As this memory play opens in November 1823, whispers and rumors are rampant that Antonio Salieri has admitted to murdering Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart thirty-two years prior. Now an elderly man in a wheelchair, Salieri speaks directly to the audience and begins to explain the story behind the rumors.
As a young man, Salieri desired to be a famous composer and made a bargain with God that if this were granted he would dedicate his life to honoring Him through music.
The story then flashes back to 1781 when Salieri is a successful court composer in the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria. He has not met Mozart but has heard of him and his extraordinary music and is thrilled to learn he in Vienna for a performance. However, his first encounter with Mozart is an accidental eavesdropping on a profane, private moment between him and his fiancée, Constanze Weber.
Salieri avoids meeting Mozart but eventually makes his acquaintance in the emperor’s court where his opinion of him is sealed; Salieri cannot reconcile the man whom he calls the “filthy creature” and the “absolute beauty” of his God-given musical genius. He pleads with God that he, Salieri, may be His conduit. He cannot believe that Mozart would be chosen instead. After a lengthy struggle with his own mediocrity, Salieri forsakes his Maker and vows to destroy Mozart as a way to wage war on God.
As the story continues, Salieri pretends to be Mozart’s ally, when behind his back he does his utmost to ruin his reputation and any chances for success. When Constanze comes to him for help, he tries to seduce her, then humiliates her and throws her out. Mozart continues to produce inspired work, but to less and less aristocratic appreciation. The common people adore him, but his means of earning a living dwindle.
Eventually, both men have fallen: Salieri has become shameful, manipulative, unfeeling and bitter; Mozart is penniless, ill, disheartened and an alcoholic. But the questions still remain: Did Salieri really murder Mozart? Are the rumors and his confession true?