A little theological background. Indulge me, please. In the 17th century cities rose and fell, bloody wars were fought, people were ostracized or even murdered over the question of "election." Colonial Massachusetts and Rhode Island actually parted on the issue. But election wasn't the appointment of public officials or some authority ruling civil society. Election was God's grace, His anointment of his chosen. It was the salvation and ascension of the individual soul, the question of whom did God love, and why?
Many people believed that the grace of God was contingent on good works and human action. God could be bargained with. He set rules. If you kept them well, you were saved. Others believed that God's grace was beyond human understanding. God bestowed His grace mysteriously, even randomly, and good works or anti-social behavior counted for nothing. One's entire definition of self could hang on whether you were one of the chosen.
In the lingering light of this theological dispute Peter Shaffer wages the cosmic battle of Antonio Salieri against God over God's choice of Wolfgang Mozart as the conduit of His divine voice from heaven into the world of men. Salieri, famed court composer to Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the latter 1700s, has made his promise of virtuous commitment to God, begging in return that God will favor him with success as a composer and reward his labors as a musician with the ability to create beauty, order, and the revelation of something beyond the ordinary. Salieri is a man of the Enlightenment, educated, refined, very hard-working, and musically talented, a "good man, as the world calls good." Music is his life. What he longs for in music, especially his own, is the Absolute, the perfect spiritual qualities of Creation transmitted through composed sound that Pythagoras named "the music of the spheres."
But the musician revealed as God's instrument is not Salieri, but Mozart. And Mozart's incredible ability to bring forth these exquisite, unedited compositions is simply a gift of God. Mozart works at billiards, he finds marriage difficult, he finds court diplomacy impossible, but music? Music is easy. The sound comes into his head and he writes it down and it is perfect: "Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall...through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes...an Absolute Beauty!" Worse for Salieri, Mozart is not the kind of good man the world calls good. "What is goodness in the furnace of art?" He is infantile, vain, potty-mouthed, randy, self-indulgent, proud, spendthrift, selfish, and tone deaf to the subtleties of survival at court. And a genius. Where Salieri is pious, Mozart is irreverent. Where Salieri is circumspect, Mozart is thoughtless. Where Salieri is rational, Mozart is chaotic. Out of the chaos of his life and the silly childishness and sexual abandon, Mozart creates wonder and ecstatic precision. Salieri labors within the conventions of his time to glorify heaven and the aristocracy of Salzburg. Messy Mozart invents, innovates, breaks through the boundaries of his time's art to transform the ordinary of his everyday life into the timeless immortal. It isn't fair.
In Joseph II's court, Mozart is too challenging for his time and place, both in music and personality. He offends everyone (often with Salieri's sly help). He writes "too many notes." He glorifies servants and commoners. With terrible irony, Salieri is the only person who comprehends Mozart's genius, the only one who can hear the voice of God in Mozart's compositions. Salieri, a talented musician in his time, hears only the shortcomings of his own music when he listens to Mozart. "Why? What is my fault?" Betrayed, tormented, boiling with envy, he feels mocked by God and determines, as his revenge on God, to destroy Mozart. Playing on the trust of his naïve rival, Salieri manipulates court, aristocrats, Masonic Brothers, and the listening public to undo him, poisoning (metaphorically) Mozart's chances for worldly success and survival, even as the younger composer's genius lifts him higher into glory. Tragically, Salieri's acts of malicious jealousy corrupt his own moral life as well.
Amadeus is a melodramatic expansion on rumors that flew around after Mozart's untimely death at 35. In his demented old age Salieri did attempt suicide and claim to have poisoned Mozart and there were scandalous whispers. Yes, there was rivalry between the historic Antonio Salieri, with his highly successful career, and the hapless Wolfgang Mozart, who never could get his career off the ground even as he continued to compose the most extraordinary music for opera, church, and chamber. Mozart probably died of rheumatic fever, although his poverty certainly didn't help his health. But there also seems to have been mutual respect between the two and it is known that Salieri performed Mozart's work on several occasions. While the play is largely fictional, the legendary relationship provided Peter Shaffer with the stage on which to enact the great and mysterious tension between mediocre, ordinary mankind and the inexplicable presence of true genius.
Peter Shaffer was born in Liverpool, England in 1926, the identical twin of Anthony Shaffer (d. 2001), who also became an award-winning playwright. Although educated at prestigious St. Paul's and at Trinity College, Cambridge, Peter Shaffer was one of the "Bevin Boys" who worked in the coal mines during the war to release miners for active duty. He has written poignantly of how he recited Shakespeare's plays in his head to kill the awful boredom of pulling coal carts in the underground darkness. A produced, much-honored playwright since the 1950s, Shaffer's work, which includes such modern classics as Five Finger Exercise (1958), Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), and Equus (1973), often deals with the results of obsession, indeed, often of religious obsession. He is known for tinkering and rewriting, even while plays are in production. Amadeus was rewritten six times over twenty years, principally in the final confrontation scene between Salieri and the dying Mozart. At last, in 1999, Shaffer felt he had the balance right, tempering the monstrosity of Salieri's deeds with his very human guilt and agony, his denied atonement. Thus, the audience feels pity as well as terror and we step from melodrama into the realm of real tragedy.