Book Review: Amadeus

Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer

Those people who are familiar with the noted 1980’s biopic of the same name may not be familiar with the fact that Amadeus was a stage play before it was a screen adaptation.  There is a deep irony at the heart of this play and in the way it has shaped the memory of Mozart and Salieri, and the play’s dialogue itself brings it out when towards the beginning of the play Salieri notes that the world is full of slander.  Indeed, this play is full of libel in that it seeks to defame the reputation of Salieri in order to build up Mozart [1] as a tragic hero.  The play (and the movie based on it) work from the premise that Salieri’s jealousy of the talent of Mozart led him to sabotage and destroy Mozart to the point of poisoning him to death, while the historical record suggests no particular enmity between the two talented men and offers no moral justification or Salieri’s obscurity despite the posthumous rejection of Mozart’s talent.  As a result, this play is a smear job, as it is not necessary to make Salieri look bad to give the proper respect to Mozart’s talent.

The play itself is a bit stagey, as one might imagine from a stage play, and is divided into two acts.  Fittingly, the play begins with Mozart’s entrance into fashionable Viennese society as an adult performer and composer after having been a child prodigy dragged around Europe by his stage manager-father and shows Mozart as silly and somewhat scatological in his humor and language.  Indeed, one might wonder if Mozart himself is libeled in this play as representing the crass nature of contemporary and decadent culture and its anal focus in presenting this as a good thing almost as much as Salieri is libeled for his envy and hostility of Mozart.  Certainly no one in this play comes off particularly well, as all are compromised in some way or another, and all of them coming off as drama queens more than cultured and dignified cultural elites.  The play deserves some credit for the way in which the musical talent of Mozart is brought into light and commented on by those around him, even if a great deal is invented out of whole cloth and the presentation if patently unreliable as history itself.

This story, despite its many flaws, is nevertheless worthwhile in reminding us that composers and great artists are human beings with the same sort of foibles that everyone else has, even if much of what happens here may only vaguely represent historical fact.  Unfortunately, the play’s design masks some of the most important insights contemporary viewers could learn from Mozart’s experience.  For one, enduring talent is not always well-rewarded in this life.  History is full of talented people whose lives were filled with a great deal of privation and suffering and whose works were well-regarded and appreciated only after their death.  Likewise, Mozart’s considerable talents also came with certain self-destructive tendencies that led to a great deal of Mozart’s suffering.  Extravagance and a tendency to bite the hand that feeds by creating works that were anti-royal (The Marriage Of Figaro) and anti-Masonic (The Magic Flute) did not add up to a great deal of financial success, and the fact that much of Mozart’s music sounds similar made it difficult for his better music to rise above the common level of genius of his pieces to achieve immediate fame.  These are all lessons creative people of all kinds would be well-placed to learn and heed.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Amadeus

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Lie Of The Mind | Edge Induced Cohesion

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