I was to be bricked up in fame! Embalmed in fame! Buried in fame – but for work I knew to be absolutely worthless! This was my sentence; I must endure thirty years of being called 'Distinguished' by people incapable of distinguishing! ... And finally – His masterstroke! When my nose had been rubbed in fame to vomiting – it would all be taken away from me. Every scrap.
There are two tides in the affairs of men to which we can hardly relate, death and genius. Death will remain the eternal mystery likewise for fanatic, soulless Darwinists (there are, it should be said, other types), as well as the most pious among the faithful. Neither one can fully imagine what happens when nothing more happens, even if that nothing should ring for all of time's length. But genius is a species ever visible both to other geniuses, who will invariably experience pride and kinship, and a lesser grouping that recognizes one sad fact: they themselves are mediocre shades, pale imitations of stars afflicted with enough ability to see what they might have become if their skills had matched their pretensions. In a lifetime filled with art you will regularly encounter works on uneven pairs bound in envy, but none as famous as this play.
The time is both 1823 and 1783, and the place is Vienna. Our narrator in bilocation is Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer once a trusted servant of the Habsburg Emperor and a man of one simple aim: to "blaze like a comet over the firmament of Europe." Salieri is of humble beginnings and pitiable for that very reason; his accomplishments are much more impressive than those of a young man who has always had every opportunity. When we first meet our grizzled master, he is already a forgotten name, beginning his eighth decade (when most people would have died years before), acerbic, and snacking on the "sweetmeats of Northern Italy" which may symbolize both his pathetic gluttony and the saccharine layers of his compositions. Salieri is not only the epicenter because we see events filtered through his eyes; his eyes are also representative of our own. His awkwardness in dealing with a talent so superior to his as to urge him towards suicide smacks of exaggeration until we consider, perhaps with a heavy heart, the many times and many situations in which we have lain beside the green-eyed monster and humored her anxieties. Iago may be his ancestor, but Iago is prompted by sheer malice, which I am happy to say does not occur in the vast majority of our kind. He gives his servants a strange order to return early the next morning, ostensibly to shave and feed him, and prepares to spend the entire night awake and alone. Alone, that is, with his cascading memories of having met and ruined perhaps the greatest artist ever to walk the earth.
Salieri claims some talent, a life of hard work and incommensurate reward, a wrong that can be righted if he were to gain the position of First Royal Kapellmeister – at least, that is his story. Yet shortly into his opening monologue, another horrific detail comes to light:
Music is God's art. Already when I was ten a spray of sounded notes would make me dizzy almost to falling! By twelve, I was stumbling about under the poplar trees humming my arias and anthems to the Lord. My one desire was to join all the composers who had celebrated His glory through the long Italian past! ... Every Sunday I saw Him in church, painted on the flaking wall. I don't mean Christ. The Christs of Lombardy are simpering sillies, with lambkins on their sleeves. No: I mean an old candle-smoked God in a mulberry robe, staring at the world with dealer's eyes. Tradesmen had put him up there. Those eyes made bargains, real and irreversible.
This magnificent passage ensures our sympathy cannot possibly rest with Salieri, because he cannot possibly have in mind a God who wishes beneficence for the world. And like so many of those resolved to worship the God of Bargains, the clear hues of Salieri's categories begin to bleed. Our self-designated monk of music will thus begin the second act with a diabolical scheme to "block God in one of His purest manifestations," after having concluded the first act with an indignant discourse to this same Deity on what exactly their bargain was. And what it consisted of is much less important than the fact that there was one at all.
The beauty of the play's structure is that we know the legend; we know the outcome; we even know the ostensible method of Mozart's demise, and yet we long for the actual interaction between Salieri and the "purest manifestation" of musical talent ever known. That musical talent is, however, plagued by the bromides that pad lesser minds because what Mozart knows for sure he simply inserts into his music. He will join and then describe his Masonic lodge, his relationship with his somewhat slutty wife Constanze, his fears about his own mortality, and his distaste for the myths of yore. Mozart is not portrayed as a modernizer as much as being very modern. He cusses, he copulates, he lives riotously; at least he does not seem to drink heavily, perhaps because that would be the only vice that could interfere with his work. His wit is either offensive or mundane ("It is impossible to bore the French – except with real life!"), depending on how motivated he might be to engage those who actually value conversation. Mozart's disdain for the habits of the world leads him logically to make a few impetuous mistakes, although he does not suspect his downfall until the appearance of a mysterious messenger in a grey mask.
Regrettably, I have never seen Shaffer's play performed, but its premises and covenants lend themselves almost as well to the screen (as realized in spectacular fashion in this masterpiece). Amadeus will be admired for generations to come as one of the finest dramatic works of the twentieth century and one may imagine its gestures so clearly as if they had always been so. One courtier compliments Salieri "as if tipping him"; as Salieri is trundled, already an old man, to another awards ceremony, a passer-by comments, "Isn't that one of the generals from Waterloo?"; and we are left to wonder about the real appearance of the visitor in the grey mask who asks Mozart for a hideous favor. While the hypocorisms and scatology the Mozarts exchange were probably included to exemplify Amadeus's repugnance towards conformist views on music and everything else, they shine with a certain childish authenticity, as if pure genius could only come from a being unaware of his own sins. Ah, but Salieri knows about sin. And he knows that the human heart may be inherently good if constantly provoked by the ways of the world. Only music in its purest form reveals the lining behind the ineluctable modality of the visible, a visible that seems so much more profound and mysterious when accompanied by the melodies of heaven. And as Salieri himself once wrote, First the music then the words.