It was there on the dining room table, in my childhood home, the VHS of “Amadeus.” “The man,” the tag line began, followed by a tantalizing ellipses, “…the music…the madness…the murder…the motion picture.”
Never before had the case of a film been so alluring, those taunting words presided over by a menacing figure in an elaborate, dark headdress. I was sure, a child humming “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik,” that it could not be about the Amadeus I knew; Mozart, the composer of those light, ecstatic notes, could not inspire an image or a slogan so utterly mysterious.
Yet for Peter Shaffer, the British playwright who passed away on Monday at 90 years old, he did. The playwright’s pen, which lent the story first to the stage, and then to the screen, inspired ardor and curiosity in millions.
His idea was simple, almost musical: give drama to the story of Mozart’s brief life by drawing it out in counterpoint with that of Antonio Salieri, the court composer to the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. In Shaffer’s hands, the two men’s lives and work darted towards and apart from one another, Mozart light, joyful, puerile, and Salieri obsessed, desperate, seized by a disgust with his rival exceeded only by his revulsion at his own comparative lack of talent.
It was unique. Oh, it was remarkable, the story not only about art, death, and madness, but the complicated emotional underpinnings of male relationships. That theme was one that Shaffer would revisit in much of his work, including his other most famous play, “Equus,” built on a similarly engrossing concept: a religiously-raised stable boy, after being seduced in his stable, blinds the horses in his care, obsessed with the idea that they were watching. The play found its tension in the relationship between that boy, Alan Strang, and his psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart. It was a different sort of masculine relationship, but one with no fewer depths to explore.
Many thought Shaffer’s focus on the competition and compassion between men stemmed from his relationship with his twin brother Anthony, also a well-recognized playwright. The two were born to Jewish parents in Liverpool in 1926. During World War II, the young Shaffer was a coal miner. He studied at Cambridge and then moved to New York, where he worked for the New York Public Library. He wrote his first play upon returning to Britain; called “The Salt Land” and focused on the newly-minted State of Israel, it was the first of several works in which he addressed issues informed by his Jewish heritage. These included the 1985 “Yonadab,” centered on the scheming nephew of King David. That play was not well received; writing of its first production, the Chicago Tribune’s Matthew Wolf declared it to be “an embarrassing dramatic carapace full of the usual Shaffer flourishes.”
Perhaps the verbosity Wolf criticized – including a brief, mention of Salieri’s “long verbal arias” in “Amadeus” – was part of the draw, for Shaffer, of Mozart.
“Your work is ingenious,” the Emperor Joseph said to the composer, in the film of “Amadeus.” “It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”
“Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” Mozart retorted. Like his author, he knew his technique, and he reveled in it. And at his best, Shaffer, like his subject, could hold a whole audience – critics and children alike – in thrall.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TalyaZax