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Feeling Not So Great 

Peter Shaffer and Amadeus pay homage to the mediocre

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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I could have been a Schopenhauer. I could have been a

Dostoyevsky! What am I saying? I’m losing my mind!

--Vanya,

from Anton Chekhov‘s Uncle Vanya

Near the close of Peter Shaffer’s still-enthralling play Amadeus (now at the Ahmanson in a Broadway-bound revival directed by Sir Peter Hall, who also staged its 1979 premiere), the doddering Viennese First Royal Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, dying and obviously in a Catholic mood, addresses the audience: “And when you feel the dreadful bite of your failures -- and hear the taunting of unachievable, uncaring God -- I will whisper my name to you: ‘Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities!’”

Therein lies the work‘s sharpest hook, which goes a long way toward explaining its appeal, as well as that of Milos Forman’s film, adapted by Shaffer from his play. After all, who hasn‘t felt the bite of failure? Yet from this passage, you’d think Salieri were some hack -- a view largely supported by the drama, in which the court composer is continually lauded by musical buffoons, while the true genius-in-residence, Wolfgang A., goes largely unrecognized and unrewarded. Or, to quote Shaffer‘s Salieri, “I must endure 30 years of being called distinguished by people incapable of distinguishing.”

Shaffer spoke to the Weekly in the theater’s lobby. By the playwright‘s own admission, Salieri -- composition instructor for both Beethoven and Liszt -- was decidedly no hack, and remains highly respected today. Which makes Amadeus the kind of fib for which Salieri might sue Shaffer for slander were he alive today, against which the playwright could defend himself with what might be called a “narrative defense” -- that he was writing from the character’s point of view. For though there are dozens of people in Amadeus, and notwithstanding Mozart‘s own petulant flailings, only one actually describes Salieri as a mediocrity, and that’s Salieri himself (the single person in Vienna capable of appreciating Mozart‘s brilliance). “Spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantine Mozart! . . . shit-talking Mozart with his botty-smacking wife -- him, you have chosen to be your sole conduct,” Salieri protests to God in a pique of jealousy.

Indeed, Amadeus is a revenge melodrama that pits Salieri not so much against Mozart as against God -- and all because Salieri harbors the illusion that God should hold out artistic excellence as a reward for moral virtue. That someone as gifted as Mozart should be so vain and vulgar is, in Salieri’s mind, God‘s mockery of man in general, and of Salieri in particular. The play keeps using the word “mediocrity,” but Amadeus isn’t really about mediocrity at all. It‘s about Salieri’s low evaluation of himself, which fuels both his jealousy and Shaffer‘s cruel and thrilling homage.

In the context of discussing the swift successes of Shaffer’s earlier plays, notably The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus, he considered the question of whether or not Amadeus‘ concern with mediocrity, and how Shaffer linked that theme to the bubble bath of celebrity, had had anything to do with the playwright’s fears about his own reputation and talent. The wording was actually: “In what camp does Peter Shaffer ally himself, with Mozart or with Salieri?”

Shaffer, a soft-spoken, silver-haired man suffering that day from jet lag, rubbed his eyes before taking a slug of bottled water.

“You‘d have to be a raving lunatic to say one identifies with Mozart,” he said. “One stands at a distance, in awe. What fascinates me about Mozart is his indispensability as Mozart.” That last part seemed a bit vague -- even to Shaffer. Then he was more direct: “I can’t answer that question, because I haven‘t really reflected on it.”

To his credit, Shaffer gave the question a second try, although, again, the response was an evasion, albeit a fascinating one. He said that after writing the scene in which Mozart jumps over a chair and speaks in scatological baby talk to his fiancee, Constanze, he read an observation by Mozart’s contemporary Karoline Pichler:

“She was wandering about and discovered Mozart playing [the harpsichord] all alone, playing ever more extravagant variations, so she stayed. And when he saw her, he became self-conscious. And what she writes is, ‘He suddenly stopped, jumped over the chair, meowed and ran out of the room.’”

Here, Shaffer re-emphasized the point that he read this passage after he had written the scene in which Mozart and Constanze play a game of cat-and-mouse, implying that he must have been, on some level, tuned in to Mozart‘s spirit or personality. (Similarly, Shaffer insists he did not read Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri until after he had completed Amadeus.)

“[Mozart‘s] far too serious to be serious,” Shaffer continued. “Obviously, he was a highly charged man -- his feet never stopped moving. I don’t identify with that side of him. I find genius on that level so awe-inspiring that the notion of being jealous of it is ridiculous. Which is why I felt a kind of sorrow for Salieri, who entertains the familiar belief that talent has something to do with goodness. Mozart may have been irritating, but he was never vicious.”

Shaffer said that his involvement with this revival -- which premiered last year at London‘s Old Vic Theatre -- has been extensive.

“I work with Peter Hall very collaboratively and with enormous pleasure,” he said. “Revisiting a play after 20 years is like trying to have the same child twice -- and with the same director, who also doesn’t want to retread his old footsteps. I think I‘m working from the desire to get right what was never quite right in the first place. I was never entirely happy with the play.

”[In 1979] the play became splendidly melodramatic,“ Shaffer continues. ”I have no quarrel with melodrama. I love it, the haunting of Mozart by Salieri. Yet I felt that the play escaped into melodrama at the moment of the climax, when the colloquy between the two men was nudged out by histrionics. Particularly, I wanted to explore an area which had not been given its proper due, the area of what it feels like to get up every morning and deliberately set out to destroy what he [Salieri] loves. If a man is almost alone in his culture in perceiving the wonder of Mozart’s music, he must also have a certain sensitivity, and it was this area, a more human area than the donning of a cape and a mask, that was crying out for exploration. In other words, to change the play without making it less exciting -- from melodrama to drama to tragedy, if you like. I really don‘t tend to express satisfaction with my own work, but I’m more satisfied this time than I‘ve ever been, because it seems to me right. And I hope the public will think so also.“

Shaffer did express a concern that audiences in this movie capital will arrive at the Ahmanson expecting a stage version of the film, when, in fact, the film was spun from the play. Shaffer prefers the play, which he feels is more eloquent and, not surprisingly, more theatrical.

He also said he’s currently working on a screen adaptation of his play Lettice and Lovage (for which he hopes to entice Maggie Smith and Judi Dench for the two leads), as well as a new play -- one that‘s been germinating for nearly three years -- about Tchaikovsky’s last days. He insists that he has no intention of revisiting Amadeus‘ turf when writing about another composer: ”I like to think that every play is completely different.“

It’s been said, however, that Shaffer keeps writing the same play over and over, an opinion based on the perception of common threads. It‘s no insult, I suggested. The same has been said of Chekhov.

”If anyone ever compares me to Chekhov,“ Shaffer replied, ”I’ll die a happy man.“

Later, as we headed toward an elevator, he reached out and whispered, ”One thing I want to make clear -- please don‘t think I’m comparing myself to Chekhov. We‘re after completely different things. Chekhov wrote with such compassion and compression, such economy. What he did was genius.“

Which, of course, does not render Shaffer mediocre. It does, however, place him squarely in Salieri’s camp. At last, in a roundabout way, Shaffer had answered the question.

Amadeus plays at the Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; matinees Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 28; (213) 628-2772. See review in Calendar under ”Larger Theaters.“

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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