Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” is one of the greatest and most popular plays of the second half of the twentieth century – it gave greater currency to the name of W A Mozart and resurrected another name that was once celebrated in the world of music, Antonio Salieri.
Before 1979, few moderns had ever heard the name of Salieri. Yet, two hundred years earlier, at a time when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had composed over five hundred musical works and had only a few years left to live, his operas were rarely performed – eclipsed in Vienna and elsewhere by the ‘immortal’ operas of Antonio Salieri! And then came “Amadeus”, followed by the Oscar-winning Milos Forman film, and Salieri achieved the fame he had long ago craved for. (The film won eight Oscars – and Maurice Jarre, who won the Oscar for Best Original Musical score, – for “A Passage to India” – later commented:- “I was lucky Mozart wasn’t eligible”; true for him!.)
“Amadeus”, which tells the story of the rivalry between Mozart and his contemporary who was for a time more successful than Mozart, is one of the twentieth century’s most delightful plays. Its plot was inspired by a play by Pushkin which was based on a rumour that Salieri had claimed on his death-bed to have poisoned Mozart – claiming that he did it because of his obsessive jealousy of the divine gifts the granted to the latter. (The claim has never been supported by scholars, although he did hinder the career of his impractical and often unwise colleague.)
The play premiered in 1979 at The National Theatre, directed by Sir Peter Hall with the great Paul Schofield as Salieri, Simon Callow as Mozart and Felicity Kendall as Mozart’’s wife, Constanze. It was a great hit and transferred to The West End. In 1980 it was produced on Broadway, with Ian McKellan as Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart and Jane Seymour as Constanze. It was nominated for seven ‘Tonys’, winning five; a ‘Tony’ is awarded for “distinguished achievement in US theatre” and is the stage equivalent of an ‘Oscar’. The production ran for an astonishing 1181 performances, which places it in the All-time Broadway Top-20 for straight plays.
I first saw ‘Amadeus’ at The Gate Theatre in 1983, a production that remains a treasured theatrical memory; Alan Stanford, was superb as Salieri, and won that year’s Harvey’s Award for Best Actor. And up in Ballyduff they still talk glowingly about a 1992 production of the play Directed by the late Bill Canning, featuring Patsy Ahern as Salieri and the recently-deceased Hugh Moynihan as Mozart.
Shaffer has been accused of trivialising Mozart, of presenting him as a vulgar human being, but it’s also true that few have better grasped the glory of his music. At one point he has Salieri say, at the 1786 premiere of Mozart’s miraculous opera, “The Marriage of Figaro”:-
“Trembling, I heard the second Act. The restored third Act! The astonishing fourth! What shall I say to you who will one day hear this last Act for yourselves? You will – because whatever else shall pass away, this must remain”.
And towards the end of the play, as the notes of Mozart’s last Symphony rise to a crescendo, a tortured Salieri’s voice becomes ever more strident as he claps his hands to his aching ears to shut it out :- “Mozart’s music sounded louder and louder through the world! And mine faded completely, till no one played it at all.”
For music-lovers and those without interest in music, this is a delightful play, both funny and heartbreaking by turn. It tells a great story. The London press have given this production some resoundingly positive reviews. See it in Cinemas Thurs, Feb 2nd. I intend not to miss it – were it not being screened live, I would be heading to London to see it. (Jim Ryan).