3.4 The characters in the play and the film
The character development in the play and the film differs greatly. This is partly due to the adaptation technique, and partly a result of Shaffer's further revisions of his text. In the following part, I will describe the changes that the particular characters undergo on their way from stage to screen, as well as the means of their characterisation.
The screen Salieri is Shaffer's final and most ingenious version of this dark and tragic character, superbly performed by the Oscar-winning F. Murray Abraham. Although Mozart's personality has been considerably expanded in the film, Salieri remains the driving force at the core of the action. This development is the logical continuation of the changes that Shaffer had already made between the London and New York productions of the play. The most important of those changes was the removal of Salieri's servant Greybig who played the part of the masked figure in place of Salieri. Upon reflection, Shaffer must have realised that the presence of Greybig -- who "performed analogous roles of Wagner to Salieri's Faust and Leporello to Salieri's Don Giovanni" (Gianakaris 1983, 93) -- brought more disadvantages than benefits. With Greybig for an accomplice, Salieri had simply too little to do with Mozart's ruin. In the film, Greybig is "replaced in full horror by Salieri himself as the agent of destruction" (Deemer).
Still, the reason why Salieri manages to fascinate audiences in both the theatre and the cinema is that he is more than a villain, a knave of the devil sent out to destroy God's beloved Mozart: outside the darker regions of his mind, he is quite a likeable person. He is ambitious, polished, virtuous, ironic -- only he is not a musical genius. On the other hand, he is obsessed with "finding an absolute in music" (Shaffer 1984, 22). In his character, Shaffer presents "an anatomy of failed mediocrity" (Gianakaris 1982, 49). "[Salieri's] self-doubt, which is both the cause and the result of his frustration, eventually turns into self-hate, ready to be projected upon a convenient enemy." (Bidney, 193) Before Mozart's arrival, Salieri is a happy man. He is popular and respected as a musician and thinks that the great dream of his life has come true:
[...] One moment I was a frustrated little boy in an ob-scure little town -- the next I was here, in Vienna, City of Musicians! [...] I was introduced personally to the Em-peror! Within a few years I was his Court Composer. [...] Everybody liked me. I liked myself. (Screenplay, 11f.)
Although in reality he was "rich, famous, powerful, popular and a good musician" (Schonberg 1980, 35), in Amadeus he is presented as a man of little ability and a "musical idiot" (Play, 40). It is true that his music followed different conventions than that of Mozart, but in the play Mozart derides his work as "[t]onic and dominant, tonic and dominant, from here to resurrection!" (Play, 40) Hearing Mozart jeer at Salieri, we begin to understand "the tragedy of the man of modest talent, musical enough to recognise [...] the true greatness of genius, but not talented enough himself to match it" (Esslin). The shots of Salieri listening to Mozart's music or reading his scores are among the most moving and tragic scenes of the film. After hearing the first concert of Mozart, he reads the score of the Adagio "in helpless fascination" (Screenplay, 20):
OLD SALIERI (VO)
[...] This was a music I'd never heard -- filled with such longing -- such unfulfillable longing... It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God! (Screenplay, 21)
Faced with Mozart's genius, Salieri realises his own mediocrity and suffers so much that he naturally arouses compassion. The emotional effect of Mozart's music on Salieri is astounding and far greater than on anyone else presented in the film:
The music swells. What we now hear is an amazing collage of great passages from MOZART's music, ravishing to SALIERI and to us. [...] We see his agonized and wondering face: he shudders as if in a rough and tumbling sea; he experiences the point where beauty and great pain coalesce. [...] It seems to break over him like a wave -- and unable to bear any more of it, he slams the portfolio shut. [...] He stands shaking, staring wildly. (Screenplay, 56)
Salieri is in the hopeless situation of a man incurably infatuated with his greatest enemy, or rather his music, and this "madness of a man splitting in half" (Screenplay, 114) sometimes drives him to paradoxical actions. He does everything in his power to stop The Wedding of Figaro from being produced at the National Theatre. When the libretto is accepted by the Emperor in spite of its political inappropriateness, Salieri cunningly attacks the presence of a ballet in the third act of the opera. At the time, ballet scenes in opera were forbidden by the Emperor. Under this pretext, Salieri gets Orsini-Rosenberg, Director of the Imperial Opera, to remove the ballet. When Mozart manages to persuade Joseph to restore it and the opera is finally produced, Salieri uses all his connections, and Figaro is cancelled after nine performances. Nonetheless, Salieri secretly goes to see every one of them and every time he is moved to tears. This contradiction results from his self-imposed mission to destroy his idol, and it is the core of his personal tragedy. At times, Salieri even feels pity for his victim who is "so frail, so palpably mortal" (Play, 92), but as "each man kills the thing he loves"*, Salieri follows his destiny and destroys Mozart, God's preferred creature. After this, his life becomes meaningless and his fame a farce:
I was to be bricked up in fame! Embalmed in fame! Buried in fame -- But for work I knew to be absolutely worthless! ... This was my sentence: -- I must endure thirty years of being called 'distinguished' by people incapable of distinguishing! ...and finally -- his Masterstroke! When my nose had been rubbed in fame to vomiting -- it would all be taken away from me. Every scrap.
I must survive to see myself become extinct! (Play, 101)
Salieri's last attempt to gain immortality is a false confession, in which he claims to have killed Mozart. He has a desperate longing to be remembered by posterity, "if not in fame, then infamy" (Play, 102):
I did not live on Earth to be His joke for Eternity. I will be remembered! I will be remembered!
For the rest of time whenever men say Mozart with love, they will say Salieri with loathing! ... I am going to be immortal after all! (Play, 102f.)
Yet, even this final and desperate attempt fails and Salieri has to drain his bitter cup to the dregs. He survives the suicidal attempt to cut his throat, no one believes his confession, and he has to spend the rest of his days in the torment of oblivion. He has lost his battle against God. By the time he dies, the world has completely forgotten both him and his music.
* Oscar Wilde The Ballad of Reading Gaol