The Little Tragedy

Amadeus (1984)

illustration by Moses Lee

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I can almost see you in your ranks—waiting for your turn to live. Ghosts of the future. Be visible. I beg you. Will you not enter this place and stay with me till dawn? What must I do to make you visible? Rise you up in the flesh to be my audience? Gracious readers, obliging companions, I present to you, my composition, entitled: The Little Tragedy; or, Did He Do It?

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The 18th century has been termed the Age of Enlightenment. During this time, scientists discovered new wrinkles in the earth’s form and function, and decentralized our place in the universe. Philosophers expanded human perspectives on our own consciousness—now, individuals had a right to life and liberty, not just service to the crown. To some, the Enlightenment represented a rejection of God, or at least organized religion. Immanuel Kant argued that holy texts were really the work of fallible humans, not the divine word of the Lord. Voltaire shouted “Écrasez l’infâme!”—Crush the infamous thing!—by which he meant the Catholic Church. 

And then, in 1756, there was the miracle which God let be born in Salzburg. That was how Leopold Mozart described his son Wolfgang’s prepubescent mastery of the harpsichord. He framed the boy as exactly that on their years-long tours of Europe during Wolfgang’s child prodigy era. “If ever I have an obligation to convince the world of this miracle,” Leopold wrote, “it is precisely now, when people ridicule anything that is called a miracle.” This incredible child, who could play a keyboard without looking, who could extemporize on any theme, who would be composing symphonies before his teens, was proof of God’s existence, and His love.

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Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 short play Mozart and Salieri, collected in the anthology The Little Tragedies, is told in just two scenes. In the first, Salieri—erudite court composer—and Mozart—brash genius—talk in “a room,” and we learn that Salieri hates his rival and wishes to poison him. In the second scene, Mozart and Salieri meet again in “a private room in a restaurant.” There, Mozart describes his recent troubling visit by a dark-clad stranger who requests his Requiem. Mozart sees the stranger everywhere—the figure tails him like a shadow. Salieri is perturbed and poisons Mozart’s glass. Mozart plays a selection from his Requiem while Salieri weeps, and then the genius exits to sleep. End of play.

Little can be said for certain of the relationship between the historical Salieri and Mozart. Mozart did, apparently, accuse Salieri of blocking his success at various points, but provided little evidence. In the estimation of Mozart biographer Jan Swafford, “Salieri had no reason to see Mozart as a rival or to engage in plots against him.” In an 1825 article, composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner published his own recollections of Salieri, including the comment that “of Mozart he always spoke with marked respect” and even suggested “Salieri visited him on the last day but one of his life and was one of the very few who attended his funeral.”

Peter Shaffer claims never to have heard of Alexander Pushkin’s play when he took up the Salieri/Mozart rumors as subject matter. There were simply things that didn’t make sense in the story as it was told. Shaffer decided to investigate—and, more importantly, he decided to fictionalize.

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Amadeus—Miloš Forman’s 1984 film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 stage play of the same name—is the story of a rivalry, and it’s easiest to describe that feud as occurring between Salieri, the genteel craftsman, and Mozart, the buffoonish genius. But, more precisely, the feud is between Salieri and God, on whom he pins the blame for his torment. Mozart is only God’s instrument, and it’s God he hopes to kill, as much as, or more so than, Mozart. To this deity, he pledged lifelong devotion, but the capricious Lord bestowed genius not upon his humble servant, but rather upon a filthy brute. 

(On stage, Salieri has his Venticelli—“My ‘Little Winds,’ as I call them.” The Venticelli provide Salieri the information he needs when his own devices come up short.)

I asked, What is the central tragedy of Salieri?

V1 (Sydney Urbanek): One of my favorite details about the movie is that in that opening stretch, where Salieri’s being lifted to the hospital, he’s hearing Mozart pour out of ballrooms. Because that’s the popular music of Vienna throughout Mozart’s life and beyond. And so he’s being laughed at. It’s just another slight from God. Mozart doesn’t have to be alive to be torturing Salieri. 

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Leopold Mozart is glimpsed in the film as the living manifestation of Daddy issues, which would seem to basically align with the historical record. Leopold’s disappointment in his son’s more boorish and loutish tendencies stems from his disappointment in one central fact: his son is thumbing his nose at the miracle he’s meant to represent. Mozart the child was proof of God’s miraculous love. So what is the father to make of the man he’s become? 

Could a child prodigy be proof of God’s love? The suggestion is compelling–less so, to me (a Godless heathen), as a literal truth than as a thought experiment. Could one child’s talents be enough to refute a cultural slide away from blind faith in divinity? I asked, is the power of Mozart’s Andante in C, composed when he was just five years old, sufficiently inexplicable to be chalked up only to divine force?

V2 (Carmen Paddock): I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it’s proof of God. It’s certainly proof of the diversity and variety of human talents, and the randomness of fate. Of course, Mozart was a child prodigy. But his dad was a musician. His sister was a musician. He was raised in a musical household, he was encouraged in that direction. Mozart’s got the natural talent, and he’s had all the right circumstances for that natural talent to flourish.

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By the end of Forman’s film, Salieri has come to see himself as representing all mediocrities—from the priest who’s just taken his confession to the throngs of addled patients in the hallways of the asylum. “I am their champion. I am their patron saint.” He rolls down the halls, absolving the mediocrities around him for their sin of insufficiency. “Finally,” reads the shooting script (written by Forman and Shaffer in tandem) Salieri “turns full-face to the camera and blesses us the audience.” We are all mediocrities ourselves. 

On stage, Salieri gilds the lily even further. “When you,” he tells us—his ghosts of the future—”feel the dreadful bite of your failures—and the taunting of an unachievable, uncaring God—I will whisper my name to you.” 

I asked, do we push back against this allegation? Or am I a mediocrity? And, furthermore, are you?

V3 (Marisa C. Hayes): I tend to be a bit of a transcendentalist, myself. So I aspire to a form of transcendence, and I struggle to accept mediocrity. But in all modesty, knowing that most of us are far less special, and are drops in the bucket much more so than we tend to think–I’m trying to keep one foot on the ground, and another raised in the air towards transcendence. I’d love to be the more Mozartean variety. But I’m probably not.

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Salieri holds himself responsible for Mozart’s death. This is how we meet him, and this is how we leave him. But the circumstances of the man’s culpability have varied widely in different tellings of this tale.

In every case, Salieri sees himself as Mozart’s murderer. And in every case—be it on stage or screen, at least in Peter Shaffer’s tellings—the poisoning is subtle, a sort of death by passive aggression. He poisons Mozart psychologically rather than physiologically.

On screen, Salieri’s machinations are elaborate, involving the planted maid (not a factor on stage), the intrusion of Leopold (only referenced on stage), and his own role as the dark messenger. Salieri takes up the mask, and Salieri makes the demands.

The dark messenger existed, though he was not Salieri. A mysterious figure did appear to Mozart and commission a Requiem. This, though it seems too dramatic to be true, is fact. And this, more than anything, might be the seed that sprouted into Pushkin’s and Shaffer’s narratives. A man died during the writing of a death mass he believed had been supernaturally commissioned for himself. Who could help but write about that?

In fact, the dark messenger was the envoy of a nobleman who envied Mozart’s talents, and hoped to pass the work off as his own. Less dramatic than Shaffer’s telling. And so we print the legend: on screen, the messenger is Salieri, masked in imitation of Leopold’s masquerade outfit. He commissions the requiem—as the nobleman did in reality—hoping to pass it off as his own work.

This culminates in the climactic scene set in Mozart’s bedchambers, as a composer on death’s door dictates a masterpiece to be rendered in the hand of his rival and his lesser. The scene is spectacularly cinematic, and complicates the question of whether Salieri killed Mozart.

I asked, did Salieri kill Mozart?

V2 (Carmen Paddock): In a very broad sense. Mozart clearly wasn’t doing very well, managing finances, health, work life balance. I don’t think he was on a path to health and fame and fortune. But the film leaves Salieri some innocence in the affair. He’s very clearly pushing for Mozart’s death–whether or not he pushes him over the edge is a bit ambiguous. But it’s clearly something he feels, and it’s something he ends up feeling remorse for.

On stage, the question of Salieri’s culpability differs in several meaningful respects. For one, Salieri is not the dark messenger—that figure remains initially mysterious, perhaps even a hallucination of Mozart’s. Then, Salieri takes on the idea of becoming the dark messenger, and begins menacing Mozart from the street at odd hours of the night. Finally, he confronts Mozart and admits all—he has been pulling the strings, manipulating the court, their contemporaries, and Mozart himself. In a tormented howl, Salieri bares his soul to Mozart: “Don’t you know what I have endured?” he wails. “From the day you appeared I have lived in Hell…[and] my God smiled—and permitted it!…You’re not to blame. It’s His will. I don’t hate you—you’re only an instrument!”

But this was not the first version of this confrontation.

I asked again, did Salieri kill Mozart?

V3 (Marisa C. Hayes): I’m gonna go with Shaffer’s revisited reality. In the play, you don’t have the gray messenger as you do in the film. So it’s Salieri who does all of the delivery, which really puts all of the weight onto him, and puts back the focus onto him. There’s less of a mysterious intervention in that sense. It really, really points to him. So in this instance, I’ll say yes.

On stage, Salieri begs Mozart’s forgiveness as the genius leaves the Earth. But Shaffer heavily revised his ending, beginning with the first version of this last encounter. In this version of the play, the final confrontation was apparently quite short—Mozart accuses Salieri of having literally poisoned him, which Salieri admits, though he knows it isn’t true. He lies about the extent of his culpability because he feels he has poisoned Mozart “not with arsenic. No. With everything you’ve [the audience] seen me do.”

This version of the scene, according to Shaffer, “was tremendously effective [and] allowed both actors to play with all the guns of melodrama blazing.” But he wasn’t satisfied. He continued to revise the confrontation—in one version, Mozart delivered a howling monologue about his childhood while Salieri chewed up pages of the Requiem and spat them at his rival’s feet. “It went too far,” reflected Shaffer.

Which brings us to the screen version. “I mourned the frequently banal simplification of the language” in the film adaptation, Shaffer wrote years later. And, indeed, the final confrontation now “on paper…looks to be pretty uncinematic” as the dying Mozart lies prone and dictates to a seated Salieri. “But when it is played on a screen, it bursts into vibrant life.”

I asked again, Salieri kill Mozart?

V1 (Sydney Urbanek): The film does conclude with you feeling the torture in Salieri’s mind. You can see Mozart essentially working himself—drinking himself—to death in the movie. But Salieri is convinced that he’s the one driving that self-poisoning and commissioning the work that ultimately does him in. But I think the film does not conclude that he has, in actuality

Shaffer continued revising—the most recent published version of the script represents the sixth revision of the final confrontation. In any case, the substance is the same: Salieri spiritually poisoned Mozart. And to him, that’s enough.

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Did Salieri kill Mozart? I don’t believe it. There’s no reason to believe it. But isn’t it fun to believe it? Isn’t it a delight, enough so to titillate audiences for all these years? Jealousy, cloak and dagger, deceit and murder, all in the grand halls of Vienna, all centered around one of history’s great geniuses? What could be more intriguing than that?

The reality on film is something smaller, and sadder. And the reality in our own three dimensions is sadder still: a genius was taken too soon. What difference might have been made had he endured? What blessings might God have bestowed upon us through Mozart’s quill? That’s not for we ghosts of the future to say.

Dawn has come. I must release you.