I went to see Amadeus at the County Seat Mall in Valparaiso, Indiana. As the lights dimmed, the muzak kept playing. An aged Salieri cut his throat to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." Underneath "Raindrops," Mozartian tunes tried to hold their own. After three or four minutes and several representations from the audience, the weather cleared. Now it became evident that the much-touted Dolby soundtrack had been turned down and another controversy ensued— nor was it the last. The audience fought the good fight. It won repeatedly, though the enemy was already ready for one more surprise attack.
Listening to Mozart is usually easy. The struggle to hear him at Amadeus was intense. Perhaps this was not entirely the fault of the projectionist. He may have caused his share of difficulties, but so did Peter Shaffer, the writer of the film and of the play on which it was based. What does it mean that we have to see Mozart—and value him—through the mind, the narrative, of a self-regarding mediocrity? This is the crucial question posed by Amadeus. Shaffer turns up the muzak, as it were. His reasons remain elusive.
Amadeus is supposed to be about artistic mediocrity confronting artistic genius. A so-so composer, Salieri recognizes the greatness of Mozart. His jealousy is compounded by a peculiar theory of genius, which is taken to be an attribute doled out by God in arbitrary portions. Salieri has been a good boy. He has prayed and worked. Mozart runs around fondling girls or telling scatological jokes (sometimes he does both these things simultaneously). God must be hateful indeed to have withheld genius from Salieri while allowing it to this little German turd. Salieri burns a crucifix, then sets about persecuting his human rival. All the time he wants to be the man he hates.
Perhaps we can imagine a Browning-style dramatic monologue whose speaker entertains the obsessions of Salieri. Browning would have set Salieri talking about his life and his relationship with Mozart, would have given him full rein, but we would not have lacked a perspective on him. We would have grasped the masochistic nature of Salieri's delusions without the poet making an explicit judgment. We would have had a way into Salieri's mind but also a way out of it. I occasionally got the feeling that Shaffer was trying for this effect. The problem is that we don't know whether our author assents to Salieri's assumptions about genius. He often seems to.
Mozart comes off as a divinely-inspired idiot (Salieri's view of him), Salieri as the master of intricate ironies. The banality of Salieri's ideas about genius is never admitted. Shaffer apparently believes that Salieri, whatever his talents as composer, is a sensitive critic, a great listener as well as talker. How else could he have grasped Mozart's historical significance so promptly? Salieri is allowed to confess his own mediocrity while displaying a sensibility so laceratingly fine that we are compelled to swoon and flutter along with him. Rilke, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
A standard by which to evaluate Shaffer's script is Wolfgang Hildesheimer's Mozart (1977; English translation, 1982). Hildesheimer's book shares several qualities with Amadeus. It is clever and playful. It is not so much a biography as a meta-biography, a commentary on previous lives of the composer. This kind of reflexive writing is in the air, of course, a legacy from Borges and others in his generation, but how many uses it can have! Shaffer's archness in reviving the old rumors about Salieri and Mozart remains a theatrical device, nothing else. A decent professional actor could hardly botch the role of Salieri, thanks to the ingenious playwright. Hildesheimer's meditations lead somewhere else. They produce ideas, for example.
Hildesheimer eventually suggests that Mozart's erratic or crass behavior in public can be explained: it was "loss of contact resulting from transcendent intellectual achievement and compensation for the loss in ways and places society finds unexpected." This formula— advanced tentatively after several artful stories within the story—performs the same function as the character of Salieri in Amadeus: it highlights the discrepancy between Mozart's everyday behavior and the products of his imagination. Shaffer's Salieri, however, remains not much more than a squawk of indignation. He is the eternal straight man, eternally shocked at the great man's mildly madcap behavior. Hildesheimer's thought is not such a dead end. It gives us a real insight into Mozart. We're not saddled with the prudish love-hate retarded aesthete.1
It might be suggested that Hildesheimer's subtlety was not what Shaffer was striving after. His concentration is on Salieri, not on Mozart. This objection won't have much weight if we agree that Salieri is defined in relation to Mozart and that both characters therefore count, that even the Mozart of Amadeus cannot exist totally as a figment of Salieri's tortured dreams. The director of Amadeus, Milos Forman, shows signs of having grasped this difficulty: he incorporates into the film certain powerful scenes which go against the grain of the original stage play by circumventing Salieri's dominance. Most striking among these scenes are the excerpts from four operas by Mozart, each serving to mark a significant turn in the action.
We see Mozart towards the beginning of his stay in Vienna conducting The Abduction from the Seraglio. He is having a good time—really leaning into his work and almost (across the orchestra pit) into a luscious soprano who is belting out a number from the finale. The harmony between conductor and singer is complete. The narrative gist of the scene is that Salieri becomes irked—he knows in his heart of hearts that Mozart has "had" the woman—but this point tends to get lost. The playful staging of the opera (for which Forman and Twyla Tharp are responsible) takes precedence. Salieri's murky quibblings are wiped out by the brilliance of music and spectacle. Subsequent excerpts from the operas have much the same effect. Among the operas represented in Amadeus are The Abduction, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. There is also an elaborate parody of the finale from Don Giovanni. This sequence is the best. It is prepared for by Salieri's commentary on Giovanni. While watching the statue of the Commendatore doom the Don to Hell, Salieri realizes that the opera is disguised autobiography. Mozart is thinking about his relation to his father, Leopold, whom he broke with after marrying the moderately lovely Costanze. Mozart is the impenitent rake, Leopold the avenging statue. Salieri is able to arrive at this interpretation because he has had a spy in the Mozart household (a maid who is in his pay). He thrills to have come so close to the workings of genius. Has he really? Hildesheimer argues at length that attempts to discern autobiography in Mozart's music lead nowhere; often more striking is the disjunction between life and art. To this useful caution we may add James Merill's words—
Lives of the Great Composers make it sound
Too much like cooking: "Sore beset,
He put his heart's blood into that quintet . . ."
Salieri is hungry not so much for art as for the smell (and taste) of blood. One might be reminded of the crackpot who shot John Lennon in order to establish a link, any link, with him. The psychology is familiar enough—in the twentieth century, anyway—but as usual we can't be sure what Shaffer thinks of it. Are we supposed to thrill along with Salieri at his momentous discovery?
After all this folderol, the parody version of the finale comes as a relief. A pantomime horse (instead of the Commendatore's statue) comes crashing through the stage set and confronts the Don. Drum rolls herald the production of champagne and doves from the horse's anus. Everybody, including the audience, croons Zerlina's little love song from earlier in the opera. At first we wonder just what this extravagant mess could be: perhaps a malicious fantasy of Salieri's—but it's not malicious, and besides Mozart is up in the balcony enjoying himself. Eventually it comes clear that the parody Don Giovanni has been written by Schikaneder, Mozart's last librettist. We are being given a way of assimilating genius quite different from Salieri’s.2 Schikaneder is suggesting that we roll around in Mozart's music like pigs in a sty and enjoy ourselves. This theory of art has its limitations, but in context it is refreshing.
There is only one moment in Amadeus when Salieri gets out of himself, when he stops preening and starts enjoying. He has decided that he will pretend to be Leopold returned from the grave; he adopts a masquerade outfit that Mozart senior once wore and shows up at Mozart junior's door where he commissions the great Requiem. (The Requiem was actually commissioned by a nobleman who wanted to pass it off as his own—a much more plausible secret commission, given the time and place.) Salieri spooks Mozart all right—but the game ends when his victim collapses at a performance of The Magic Flute. Salieri takes Mozart home and puts him to bed. Mozart dictates a portion of the Requiem to him. While trying to understand, to get the notes on paper, Salieri loses his torturing self-consciousness. All he needed was a chance to play Robert Craft: too bad he couldn't have waited for Stravinsky. This interlude is quite touching: David Thomson, in an insightful article for Film Comment, has compared it to the conversation between Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in Psycho, just before the shower scene. Salieri, however, is unlike Perkins/Norman Bates in one essential respect. He has lost his desire to persecute what he loves simply because he can't be it or have it.
A few minutes later Mozart dies and Salieri freezes up again. No doubt this is what Shaffer's Salieri would do; he hasn't had a long enough escape from his sickness to change his behavior permanently. Nonetheless, Shaffer's cruelty to his own creation is striking. The situation is set up so that Costanze, who has suddenly returned, abruptly throws him out. Everything goes against Salieri—as if the limitless pity he feels for himself had been confirmed by a final, definitive insult.
I couldn't help but think of another recent film about an amanuensis, Celeste, on the unlikely subject of Proust's housekeeper. Having served her eccentric master for many years (having taken dictation at the end, like Salieri with Mozart) Celeste refuses to collapse in on herself when Proust dies. Somehow she carries away his life with her. Eva Matte's brilliant performance makes this resolution believable and touching; Celeste is not a hoked-up tour de force though it might easily have become one.
Amadeus by contrast, reverts at the end to the creepy little ironies on which so many of its previous scenes have been based. The film gets some mileage out of a scene where Mozart's body is tossed in a common grave, and a white powdery dust (quicklime) rises up ghost-like. But the final words are Salieri's: wheeled through the madhouse where he now resides, he announces that he has become the patron saint of mediocrities and blesses us all accordingly. The movie has forgotten its own best moments.
And yet those moments are there. Forman (Forman and Shaffer?) were right to open up Amadeus, to let conflicting and distracting elements into it.3 The original play has a dry perfection. Everything in it leads up to that smug speech by the newly-canonized saint. At least the movie gives us an occasional alternative. It tries a few moves which are more than pedantically clever and which lead us away from the limited subject of celebrity-worship towards the much larger subject of Mozart's actual accomplishment. Similarly, Salieri is a memorable character not because of his nastiness but because of the one time that he transcends it. Amadeus received its Academy Awards for addressing itself to a culturally prestigious subject in the terms of glib profundity. But it deserved the tribute for a different reason.
1Hildesheimer offers a useful perspective on the title of Amadeus by pointing out that Mozart never used this name except in fun. Does Shaffer know this and is the irony therefore conscious?
2A bit of the same effect is produced by the dream-wedding in Forman's best movie, Hair. This sequence—also choreographed by Twyla Tharp—is the most playful nightmare ever put on film: a parody, a farrago, it vividly sums up the fascination of the late 1960s as seen from the perspective of a mid-American farm boy. Of course, no Salieri dominates Hair. Even l.yndon Johnson remains in the background.
3It is said that Forman and Shaffer holed up in a Connecticut cabin for six months while wrestling over the shape of the film. Forman seems to have won — not by decree, however, but by convincing Shaffer that changes were needed.