By C. J. Gianakaris
"Grazie e grazie ancora!" Mockingly delivered, these words address God in a speech closing the first act of Amadeus. Peter Shaffer's anti-hero Salieri here denounces what is, for him, a treacherous God Whom he previously respected and obeyed. It marks a critical turning point, when the established court composer must admit his talent counts for little compared to the effortless genius of Mozart.
His unfair God humiliates Salieri with irony not lost on the proud composer: "Him You have chosen to be Your sole conduct! And my only reward—my sublime privilege—is to be the sole man alive in this time who shall clearly recognize Your Incarnation!" Shaffer's Salieri does not meekly acquiesce but quickly chooses instead to challenge God outright: "So be it. From this time we are enemies, You and I!" Battle lines are drawn, and the action traces a new course based on frustrated envy. Mozart becomes not Salieri's target but his means to strike back at God.
In his finest works, such as Amadeus (1979), Shaffer concerns himself with universal themes, mostly the uneasy, shifting relationships between Man and God. Shaffer's extraordinary comedies, Black Comedy (1965) and Lettice & Lovage (1987) in particular, more than adequately resolve lesser matters. For the plays involving significant religio-moral and social themes, Shaffer creates a flexible format. Outside the dramatic frame stand narrator figures who also play key roles within the plot. Such characters—e.g., Old Martin in Royal Hunt, Dr. Dysart in Equus, Salieri in Amadeus—typically deliver prologue opening statements to offer context for the play's action.
Throughout the play, they also step out of the actions (as in freeze action in film) to comment on the play proceedings, as do choral characters in Shakespeare. With their exo-plot remarks, narrators can flash-forward or flash-back to gain invaluable flexibility. Salieri's challenge to God shows the effectiveness of Shaffer's narrator-protagonist. Shaffer feels no obligation to realism. Rather he imaginatively uses narrators as active stage directors to shape action.
It is their refusal to accept life's verdicts without struggle that defines the lead protagonists in Shafferean drama. Salieri midway into Amadeus launches no-holds-barred campaign to put God in His place. Clive in Five Finger Exercise (1958), Pizarro in Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Alan in Equus (1973), Yonadab in the play by that name (1985)—like Salieri all risk security in life, denying accepted "norms" when Fate is cheating them.
Born in 1926 into a middle-class Jewish family in Liverpool, Peter Shaffer was an identical twin. Anthony, the older, also became a Tony Award-winning playwright with Sleuth (1970). Educated at London's St. Paul's School and Cambridge, Shaffer studied history, co-edited a campus magazine, and graduated in 1950 with no set plans. After working at a music publishing firm, he became a literary reviewer. Shaffer's first published creative writings were three detective novels.
For most audiences Shaffer's career is crowned with the supremely imaginative Amadeus (it won both a Tony and Oscar). That work permanently secured him a foremost position among today's dramatists. Reasons are easy to find, such as having Mozart as subject. Acknowledged first as a prodigy and then as genius, Wolfgang Amadeus surely has the magnetic draw theater producers covet. Except the play centers more on its narrator-protagonist Antonio Salieri. We view the events of the play through the eyes (and ears) of Mozart's Italian rival, and it is Salieri's nefarious actions that drive the plot. Needless confusion has evolved that deplores Shaffer for denigrating the Salzburg hero. In Amadeus, Mozart emerges—as in fact—a universal wunderkind whose career was not always smooth and easy. Historically, Salieri was a respected composer and excellent teacher. Mozart's own son took music lessons from him, as did Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt. Yet, to frame his play with sharper focus, Shaffer adjusted his Salieri to become moral as well as aesthetic antagonist to Mozart.
Another of Shaffer's scripts, inspired by Tchaikovsky, was penciled in for a London production a decade ago, but did not come to pass. Meantime, large-scale revivals of his best works still shuttle between London's West End and Broadway. Equus, in fact, opens on Broadway this fall in a major revival.