Cain and Herostratus: Pushkin's and Shaffer's Reappropriations of the Mozart Myth

By Sabbag, Kerry | Pushkin Review, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Cain and Herostratus: Pushkin's and Shaffer's Reappropriations of the Mozart Myth


Sabbag, Kerry, Pushkin Review


Where the event of a great action is left doubtful, there the Poet is left Master.

Dryden, preface to Don Sebastian

The rumors surrounding the role of Antonio Salieri in the death of Mozart have transformed these artists into the subjects of art. In 1830 and 1981 respectively, Alexander Pushkin and Peter Shaffer brought this story of envy and murder to life in distinctively different dramas. Setting aside any issues of direct influence, the question remains--how did these two artists engage the Mozart/Salieri myth in very different social and intellectual contexts? The aspects of this rumor turned myth that take center stage in each work represent diverse interpretations not only of the historical figures and the rumors surrounding Mozart's death but also of the dominant themes--envy, art, genius, man's relationship to God, and fame. Both Pushkin and Shaffer chose Salieri as their primary vehicle for the exploration of these themes; thus, it is the two Salieris and their views of Mozart and the world that reveal a larger myth of envy, fame, and recognition that is both timeless in nature and shaped by each author's time and implied audience. Moreover, by comparing the divergences in the medium, characterization, and thematic focus employed by each author we can see how the artistic interpretation of the Mozart/Salieri rumor engages the core legends of envy represented by the mythical figures of Cain and Herostratus. (1)

The differences between Pushkin's "fifth act" Little Tragedy and Shaffer's stage play are most immediately evident in the scope and length of each work. Shaffer's text is replete with stage directions and includes instruction on scenery, costume, and tempo, while, in contrast, Pushkin's minimal inclusion of secondary text has led directors, critics, actors, and readers/viewers to question its theatricality. (2) While Pushkin's drama features only the title characters and a blind fiddler, whose contribution is musical rather than verbal, Shaffer's play includes Mozart's wife, extensive mention of his father, the emperor, various representatives of the court, and venticelli, or little winds, who are defined as purveyors of information, gossip, and rumor. Shaffer expands on the biography of Mozart while Pushkin limits biographical information to mention of the artist's wife, his insomnia, and an incident just preceding the events of the play. Finally, the titles are worthy of note. Shaffer's single-character title, Amadeus, may be read as reflecting his audience's greater familiarity with Mozart and a sense of artistic irony in the contrast between the title and Salieri's domination of the audience's attention. While Shaffer's title may not indicate the same degree of connection and equanimity between the characters as Pushkin's, through Salieri's exclamation, "For the rest of time whenever men say Mozart with love, they will say Salieri with loathing!... I am going to be immortal after all!" Shaffer expresses the same reinforcement of the myth that unites the two composers. (3)

The presentation of time differs in the plays as a result of the medium within which each author works. I would compare Pushkin's vision of time in Motsart i Salieri to a panoramic snapshot in which the before and after are understood via the audience's historical knowledge. As S. Bondi reminds us, "And then Mozart enters--and all the many emotional and historical associations with this name immediately surface in the viewer's mind. The same is true for the name Salieri, which was just as familiar as Mozart's name to Pushkin's contemporaries." (4) Although Mozart's future is not explicitly depicted, it is conveyed to the audience on the historical level through their familiarity with the composer and fictively through Salieri's monologues. Shaffer jumps between the historical past, historical present (Salieri after Mozart's death), and even the future through Salieri's invocation of mediocrities now and to come and implication of the audience; the comparatively expansive treatment of time may be attributed to the overall broader scope of his drama and to the audience's relative distance from the characters' lives and the rumors that surrounded them. …

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