Amadeus - Play
I’m not familiar with classical music, but every time I listen to it, its magnificence and sheer prowess continue to leave me in awe. Of course, we have the more famous composers of the 17th through maybe the 19th centuries to thank for that, like Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Their talents are most evident through their work and have always entranced listeners for years.
In the case of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, however, his story may be one of the more unusual ever to be told. And the play of Amadeus, written by Peter Shaffer, took more unconventional yet equally magnificent means to retell that story.
Recounted from the point of view of the frail Antonio Salieri, he admitted to having held a grudge against fellow musical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was utterly bewildered over the idea that some of the most glorious music ever composed by man could’ve come from who we thought was the most immature, wildest, and reckless human being alive. So, Salieri recounted his experiences meeting him at the Viennese court and how Amadeus rose to fame with his music, which was mainly scoffed at by his peers. While Salieri got used to his wild antics, Amadeus continued to bewilder his peers with his considerably avant-garde music. However, as Amadeus neared the end of his life, he started getting visions of deathly spirits visiting him and a suspicion that he was poisoned. As Salieri elaborated on this, some of his recollections gradually hinted that Salieri might have had something to do with it. So, did Salieri kill Amadeus, just as Salieri insisted he did?
When I was first acquainted with Peter Shaffer’s play, I heard about it through the movie starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. That movie was a marvel, no question about it, with the elaborate settings, costumes, acting, and exquisite characterizations. However, I also understood that it went down in slight controversy because of its questionable depiction of real-life events that occurred in correlation to Amadeus and Salieri.
Well, I decided to give it another whirl through the original version of Amadeus as Peter Shaffer originally wrote it for the stage. And, inevitably, I can’t help but notice some differences between the two. In the movie, I remember Salieri recounting his life experiences to a priest, mainly because he was on the verge of mental collapse. In the play, Salieri relayed everything that he said about his experiences with Amadeus directly to the audience. And whereas he shared his life story after his attempted suicide, like in the movie, he managed to share his life story with us before his attempted suicide instead. I’ll admit, it is fascinating to catch onto specific differences and modifications that a story would’ve gone through depending on the medium in which it’s presented. In this case, it’s noticing the differences between what works in film and what works on stage.
Medium differences aside, however, the way Shaffer told the story of Amadeus here felt very inventive and clever. In this recount, everything that the audience witnessed of Amadeus’ life and his musical accomplishments were primarily seen by his colleague, Antonio Salieri, who was a respected composer in his own right. However, his obsession with Amadeus and the jealousy he developed out of his accomplishments drove him into delusion. Everything he said he did to Amadeus to harm him had been subject to various investigations. So, in the brief little conversations he and Amadeus had together where they argued about what happened with Amadeus or what Salieri did to his wife, Constanze Weber, it can easily be interpreted as either real-life recounts or fictional reminiscences on Salieri’s side. For example, near the end of his life, Amadeus admitted that he was visited by what he thought looked like a ghoulish figure who asked him to compose a Requiem. However, because of the spiritual elements of the same encounter, Amadeus told Salieri that he thought the spirit was ordering him to write the Requiem in anticipation of his own funeral. We don’t see the encounter as Amadeus described it to Salieri, but this recollection on Amadeus’s part is equally subject to investigation. What makes this even more trippy, however, is that while it didn’t happen as Amadeus described it, or as Salieri told us, this event did happen in real life.
Here’s how it happened: a composer named Count von Wallseg approached Amadeus when he was sick in his room and anonymously requested that he compose a Requiem in honor of his late wife, Anna. However, he had an infamous reputation for taking compositions from other composers and passing them off as his own. Even Salieri said so himself about the spiritual figure Amadeus approached in his room. I found this transition interesting because it showed that some people can have different experiences with certain things and would tend to embellish some aspects of those experiences to make them easier for other listeners to understand. The way Amadeus relayed his experiences to Salieri, on the other hand? He made it sound equivalent to having had a run-in with the Grim Reaper himself.
And there’s one element I’m starting to appreciate about the play here. While it’s not a clear recollection of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life, the way it was told is generally digestible enough for us to understand it so we can better appreciate Amadeus and his work. And the modifications that the play was slightly infamous for generally worked in its favor rather than against it. The chief reason for that is because Salieri told the whole story as he experienced what he did in the past with Amadeus as he rose to fame. And the entire mystery of whether Salieri was responsible for murdering Amadeus out of petty jealousy served as the perfect hook and an intriguing framing device to clue us into his life story without being too ironclad in its factual recollections. But, of course, that wasn’t meant to be the focus, anyway. What was the focus here is Salieri and Amadeus’ rise into fame with his music.
Even after Salieri’s attempted suicide after he finished telling his story, his reports of his experiences with Amadeus were subject to question even by his peers. Two men who introduced the play always said, “I don’t believe it,” in response to Salieri and the rumors concerning his confessions. But then, at the end of the play, they took in the reports of Salieri’s death and his ultimate reason for it, and they all just walked off continuously saying, “I don’t believe it.” It was as if they were questioning Salieri’s convictions about his relationship and feud with Amadeus. They were hesitant about Salieri’s factuality as much as the audience watching it was. At this rate, it felt like the play anticipated what the audience would’ve argued in response to it by demonstrating what Salieri relayed to us and allowing everyone else to make their own conclusions on the matter. As a result, this is where Amadeus became historical fiction at its most skillfully utilized.
Of course, speculations surrounding Amadeus’ life are one thing to discuss about the play. Let’s talk about the play’s focus. Technically, the play’s all about the life and accomplishments of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and it highlighted some of his more famous musical pieces as he conceptualized them throughout his life. And yet, his story was seen and relayed from Salieri’s point of view as he witnessed it firsthand. However, because of this, it felt pretty weird to think that I heard a good portion of Amadeus’ music here but not a lot of Salieri’s music. The closest thing I ever heard of Salieri’s music was a musical piece study he performed on the piano before Amadeus came along to spice it up and throw in his own spin on the melody. While the play did give me a thorough enough sampling of Amadeus’ music, the aftertaste of what I witnessed of Salieri and Amadeus in this play makes me want to check out both composers’ works and judge for myself what each musician’s musical pieces were like. Maybe then it’ll give me some more insight as to what Salieri thought Amadeus’ music meant to him, outside of mistaking his accomplishments as the gifts that he believed God should’ve granted unto him instead of Amadeus. I don’t know; something about this makes me feel like Salieri’s envy of Amadeus and his music may be partially because of nationality. Salieri was Italian, while Amadeus was German. Maybe international composers saw one another differently.
Not only that, but one other element of the show that became controversial among audiences was the likelihood that the play portrayed Amadeus and his mastery of music as if the compositions he was most famous for just came to him. It was as if he just transcribed what went through his head onto his sheets of paper and in his note sheets and barely had any practice on them. Well, that’s not true. Even in the last leg of his life, Amadeus was seen composing the Requiem while he was sick and in bed. So even if he was in bed and ill as he wrote it, and even though it looked like a laborious effort, it showed that Amadeus at least did whatever he could to write down his music whenever it came to him, whether the results astounded others or not. And, in conversation, the Viennese court did mention that when Amadeus was a kid, his father would’ve taken him on tour across Europe and taught him to play the piano while blindfolded. That is how Amadeus developed such an innate talent for music and the following legacy of musical excellence.
I remember one moment from the play where Amadeus argued with Count Orsini-Rosenberg on whether to keep a dance sequence in The Marriage of Figaro because no ballets were allowed in Vienna. Orsini mistook the dance for a ballet, whereas Amadeus corrected him and said that the opera happened to include a dance and that there was a difference.
This leads to another scene I remember so well, where Amadeus was in the company of a few Viennese court members. After he kept a silent composure for a short while, Amadeus started mocking them for their pish-posh conversations and opinionated arguments about what counted as music. He then went on to a long discussion about what he thinks music, especially his music, should be like and how it should be best expressed. In his opinion, Amadeus believed that music should be conveyed and appreciated on all levels instead of being created exclusively for the musical elite. Doing it as the Viennese court members did, he thought, felt too pompous. That’s why he felt urged to compose his music the way only he saw it. Such arguments as this from Amadeus convinced me more that what I’m seeing more of him is simply a talented musician with unique ideas to share of music, even if his sense of execution was subject to question, yet not uncertain.
In fact, while my mind is still fresh on this, what I just highlighted here may pertain to the more distinguished elements of Amadeus that set him apart from most other musicians of his time. His ideas of music differed vastly from the other musicians, especially Salieri. And his ways of crafting and presenting his music did arouse some questions and confusion among his peers regarding what he had in mind that would’ve counted as an excellent musical piece in Amadeus’ eyes. But he never gave up. He simply stuck by his gut and lunged forth with his music, no matter how he composed or presented it.
But the other thing that makes him so famous? When he wasn’t busy composing music, he turned out to also be a loud, boisterous, immature, wild, reckless young man, almost like a party animal. Amadeus tended to play cat and mouse with Constanze when she was his then-girlfriend, and he had a knack for playing practical jokes with his peers. This also set him further apart from his peers, who were more preserved and formal.
Long story short, the eclectic portrayal of one of the most talented musicians of our time primarily did right by his character, demonstrating that there was more to this wild shell of erratic behavior than meets the eye.
How are the other characters in this play? Well, let’s shift over to Antonio Salieri. As I mentioned, the play’s framing device was Antonio Salieri’s recollection of his encounters with Amadeus as he grew bitter and jealous. Amadeus grew more famous for his musical accomplishments, while Salieri started fading into obscurity, with his musical pieces being overshadowed by those of Amadeus. So, in his unstable situation and state of mind, Salieri grew up convinced that God cheated him. How could Salieri, a self-declared, righteous servant of God, have been deprived of what he thought God owed him in terms of gifts if they were possessed and expressed by who he viewed as the last person and the least sane person alive ever to perform music? This twisted Salieri’s priorities and values until Salieri grew convinced that he needed to do something to end Amadeus’ life in retaliation for all the wrong deeds he believed Amadeus did to him with his music. The closest that Salieri ever came to pulling that off was when he heard Amadeus crying that he must’ve been poisoned while still lying in his bed, and Salieri came out to him, telling him that he was the one who poisoned Amadeus. Amadeus scoffed it off, saying that what Salieri was telling him was rubbish since Salieri had been Amadeus’ friend for his entire life. However, when Salieri became more insistent about what he just told him, Amadeus grew furious, not because he believed now that Salieri had poisoned him, but rather in response to Salieri telling him what he thought was so foolish.
And finally, as we see Salieri in his old age, he grew utterly convinced that he had a role in murdering Amadeus. He relayed what he believed he experienced and did to Amadeus to us, the audience, as if Salieri expected us to believe what he believed. There’s a certain frightened yet senile person hiding underneath this frail image that became confused about how he lived his life when life had given him too many curveballs to grasp. So, whether it was out of guilt or lack of mental stability, Salieri felt he needed to make a case on what he believed felt like an almost unjust experience after witnessing and meeting Amadeus. And this portrayal of Salieri, though quite varied and confusing at times, was surprisingly fascinating when you can look at his life story from beginning to end within the play.
The other characters in the play felt dignified and firmly established, especially within their societal roles. For example, Emperor Joseph II had a slightly delicate, if also firm, disposition about him, which was to be expected given that he was the ruler of Austria back in the late 18th century.
Amadeus’ wife, Constanze, felt like a generally modest woman who expressed some flair about her commitment to Amadeus, especially when she was questioned about it by Salieri whenever he saw her. But there was also a part of her that felt unsure of what she thought about the wild animal that lurked underneath Amadeus’ primmer and more proper image and wondered if she was ready for such a commitment to someone like him.
Count Orsini-Rosenberg often came to advise the Emperor himself or oversee the compositions being performed for the Emperor. But, as I demonstrated, some of his ideas of what music should be composed and created as only the Emperor and anyone showing their social status should appreciate was quite limited and too vain.
The other characters were minor compared to the main ones I mentioned. However, they still left a noticeable impression throughout the play with their elegant costumes, sophisticated disposition, and polished societal position.
You know what? That’s another thing I feel I should make a note of here: the costumes. Knowing that this took place in late 18th and early 19th century Vienna, I expected the outfits to be quite elegant at this time. Well, they were elegant, all right, and then some! They all carried the same royal elegance that we would expect from European aristocrats at this time, with the elaborate dresses, the inner skirts, the white socks, the stylized suits, and even the white wigs many men wore when in the elite society. They all splashed with color and elegance, demonstrating each person’s societal role to a T and their general feel and accuracy in the costuming we would expect from this time period.
Knowing that I’ve seen this play via the Magic Players Circle Theater in Montrose, Colorado, made me wonder how the actors would’ve done in the performance I’ve seen of this play. As I figured, many of these actors were fabulous in this play, just like with Fiddler on the Roof!
Gary Hokit did an excellent job playing the Emperor of Austria, Joseph II, with a slight roughness in his voice and demeanor. And he expressed enough elegance and surprising good-naturedness in his personality to give him a relatively higher-level yet surprisingly delicate portrayal of the famed Viennese Emperor. What made it even better, personally speaking, is that he was my friend’s English teacher. So, the fact that such good talent can come from such a small community is undeniably praiseworthy!
The actor playing Antonio Salieri, M.A. Mance, did a fantastic job of capturing his character’s sense of frailty, especially in his old age, when he was recounting his experiences with Amadeus in the Viennese court. Throughout the rest of the play, however, as a younger man, Mance’s portrayal of Salieri felt just a touch too light. He captured the no-nonsense elements of his character and some desperation when he questioned his commitment to God after feeling like he had prepared him in all the wrong ways. But for some reason, I feel like the frail nature he expressed perfectly with Salieri in his old age sounded apparent throughout his entire performance. I don’t know, there’s just something about it that feels just a trite misplaced. All in all, his performance was hit-and-miss, but it was mostly a hit.
And most importantly, much like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, the actor playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stole the show! Everett Gregory was physically agile and boisterously loud whenever he spoke in character, and his expressions and reactions to things he agreed or disagreed with felt wild, loony, and entirely unlike what you would expect to see in one of the greatest composers who ever lived. He nailed down Amadeus’ classic laugh and honed his physical wildness whenever he was his party animal self. When Amadeus was in the presence of the Viennese court or busy with his work, Gregory looked steadfast in his opinions on his music. It’s also not without shreds of goofiness to his character as he expressed a particular artistic ambition to him, which set him on the path as a composer and one of the finest to ever share his work with the world.
Since Amadeus is a biopic on stage, this would inevitably raise questions about how much of what happened in the play happened in real-life. However, concerning many of the historical accounts of Amadeus or Salieri, I heard that most of what happened in their lives was generally extreme or wild, sometimes beyond comprehension. Hence, the amount of such questionable features can be traced here in the play, primarily through Salieri’s sometimes-true-but-sometimes-not recollection of what he saw in Amadeus as he grew more famous with his music. Considering how tricky it is to portray Amadeus and his life story without veering too far from rational analysis, it was a marvel that Peter Shaffer presented and honored the story of Amadeus with such flair and skillful ingenuity as in the play.
No matter how you look at it, historically or musically, Amadeus is a fascinating look into the life of one of the greatest, if also unusual, composers to ever have walked the earth. And the point of view present to witness it all and share it with the world would take you on a very eye-opening journey into a man’s psyche as he faced certain elements that were foreign to him based on his beliefs and convictions. It’s the same thing with Amadeus as he tried to express his music despite his peers not agreeing with his musical tastes. It was brought to us very smoothly with Peter Shaffer’s creative writing and the actors’ spirited performances.
You know the play had done something right when it told the story of a famous musical composer and ended up feeling like a classical symphony itself.
A strong A-
Magic Circle Players. M.A. Smith as Antonio Salieri and Corie Smith as Katherina Cavalieri. Facebook, 6 November 2022. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=589655369625069&set=pcb.589655602958379
Magic Circle Players. M.A. Smith as Antonio Salieri testing out his music over the piano with fellow musicians. Facebook, 6 November 2022. https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=589655582958381&set=pcb.589655602958379
Magic Circle Players. From L to R: M.A. Smith as Antonio Salieri, Corie Smith as Katherina Cavalieri, Bill Bottomly as Count Orsini-Rosenberg (back view), and Everett Gregory as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Facebook, 6 November 2022. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=589655552958384&set=pcb.589655602958379
Magic Circle Players. Everett Gregory as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Janel Culver as Constanze Weber. Facebook, 6 November 2022. https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=589655429625063&set=pcb.589655602958379