As Salieri in Amadeus, These Were the 3 Most-Asked Questions of Ian McKellen | Playbill

From the Archives As Salieri in Amadeus, These Were the 3 Most-Asked Questions of Ian McKellen While starring in Peter Shaffer’s drama—which opened on Broadway December 17, 1980—Ian McKellen wrote about the hazards of impersonating historical characters for Playbill.
Ian McKellan Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

In Amadeus I play the man who claimed he murdered Mozart. The part is a long one and technically demanding. To begin with, even before the audience assembles, I sit, my back to them, in a wheelchair, as befits a crazed, decrepit 73-year-old. Before long and for most of the play, I revert to the eager, ambitious 31-year-old with a passion for music and sweetmeats. There is much talking to the audience, sometimes with the charm and chutzpah of a stand-up comic; often with the aggression and bile of a psychopath. I have to cajole and attack, to whisper and to declaim. Paul Scofield, playing the part in London, says it’s more wearying than King Lear. Yet talking afterwards in my dressing room or at the stage door (and how refreshing is Broadway’s enthusiasm after the polite approval of English audiences), I am repeatedly asked the same three questions about the part.

Question 1: What on earth do you think about as you wait for the show to begin? Answer: I do a few little voice exercises; arrange my long robe so it won’t, hopefully, entangle in the wheels of my chair; and then go to sleep.

Question 2: What are those cakes you eat on stage? Answer: They are made principally of yogurt and Cool Whip. (And for that admission, I don’t hope to receive from the manufactuers a free lifetime’s supply of the icky combination!)

Question 3: Did you do a lot of research into the life of the real Salieri, whom you portray?
The answer to that is less simple. Antonio Salieri was the most famous musician of the 18th century, well-paid and much decorated. Yet such is the transience of riches and success (and such is the theme of Peter Shaffer’s play) that had I wanted to research the true life story of my character, I could have found little other than a portrait or two and a few paragraphs in the numerous biographies of Mozart. The point is that until Amadeus, Salieri was no longer at all well-known: so I was happy to rely on Shaffer’s research and to know that my responsibility was to play only his tune and not add any new themes of my own. (Suppose I had discovered that the original Salieri had an aversion to cakes!)

Even when I am playing a more famous character, my attitude is the same. I learnt my lesson when I was Lawrence of Arabia for BBC Television in Terence Rattigan’s play Ross. Like my predecessors in the part (Alec Guinness in London and John Mills on Broadway), I was concerned to be a Lawrence lookalike. At the National Portrait Gallery in London, I studied lifesize photographs, posing alongside them as Lawrence had done for the camera, jutting out my chin, mimicking his almost feminine stance and the screwed-up eyes. But I also read all of his writings and many of the biographies, some of them published after the play was first produced. It was frustrating to know things about the hero which the playwright didn’t or, if he did, had chosen to ignore. I was trapped between my own research and Rattigan’s.

There is for me, now, no alternative. Stick with the author’s character, not with history and, through it, try to contribute some of oneself. Otherwise, the actor may lose faith with his script: and without faith there is no hope. This, you can appreciate, only holds good if the script is a good one in the first place.

It was the same year, when I played the other Lawrence—the novelist D.H.—in the film Priest of Love. Apart from growing a beard and dyeing my hair red, I relied totally on the film script.

So I am not one of those actors currently rushing to the television studios to impersonate the varying glamour of Churchill, Hitler, Gauguin or Van Gogh. The nearer you get to history, the further you are from art. Nor do I join those vociferous supporters of the real King Richard III who, appalled by Shakespeare’s libelous characterization, would happily ditch his masterpiece in defense of their hero (rather as Lady Churchill destroyed Graham Sutherland’s brilliant oil-painting of her husband). Where would such censorship end? We might lose forever Prince Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar and Macbeth, all of whom lived before Shakespeare immortalized them. Indeed, pity Broadway at the moment without Barnum, Evita, Piaf, the Elephant Man, Amadeus—and Antonio Salieri!

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