I realised that books which explore the power of envy fascinate and stay with me for a long time. While writing my previous blog post on Peter & Max, Amadeus, a play written by Peter Shaffer lurked in the back of my mind. I remember the intricate emotions and relationships explored in this play whenever I encounter envy in the reality of ordinary life.
This play is about the envy and adoration a court musician named Salieri has for his younger contemporary, Mozart, and how these emotions led to his spiritual and mental destruction, culminating in Mozart’s death and Salieri’s madness. There could not have been a better title than Amadeus (which in Latin means “love of God” or “the object of God’s adoration”) for this play, it being incidentally the name of Mozart, and a grace Salieri longed for all his life.
The play begins with an old and mad Salieri who makes a conceited confession of his sins to the audience, and traces the development of a seemingly pious man who made a deal with God, offering to live a life of chastity and virtue in exchange for worldwide fame and becoming the best musician there ever was. The irony and hypocrisy is emphasised by Shaffer early in the play: Salieri could never resist even the slightest temptation of sweets. The plot takes off at the end of Act I with Salieri’s vow to avenge himself against God who granted the precious gift he had longed for to a childish, ridiculous, and immoral Mozart. Salieri sees Mozart as a metaphor for the battlefield on which he will fight God.
Overall, the play is tightly written and fast-paced, with some Italian woven into the dialogue, transporting the audience back to the music scene of late 18th-century Europe. The use of onomatopoeia as well as musical jargon when necessary allows readers to hear the music in their minds, should they have no chance of watching the play in person. An important point to note here is that Mozart is seen through the eyes of Salieri whose inner life has been invented by Shaffer and is therefore exempted from the necessity of historical accuracy. This, coupled with the intense loathing Salieri feels towards Mozart, makes the distinction between fact and fiction irrelevant. Instead, the subject of the play is the exploration of envy, talent, pride, and a piety gone wrong.
The play was adapted into a 1984 film of the same title, and both the play and the film are available in library@esplanade. I prefer the play and I recommend reading it as well as watching the film, especially if you like Mozart’s music. The characters, relationships, and emotions in Amadeus are definitely more complex, deep, and dramatic than the Korean dramas of our time.