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Instinct and Reason, Genius and Mediocrity, Historical Accuracy vs. Dramatic Truth

wcb's picture

There are numerous topics about which Amadeus could be discussed, making it hard to know where to start. My subject heading lists several of the most obvious.


How important is "genius" to us today? By that, I mean the Romantic notion of "genius," an affliction Mozart inherited posthumously by dying just as Romanticism was emerging and changing the way artists and society viewed artists: according the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, Mozart used the term very rarely in his letters, and only in the pre-Romantic sense, as a synonym for one's individual character. (This is similar to Plato's use of daemon -- which Philip Pullman revived in His Dark Materials -- which has no relationship to the contemporary Christianized "demon.") The notion is extremely important to Shaffer within Amadeus.

Do we assume that "genius" is equivalent to insanity (the film A Beautiful Mind), or to childishness (Amadeus, perhaps)? I recall someone telling me that there had to be a link, since geniuses' minds "were always going so fast," as if the brain were a sort of organic hamster wheel.

The presentation of Mozart and Salieri, although based on Shaffer's research of the material available at the time, is heavily influenced by the dualism that is so much a part of his writing in general, specifically his notion of a conflict between instinct and reason -- the Nietzschean opposition of Dionysian and Apollonian. "There is a constant debate going on between the violence of
instinct on the one hand and the desire in my mind for order and restraint," he once said. This sort of dualism makes for powerful drama (it's been noted by many that classical Athenian thought primarily consisted of binary oppositions). Far be it from me to challenge Shaffer's account of what goes on in his mind, either, but is this an accurate depiction of the human condition? I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate recently, and this seems very much the sort of thinking Pinker is attempting to discredit -- in this case, a notion of Mozart (and instinct) as a sort of Ignoble Savage, repressed by layers of culture.

 Do we feel, as Shaffer's Salieri does (and Margaret Thatcher famously agreed), that genius should be tied in some way to personal virtue, in the same way many people seem to believe political success should be? What sort of personal flaws allow us to discount someone's genius, or at least their talent? Some people discount the work of Ezra Pound because of his fascism, Brecht for his Marxism, T. S. Eliot for his anti-Semitism. Years ago, NPR ran an article on Benjamin Britten that spent some time discussing his personal and professional relationship with his lover, the great tenor Peter Pears. A week later, a letter was read on the air by a distraught listener who claimed she would never be able to enjoy Britten's music again, now that she knew he was gay.  I'd like to say to all these people, "Grow up!" But I'm aware that I can harbor the same sort of prejudices. For instance, although I doubt I'd call him a genius, I've so far been unable to bring myself to read any of Mark Helprin's novels because I know he was a speechwriter for the senior George Bush.

What is the response we feel when we encounter something like genius? Is it envy? Humility? Shaffer has said he feels great works of art tend to stand in judgment of us, rather than the other way around.

Finally, there is the question that has plagued Amadeus most constantly since its London premiere -- the question of "historical authenticity." Emily Dolan, at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that the play "is historically accurate in the sense that all the myths it presents really exist." Someone has asserted the "truth" of almost everything in the play at some time or another. The major exceptions are the final scene between Mozart and Salieri, which Shaffer has always acknowledged as invention (and has rewritten six times, by his count), and the genesis of "Non piu andrai" from a march by Salieri. And Shaffer had to invent Salieri almost from scratch.

 At the same time, the details of nearly everything in the play has been challenged or refuted by scholars, although there remain huge discrepancies between accounts and large gaps in our knowledge. (My impression after a couple months of reading is that anyone's account of Mozart is still likely to reflect aspects of their own beliefs about genius or human nature than to reflect "Mozart.") This raises an old question regarding historical dramas -- how much should they be required to respect what "really happened"? (I'll ignore the question whether any history can present the past "as it actually was.") It's a question I'm faced with a lot these days: Life of Galileo, of course, raised many of the same questions with the way Brecht altered, ignored, or invented material; and the next two plays we're producing also deal with historical events, one of them in an extremely impressionistic, achronological, way.

The classical answer is that historical drama almost always changes historical fact in pursuit of what we call, for lack of a more precise term, dramatic truth. But it does so for different reasons. Many people point to Shakespeare's Richard III for an example (Shakespeare's other history plays could be used almost as easily). But Shakespeare was constrained by an official ideology -- Richard III had been deposed by the grandfather of the current monarch, and it's impossible to be certain whether, let alone to what degree, he took an ironic or subversion attitude toward the official history. The priority of dramatic truth over historical fact has been the common chosen approach, however, at least since Friedrich Schiller. At Matthew Wikander pointed out in his book The Play of Truth and State, the strongest works are those written by authors with the strongest personal theory of history. Most of us do not accept Brecht's interpretation of Marxist class struggle as the engine of history, but it gives the play an undeniable force.

What happens, though, when the fiction becomes accepted as the "real" history? This is true of Brecht's Galileo for many people; Schiller's invention of a meeting between Elizabeth I and the imprisoned Mary Stuart was recently repeated in the film with Helen Mirren. And my impression is that, aside from music historians or people who have taken a good music history class recently, most people's notion of what Mozart was like is a distorted version of Amadeus -- after all, it's much easier to sit through a play or a film than to plow through several biographies in order to get some sense of the range of plausibilities. The challenge is exacerbated when, as with both Galileo and Mozart, a substantial amount of new research has been produced since the play was written? (In the case of Amadeus, I'd suggest that's the case with virtually everything worth reading.) How do I represent my best understanding of "the truth" without making it seem like an invalidation of the play's strengths?

This is probably four entries, but I wanted to present a selection of some of the questions I'd love to see others' reactions to. I haven't touched upon the question of "well-made" playwrighting (to use Peter Shaffer's preferred spelling), a form generally taught as "old-fashioned" but undoubtedly one of the reasons for the play's immense success for nearly 30 years so far. Nor have I touched upon a question that I assume everyone who sees the play will have an opinion on, the relationship between the production's astonishing set design, the text, and the acting.

Jokes Street's picture

This is genius

Shakespeare (almost alone) seems to be a man of genius, raised above the definition of genius. "Born universal heir to all humanity," he was "as one, in suffering all who suffered nothing;" with a perfect sympathy with all things, yet alike indifferent to all: who did not tamper with nature or warp her to his own purposes; who "knew all qualities with a learned spirit, "instead of judging of them by his own predilections; and was rather "a pipe for the Muse's finger to play what stop she pleased," than anxious to set up any character or pretensions of his own.
His genius consisted in the faculty of transforming himself at will into whatever he chose: his originality was the power of seeing every object from the exact point of view in which others would see it. He was the Proteus of human intellect. Genius in ordinary is a more obstinate and less versatile thing. It is sufficiently exclusive and self-willed, quaint and peculiar.

teresa's picture

Wilma Theater's 'Amadeus' is a masterpiece

I too was able to see the Wilma's production of Amadeus on opening night. It was fantastic. If anyone would like to read my review, with a slideshow, here it is:

Shaffer's play is genius, and my brief synopsis may be a bit simplistic, but here's an excerpt: For those who don’t know, it’s the story of Job in a way. You watch Mozart go from being the golden boy of the Austrian court to sick, penniless and shunned. But what makes the story much more than a depressing tale of woe is the ingredient that can be found in everything from Shakespeare to soap operas: The jealous, clever character who takes down the object of his envy with whispers, gossip and underhanded advice. “There is a crystal of truth in nearly every scene of Amadeus,” said Shaffer. Everyone who watches the story can believe its root in truth. Whether you work at the White House or White Castle, these characters surround you daily. Shaffer’s Mozart is the golden child that everybody loves to hate. As you watch Salieri destroy Mozart’s life with whispers behind his back, comments, seemingly benign gestures, you can see office politics, catty neighbors, events and actions that occur daily to the worthy and unworthy. The play is real and surreal simultaneously.

Anne Dalke's picture

we're all in his head. i mean it's all in our heads. i mean...

I was lucky enough to see Amadeus on opening night, and to be sitting in the center seat in the very back row. What most astonished me, on entry, was of course the set--the framing of the whole proscenium with a curly head of hair. The stage itself thus became the "head" of Salieri--an astonishing representation of the notion that the whole story is taking place inside his head. Even more clever was the moment in his first soliloquy, when he calls up the ghosts of the future to hear the story he has to tell, and the house lights go up--making it clear to all of us (who might have thought we were just sitting in the audience of a performance!) that we are also-and-actually occupants of the brain of the storyteller...

I am this week discussing the last of the Wilma's productions, Brecht's The Life of Galileo, with a group of first year students at Bryn Mawr College, and --as one of them said in our course forum--their imagination has been captured by the notion that
our whole system of order is ...a construct of our minds:

It’s kind of troubling to think that you think you are learning all this knowledge, but it is really just things other people have have actually become conditioned not to think for yourself, and feel that you can’t.

What I like about the plays Galileo & Amadeus , and about these forums in which we can keep on talking about them, is the way in which they invite those of us who attend (and attend to) the performances to do that sort of thinking for ourselves.