From the beginning of his writing career, in collaboration with his twin brother Peter Shaffer, Anthony Shaffer was known for his keen ear for dialogue. The brothers’ three out-of-print mystery novels (How Doth the Little Crocodile?, Woman in the Wardrobe, and Withered Murder), written between 1951 and 1955 under the joint pseudonym Peter Anthony, were all standard entries in the cozy genre: typical drawing-room mysteries with intriguing character types put through their paces in the course of a convoluted plot. The protagonist in the first two novels, an abbreviated series called Murder Revisited, was gifted amateur detective Mr. Verity, who assisted the police with unusual cases. The hero of the third novel, Withered Murder, was another flamboyant, eccentric master detective, Mr. Fathom. Although the books are otherwise nothing special, it is the characters’ speeches that make the novels stand out: wry, sardonic, and urbanely acerbic. His facility for putting witty words into the mouths of characters marks all of Anthony Shaffer’s later work.
Shaffer’s first published play, The Savage Parade (pr. 1963, revived as This Savage Parade, pr. 1982), like much of his work, deals with issues beneath the surface of the story. A controversial thriller in which Rudolf Bauer, a Nazi officer, is captured in South America and transported to Tel Aviv to face trial, The Savage Parade dramatically examines the concepts of faith, justice, and morality while making the case that Israel has fascist leanings similar to the Third Reich.
The smash hit Sleuth is at its core a study of the experience of age versus the enthusiasm of youth. A revenge comedy-tragedy, the play also deals with the competitive nature of players who turn games into deadly serious business, with the disparity between the aristocracy and common folk, with the bitterness of the pureblood native-born toward ethnic immigrants, and with the difference between appearance and reality.
The latter theme, naturally enough, crops up frequently in Shaffer’s plays and screenplays for Hitchcock: without deception and misdirection there would be little mystery in his crime stories. In the film Frenzy, for example, the hot-tempered Richard Blaney appears to be a vicious psychosexual serial killer. In the play Murderer, main character Norman has apparently killed his girlfriend Millie—but is she really dead? In Absolution, Catholic schoolboy Benjie Stanfield falsely confesses to the murder of Blakey, a wanderer he has befriended. In Shaffer’s four adaptations for Hitchcock—Murder on the Orient Express, 1974; Death on the Nile; Evil Under the Sun; and Appointment with Death)—he worked from material provided by the mistress of deception, Agatha Christie.
Sexuality, of a normal or abnormal mature, also factors in much of Shaffer’s work. It provides the tension between the two characters in Sleuth, who were both involved with the same woman. It is a driving force in The Wicker Man, and it permeates the psychosexual...
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