Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Playwright Sees God: Remembering Peter Shaffer

[Photo collage:  Paul Scofield as old Salieri.  Inset UL, playwright Peter Shaffer.  UR, program of the original production, National Theatre, London.  DR, Scofield as middle aged Salieri with Simon Callow as Mozart.]

With news yesterday that playwright Peter Shaffer had died came expected mention of award-winning plays Equus and Amadeus, their film versions, and Shaffer's exploration of conflicts between strong-willed men.  One report mentioned something I hadn't known, that he was a lapsed Orthodox Jew.  That fact fits with a third character in Shaffer's plays, omitted from the commentaries I saw:  God.  To this day, a single moment in the original production of Amadeus is the strongest image I've ever seen (and heard) of the Divine.

Before he found God as his theme, Shaffer had done moderately well around 1960 with domestic dramas and comedies, the outstanding one being the farce Black Comedy, which begins with animated dialogue about a lovely apartment and beautiful paintings, all spoken in total darkness.  When the lights come up, we see the actors, frozen.  One asks, "What's happened to the light?" In the rest of the play, an artist, his fiancee, and his mistress, among others, blunder around as if in total darkness.  (I considered making a musical version, if only to call it Light Opera.)

Then Shaffer hit on the theme that took him to his pinnacle with Amadeus:  a self-possessed middle-aged man of intellect, drawn to a God-possessed younger man of passion, destroys him.

Shaffer explored the love triangle of older man, younger man, and God in plays before Amadeus.  My favorite was Equus (1973).  Psychiatrist Dysart, academically interested in mythology, confronts Alan Strang, a teenage boy possessed by a mythology of his own creation about a horse-god Equus.  Earlier, in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (ca. 1965), a conquistador who has lost his Catholic faith encounters the young god-king of the Incas, whose charisma shakes the older man's cynicism.  In between, Shaffer wrote Shrivings, a slight variation on the theme: a cynical younger man goads a prominent pacifist into violence. I hear that the play following Amadeus, called Yonadab, set in Hebrew testament times, was same-old same-old. His final hit, Lettice and Lovage, was a genteel version of his theme, featuring two middle-aged women, one imaginative and spry, the other strait-laced.

But Shaffer's best exploration of his theme was Amadeus. Even the title, Mozart's given name, is a statement, translating literally as "God-loved."  Then, during the play's very first moments, Shaffer grabbed me and the rest of the audience.  For the original production in 1980, director Peter Hall dressed the Olivier Stage of the National Theatre as an abstracted 18th century salon of shimmering tile, royal blue panels and ivory white trim.  The house dimmed, and light on a scrim threw into relief a figure who'd hunched in a wheelchair upstage unnoticed while we'd settled into our seats.  We heard amplified whispers in counterpoint, building to the conclusion that composer Antonio Salieri, near-death, claims to have poisoned Mozart - and no one believes him.

The old man in the wheelchair turned to address us in his piping, insinuating voice.  It was Paul Scofield as "Salieri," drawing us into his confidence.  He promised an opera of his imagination, "The Death of Mozart, or, Did I Do It?" Mid-sentence, Scofield rose from the chair, dropping his old-man's shawl to the ground and his voice about two octaves, winning instant applause and laughter.  His whispering servants dressed him in the suit and wig of Mozart's time while Salieri launched into Peter Shaffer's play.

This interplay of Salieri and audience makes a live performance more vibrant than the movie could ever have been.  Scofield seemed to have an extra set of eyebrows, intimating with sidelong glances to us his unspoken bemusement, dismay, contempt, or fury.  We could read Salieri's thoughts as, concealed in a high-back chair, he overheard Mozart (played by Simon Callow) play cat-and-mousie-wousie with young wife Constanze. His words to us were icing on the cake: "Before I could rise, it had become difficult to do so."  Soon, Mozart shows the older composer up, and Salieri asks us, "Was it then -- so early -- that I began to have thoughts of murder?"  [BTW - Shaffer's words made such an impression 36 years ago that my quotations from memory differed by only a few words from what I find in the script revising this post.]

Salieri tells us how he, a tradesman's son, bargained with God: "Signore, let me be a composer! Grant me sufficient fame to enjoy it.  In return, I will live with virtue [and] honor You with much music all the days of my life."  Then, sitting in that same high-backed chair, Salieri talks us through his thoughts as he hears Mozart's music (Adagio from K.361) for the first time:
It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers -- bassoons and basset horns -- like a rusty squeeze box.  It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity.  And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe. 
Here's the moment when Shaffer, with help from Scofield and Mozart, created an indelible image of God.  Scofield's Salieri raised his hand, palm down, to show the high note from the oboe, and followed the shape of the musical phrase, while he explained how we human beings experience God:
It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. ...I called up to my sharp old God ... "What is this need in the sound?  Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly.  Is it Your need?  Can it be Yours?" ...It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God - and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard -- and it was the voice of an obscene child!  (end of Act One, Scene 5)

At the end of Act One, Salieri prays again to his God, "Grazie tanti!"  Italian for "gee, thanks a lot." He vows to destroy Mozart.  At play's end, calling himself "the patron saint of mediocrities," Salieri pronounces benediction on all of us.

Shaffer himself appeared to be the middle-aged, middle - of - the - road playwright at the time of Amadeus.  Harold Pinter was more challenging, Tom Stoppard more brilliant, Alan Ayckbourn more prolific and popular.  Was Shaffer absolving himself as a mediocrity?  Tributes I saw yesterday upon news of Shaffer's death all seemed to agree that, at least with Amadeus, Shaffer created one lasting treasure.

Myself, I appreciated Shaffer's focus on men of good will with good education and good minds who tried but didn't hear God speaking directly to them in the way that He seemed to speak through others.

I have a couple more personal notes.  A year after I saw the original cast, I traveled with friends to D.C.'s National Theatre to see Ian McKellan as "Salieri," Tim Curry as "Mozart," and Jane Seymour as "Constanze."  It was a Saturday matinee preview to a small crowd.  Afterwards, we encountered the three leads leaving the dressing room for lunch, and shook hands all around.  I'm not a big guy, but I was a head taller than all three.

A few years after the Amadeus movie won the Oscar, I got a phone call from composer Leonard Bernstein.  Impressed with an appreciation of his music that I'd written at a time when he'd not been getting much love from the critics, Bernstein proposed that I take over from Peter Shaffer, who had withdrawn from an unnamed musical project they'd begun.  It was not to be; and Bernstein passed away the next year.

P.S. Requiescat in pace.

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