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Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which premiered at the London Royal National Theatre in 1979, presents a fictionalized history of the renowned composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through the eyes of Antonio Salieri, a composer whose lackluster artistic legacy has been all but buried by time. The play begins on the eve of what Salieri, now an old man, believes will be the last day of his life. Salieri narrates and reenacts the story of his tumultuous and acrid relationship with the famous composer, for whom he has cultivated a deep hatred based on his envy of Mozart’s talent. With the aid of other members of the court who find Mozart distasteful, Salieri works to systematically destroy Mozart. This prompts false rumors that Mozart’s eventual death was the result of poisoning by Salieri’s hand. At the end of the play, Salieri confesses to murdering Mozart and attempts suicide to secure his place in history, but he ultimately survives, and no one believes his confession.
Although there is some evidence that Mozart and Salieri may have shown occasional dislike for one another, the intense hatred and obsession at the center of the play is largely fictional. In conjunction with the enduring popularity of the play, scholars have criticized Shaffer for inventing this mythos around these two figures that takes such creative license. Historians assert that evidence suggests that Mozart and Salieri respected one another, and that Shaffer’s portrait of Mozart as a vulgar and childish savant is false. While Shaffer’s Mozart is such a genius that he simply transcribes compositions that he hears in his head, the real Mozart’s works show evidence of in-depth revisions. Within this revisionist history, as told by Salieri, Mozart is a womanizing buffoon, a characterization that cannot ultimately undermine his contributions to the history of music.
Regardless of historical accuracy, Amadeus spotlights the dark side of fame and infamy. The play shows how envy leads Salieri, a once virtuous pillar of society, to rip his own life apart to tear down a man whose success seems effortless and undeserved. In his desperation for posterity, Salieri determines that even a place in history as the villain is still a place in history. And in the end, he fails to achieve even that. Amadeus warns audiences about the destructive nature of jealousy and unchecked ambition. It allows the fictional Salieri a platform to tell his own story, inspiring pity and disgust for a man who allowed a desire for fame to consume his personal and religious sense of morality. Salieri drives himself mad by brushing elbows with greatness that he cannot ever achieve.