Peter Shaffer Essay - Critical Essays

Peter Shaffer Drama Analysis

Writing for Theatre Arts in February, 1960, Peter Shaffer made a declaration of independence: “Labels aren’t for playwrights.” His independence shows in both his life and his art. Shaffer admits in a 1963 article in Transatlantic Review, “All art is autobiographical inasmuch as it refers to personal experience,” but the adolescent torment in Five Finger Exercise and the passions he stages in other works stem from his personal experience only in a general sense. Shaffer does tell of seeing, hearing, or reading of events that trigger ideas for his plays. Seeing, in 1968 and 1969, pro-and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in New York and watching the American people agonize over the war led him to write Shrivings. Still, he maintains a degree of distance between his personal life and his plays. John Russell Taylor sees in Five Finger Exercise the sort of detachment other critics agree is characteristic of Shaffer’s work: “The playwright does not seem to be personally involved in his play. . . . This balance of sympathy in a dramatist . . . makes for effective drama.”

Within the mainstream of theatrical tradition, Shaffer maintains his artistic independence, varying conventional form or shifting his approach to a theme in almost every play. Five Finger Exercise is a middle-class domestic drama written at a time when numerous domestic dramas were in vogue, but Shaffer did not repeat himself. He moved on to romantic triangles in his one-act plays, then to epic drama with The Royal Hunt of the Sun, to psychological drama in Equus, and to a historical play, Amadeus.

Sets of the earlier plays are realistic. The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus, however, use impressionistic sets, rely on varying amounts of flashback technique, and employ varying amounts of coordinate action. Besides varying set types and play genres, Shaffer varies emphasis in theatrical appeal. Sounds or music are important secondary factors in Five Finger Exercise, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus and are central to the plots of The Private Ear and Amadeus. Seeing in silence is the proposed cure for a troubled marriage in The Public Eye, visual display is lavish in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and the sight of characters groping and stumbling through the action as though in pitch dark makes Black Comedy a vivid farce.

Common Trends

Given Shaffer’s drive for fresh rendering of theatrical matter, various trends do appear in his plays. One such trait is cultural or ethnic variety. Possibly, being reared by Orthodox Jewish parents in nominally Protestant England sensitized him to the assets of ethnic identities and the liabilities of stereotypes. Whatever the reason, Shaffer commonly includes multicultural groupings of characters. Five Finger Exercise includes Louise, overly proud of her French ancestry, and Walter, the young German tutor who wants desperately to become a British subject. The protagonist of The Public Eye, Julian Christoforou, is Greek. To emphasize his foreignness, Christoforou was played in the film version by Topol, an Israeli actor. Black Comedy includes both an electrician and a prospective buyer of a young sculptor’s art who are German. Shrivings includes an American secretary and an English poet who spends most of his time on the island of Corfu. Amadeus features an Italian composer in the Austrian court at Vienna, and the dialogue occasionally includes Italian and French exchanges.

Generally, Shaffer’s Northern European characters are identified with more rational or more placid behavior, while the Mediterranean characters are posed as more vivacious or romantic. Whatever the specific mix in a given play, each cultural alternative usually exposes a deficit in the status quo or brings a valuable influence to compensate for some perceived lack. The Greek private detective, Christoforou, is able to explain to the older, middle-class accountant that the young wife he suspects of infidelity really only needs some excitement in her life with her mate. Martin Dysart, the controlled, rational psychiatrist, tells of traveling each summer through Greece, yearning for the wild passion of the ancient festivals of Dionysus. Mozart, bored with writing opera according to the dominant Italian conventions, is glad for a commission from the Austrian King Joseph to write opera in German.

Despite the cosmopolitan flavor of Shaffer’s work, his plays are consistently male-dominated. Significant conflicts tend to be between males. In The Private Ear, Tchaik loses Doreen to Ted. In The Public Eye, while following the wife is a major factor in the action, it is reported in dialogue between the two men. The wife does appear and interact with her husband and the detective, but she does not have equivalent exposure onstage. The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus all feature conflicts between males. Only in White Lies, one of Shaffer’s less notable efforts, is there a female protagonist. While she achieves a moral victory in that she sees and tells the truth in the end, she is forced to return her fortune-telling fee to the belligerent male antagonist and thereby faces an ethical defeat. In rewriting Shrivings, Shaffer strengthened the conflict by removing Sir Gideon Petrie’s wife altogether, leaving the American secretary, Lois Neal, as the sole female party in a struggle primarily among men.

Significantly, Shaffer’s strongest plays have usually included either more female characters or more active female characters than have the less successful plays. Even in their activity, however, the women may not be wholly ideal types. Louise in Five Finger Exercise is a domineering mother. Her daughter Pamela is aware of the family politics but is never permitted significant access to the actual struggles played out among the older members of the family, since she is only fourteen. Black Comedy features young Brindsley contending with Carol, his current and very superficial fiancée, on the night his former lover, Clea, returns. His upstairs neighbor, Miss Furnival, helps build the farce as a typical middle-aged spinster getting tipsy during the action, but she remains a convenient comic stereotype. All three women are actively involved in the plot, and all three have considerable dialogue. The protagonist, though, is a male.

Equus and Amadeus, Shaffer’s strongest works, include women as supporting characters. Dysart turns several times to Hester Salomon for emotional support during the course of Equus. Wise and compassionate, she is the most wholesome of Shaffer’s female characters. Constanze Mozart, too, is a support for her husband in Amadeus and is the only woman in the play who has a speaking role. The few others onstage are seen but not heard.

Because Shaffer is a twin, Jules Glenn suggests that his various pairs of male characters embody the conflicts and complementary satisfactions typical of twins. Although none of the character-pairs is portrayed as biological twins in the plays, their roles often have parallel aspects. Two men are involved with a single woman in The Private Ear, The Public Eye, and White Lies; two men in Equus, Martin Dysart and his patient Alan Strang, are inadequate in their sexual relationships with women. In Amadeus, both Mozart and Salieri have affairs with Katherina Cavalieri. The Royal Hunt of the Sun features two men who claim the role of a god.

Role of Self-disclosure

The key to an overview of Shaffer’s work is his talent for revelation of character through self-disclosure. Five Finger Exercise, conventional in many respects, is outstanding for its characters’ multiple levels of self-disclosure, from Stanley, who rants without understanding, to Walter, who understands both the Harringtons’ needs and his own and attempts suicide when fulfillment of his needs seems impossible. Shaffer’s other plays take their depth and texture from this technique, if not their basic purpose. Self-disclosure is the major structural pattern for The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus, each of which is presented by a narrator recalling past events. Similarly, Shaffer’s choice of themes as his craft matures leads to a progressive revelation of the human condition. Clive, Shaffer’s first stage protagonist, searches for individual identity and independence. Protagonists in the one-act plays, both the serious and the comic, are generally reaching for satisfactory relationships with other individuals. Leading characters in the major serious plays probe the ambitions, ideals, and institutions of humankind in the world at large.

Shaffer’s comments on The Royal Hunt of the Sun reveal a salient concern obvious in that play and others overtly dealing with worship: He is disturbed that “man constantly trivializes the immensity of his experience” and “settles for a Church or Shrine or Synagogue . . . and over and over again puts into the hands of other men the reins of oppression. . . .” Even his earliest play, though portraying domestic rather than political or religious struggles, shows that revelation of character, the self-disclosure essential to informed, mature relationships, makes the individual human being vulnerable to another’s control.

Five Finger Exercise

Dennis A. Klein observes that “there is not one happy marriage in all of Shaffer’s plays . . . and the prototype is the marriage between Louise and Stanley Harrington.” Clive Harrington, the protagonist of Five Finger Exercise, is his mother’s pet; he is also the target of his father’s criticism because he lacks “practical” or “useful” interests. Struggling for identity and independence, Clive is never safe in the family bickering. Agreeing with Stanley that the new tutor is a needless expense draws reproach from Louise. Admitting that he is writing a review of a performance of the Greek play Electra triggers one more paternal lecture on the really useful pursuits in life. Clive shows contradictory responses to Walter Langer, the young German whom his mother has hired as the family tutor. Clive needs and wants the contact with an understanding, mature role model. At the same time, he is jealous of his mother’s attraction to Walter, and therefore opposes Walter’s efforts to become part of the Harrington family.

Home from Cambridge, Clive drinks to avoid parental control. Walter advises him to get out on his own but declines to travel with him during the coming holidays. Seeing Louise cradle Walter’s head in her arms during a tender moment, Clive reports to Stanley that the two were engaged in lovemaking. Warmed by Walter’s Continental graces—he is fluent in French, plays classical music on the piano and on his phonograph, and brings her wildflowers—Louise enjoys toying with the young man in somewhat the same fashion as she toys with Clive. When Walter makes it clear that he esteems her as a mother, though, Louise urges Stanley to fire Walter for being “a bad influence on Pamela.”

Stanley, although he doubts that Clive’s accusation is true, resents Walter’s advice to Clive and uses the claim of an illicit relationship as a reason for dismissal. The lie is a very versatile weapon. It can help rid Stanley of the unwanted cost of the tutor and simultaneously serve vengeance on the young German for counseling Clive to leave home. It will punish Louise for her affectations. It will embarrass Clive—due vengeance for the boy’s lack of filial piety—and weaken Clive’s relationship with his mother, a bond Stanley could never match in his attempts at fathering and could never before attack so severely. Though he still understands his family no better than before, Stanley can dominate them all in one stroke.

Clive is shocked that the lie he told in private becomes his father’s bludgeon in public. He realizes that his capacity to injure others is as great as that of his parents. Walter, who has opened himself to Clive and Louise in his bid for acceptance as a family member, cannot tolerate the betrayal, the victimization, resulting from his vulnerability. Walter’s suicide attempt shows Clive the need for all the Harringtons to change: “The courage. For all of us. Oh God—give it.”

The Royal Hunt of the Sun

Pairs of one-act plays bracket Shaffer’s epic drama The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which turns squarely to the issue of worship in both institutional and individual dimensions. Old Martin, the narrator, tells of his youthful adventure as page boy to Pizarro, conqueror of Peru. To Young Martin, Pizarro is a hero to worship. To the priests Valverde and De...

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