I’ve been promising this piece for ages – to myself, more than anyone else – but the spectacular convergence of the revival of the great Amadeus at the National Theatre, with the resurgence in Ronnie’s success on the baize brought this back into focus for me.
I believe completely that not only is Ronnie O’Sullivan a snooker genius – blessed with a talent that makes him (unquestionably in my opinion) the most talented sportsperson on earth – but there are so many similarities and parallels in his life and personality with that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the composer whose name is a byword for ‘genius’ itself, that I thought it worth drawing this all together in one article.
Ronnie has always been referred to as a genius, ever since he burst on to the snooker scene back in the 1990s when he was only sixteen years old. (Those who saw him play before this were already using this term to describe him.) And from this, the comparisons with Mozart followed quickly.
Stones guitarist Keith Richards referred to Ronnie as ‘the Mozart of snooker’, rival Peter Ebdon said of him that Ronnie is ‘the game’s equivalent to Mozart,’ and best friend Damien Hirst routinely refers to the man as ‘a fully paid-up genius.’
But I’m here to talk about something more than this. For the comparison with Mozart is used to exalt the man, to emphasise his brilliance, his breath-taking talent, and the fact that no peer seems able to even play the game the way he does. Yet though Mozart and O’Sullivan are divided by profession, country, language and, ooh, about two-hundred years, I believe the similarities between these two men go way deeper than solely talent.
There are so many parallels in the two men’s lives and experiences. And seeing Michael Longhurst’s revival of Amadeus just sharpened these for me. For though there’s an element of fiction in Peter Shaffer’s depiction of Mozart in his play, the work brings out some universal truths that apply both to Ronnie and to Wolfgang.
So, whilst trying to separate the man from the myth of Mozart blended together in Amadeus (I think sometimes the myth has become more important than the man), I will do my best to bring out the common ground between these two men. So, let’s go…
Their Talent is on Different Levels
Let’s start at the top… The two men are, genuinely, awesome. Blessed with a talent for their respective outlets that few of us will match. Yes, they benefit from a privilege that allowed them to fulfil their potential but there have been hundreds of musical composers over the centuries, and hundreds of snooker players, but none can hold a match to the respective brilliance of these two men.
And, look, you and I could work a lifetime at snooker or operas, but neither of us will ever be as good as these two. Their brilliance goes beyond fulfilled potential and privilege. Many have tried but these two execute and have execute their skills in a way no others can match.
Ronnie made a recent reference to The Matrix in an interview as a way of explaining how he sees things. Maybe much like Neo, to Ronnie the mechanics of snooker have been dissolved to be replaced with infinite possibility. Other players try to reduce a snooker table to familiar lines and angles, looking to repeat standard shots they have learnt in practice; in contrast, Ronnie blows up the table in front of him into infinite options and multi-dimensional possibilities. He has taken orthodox form and approach and rejected it. Maybe best friend Damien Hirst was right when he compared his mate to Picasso.
They Both Acted Like Children
But, it seems, with genius also comes challenges…
One of the most famous lines in Amadeus comes when Salieri – set up as the villain of the piece – meets Mozart for the first time. Already astounded by the man’s brilliance in the music that he has heard, it comes as a shock when the Emperor’s favourite composer finally comes face-to-face with the man behind the music: “It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God – and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard – and it was the voice of an obscene child!”
The depiction of Mozart as an offensive, immature brat is one of the most contentious points in the play – both in terms of its accuracy, and in the scope of the play itself. But that is the point that Shaffer is exploring, how so many want genius to come in a well-polished middle-class package that would be acceptable company at dinner parties and galas (hello Roger Federer), and how when it doesn’t come in such amenable packaging, it prevents the talent being recognised.
Adam Gillen’s portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus brings this prejudice into sharp focus. His Mozart is an insolent brat – so much so that the first time I saw the show, I thought the depiction went almost too far. But now I realise that was my own prejudice coming into play. Now, I admire the way this Mozart jars, I love this way this depiction offends us.
And that’s much the same with Ronnie too. There are as many who dislike him as love him. He puts people’s noses out of joint. If he’s not threatening to quit (yet again), he’s arguing with referees, telling them they need to go to Specsavers as they can’t see properly (that’s an actual quote btw). When he’s not rattling his cage by playing in his socks or watching the matches on other tables when he should be concentrating on his own, he’s turning down maximum breaks, sabotaging opportunities for 147s as a protest against (to him) unacceptably low financial rewards.
And this childish side of Ronnie came up again last week.
It was an ugly post-match interview that Ronnie gave on his way to winning the Grand Prix in Preston. Irritated by poor play (his own) and frustrations with the referee, he headed into the studio in a bad mood and let rip with offensive (and even racist) comments about overseas players and the lack of competition from his peer group.
Now, we all know this isn’t Ronnie at all – he neither thinks that of his specific opponent or Chinese players generally – but it’s this impudence and immaturity that keeps rearing his head. Much like Mozart in Amadeus, Ronnie throws tantrums and often he can lack modesty and grace.
I was so disappointed with this specific interview that I swore I wouldn’t support him again. Maybe an overstatement but my respect for him was certainly diminished. He’s done and said stupid things in the past, usually crass sexist comments that are beneath him, but there are always the signs that you just want to shake him and tell him to ‘grow up.’ But now we’re back into this territory again, including a burgeoning friendship with racist, homophobic, sexist bigot, Tyson Fury. It all has you raising your eyebrows thinking, ‘Ronnie, what the hell are you doing?’
They Both Railed Against the Establishment
Linked to the above is a rejection and frustration with the elitism and exclusivity that both Mozart and Ronnie share.
Ronnie’s always in battle with World Snooker (and, whisper it quietly, many times we are all #TeamRonnie with the some of the diktats targeted at O’Sullivan). Certainly, the authorities have shown no sympathy with loosening the leash to take account of Ronnie’s own issues with mental health (more on that later) but Ronnie is always rattling his cage – complaining about the quality in the lower ranks, criticising obligations for him to play lower ranking players, and even agreeing to participating in ‘jokey’ promotional clips telling Barry Hearn to pay out more money.
These aren’t actions you’d ever see from Tiger, Roger, Lewis or Serena. And let’s not forget the biggest protest in sport isn’t Ronnie turning down a 147 but black American footballers taking the knee during the national anthem. Perhaps Ronnie needs to get some perspective.
But Mozart wasn’t shy of making it all about him either. In Michael Longhurst’s NT production, Mozart talks demeaningly about fellow composers and about the Emperor’s knowledge.
But it goes beyond this too. There is some good here too. Ronnie always speaks about exploitation of players and the importance of the fans. Similarly, Mozart too had a strong desire to rip opera out of the hands of the elite and share it with the wider public, hence the brilliance of The Magic Flute, initially performed in a suburban Viennese theatre yet now considered his greatest opera.
They Both Had Issues with Their Fathers
Mozart’s father knew his son had a remarkable talent even in his early years. He realised his son was a prodigy – after all, he was a composer and musician himself – so he set out to both develop his son’s talent and exploit it.
Wolfgang was working as a concert performer even before he was ten years old. I think Mozart (the boy) was only seven years old when his father first dragged him out of Salzburg (and the family) for a tour of Western Europe, making Wolfgang perform in cities such as Vienna, Paris and London for the rich and well-to-do in an effort to build his son’s reputation.
The tour lasted a whopping three years, which much have exhausted a young boy, but his father’s plan worked, of course. The young Mozart became known as a ‘wunderkind’ and the tour was soon followed by specific father-son trips to Italy to continue Mozart’s musical development.
But though this must have laid the foundation for Mozart’s later success, it did (it seem) create difficulties between father and son as the years went by, the younger Mozart resenting his father’s pressuring and management of him.
Ronnie too has had issues with his father, though his, at first, seem slightly different.
As is widely known, Ronnie’s father was jailed for eighteen years for murder when Ronnie was only seventeen. The father would be away from the son for crucial years and could well be seen as a key factor in Ronnie’s struggles with fame as success came pouring down. However, what I’m more interested in is the father-son relationship with regards to pressure.
Ronnie’s father was instrumental in shaping Ronnie’s passion for the game, and also hugely demanding in ensuring his son spent hours and hours practicing and honing his talents at an early age. Drilling him in his snooker and encouraging his ambition.
Now, I do not know Ronnie, so speculating is hard but recently Ronnie let slip a revealing comment on how difficult he has found managing his relationship with his father. He has always said in the past that he hated snooker, and only continued playing so his Dad could watch him from prison. But recently he added that his Dad had been living vicariously through him, and that having to push his dad out of his snooker life had been difficult but necessary.
Child prodigies do need discipline to hone their brilliance, that much is true. But dealing with parental pressure and pushy parents is a familiar story for any who have gone on to successful careers in sport and elsewhere.
And that leads me to my next one…
They Worked Harder Than Most Realise
Many want to believe that genius takes no effort. That brilliance comes from just a flick of the wrist. It’s poetic but it isn’t true. To fulfil talent, no matter the scale of that prodigious talent, takes a hell of a lot of work. I’m always reminded of an observer who once said that, when they were kids, Jean Alesi had the same talent as Ayrton Senna. Now, that’s a big statement, but the point is well made – talent alone won’t make you the greatest.
Mozart worked hard all his life. Even in the NT production, we still see Mozart as a character who produced these extraordinary works and operas with almost a throwaway disregard; it all came so easy to him. Not true. Mozart worked feverishly and consistently, but as his wife would routinely throw away his workings, that perhaps has given rise to the reputation that these glorious pieces of music came out of the great man fully formed.
Similarly with Ronnie. Take, for example, Ronnie’s infamous ambidexterity, a skill so controversial that when he beat an opponent entirely left-handed (Ronnie is right-handed) he was hauled up in front of World Snooker to prove it was no fluke. And it wasn’t. Ronnie now alternates between left and right these days almost without comment.
Such a talent is almost unheard of in world sport (Nadal may well be right-handed but play left, but he does not play right-handed) but that’s not to say Ronnie woke up one day with that skill. He wanted to be able to do it. Perhaps cockiness, perhaps curiosity. Maybe a mix of both, but he trained himself to play snooker with his left hand as well as right. He worked on it for years, and continues to do so. It suits the myth to make Ronnie’s brilliance seem effortless, but it takes a hell of a lot of work to make it look that easy.
They Both Walked Away from their Love/Burden for Some Time
This is an interesting one.
Ronnie has threatened to walk away from snooker so many times we’ve lost count. Indeed, one year he went through on his threat. He barely played a match throughout the 2012/13 season, taking doctor’s advice to sit it out, as well as fulfilling a personal desire for a break. Not that it made much of a difference, of course, as he came back in 2013 to defend his world title, and promptly did so.
Mozart also was known to just stop, though quite why he did is unknown. For four years, at the height of his powers, he stopped writing opera. Instead he turned his hand to writing concertos and playing as a soloist. That’s quite a flip and perhaps signals that, like Ronnie, the love-hate relationship a genius has with their talent is well-established.
Mental Illness Has Never Been Far Away
Ronnie’s openness about his struggles with perfectionism and his ‘snooker depression’ are well documented, and his honesty is remarkable in a world of toxic masculinity and an almost-compulsive laddism. Here’s this rock ‘n’ roll star, with as much swagger around the table as talent on it, openly discussing his battles with recreational drugs and alcohol, his trips in and out of rehab, and regularly praising his psychiatrist-on-speed-dial, Steve Peters.
And Ronnie has been doing this for years, not just recently through this push in culture and wider society to break down the stigma and barriers to discussing mental illness by having more frank discussions. Ronnie’s second autobiography, Running, was revelatory in its honesty about his internal thought processes, the emotional yo-yo that runs in perpetuity in Ronnie’s psyche. And even since that book’s publication, Ronnie continues to talk openly about his battles, recently opening up about how he was hospitalised after the World Championships in 2016.
In the NT’s Amadeus, Mozart is also shows as having mental illness, a seemingly inevitable pairing with genius. In the play, he battles alcohol, drugs and hallucinations just to keep himself on enough of an even keel to produce his great works.
With regards to Mozart’s actual mental health, well, it’s hard for us to analyse behaviour both from such a historical distance, but also through analysing behaviour in the eighteenth century through our contemporary understanding of depression and personality disorders.
There is certainly enough evidence in Mozart’s correspondence to say that he probably was having a severe depressive episode in the last year of his life with him in constant sadness and tearfulness, showing no interest in his work or even living.
Whether this could be broadened out to a general personality disorder, well, that’s hard to say. Certainly, there are those willing to speculate that his reputation for hypomania and inappropriate behaviour might put him on a spectrum of some kind. But either way, I bring myself back to Shaffer’s Amadeus and how his depiction of genius/madness may have been right on the money. Yet again, the role of ‘taste’ rears its head. Perceptions of Wolfgang’s behaviour as vulgar and tasteless. Was Mozart really on a spectrum or, like Ronnie, is it just a fact that those in power didn’t like the package he came in?
But There Is One Major Difference…
Though Mozart may not have died quite the pauper as depicted in Peter Shaffer’s play, his finances were in an extremely bad way in the last few years. He had borrowed heavily from friends and certainly his family were in financial distress.
Also, it could be argued that his genius has only been accepted as standard since he died. Quite how that legacy was built would be the subject of another article, but it would be fair to say that his brilliance was not as acknowledged in his lifetime as it should have been. Indeed, Amadeus is damn right when it shows that Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, were met with bewilderment by audiences when they first opened, so revolutionary and unexpected were the themes and compositions.
They are, of course, considered masterpieces now and I think few would counter the claim that Mozart was, in truth, a genius.
Not so with Ronnie. Yes, he is a genius, but his talent is known. Nor will he die like Mozart did. O’Sullivan is a millionaire and it’s not uncommon for him to refer to that himself in interviews when he shrugs off any need to play for money to pay bills (which somewhat contradicts his comment a few years ago that he needed to pay school fees – but then Ronnie has never been consistent).
But, whichever way Ronnie cuts it, his brilliance is known and acknowledged.
Or is it?
After all, we are talking about the most breath-taking sporting talent on the planet, yet snooker isn’t the most popular or richest of sports. Maybe that’s why he’s been overlooked for the Sports Personality of the Year award all this time, leaving (alleged) druggies on bikes to take awards that should probably rightfully have been his.
Or maybe it’s that packaging again that offends. Are the establishment so unnerved by Ronnie – even after all these years – that they don’t want to be seen to celebrate a man who has been so openly controversial? If so, shame on them. But isn’t it interesting that the packaging that genius comes in is still an issue. Maybe Peter Shaffer was righter than we realise….