A few months ago, playwright Peter Shaffer died. His death received a shameful lack of ceremony in the mainstream media, even considering the glut of celebrity deaths happening around that time. But there was a time when this man was the greatest ‘legitimate’ playwright of his era. His two greatest and most enduring masterpieces are probably the most beloved ‘straight’ plays to emerge on Broadway since the heyday of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
The first one was the incredibly disturbing and always controversial exploration of the nature of insanity, Equus. The second was the no less tragic, but far more lyrical and poetic retelling of the downfall of legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aptly titled Amadeus (which, of course, means ‘loved by God’, a key theme in the story).
The most famous version of the story of second-rate composer Salieri’s vendetta against Mozart has proved to be the familiar movie version with F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. But while Shaffer did write the screenplay to the movie as well, there are enormous differences between the movie and the stage play, and in many of these differences it is the stage play that comes off better in the comparison.
For one thing, the film has gained the show a reputation as an open debauch of historical fact, something that is actually much less true in the stage show. The events of the stage show, while they obviously didn’t really happen, are careful not to contradict any anything we actually know for sure (or at least anything that has made it into the realm of common knowledge), so it’s much easier to imagine that these events could have happened without anyone knowing.
The stage play’s text is, impressively, both far more eloquent than the film’s script, and far more concise. The film’s dialogue, while fairly literate by film standards, had been pared down from the verbal sophistication and complexity of the play’s original speech, resulting in a somewhat flatter and less nuanced treatment of its themes, as well as the loss of much of the poetic beauty of Shaffer’s language itself. At the same time, the film gets bogged down in heavy, pedantic scenes of discussion and negotiation that the lighter, fleeter stage version manages to avoid…having Salieri narrate the story directly to the audience contributed greatly to an impressive economy of exposition.
Granted, the movie still may have been the most effective version of the property up to that point. It introduced a key element that, while present in the earliest drafts of the show, was virtually lost by the time of its first Broadway engagement: Salieri’s gradually growing pity for the man he has destroyed, and his realization that Mozart might not be as unworthy of God’s favor as he initially thought.
The versions of the show prior to the movie, for all their good qualities, were ultimately more in the realm of hiss-the-villain melodrama than the legitimate tragedy to which the film elevated the story. That said, Shaffer’s final draft of the stage show, seen in the 1999 Broadway production and preserved in the current published script, is an enormous improvement even on the movie, finally bringing the material to its full fulfillment and combining the best elements of the movie and the earlier stage productions.
And of course, one cannot begin to discuss this play without talking about the music that inspired it and that permeates its action. The historical facts behind the play may be questionably portrayed at times, but everything the show observes about Mozart’s music is true, with its description of his final Requiem Mass (‘something immortal, and yet stinking of death’) being a particularly apt and pithy observation.
Amadeus may not technically be a musical, but its expert use of Mozart’s catalogue elevates it to a level of lyricism beyond the reach of most straight plays, or indeed most musicals. And legendary conductor Sir Neville Marriner, who has become almost synonymous with the show, soundtracking both the film and the 1999 production, was a superb choice, offering renditions of Mozart’s music that is most cases could comfortably compete with almost any other version out there.
As I said, Shaffer’s death was mostly ignored by the mainstream, which seems like a heartbreaking injustice to the man. Shaffer was every bit as great an artist as David Bowie or Prince, but because he worked purely in the theater for the most part, and his only brush with the mainstream was in the notoriously underappreciated role of Hollywood screenwriter, most ordinary people would have no idea who he is today. But then, Mozart died unappreciated too, so there might be something somehow fitting about Shaffer taking the same path to greatness. In any case, like his famous subject, he will undoubtedly have the last laugh in the end…after all, genius like his doesn’t get forgotten by history.