Mozart and Salieri

Utopian Theatre Asylum

at Chicago Dramatists

The life and work of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin were characterized by brevity and directness. Killed in a duel at 37, he rarely attempted the kind of epics that preoccupied so many Russian novelists. Instead the young firebrand–whose “Ode to Freedom” helped inspire the abortive 1825 Decembrist revolution–wrote mostly lyric verses, short stories, and scandalous parodies. Such pieces seemed to spill out of him with minimal effort. But as he dutifully recorded in his notebook, it took him “seven years, four months, and 167 days” to complete his most massive work, the epic poem Yevgeny Onegin.

Unlike his predecessors–who relied on elevated, literary language–Pushkin wrote with the natural, flowing rhythms of everyday Russian, finding poetic resonance in something close to an early-19th-century vernacular. This affinity for the language of the people sprang not only from his liberal political views but from his experiences as a committed ne’er-do-well. While his father was a social climber who often rented a broken-down carriage and poorly fed horse to call upon the aristocracy, Pushkin loved playing the juvenile delinquent. As Elaine Feinstein reports in her 1998 biography, he grew his fingernails long, acted up when he went to the theater (he once pounded on the head of a bald patron in front of him instead of applauding), attended a ball in see-through trousers sans underwear, spoke unabashedly of his regular visits to brothels, and drank to excess. At one of the many duels he fought, he stood calmly eating a handful of cherries waiting for his opponent to take his best shot.

In 1830, however, it seemed the wild flow of Pushkin’s life was about to end. Intending to leave his libertine ways behind, he’d gotten engaged, and while tending to a newly acquired country estate, he found himself quarantined by a cholera outbreak. The three months of isolation were prolific ones for the writer. In addition to completing Yevgeny Onegin he wrote 30 poems, five short stories, and his odd but fascinating “little tragedies”–four theatrical gems in blank verse that seem to end almost before they’ve begun. Each presents a moment of crisis with hardly any backstory or exposition–essentially each is a “fifth act” from a full-length play. Three of the pieces were freely adapted scenes from traditional English works, but the fourth–Mozart and Salieri–was wholly original. This two-scene, ten-page play is the most interesting of the bunch. Even if it hadn’t inspired Peter Shaffer’s Broadway hit Amadeus, it would remain worthy of theatrical investigation.

Pushkin must have felt an affinity with Mozart. The composer shared the poet’s effortless genius, and both caroused through life when not locking themselves away to create their art. But Pushkin’s real interest was Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s bitter rival. He’d died only five years before Pushkin began the play, and the rumor that he’d poisoned Mozart was still very much alive. Pushkin introduces Salieri in the opening monologue as the quintessential Enlightenment man, someone who believes that artistic creativity obeys the kind of natural laws that govern physiology. When he began studying music, Salieri says, “I trained my fingers / To dry obedient proficiency…I cut up music like a corpse.” He believes his eventual success is perfectly logical, as is the success of the composers around him who follow the rules he understands. So when the untrained but gifted Mozart appears on the scene, Salieri is incensed. The genius of Mozart’s work is inexplicable to him, threatening his logical worldview, so its creator must be eliminated.

Like the other little tragedies, this one has been stripped to its essence. The two composers have the only speaking roles, and the play opens at the moment Salieri realizes that Mozart has destroyed his orderly world. From there the piece flows with an inevitable urgency to Salieri’s fateful act.

Chief among the many curious choices made by director Zeljko Djukic in this Utopian Theatre Asylum production is the aim to stretch this tiny work into a full evening of theater. He slows what should be a 20-minute one-act to such a crawl that it lasts a full hour: the actors have apparently been encouraged to mull, stew, ponder, and generally stall, occasionally to comical extremes. The first moments set the sluggish pace. Salieri, looking psychotic in a white nightgown, says the first 3 lines of the 65 in his opening monologue. Then the lights dim, church bells ring, and he wanders offstage. A man clad in black and wearing club-kid platform shoes skulks on and moves a bench downstage. Salieri wanders back on, the man in black brushes off and straightens Salieri’s clothing, lights a candle, and exits. The lights come up on Salieri, and he starts the monologue over again.

The pace rarely picks up, as the actors struggle to wrench anything and everything from each phrase. Sometimes this kind of in-depth textual investigation provides a sense of psychological fullness, but here it turns the play into isolated slices. Both performers–Kirk Anderson as Salieri and Bob Kulhan as Mozart–give their characters so many quirks that they hardly seem to be interacting in any recognizable human way. And the production comes to a complete halt when Goran Ivanovic enters between the two scenes and plays classical guitar for 20 minutes–three pieces, only two of them by Mozart–while the composers mostly stand around.

Djukic has a keen visual sense and knows how to make an unconventional stage picture satisfying. He places Mozart and Salieri far upstage left as they eat dinner, for example, and hangs a narrow curtain between them, obscuring the table–it’s as though the audience were watching from within the wall of the restaurant, which enhances the scene’s unsettling feel. But by ignoring Pushkin’s calls for speed and movement, Djukic has sapped the play of all its momentum and most of its psychological credibility.