Climbing a mountain to define genius

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Peter Shaffer shone an oblique light on Mozart's genius

Another giant of the arts has gone. I’m talking about Sir Peter Shaffer, playwright who, according to The Times, “dominated post-war British theatre with his psychologically complex dramas including Equus and Amadeus”. The Times obituary remarked: “His daring, often deeply disturbing, plays plumbed the psychological depths of conflicts between opposing states of mind”.

They weren’t all blockbusters, nor all serious. His Black Comedy hilariously tracks the behaviour of incompatible characters during a power-cut: only the audience sees them lit when the power is off, and dark when it’s on. It’s a brilliant concept – and much more than a mere farce.

For me Shaffer’s masterwork is Amadeus, which dares to tangle with the whole concept of genius. Was Mozart a genius? I reckon he was: yet much educational thinking (with which I have to agree) claims that geniuses aren’t born. To be sure, genetic traits are inherited by definition, but there must be the right circumstances, opportunity and stimulus to develop any talent to the extraordinary degree described as genius.

In Mozart’s case it was a pushy father, cashing in (some would say) on the early manifestation of his musical gift and trailing him round Europe as a child prodigy, a celebrity. If that sounds like exploitation, the positive outcome it achieved was to hothouse the boy’s talents through the sheer amount of time spent on music: in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes Mozart as an example of the 10,000 hours of work required to achieve phenomenally high levels of success.

Amadeus became a hugely successful movie: but the intimacy of the theatre allowed Shaffer to do cleverer things than the big screen could. A minor and nowadays largely neglected composer, Antonio Salieri, narrates the story of how he killed Mozart out of jealousy. In the film he is already forgotten and living in something between an old people’s home and a madhouse. In the original play, it’s cleverer.

In that stage version Salieri is still at the height of his fame, flattered and lauded by the Viennese court and the usual sycophants floating around him like moths round a candle. As Mozart falls out of favour and into debt and alcoholism, he is already largely forgotten. Ironically the rich and famous Salieri is the only one who appreciates that his own talent is miniscule compared to that of his rival: only he can appreciate the poignancy, the agony of his position.

I love that play! What excites me about it is that the strong storyline is counter-intuitive. We’re outraged by the childish, foulmouthed Mozart who nonetheless produces exquisite music: and we empathise with Salieri who knows genius when he sees it, but cannot achieve it himself. Our sympathy lies not so much with the precocious celebrity composer (though I always shed tears when he is chucked into a pauper’s grave) as with the painfully perceptive narrator who describes himself as a “mediocrity”. We’re left conflicted, perplexed, absolutely hooked.

That’s what drama’s supposed to do, isn’t it? The play entertains: there are moments of broad comedy. But it simultaneously twists the heartstrings and asks some challenging questions. Somehow there is a special insight in Shaffer trying to analyse in his drama the nature of supreme creativity in a closely allied field, music.

Shaffer was, by all accounts, himself a flawed genius. He never stopped re-writing and revising. In a television tribute veteran director Sir Peter Hall said the cast dreaded Shaffer’s appearance at a rehearsal: he’d sit in the auditorium, scribbling away, and all the actors knew that the next day they would have to learn a new version of the script.

He was also famed in the business for his bizarre stage directions. In The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a play of enormous ambition dealing with the destruction of the Inca Empire by Francisco Pizarro’s Spanish conquistadores (and, more deeply, the clash between the two cultures and religions), he includes a simple direction: “they climb the Andes”.

Shaffer certainly climbed metaphorical mountains! The world is robbed of yet another colossal talent this year: but at least writers leave their work behind them. Sir Peter Shaffer leaves the world better, richer, than he found it. RIP.

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