Thirty years ago British-born Peter Shaffer was the most lauded dramatist in America. Shaffer was that rare bird: a populist playwright who broached ambitious themes. His theatrical yet pensive dramas contemplating the unknowable mystery of God — The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and, especially, Amadeus — were embraced by critics and audiences alike. Perhaps it will be so again with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' season-debut production of Amadeus. On opening night the audience responded to this rococo account of jealousy, temptation and betrayal with wild enthusiasm.
The story, which plays out over many years, begins in 1781. Antonio Salieri is the prominent court composer to Joseph II, Emperor of Austria. But Salieri secretly despairs that his own music, despite its popularity, is mediocre. Because he views music as God's art, Salieri is convinced that to be second-rate is to be rejected by God. When the brilliant yet foul-mouthed and sexually shameless Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrives at court, Salieri is offended. How could God choose this crass vulgarian as the human vessel through which to channel divine music? Now the disillusioned Salieri finds "a terrible and thrilling purpose" to his life: This inferior composer will wage war to the death against God Himself, with the infantile and profane genius Mozart as the oblivious battleground.
It all sounds lofty indeed. God's name is invoked so often, He should be getting royalties. But ultimately, to what purpose? The poet Mark Van Doren once observed that "[t]he man who can simply say 'God' and think he's said something is really the blasphemer." Amadeus is hardly blasphemy, but Shaffer, noble intentions aside, says little that hasn't been said before. The anguished artist who must settle for mediocrity is hardly an original character. Woody Allen, for instance, explored that same dilemma (with a lot fewer words) in his film Interiors, where Joey (the memorable Mary Beth Hurt) was filled with rage at her inability to find a creative outlet for her artistic feelings. Allen returned to this same theme (with a lot more laughs) in Bullets Over Broadway.
With the passing of the decades, Shaffer's once-auspicious play now feels hollow at the core. It does not stand up to close scrutiny. Like a child's top, Amadeus must be kept spinning or it will topple over. Director Paul Mason Barnes seems to be aware of this; he has paced the piece with a sense of flow. He uses his ensemble well. But if that child's top is to remain twirling, the actor who plays Salieri, like a savvy magician, must steer our eyes away from the play's flaws; rather like Richard III, he must mesmerize us. There is no magic in Andrew Long's humorless portrayal. His stolid Salieri narrates the play without dominating it. Thus it is easy for Mozart to claim the evening. Jim Poulos' Amadeus is more nuanced than Mozart is usually portrayed. Of course he is energized, but Poulos also manifests an unspoken aura: His Amadeus somehow senses that he is the chosen one. It is Mozart, not Salieri, who sustains our interest through the evening's three hours.
Late in Act One, after hearing the premiere of Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Emperor (savvily enacted by Joe Hickey, who feather-strokes Joseph's humor without allowing the monarch to lapse into buffoonery) suggests that Mozart's opera has "too many notes." Counters the aggrieved composer: "There are just as many notes, Majesty, neither more nor less, as are required." Clearly, Joseph has been set up here as the butt of Mozart's brash wisdom. Those viewers who agree with Mozart's point of view may well find this Rep production to be absorbing. But those who believe that the essence of art is to say as much as possible with a minimum of means — that of course an overwritten composition can be cluttered with too many notes, just as an overwritten play can be burdened by too many words — might well find that Shaffer's 30-year-old exploration of immortality has grown long and verbose.