Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Biblical Intertext in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (or, Saul and David in Eighteenth-Century Vienna)

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Biblical Intertext in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (or, Saul and David in Eighteenth-Century Vienna)

Article excerpt

Peter Shaffer's dramatic universe resounds with unmistakable echoes from the two master sources of Western literary tradition: the Bible, with its major theological concerns, and the mythological imagination, from Greek culture and beyond. In addition, Shaffer has also incorporated in his plays non-Western forms of magic, ritual, and pagan deifications of natural forces. The mythological flavor of Shaffer's plays has directed critics to uncover Promethean and Faustian elements in his dramatic characters, (1) as well as to dichotomize his major protagonists along the lines of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality. (2)

Shaffer's major plays, such as The Royal Hunt for the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus are marked by a biblical tenor. These dramas present protagonists (Pizarro, Dysart, and Salieri, respectively) who probe the puzzle of human existence and engage in metaphysical questions of biblical nature regarding divine justice and the relationship between the human and the divine. (3) Dennis A. Klein indicated the verses in Job and Revelations that are the sources of the horse figures in Equus, and also described Salieri, the central protagonist and main speaker in Amadeus, as "a literary echo of Satan in the biblical book of Isaiah 14:12-15." (4) Others have noted that Salieri's questioning of the nature of cosmic justice and his constant appeal to God place him in the Jobian tradition of man arguing with God and challenging him about his erratic ways of governing the world. (5) Salieri has also been viewed as a Cain-like figure, murderously resentful of Amadeus, whom he regards as undeservedly favored by God. (6) Indeed, the Genesis tale of deadly sibling rivalry reappears in several of Shaffer's less known plays, reinforced, as well, by the predominance of biblical/Hebrew or Jewish names and other biblical codes. (7)

Yet the extensive, pervasive biblical underpinnings of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (first performance date 1979), (8) which go beyond Salieri's Jobian arguments or his Cain-like jealousy to establish a dialogic encounter between the modern play and the biblical text, have gone unexamined by Shaffer's critics. Underlying the dramatic conflict between Salieri, the bitterly jealous, far lesser composer, and Amadeus, the brilliant musician of immortal fame, is the drama of Saul, the hapless first King of Israel, and David, his charismatic successor, as narrated in 1 Samuel. The biblical prototype planted in Shaffer's play pulls us back in time to a mythic past even as we sink into the depths of Salieri's subconscious, and the play as a whole into the zone of hallucinations and nightmares. Salieri, the powerful Kapellmeister who descends into madness and obsessively plans to destroy the more gifted newcomer, recalls Saul, the first King of Israel, tortured by the "evil spirit" and relentlessly pursuing young David. Just as King Saul became a mere footnote in Israelite chronicles, giving way to the eternally remembered David, so Antonio Salieri has been largely forgotten by history, while his younger contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, lives forever.

In embedding a biblical tale in his play, Shaffer belongs to a long Western literary tradition of rewriting scriptural narratives or using them as a foundation for modern stories. Shaffer's body of work exhibits both modalities. His play Yonadab (1985) is set in Davidic times and retells the chain of stories recounted in 2 Samuel about scandalous events in David's court. The play involves the rape of David's daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon, and the vengeance inflicted on him by Absalom, Tamar's charismatic and ambitious brother. It follows Absalom to his death by David's soldiers. Told from the unlikely vantage point of a minor biblical character, Yonadab, David's nephew, the play is a particular example of the genre of historical drama. It is true that Yonadab is modeled after some of Shaffer's other dramatic seekers of metaphysical truth and that his words are reminiscent of the rhetoric in Shaffer's other plays. …

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