ailing Mozart claimed aloud that his mortal illness was caused by someone poisoning him; and he repeatedly accused Salieri of the alleged deed. The rumors became louder when, over thirty years later, the aged and by then deranged Salieri confessed in writing that he had poisoned Mozart. Records reveal that there always were some who believed and repeated that charge—Beethoven’s nephew, for instance. Yet medical authorities of the time denied absolutely any such pos­ sibility. “Rheumatic and inflammatory fever” followed by “a deposit on the brain” was their medical diagnosis. The vast majority of people therefore have discounted Salieri’s confes­ sions as ravings of an old and senile man.2 All the same, Shaffer very early become intrigued by the fact that Salieri alone from the court circles attended Mozart’s pauper’s funeral. Salieri thus seemed worth pursuing in greater detail. What Peter Shaffer discovered was that according to history Salieri acted as counterpoise to Mozart—a dynamic Shaffer carried over into Amadeus. A sophisticated and pious man, Salieri apparently had enjoyed God’s bounty: he held high posts in Viennese musical circles and was recognized as one of the foremost composers of the day. (Indeed, some of his music remains available to us today by way of recordings.) Salieri’s talent proved mediocre in any long term aesthetic sense, how­ ever, as found by Shaffer, a musically knowledgeable person in his own right. Thus, history showed that although Mozart ex­ perienced only moderate success during his short lifetime, his exceptional genius soon afterwards grew to overshadow the pale abilities of Salieri. And what must...


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pp. 37-53
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