God Stars in Obscene Life of Child-Genius and Triumphs

The most welcome 20th-anniversary production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus on Broadway belatedly told me something new about the celebrated play I’d seen twice before. I’m sure many others must have realized before me that the towering central role of the drama doesn’t belong to its obscene child-genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, nor to that righteous embodiment of mediocrity and self-consuming envy, court composer Antonio Salieri, who poisoned Mozart one way or another.

No, the star role in Amadeus , though unseen, is surely played by God–and what, or who, could be less fashionable? God in theater has been reduced to a walk-on role, a rumor, a broken promise, a nothing, since Waiting for Godot . In England, David Hare brought him on in his Church of England play Secret Rapture as “God, as it were,” for nowhere are there more doubters over sin and tonic than within the English clergy. In Angels in America , Tony Kushner argued magnificently with God like an Old Testament figure in search of justice, a sign, salvation. But I cannot think of another contemporary American dramatist who talks to God anymore.

Mr. Shaffer comes from an older English generation that wrestled with the divine as if God were a guest at the dinner party who never quite leaves. For example, to see the movie version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is to be taken back to a period when carnal desire and religious faith were worthy opponents. Greene, a shaky Catholic convert, once told his Catholic friend Evelyn Waugh that he was thinking of writing God out of his novels. “Oh, I wouldn’t,” Waugh replied. “It would be like P.G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series.”

Amadeus takes the form of a confessional. The decrepit, near-mad Salieri confesses his sins against Mozart (and we, the audience, are his silent confessors). The battle of the protagonists representing ungodly, all-too-human will versus the mysterious power of the divine is a recurring theme within Mr. Shaffer’s major plays–the conquistador Pizarro in The Royal Hunt of the Sun , the psychiatrist Dysart in Equus , the hack composer Salieri in Amadeus . Mr. Shaffer was a music critic in younger days, and once worked as a humble assistant at the London music publisher of Boosey & Hawkes, which is to music what Turnbull & Asser is to shirts. His awe at the source and inspiration of great music led to Amadeus .

It so happens I’m writing this column with the Mozart Requiem playing on the stereo. It seemed appropriate! But as I struggle to get the words right–to say what I mean to say in the wreckage–the sheer beauty of Mozart is perfection. It is overwhelming, unearthly, absolute. If God didn’t write this music, who did?

Well, Mozart–God’s messenger on earth, it’s said, and the embodiment of his love. What other explanation could there be? Poor virtuous Salieri, who sees a practical joke on humanity in the form of a foul-mouthed genius who could be an idiot savant, a holy fool laughing like a loon. Yet Mozart’s talent was blessed. What kind of divine justice is this?

“I was suddenly frightened,” says Salieri. “It seemed to me that I heard the voice of God–and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard–and it was the voice of an obscene child.”

This is the inspired thing: Mr. Shaffer has given us a tragic hero–Salieri verges on the tragicomic, too–who actually admits to his own mediocrity! Mozart defines it for him. Salieri’s talent isn’t blessed; his prayers go unanswered; his virtue is unrewarded. “Goodness could not make me a good composer,” he confesses. “Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.”

It is everything, incidentally, in the furnace of celebrity. We naïvely want our public figures to be “good.” And when we discover they are human, we refuse to believe it. If all great artists were perfect human beings, there would be no art. But Mr. Shaffer’s Mozart presents a bigger dilemma. As the tortured Salieri protests, in effect, to an indifferent God: “How could you do this to me? How could you choose him ?”

Mr. Shaffer has cleverly reversed the rules of mediocrity. The irredeemably second-rate of the world rarely admit it. That is how they ploddingly endure and even triumph. But Salieri not only admits to being the patron saint of mediocrities everywhere, he is the only member of the imperial Viennese Court to recognize Mozart’s sublime talent.

“Too many notes!” is Emperor Joseph II’s judgment of The Abduction From the Seraglio . But Salieri possesses talent enough to recognize far superior gifts. In one of the drama’s most effective scenes, he examines Mozart’s original manuscripts, sees there are no corrections whatsoever to the score–and faints dead away. Mozart had simply transcribed the music completely finished in his head.

Salieri’s argument isn’t with Mozart. It’s with God, or fate. And God has the last laugh. For though Salieri was widely celebrated in his time, who today could name even one piece of his music?

Peter Hall, the original director of Amadeus with Paul Scofield’s Salieri in 1979, has done fine work with this new staging, along with the stylish designs of William Dudley. The ensemble is strong, with a measured, ironic turn from David McCallum as an Emperor Joseph puffed with grandiose ignorance, and–welcome change from the usual flighty Constanze–the touching realism of Cindy Katz as Mozart’s wife. But in a reaction against the theatricality of Ian McKellen’s renowned 1980 Salieri or the unctuous slime of F. Murray Abraham’s film version, David Suchet has underplayed his hand.

The accomplished Mr. Suchet–known here as the meticulous Hercule Poirot on the PBS Mystery series–avoids the purely villainous in favor of an Everyman of the ordinary. He’s playing against type, but, for me, a good dollop of villainy never did evil–or Amadeus –any harm. Mr. Shaffer must be the only dramatist to keep rewriting his plays long after they’ve become successful. He recently rethought Salieri for this production–after 20 years! He has shifted Salieri’s character away from the more showily melodramatic toward the fallibly human version that Mr. Suchet plays. But the outcome is a Salieri reduced in size; Salieri now even asks Mozart’s forgiveness in a new scene. Our Salieri! It isn’t a case of too many notes, but too much conscience.

There are rewards enough, even so–not least the electric Broadway debut of Michael Sheen as Mozart. This young Welsh actor would seem to have it all, including a glorious future. His energy, for one thing, is infectious, quicksilver, giddy–a Mozart manic or possessed. He seizes the territory–the stage–as if it belongs to him. Why not? It belonged to Mozart. He manages to convey the spontaneous exuberance of young unstoppable gifts with the anguish of a horribly spurned talent. You see why great music poured out of Mozart. There was no choice.

Mr. Sheen recently triumphed in London as Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s 1956 Look Back in Anger . Perhaps he can play anything–Hamlet soon, or Buster Keaton. We’ll see. He sometimes resembles a white-face clown in Amadeus , playing the innocent whose genius was kissed by God and condemned to an early death.