Rick Roemer owns the stage in the Austin Playhouse presentation of Amadeus. In his portrayal of composer Antonio Salieri, both as a 73-year-old invalid and as a 40-ish striving court composer, he is onstage during at least 80 percent of the action.
Roemer shows extraordinary attention, precision and energy throughout his nearly three hours on stage. He communicates a depth of feeling that is at times hair-raising. He is deeply convincing when the playwright puts into his mouth words seeking to describe the revelation of Mozart’s music – but he surpasses even that level with silent transports of revelation while reading Mozart’s scores, which we, the audience, are privileged to hear at the same time.
I saw this play at a matinee in its third year on Broadway, 1983, slipping into a matinee on a half-price ticket, one Wednesday when Ian McKellen was unexpectedly replaced by his understudy. Some of the playgoers, indignant, turned in their tickets for later dates. For me, just getting into a Broadway theatre was enough.
And how that play has changed for me in that 25-year interval!
The lasting memory I carried into Austin Playhouse on its second night of a five-week run was that of the vulgar, giggling, Mozart, a limber youth happily obsessed with sex and scatology. A shocking but attractive conceit – that God might choose to pour divine music out of irresponsible, impulsive youth.
This time, at an age approximately the average of those portrayed for Salieri by Roemer, I came away with a completely different understanding.
To start with, I now understand the title. “Amadeus” was indeed, the middle name penned by Mozart on his scores. An invention of his own, as it happens, latinizing his given middle name of “Theophilus” – both versions meaning “the love of God.”
That title suggests that the play is about Mozart, which in part it is, but Schaffer signals as well his principal concern, man’s relationship with God.
At the play’s opening, the aged, ill Salieri addresses us from his wheelchair, evoking us as “persons of the future” to hear his version of his struggle with music, Mozart and God, roughly in that order.
Over the accelerated course of a single night we see him transform into his younger self and participate once again in the events of the ten-year period between the arrival of Mozart at the imperial court in Vienna and Mozart’s death, with the Requiem still unfinished.
If this imagined Salieri had had more talent and a more alert human adversary, he would have been an Iago. His resentment against Mozart, that upstart, irreverent idiot savant, drives him systematically to block Mozart’s advancement and to push him into disastrous undertakings, including an early marriage and the exploitation of secret Masonic rituals for The Magic Flute.
By his own admission, Salieri is just an earnest craftsman in his music (in an early comic moment Mozart artlessly demolishes a Salieri march with corrections and improvisations). Before fleeing his impoverished native village in Italy, the young Salieri had stood before an altar in church and made a pact with God – to glorify Him, in exchange for reputation and success in his music.
Mozart never distrusts Salieri. That he dies penniless and abandoned is historical fact, and in this play is presented as the inevitable outcome of Salieri’s machinations, his “attempt to destroy God by destroying his instrument.”
David Gallagher as Mozart portrays a very different, difficult evolution. Capering, giggling, and unthinkingly vulgar in the early scenes, Gallagher gives us the accumulating effects of shocks, disasters and deteriorating health on Mozart without losing his fundamental innocence. The child is always there, inside the failing flesh.
The play belongs to these two, although the action is forwarded with an ensemble of supporting actors. Of that group, the most vivid are Brian Coughlin as the matter-of-fact Emperor Joseph II and the two Venticelli (“little winds”) manservants of Salieri (Huck Huckaby and Christopher Loveless).
The play demands concentration. The plot feeds us with the evil delights of Salieri’s successful campaign to diminish Mozart, who was never perceived by contemporaries as a rival to Salieri. But Schaffer places his greatest emphasis on the dilemma of Salieri as an icon of earnest mediocrity.
And this time, 25 years on, Salieri’s self-love, humanity and desperate turns to vice have far more resonance for me.
We may renounce sin such as his and recoil from destruction of the sublime. But as we see retribution arrive for Salieri, we can feel the pity and fear that Aristotle defined as the essential qualities of tragedy.
Review of opening night by Barry Pineo, Austin Chronicle of September 18
Click for Ian McKellen's notes and photos from the 1980-1983 Amadeus