Getting to Know You
"Do not judge me too harshly for this . . ."
This problem with identification can be further illustrated by the manner in which we learn more about Salieri and his childhood. The Salieri of the play--whether young or old--is charming, engaging. He forlornly admits to his passion for pastries and candies--how many of us can walk by a Godiva shop without hearing that siren's call? (Oddly enough, I swiped the background for this page from the Godiva Chocolate web site. [Which also reminds me of a line by Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate: "Love? Overrated. Biochemically, it's no different than consuming large quantities of chocolate." A silly movie, but it's fun to watch Al Pacino chomp on the scenery, a delight to watch the film's set design, and a near-mystical experience to watch Keanu Reeves blow his brains out.])
And that sweet tooth is almost omnipresent in the play--it's really a key plot point. In the movie, in the scene in which Salieri meets Mozart for the first time, Salieri sneaks into the break room to get a quick sugar fix at the archbishop's reception. In the play, he doesn't have to sneak; the hostess of the party (he's at a salon--the period's equivalent of a cocktail party--not at the archbishop's palace, as in the movie) knows of his sugar jones and always has treats laid out for him. He rhapsodizes on the joys of his beloved crema al marscapone (confectioner's sugar and cream cheese infused with rum; I get a sugar rush just thinking about it), and then sits, facing us, in a high backed chair, allowing him to talk to us while Mozart and Constanze, oblivious to Salieri's presence, enter. Subsequent scenes are set up the same way, with Salieri in a high backed chair worshipping at the altar of the great god Ghiradelli while other characters carry on, oblivious to his presence. It lets him overhear things and at the same time comment to us on the surrounding action.
Another engaging aspect of Salieri's personality is his wit, seen when he admits his gluttony:
I have never been able to conquer a lust for the sweetmeats of Northern Italy, where I was born. . . Veronese biscuits! Milanese macaroons! . . . Do not judge me too harshly for this. All men harbor patriotic feelings of some kind.
This same sly wit is seen throughout the play; the emperor frequently chides Salieri for being cattivo (thus we get the word "catty").
The movie gives us occasional glimpses of Salieri's sweet tooth, but they are only but
glimpses--they serve more to underscore the opulence of this society than to define
Salieri's character. But the effect of Salieri's sweet tooth in the play cannot be
downplayed. By the end of the first few scenes of the play, then, we see Salieri as
a human, just as full of faults as the rest of us-no more, no less. We see Salieri
as just like any one of us, with the same faults, failings, needs and desires. And
we can't dismiss him; to do so would be to dismiss ourselves (As Falstaff puts it in II
Henry IV, "Banish Jack Falstaff and banish all the world."). And
because we can relate to him, we are all the more engaged when he tell us of his passion
for music, and of his bargain with God:
Signore, let me be a composer! Grant me
sufficient fame to enjoy it. In return, I will live with virtue. I will strive
to better the lot of my fellows. And I will honor you with much music all the days
of my life!"
He then tells us that the next day a family friend arrived and offered to take him to Vienna to study music--a Dickensian coincidence, to be sure, but still palatable. And it certainly does not alter our impression of Salieri himself.
The movie takes a much darker approach to Salieri's entry into the world of music. We hear that Salieri's father does not care for music, we hear Salieri's prayer (discussed below), and we hear "And do you know what happened?!? A miracle!!!" as we cut to Salieri's father choking to death and his funeral.
At that instant in the film, we recognize Salieri as a monster. And at that instant any possible identification that may have been built up to this point goes right out the window. We are still fascinated by the character, but we hold the character at a safe distance.
The Salieri of the play ultimately turns out to be just as monstrous--possibly even more so--but because we are encouraged to develop a strong sympathy with him throughout most of the play, that stronger identification with him makes us more aware of the cruel trick of fate (well, ok, God) that made him so monstrous, but also--and more importantly--forces us to acknowledge just how much of Salieri lies within all of us.
Note: There are also some important differences between the prayers offered. In the play, the prayer is offered as an economic transaction--you give me this, I will return accordingly. As Salieri discovers, it's a classic case of "Be careful what you wish for." The movie's pledge is more broad. There is little sense of a contract being drawn up, as in the play. There is no mention of bettering the lot of his fellows (a minor point), but also in the movie Salieri says "After I die, let people speak my name with love."
Interlude: "Moe who?"
One other facet that shapes our perception of Salieri is the presentation of Mozart himself. In the movie, Thomas Hulce portrays Mozart as childish, headstrong, occasionally vulgar-but he's essentially a likable fellow. The Mozart of the play, though is a bit different--there isn't that much likable about the character other than the music. Initially portrayed on the stage by Tim Curry, the Mozart of the play is an obnoxious drunk, unable to open his mouth without insulting someone; he's vain, crude, jealous . . . so much so that we cannot help but ask the same question as Salieri: Why would God choose this creature instead of Salieri?
A thought: Thomas Hulce and Tim Curry, the two actors most closely associated with the title role of Amadeus, are otherwise best-known for, respectively, Animal House and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I may be on the verge of a tremendous insight here, but I'm too terrified to pursue this line of thought any further.