Sunday, October 4, 2009

Amadeus

The Milos Forman film Amadeus has always been one of my favorite films but I had never seen the stage play by Peter Shaffer on which it was based. I remedied that last week when I caught the production at the The St. Louis Repertory Theatre directed by Paul Mason Barnes and starring Andrew Long as Salieri and Jim Poulos as Mozart.

Seeing the stage play made me appreciate Shaeffer's work in "opening up" the production while still including the intimacy of Salieri's reminiscences. (Sometimes having the original playwright adapt his own work results in a boxy movie). In the movie version, Schaefer accomplishes this intimacy by having Salieri tell his story to a young priest, in a way that doesn't really rise to the level of a formal confession, after he has attempted to commit suicide. The suicide attempt opens the movie, the reminiscences and flashbacks follow and the movie ends with Salieri being wheeled away in the insane asylum. It makes sense. In the play Salieri has intimate conversation with we the modern audience, who represent posterity, before he attempts to commit suicide. The play leads up to the suicide which is a failure. And then continues with a short aftermath to the suicide attempt.

It seems a small change yet it is one that gives the end of the stage play a different feel than the end of the movie. In the play Salieri, as part of his everlasting duel with God, has determined to kill himself after causing rumors to be spread that he has murdered Mozart. It is clear that he intends the rumors to spread through Vienna - his ravings are an act that is intended to be heard by his servants. The stage Mozart Salieri is telling the story (true or not) to posterity; the movie Mozart Salieri is telling a priest who, presumably , will keep the story (true or not) secret.

Salieri understands that Mozart will be remembered by the ages despite of, or perhaps even because of, his early death and this suicide plot is his last attempt to outwit God by linking his name forever with Mozart as Mozart's murderer and gaining immortality as well. But God has the last laugh; none of Salieri's claims are believed, he is seen as delusional and he lives to realize that he has failed once again. Having the play build up to that moment, having the audience think he has succeeded at suicide and then to find out (with Salieri) that he will live is at once a funny and a tragic moment. There is, in some ways, more humor in the play than in the movie.

God is also very much a character in the stage version of Amadeus, although whether it is a real god or the god in the mind of Salieri is up to the audience member to decide. In the film, Salieri confronts God but it is always in front of the crucifix in a formal way - God is a distant power to be addressed formally, even when confronted in anger. But in the stage play Salieri confronts God wherever he might be. I was reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof for whom God was a living presence walking alongside of him with whom he could have friendly conversations. Salieri's relationship with God isn't so pleasant but it is just as intimate. And just as one sided. If more post-modern.

God is an invisible character just as much as Leopold Mozart is an invisible character in the stage play. In the movie, Forman creates a living, breathing, scowling Leopold who torments his son and, in a way, the living character of Leopold renders God, or the idea of God, a little less real in the movie version. But in the play Salieri's torment by an invisible God must be compared with Mozart's torment by an invisible father. Is God responsible for Salieri's frustrations or is Salieri simply using him as an excuse? You can equally ask if Leopold is really responsible for Mozart's frustrations or if Mozart himself has it in his power to move beyond what he thinks his father wants?

It's a clever trick; a way of drawing the audience into Salieri's state of mind. And the audience can conclude, at the very least, that the idea of god and the idea of of Leopold may be responsible for some of the action. And just as Leopold's death half-way through the play doesn't mean the idea of Leopold and Mozart's feelings of guilt about him go away, so too the failure of God to be actually made manifest in any way and, in fact, the possibility of the non-existence of God (or at least of a God who hears and responds) doesn't deter Salieri from continuing with the idea of God and his own complicated feelings about God.

The movie version has one huge benefit over the stage play: the soundtrack. The music of Mozart was almost a separate character in the movie. The Rep did have a soundtrack at the parts of the action that needed them. But it sounded as if someone went through recordings of various Mozart works and abruptly started and stopped them - very jarring in some places. And not completely balanced with the voices - although not enough to push the production in a negative direction. I found myself wishing, however, that The Rep had teamed with the Saint Louis Symphony to put together a coherent soundtrack that would have enhanced the experience.

I was interested to learn that the play is based on a short play by Pushkin that was adapted into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. I'd like to see it - mainly because the idea of seeing a story involving Mozart and his music told with music by a Russian romantic composer strikes me as a bit odd.

Amadeus was a good choice to open the 2009/2010 season for The Rep. It garnered uniformly excellent reviews including this from the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout:

This is just the kind of show I have in mind when I assure disbelieving Manhattanites that it's not merely possible but easy to see high-quality theater in every corner of America, flyover country very much included.

My favorite scene from the movie is also in the play. Salieri's analysis of Mozart's music: