[Editor's note: Please welcome Blackbird Theater's managing director, Greg Greene, to the Rabbit Room. Many of you may have met him at Hutchmoot 2012 where he led a session called "The Theology of Theater." Greg has become a good friend over the last couple of years and I'm always impressed with his level of theological insight into the plays that Blackbird Theater produces. Here he is with a bit of insight into his production of Amadeus. Specially-priced tickets to the show are still available through the Rabbit Room store. We hope to see you there.]
I’m sitting in the room with a dozen skilled and honest actors in a first rehearsal known as “table talk.” We discuss the play, its characters and meanings, read through a handful of scenes, and hear the director’s vision for the show we will create. The play is Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. You likely know the film—also scripted by Shaffer—and its anti-hero Antonio Salieri, the respected court composer of eighteenth century Vienna. Salieri is, by his own account, a righteous man: chaste, hard-working, striving to better the lot of his fellows. Above all, he wants to be a conduit of God through the pure, unparalleled transport of music. But that’s not all—he wants to be famous. “Not to deceive you,” he tells the audience, “I wanted to blaze, like a comet, across the firmament of Europe.”
Life for Salieri is rich with promise until Mozart arrives at Vienna’s royal court. Though certainly the more privileged and positioned of the two, when Salieri browses one of the younger composer’s scores, he realizes that he will ever be consigned to the shadow of Mozart, the purer and singularly transporting conduit of the divine. In Salieri’s envious eyes, Mozart is the elect—the chosen voice of God.
One of my actresses—a vivacious, intuitive Texan—says that her designer/musician husband is in constant turmoil over the disparity between his God-given artistic calling and his sense of achievement. Whatever measure of artistic success he’s expected by now, he is far from it. She asks him: And if you could achieve everything you dream of, would it be enough? He knows it wouldn’t be, and he doesn’t know what would.
In a room full of actors, everyone knows the feeling.
Amadeus is one of the great scripts of the twentieth century—a bold, unflinching look at religious motivation, human frailty, and unbridled genius. And while its cinematic offspring leans more toward a fictionalized Mozart biopic, the play is more starkly narrated by his rival. At the heart of Amadeus are Salieri’s confession of Mozart’s murder and, more shockingly, his earnest complaint against what he sees as a capricious God.
Salieri has always considered his wealth, status, and considerable artistic success to be signs of God’s favor. He is, indeed, a blessed man. “I own a respectable house, and a respectable wife,” he says, referring to the docile Teresa (tellingly, a role with little presence and no lines in his self-obsessed narrative). Mozart, the one-time child prodigy, is still a genius and, for the most part, still a child, not to mention vulgar and self-destructive. Constanze, his wife and chief advocate, is little more than a child herself. As Mozart lives and composes with joyous abandon, he needs someone in Vienna’s court to shield him from the consequences of his own immaturity. Salieri is uniquely positioned to recognize Mozart’s genius, to come alongside as counselor and ambassador, and help him build a body of work that would elevate the soul of the human race. Salieri instead makes a chilling choice: if he cannot be the divine voice—if God chooses that “obscene child” over the steadfast Salieri—then he will defy God’s will by destroying Mozart.
Who among us in the creative fields has not shared Salieri’s struggle, in essence if not in his extreme of satanic pride and dilapidating envy?
My friend “Dee,” a godly and mission-minded actress, confesses her frustration after years of dedication to stagecraft while living off high-flex/low-pay jobs, and for . . . what? Her years of scrutinizing the signs for a heavenly confirmation that she is following God’s plan for her life yield little of the proof we are trained to look for.
And what is that proof? Surely fame is the first and most naturally assumed measure of success. In my teens, I wanted fame as a writer. In my twenties, I tempered my fleshly nature by saying I didn’t want fame, only influence. By my thirties, the measure evolved (or devolved) into mere livelihood. Now in my early forties, I’m coming to terms with the real problem: it’s not the modesty of the measure, it’s the focus. My fame, my influence, my livelihood.
Artists, I think, are inclined to desire glory, and to the Christian artist, the glory belongs to, is sourced from, God. But would I be content to sit at the feet of Mozart and drink in the glory of God flowing from his piano? I confess the gnawing of discontent. Would I be satisfied to participate in the creation of glory, to be the one person uniquely positioned to recognize and foster Mozart’s brilliant compositions? In my fleshly nature, I confess that’s just not enough. I want to be the source of the glory. And here I share Salieri’s flaw: satanic pride, dilapidating envy. As an artist—as a Christian artist—I have much to re-learn.
In a room full of creatives, I’m guessing we all know the feeling.
[Join us at the March 9th performance of the show. Tickets available here. There will be a special question and answer session with the cast and crew after the show.]