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Amadeus and the Cult of Godless Virtue

February 14, 2017
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The writer (centre) as Emperor Joseph in Amadeus, backstage – Jeddah 1985

I mean no disrespect to those who live virtuous lives according to their religious beliefs. But in these idolatrous times, I suspect that just as many people subscribe to concepts of virtue that may have their roots in religion but as far as they’re concerned have nothing to do with God.

Godless virtue goes like this:

My body is a temple. I eat the right things, go to the gym five days a week, don’t smoke, drink very little alcohol, don’t sleep around and avoid shoving noxious chemicals up my nose. I will thereby increase my chances of living a long life.

My mind is my Holy of Holies. I study hard, get multiple degrees and devour self-improvement books. I set myself goals. I network, practice my soft skills and always keep my eyes open for the main chance. I seek the material rewards of success, and achieve a measure of personal fulfilment. Thereby I succeed in my chosen path, and because I treat my body as a temple, the path is long and happy.

I don’t do God. My priests are secular: the health columnists of the newspapers, the lifestyle gurus of Instagram. They, and the peer pressure of my fellow gym bunnies, cyclists and shiatsu fans, keep me on the straight and righteous path. It’s all about me. I, as my parents and peers encouraged me to believe, am the centre of the universe.

And then, as I plod along as a fully paid-up member of the Cult of Godless Virtue, bang! Along comes a Maradona, a Steve Jobs, an Oscar Wilde. Someone who does everything the wrong way, wrecks body, mind or both, yet achieves things that make them immortal. Things that I aspired to, but are far beyond my limited capabilities.

I spit, I curse, I howl with frustration, disappointment and envy. How can this idiot, this dysfunctional abomination, get to do all the things I can’t?

Right, I think. To hell with the Health Section of the Daily Mail, and with Weightlifting for Dummies. Enough of the half marathons, the meditation and the aromatherapy. You let me down. So from now onwards I’m going to live a life of excess, debauchery and emotional incontinence.

And blow me – my life of mediocrity continues regardless, and I live to a ripe old age, although suffused with bitterness and anger. Nobody will remember me, while the truly talented have flamed out years ago. Their fame lives on, and I am one of life’s afterthoughts.

And that, in essence, is the story portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

Except that in the late 1700s there were no deals to be done with the humanistic priesthoods of wellness and self-development. There was only God. And in Amadeus, currently in revival at London’s National Theatre, Antonio Salieri, a composer of limited gifts, does his deal with Him. Make me rich and famous, give me the power of music, and I will serve you all my life.

But then, at the court of the Habsburg Emperor, where Salieri is comfortably ensconced, appears Mozart. A foul-mouthed freak whose music has a divine quality that Salieri can never match. So the devout Italian renounces his pact with God, and proceeds to destroy His dissolute instrument.

Schaffer’s play has Salieri in his dotage, decades after Mozart’s death, confessing to his part in the divine Wolfgang’s demise. A bitter old man, resigned to his tenuous place in history as a high priest of mediocrity.

I have a special relationship with the play. I saw it at the National on its first run in 1979, with Paul Scofield playing Salieri. A few years later I acted in a production in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the role of the Emperor Joseph. I’m biased, but I still think that the performances of the actors who played Mozart and Salieri, Paul Jones and David Frontin, were equal to those of their professional counterparts.

Then came the movie, which earned F Murray Abraham (better known today as the cynical CIA careerist in Homeland) an Oscar for his Salieri. And now the National’s revival, with Lucian Msamati playing Mozart’s embittered rival.

Msamati is magnificent, every bit the equal of Scofield and Abraham. Adam Gillen as Mozart is less impressive than Simon Callow and Tom Hulce, his predecessors. A bit shouty, lacking in light and shade. But his is a role with less scope to make his own. If you’ve seen the movie and previous stage productions, what you remember of Mozart is his silly laugh and his scatological humour, rather than his childlike passion and squalid ending. In Shaffer’s hands Mozart is a hysterical allegro, but Salieri is a symphony of malevolence.

That said, the production is a delight, with the thrilling musical set pieces of the original staging at the National. One feature that elevates it is the role of the black-clad musicians, who not only play their instruments but buzz around the action like avenging demons. They give a sense of movement to a drama that in less imaginative hands could be seen as a patchwork of dialogue and big operatic moments.

As for the Emperor Joseph, whose part I played, Tom Edden’s performance reminded me of warm nights in Jeddah, as passing aircraft stooped the actors in their tracks. And of Joseph’s standard conversation-stopper – “well, there it is!” – that I still use today.

When I read about David Beckham, that paragon of personal virtue, who never won a World Cup, cursing the powers that be for not giving him a knighthood. I think of Amadeus. When I think of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whose fiery eclipse is yet to come, I think of Salieri and Mozart. Not an exact parallel, I admit, given Trump’s age, but at least I can probably claim the distinction of being the first person to compare The Donald to The Wolfgang.

Amadeus reminds us that the virtuous don’t always get their reward. And that undeserving shits so often surpass them.

These days, whether the devout like it or not, God isn’t perceived to be the only game in town.

Even if dissolute geniuses don’t implode before their time, and, like Keith Richards, defy the odds by reaching their natural spans, the only consolation for those who live long lives of mediocrity might seem to be the prospect of reward in the next life, and punishment for the wastrels. But for those who belong to the Cult of Godless Virtue, immune from divine allegiance, no such comfort is to be found. So sad, as Trump might tweet.

Well, there it is.

PS: Amadeus runs at the National Theatre until March 18. Catch it if you can. If not, or if you’re reading this from Timbuctoo, the movie is still out there. It’s a classic.

From → Film, Music, Theatre, UK

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