Peter Levin Shaffer (SHAF-ur) and his twin brother Anthony were born in Liverpool to Jewish parents, Reka and Jack Shaffer, on May 15, 1926. The family left Liverpool in 1936 and moved around England until 1942, when they settled in London. Anthony also became a prizewinning playwright, best known for the play Sleuth (pr. 1970); younger brother Brian became a biophysicist, but after their father’s death he took over management of the family’s real estate firm.
Peter Shaffer attended St. Paul’s School, but World War II interrupted his education and he worked as a coal miner in Yorkshire and Kent from 1944 to 1947. He later attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and earned a baccalaureate degree in history in 1950. While in college he coedited the student magazine Granta with his brother.
After Cambridge, Shaffer moved to New York and worked for Doubleday bookstores in midtown Manhattan. In 1951, Peter and Anthony Shaffer cowrote a detective novel, The Woman in the Wardrobe, under the composite pen name Peter Anthony. They collaborated on two subsequent novels, How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952) and Withered Murder (1955). During these years Shaffer worked in acquisitions at the New York Public Library (1951-1954) and as a symphonic music editor for Bosey and Hawkes in England (1954-1955), and he served as a literary critic for Truth (1956-1957). He later worked as a music critic for Time and Tide (1965-1972).
During the 1950’s, he began writing radio and television scripts, including The Salt Land (1955) for ITV in Great Britain; The Prodigal Father (1955), a radio play produced and aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); and Balance of Terror (1957), which was produced first by the BBC and later aired on the Studio One television series in the United States. Shaffer’s theatrical career was launched with the London premiere of Five Finger Exercise, a play in two acts, at London’s Comedy Theatre on July 16, 1958, directed by John Gielgud. Shaffer’s only “well-made,” naturalistic domestic drama portraying a family in crisis enjoyed popular and critical success, running for two years in London and winning Shaffer the Evening Standard Theatre Award for best new playwright. When it was later produced in New York in 1959, it garnered the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best foreign play.
His next plays, a pair of one-acts, The Private Ear and The Public Eye, premiered at London’s Globe Theatre on May 10, 1962, then crossed the Atlantic in 1963 to New York. The Private Ear (pr., pb. 1962) concerns a sensitive, artistic, and naïve young man, Bob, who brings home an attractive secretary, thinking she shares his love of music. He fumbles around trying to impress her, but she rejects him when he tries to forcibly kiss her. Its companion play, The Public Eye (pr., pb. 1962), echoes back to Shaffer’s roots in detective stories with a tinge of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Shaffer next wrote The Merry Roosters Panto (pr. 1963), a Christmas pantomime for children that was produced at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. Shaffer’s first “think piece” and probably his most mythical play, The Royal Hunt of the Sun (pr., pb. 1964), was...