Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mock Me, Amadeus

My wife Beth and I went to a wonderful production of Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus,” performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. In 1984 we saw the film and enjoyed it, although I couldn’t quite disassociate Tom Hulce’s Mozart from his role in “Animal House." I also read the play during an early 80s. I think I prefer the play to the film, since (in a reversal of the cliche “show, don’t tell”) you miss Salieri’s wonderful narration which the film renders visually.

Although I enjoy the work, I’ve always felt very ambivalent about it. As a history lover, I hate to see the historical figures used and distorted to dramatize philosophical problems. (See for a good discussion of the historical Mozart and Salieri.)

The philosophical problems is real and potentially painful: why are some people immensely gifted and others are not? Why is talent independent of goodness (and some talented people, like Wagner, Picasso, and others) have terrible failings as human beings)? I tend to think that, if (Shaffer’s) Salieri experiences a loss of faith so quick, bitter, and complete, then his faith was not that strong to begin with. But that’s not entirely fair: people of strong faith do encounter faith-shaking crises, including jealousy.

Is the play's ending really supposed to be so cynical? Is Salieri, who is so mediocre he can’t even kill himself successfully, now a Christ figure who removes the guilt of mediocrity from the rest of us? Are we all mediocrities because Mozart was so immensely gifted--but mediocrities who can now live in peace?

Something occurred to me, though. What if Salieri is an “unreliable narrator”? What if he (in T.S. Eliot's famous "Dry Salvages" line) had the experience but missed the meaning? He complains that he alone, among his (1781-1791) contemporaries, is able to discern God’s gift and voice in Mozart’s music. What if this is God’s gift of faith to Salieri, instead of a way God mocks his devotion?

As another great genius, Einstein, put it, "God is subtle, but malicious he is not."

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