The following is my contribution to the Amadeus blogathon conceived and convened by the critic Bilge Ebiri; see here for details.
It won’t do to refer to Milos Forman’s 1984 Amadeus as an Oscar-bait movie; yes, the picture was much “honored” with nominations and statuettes, but its early production history strongly indicates that it was at a certain point a movie no one really wanted to make. Calling it a piece of “white elephant” art, even for the sake of contradicting that categorization, not only muddies the waters but it apt to open a can of worms pertaining to the lack of scientific accuracy in the Farber-inspired method of criticism, sigh. The point that I am interested in proving, and which tempts me with respect to the above-cited terminology, is that Amadeus is the most seriously ironical motion picture of its kind. No, Forman does not take the film to the absurdist/surrealist heights of his Czech The Fireman’s Ball, from 1967; and being that its very subject is Great Art/The Great Artist to begin with, it can’t begin to even find some of the Pataphysical implications of Forman’s earlier work. But as costume dramas go, Forman’s cinematizing of Peter Shaffer’s eloquent but rather more conventional-in-perspective play is replete with bits of near-absurdist bite; sometimes they're moments of slapstick (the way Salieri falls out of the bed when Constanze walks in on he and Mozart sleeping off a night of working on the “Requiem”), and the tang is always there in the way Amadeus portrays Salieri’s piety as both hateful and tedious. (How many times, throughout his story, does Salieri refer to some event or other as “a miracle” or something that “changed” his life “forever?” I gave up counting about 90 minutes into my last viewing.) Forman’s detachment—the film’s refusal to even imply a contradiction between Mozart’s boisterous boorishness and his musical genius—in a sense almost goes against Sir Peter Hall’s explications of the play’s theme: “[Amadeus] asks why God would seem to bestow genius so indiscriminately, indifferent to morality or human decency.” In the film the indecency is almost all Salieri’s, particularly in the “Director’s Cut” version of the film, in which the abortive “exchange” between Constanze and Salieri is drawn out in a more explicit way than in the play, heightening Constanze’s entirely gratuitous humiliation at Salieri’s hands.
These various emphases become more intriguing the further back one goes in looking at the work, from the film to the play (and Shaffer revised the play several times on several occasions, and each revision received its own acclaimed and popular production; Hall notes that “Scholars will have a merry time with the text of Amadeus in the future”) and back to Alexander Pushkin’s blank-verse mini-drama of 1831 Mozart and Salieri, which makes the question of why genius is bestowed indiscriminately solely a concern of Salieri’s, and not much of a concern at that. Rather, the playlet is a demonstration of envy in deadly action, Salieri bowing and cajoling Mozart, telling him to buck up before poisoning him. Pushkin composed the piece a few years after Salieri’s death, inspired by Salieri’s own dementia-driven “confession” of killing Mozart. The Pushkin piece also makes reference to the “mysterious” commission of Mozart’s “Requiem.” In their Pushkin tavern encounter, Mozart recounts a meeting (this is from Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of the poem): “a man, black-coated, with a courteous bow,/ordered a requiem and disappeared./So I set down and started writing.” He then complains to Salieri: “I am haunted by that man, that man in black./He never leaves me day or night. He follows/behind me like a shadow[…]”
This mystery commission is based on an apparently true and fantastical story, involving a wealthy “patron” and a stratagem on that individual’s part to pass off a Mozart work as his own. In Pushkin’s work, the black-coated man takes the symbological weight of the death that Salieri will soon inflict on his “rival.” Shaffer, particularly in working with Forman to script the film version of the play, took both the anecdote and the Pushkin-contrived symbolic weight and ran with it, concocting both a Freudian daddy-issue theme (which is also threaded through the interpretation of the Stone Guest climax of Don Giovanni) and a Salieri-as-potential-plagiarist one.
Largely missing throughout both the play’s and the film’s discussions of various Mozart works are…the librettists. It’s almost as if musical history has its own hierarchical variant on an auteur theory. When Mozart scandalizes the court by proposing an opera of The Marriage of Figaro, the original playwright Beaumarchais warrants a mention, but not only is actual librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte not a character in either the play or the film, his name never even comes up. Apparently collaboration is not a salient feature of genius as it is manifested in these cosmos.
Mention of Beaumarchais, in the film, sets off some fretting on the part of the established order, and Jeffrey Jones’ Emperor Joseph II makes reference to the subversive ideas sweeping France and how worrying they are to his sister, “Antoinette,” nudge-nudge wink-wink. (Ideas aside, Marie was reportedly a fan of Figaro and objected to her husband’s ban on the work.) In the Pushkin work (I will once again turn to Nabokov’s translation), Beaumarchais is evoked by Salieri in an attempt to buck up the gloomy Mozart (and again, this can’t be emphasized enough, this is prior to Salieri putting poison in Wolfgang’s grog).
Come, come! What childish terrors!
Dispel those hollow fancies, Beaumarchais
was wont to say to me: “Look here, old friend
when black thoughts trouble you, uncork a bottle
of bright champagne, or reread ‘Figaro.’”
Yes, you and Beaumarchais were boon companions,
of course—you wrote “Tarare” for Beaumarchais.
A splendid piece—especially one tune—
I always find I hum it when I’m gay:
Ta-tá, ta-tá…Salieri, was it true
That Beaumarchais once poisoned someone?
I doubt it. He was much too droll a fellow
For such a trade.
“It is curious to note,” Nabokov writes in his commentary to his translation of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, how different the advice Pushkin has Beaumarchais give to Salieri, given the advice Beaumarchais himself gives in his own introduction to The Barber of Seville: “Si votre diner fut mauvais…ah! Laissez mon Barbier…parcourez les chefs-ouevres de Tissot sur le temperance[…].” (“If you had a bad dinner, leave my Barber be, and instead explore Tissot’s masterpieces on temperance […],” translation GK; Tissot was a famed Swiss doctor of the 18th century.) Which opens the question as to whether Salieri is deliberately proffering the “wrong” advice to “friend” Mozart. At the end of Pushkin’s poem, Salieri, alone, having done the deed, muses on Mozart’s prior observation that villainy and genius are “two things that do not go together.”:
that’s false—for surely there was Buonarrati.
—Or is that but a legend, but a lie,
bred by the stupid mob, by their inane
vulgarity, and that great soul who wrought
the Vatican had never sunk to murder?