THE name Amadeus means “he who loves God”. But in Sir Peter Shaffer’s play of that name it speaks more of “him who is loved by God”. The subject of the play, nominally, is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, although the real protagonist is his contemporary, Antonio Salieri. In Shaffer’s imagination, the older journeyman-composer is so consumed with jealously at the talent that God has prodigally bestowed upon the younger man that he sets out to destroy him.
In the current National Theatre production, Salieri is played by Lucian Msamati, who last year became the first black actor to play Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The two portraits offer a study in contrasting malevolences. In both, a fake bonhomie covers a steady duplicity. But Salieri has a vulnerable charm, where Iago is driven only by a bitter nihilism. And yet what they share is a frightening self-knowledge that is unable to save them from their corrosive obsession.
Perhaps all great characters in drama, good or evil, share one characteristic: the ability to hold a dialogue between their better and worse natures, and do it in public before us.
Radio 4’s In Our Time this week was on the Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt, whose book The Origins of Totalitarianism is enjoying a surge in sales with the advent of Donald Trump. Arendt is best known for her phrase “the banality of evil”, which was succinctly explained by one of the programme’s academics by contrasting Shakespeare’s Richard III with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat at whose trial Arendt coined her famous expression.
Shakespeare’s Richard III may have been the embodiment of pure evil, but he has a gleeful awareness of his own subtle, false, and treacherous nature — a consciousness that only deepens the terrifying quality of a character who can descant on his own deformity. Eichmann, by contrast, is a representative of the “non-thinking self”: a man who lacked the capability to have a real conversation with himself about his conduct.
Eichmann was a man with an inability to think deeply, Robert Eaglestone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway, said. Eichmann spoke in clichés, could not follow a train of thought, lacked a sense of history, and could not understand other people’s point of view. He was, in the fullest sense of the term, thoughtless.
This was the sense in which he was banal. There was — for all the terrible scale of his crime — no satanic greatness about him. Rather, he embodied evil as a privation, an absence of goodness.
Perhaps that is also the difference between evil in fiction and fact. It is hard to imagine that there is much in the way of inner dialogue in the mind of someone such as President Trump. He seems so unaware of the boundary between truth and falsehood that, when a court declared his travel ban unconstitutional, he brazenly described the man who made the ruling as a “so-called judge”.
There is more than a scruple of self-doubt lacking in President Trump. The voice of self-scrutiny seems absent, too.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester. www.paulvallely.com