Remember Salieri.

Categories: Crit & Lit

Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus should be near and dear to the heart of every artist. Regardless of medium, Amadeus speaks to the creative process, those who endeavor to pursue its ends, and the ultimate unjust nature of talent and of life in general. Many people are more familiar with the film version that Milos Forman directed (Shaffer did write the screenplay and was a heavy collaborator throughout), and there are some differences between the two—scenes omitted and added, slight changes—but the core idea remains the same. The historical Antonio Salieri, who was born 260 years ago yesterday, may have been completely different than the one portrayed in Shaffer’s play; in fact Amadeus comes under heavy criticism for its historical inaccuracy. But historical accuracy is not in any way the point of Amadeus. Rather it is a psychological examination of envy, injustice—both human and cosmic—and talent.


The title of the play, Amadeus, leads audiences to think that it is a story about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But this is not the case. This is the story of Shaffer’s fictional Antonio Salieri. So why then is it titled so? In Latin, Amadeus means ‘beloved of God’ and this concept, that one is the beloved of god—while others are not—is the central theme of the play. The link between Mozart and God is made very openly by Salieri in both the play and the movie. He often refers to Mozart as ’the creature’ which serves as a very clever double entendre, connoting a monster, in our colloquial use of the word, but also referring to ‘a being that was created,’ implying again Mozart’s connection to God. It’s very clear that Salieri believes in God, both when he worships him and when he fights against him, but Shaffer’s relationship with God is rather ambiguous. What drives Salieri to madness and murder is not God, though he perceives it as such, but rather the absence of God, the absence of cosmic justice.


Shaffer’s Mozart and Salieri are written as two extreme ends of a spectrum. Mozart is crude, shallow, immoral in nearly every way, lustful, careless, and vulgar. His music comes to him naturally, in his head, without effort. During the play Mozart says more than once that “music is easy.” Mozart is also virile. He is Salieri’s sexual as well as musical rival. This plays a key feature in their relationship and in explaining Salieri’s thoughts and actions. Mozart is all the faults of man wrapped up in a tidy package, and he, the creature, is the one who is chosen by God to be his mouthpiece through music.


Salieri on the other hand seems to start out as the polar opposite. He is chaste, pious, virtuous, decent, with noble aspirations and he understands and explicitly states the term of his moral contract with God. Reduced to simplicity, it is ‘I will be a good man in exchange for your grace, favor, and inspiration.’ However, this is only how Salieri sees himself. The audience sees quite a different Salieri. Salieri’s gluttony is exposed early on and it is a key element of his character. His love for sweets, though harmless on the surface, is a keyhole into Salieri’s basic moral make-up. In Dorothy Sayer’s commentary on The Divine Comedy, she states that “[gluttony] is degradation to solitary self-indulgence.” It is not the act of eating in itself that is evil, but that one’s libido and virtue is focused inward, to one’s self, in excess. Secondly, Salieri is a prideful man. His “pious” bargain with God is obviously flawed in its very nature. He desires fame and thinks he can strike a deal with the deity to attain it.


When Salieri finally breaks down, his reasoning is this: why is it that Mozart, who is so obviously flawed and unworthy, has such great musical talent (and sexual prowess) while he, Salieri, who is such a just and worthy vessel, is denied it? Salieri concludes that it must be because God is mocking him, despises him, that there are elect and preterite and Mozart is the former while he is the latter, that Mozart is truly the beloved of God. But the actual answer, the one everyone, especially artists, knows, is that the reason things are so is because there is no cosmic justice. Salieri is just as shocked that he is not struck down by God for interfering with His plans as he is that God has not honored his initial bargain. What this leads to is the core problem of the human condition and all of its religions: how can God and injustice both exist? It is this problem which led Ivan Karamazov to utter his famous words, “All is permitted.” Salieri, faced with the idea that there is indeed no God and no justice in the world, cannot cope and descends into madness.


But cosmic justice is only one kind of justice. Basic human justice is another kind and it is equally flawed. Just as Salieri is on the receiving end of cosmic injustice, so is Shaffer’s Mozart on the receiving end of human injustice. His music is the best. Yet he is poor, destitute, unable to operate within the formal, political court and thus socially exiled. He cannot get pupils because of his vulgarity, casual attitude, and (somewhat true) rumors about his sexual appetite. He dies poor and emaciated, his body dumped in an unmarked mass grave. Meanwhile, Salieri, who by his own word makes only “mediocre” music, is the most successful musician in Vienna. He lives in luxury, has titles and honorifics of the highest order. He is the musical right hand to the emperor and the people love his work—for a time. Salieri is the social elite, a self-made man, risen through the social ranks to the very top, yet his art, his work, is only mediocre.


This kind of human injustice is just as often encountered as the existential cosmic injustice of God or the universe. There doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between hard work and success, between talent and success, between virtue and reward, between wrongdoing and punishment. It is this incongruity that drives Salieri’s madness and despair, as it has for many since the dawn of man. Most people are imbued with an innate sense of “justice.” People may quibble over the particulars but it is commonly accepted that there is an ideal causal order. However, objective natural reality offers no such terms and human institutions designed to provide this ideal always fall short.


Slavoj Zizek, in chapter two of his How to Read Lacan, discusses this in detail. He says:

Lacan shares with Nietzsche and Freud the idea that justice as equality is equally founded on envy: our envy of the other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it. The demand for justice is ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the other should be curtailed, so that everyone’s access to enjoyment will be equal. The necessary outcome of this demand, of course, is asceticism: since it is not possible to impose equal enjoyment, what one can impose is an equally shared prohibition.


This is the relationship between Salieri and Mozart. Mozart simply enjoys too much. Salieri is an ascetic. Perhaps his heart harbors hidden, sinful desires, but his actions are ascetic. And it is in this asceticism that he comes to resent Mozart and Mozart’s ability to enjoy life. In the play it is directly stated, by Mozart, that Salieri “can’t get it up.” The film is more oblique on this matter, but still portrays Salieri as a largely asexual creature. His attempt to seduce Stanzi, Mozart’s wife, ends in an impotent display of cruelty (as impotence often does) when he kicks her out of his house after she has bared herself to him. This sort of self-denial is fundamental to Salieri’s makeup. In his heart, he believes that self-denial is the path to reward. When this reward is not manifest, his pent-up frustration, both sexual and moral, becomes hatred. Mozart is characterized in both the play and the movie by his “obscene” giggle. The reason why this giggle is labeled obscene is because it clearly displays, for all to see, that Mozart enjoys life excessively.


Amadeus is a short, yet incredibly dense work that gets right to the heart of both the human condition and the artist’s dilemma.  It offers no answers to either, but poses the questions in such a way that one feels empathy and pity for both Mozart and Salieri. One should not approach this play or film looking for historical insight into the actual flesh-and-blood Mozart and Salieri. Shaffer’s Mozart and Salieri are archetypes of the human drama, the carefree prodigy and the hard-working mediocrity, the destitute true artist and the wealthy, elite game-player. That these archetypes have been embodied in these two historical composers is done for one reason—so that the audience of the play or film can hear the beautiful, yearning music of Mozart, explained in its greatness by none other than Salieri, and wonder to themselves if its composer wasn’t indeed the beloved of God. Unfortunately, as the Requiem mass ends without resolution in Shaffer’s play, so does this strand of existential thought—for if there are those who are beloved by God, what is to become of those who are not?


Remember Salieri.




Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at



by Blogger L_Monty on ‎08-21-2010 10:46 AM

What a fantastic column. And there, above it, an oboe.

by Yonina_Dove on ‎08-27-2010 11:38 AM

I've only seen the movie, but I will be purchasing the book soon. I love the depth of the characters, although mozart is shallow, there is more to his development throughout the story than the shallow beating of his heart. The many emotions that are felt by both Salieri and Mozart create the story, giving greater meaning to it.

by GrumpleWumpkins on ‎09-20-2010 03:52 AM

Our B&N Ladies may remember "An Evening in M. Brendle's Reading Room," a play of One Act and few words: "Salieri, but Poseur; Nas, Brut, and then..... Short." ;P~~~~

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