Peter Shaffer Essay - Shaffer, Peter

Shaffer, Peter


Peter Shaffer 1926-

(Also collaborated with Anthony Shaffer under joint pseudonym Peter Antony)

Shaffer is a British playwright who has earned a reputation as a preeminent craftsman in several theatrical genres, including psychological drama, historical drama, domestic tragedy, and comedy. He has gained critical and popular acclaim for Equus, Amadeus, and other plays which explore themes of idolatry, conflicts between passionate and rational impulses, and the quest for immortality. Shaffer is by his own admission "fascinated by the endless ambiguity of the human situation," and his work is marked by the psychological intricacy of his characterizations.


Shaffer was born in 1926 in Liverpool to Jack and Reka Shaffer, just moments after his twin brother Anthony. In 1936 the family moved to London, where Shaffer attended St. Paul's School. At St. Paul's Shaffer studied piano, giving him a musical background which was integral in the development of Amadeus. Between 1944 and 1947 Shaffer worked as a coal miner before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge. There, he and his brother co-edited the literary journal Granta. Soon after graduation in 1950 Shaffer moved to New York City for four years. Living near New York's theater district afforded Shaffer the opportunity to attend numerous Broadway performances and to learn about American audiences. The difference between English and American audiences would manifest itself later in his career; Shaffer developed a passion for revising, especially when transferring a production overseas. In 1954, after working at a bookstore and the New York Public Library, Shaffer returned to London. There, he worked for a music publisher, served as a literary critic for Truth magazine and subsequently as a music critic for Time and Tide. After receiving favorable reviews for his television plays The Salt Land and Balance of Terror, Shaffer decided to pursue his career as a playwright.


Shaffer's most successful dramas are based in myth and explore the psychological motivations of his characters. His innovative use of masks, music, and dance illuminates thematic concerns, and his conflicts are developed through characters who function as dramatic foils. His 1964 work, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, reenacts the sixteenth-century conquest of Atahualpa's Inca empire by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The play focuses on the debased qualities of both characters and the relationship that evolves between them. The psychological drama Equus, for which Shaffer received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1975, explores the spiritually based motivations of a stable boy who is institutionalized after blinding six horses that he believes are deities. The boy's disillusioned psychiatrist faces his own personal conflict when he questions whether the boy's treatment will strip him of a rare and precious spiritual passion, thus relegating him to a mundane existence. Shaffer's exploration of the human psyche culminates in Amadeus, a drama of jealousy and revenge which he has described as "a fantasia on events in Mozart's life." In this play, a successful court composer of moderate ability contemplates with bitter irony why his pious devotion to God has been ignored while the vulgar, self-centered Mozart is blessed with genius. Realizing that God chose to reward him by allowing him to recognize the power of Mozart's genius, the composer takes his ultimate revenge on God and humanity by poisoning his rival. Amadeus won a Tony Award in 1981. Shaffer turned to the genre of farce with Lettice and Lovage, a play which addresses the decline of modern civilization as symbolized by post-industrial English architecture. In 1987 Lettice and Lovage was awarded the Evening Standard Drama Award as play of the year. Shaffer followed this with Gift of the Gorgon, a three-act play examining the conflict between passion and rationality. Shaffer has also written many screenplays, including the film adaptation of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies, as well as the screen versions of his own Equus and Amadeus. This last won an Academy Award for Best Picture and Shaffer received the Best Screenplay Adaptation Oscar.


The use of bold visual emblems—such as the great medallion that transforms into a golden sun in The Royal Hunt of the Sun—as well as elements such as music, dance, ritual, and mime, is characteristic of Shaffer's dramaturgy, and critics have often focused on the plays' fusion of such overtly theatrical devices with realism. Equus, for example, mixes naturalistic dialogue and characterization with a highly abstract presentation of the horses. Shaffer's plays have also been praised for their brilliant rhetoric and complex characterizations, though his plots have sometimes been censured as forced and contrived. The subjects of Shaffer's plays have often stirred debate. Some critics have charged that Equus is little more than a case study in abnormal psychology; similarly, some reviewers have argued that Shaffer's depiction of Mozart in Amadeus as childish and crude undercuts his effort to examine the nature of genius. Such criticisms notwithstanding, Shaffer's plays continue to challenge, intrigue, and move audiences and reviewers alike.

Principal Works


Five Finger Exercise 1958

"The Private Ear" 1962

"The Public Eye" 1962

The Merry Roosters Panto [with Stanley Myers and Steven Vinaver] 1963; revised as It's About Cinderella 1969

The Royal Hunt of the Sun: A Play Concerning the Conquest of Peru 1964

"Black Comedy" 1965

A Warning Game 1967

"White Lies" 1967; revised as "The White Liars," 1968; revised again as "White Liars," 1976

The Battle of Shrivings 1970; revised as Shrivings, 1974

Equus 1973

Amadeus 1979

Black Mischief 1983

Yonadab: The Watcher 1985

Lettice and Lovage 1987; revised as Lettice & Lovage, 1990

Gift of the Gorgon 1992


Alexander the Corrector 1946

The Prodigal Father 1957

Whom Do I Have the Honour of Addressing? 1989


The Salt Land 1955

Balance of Terror 1957


Lord of the Flies [with Peter Brook] 1963

The Pad (And How to Use It) [adaptation of "The Private Ear"] 1966

The Public Eye (Follow Me!) 1972

Equus 1977

Amadeus 1984


Woman in the Wardrobe [with brother Anthony Shaffer under the joint pseudonym Peter Antony] (novel) 1951

How Doth the Little Crocodile? [with Anthony Shaffer as Peter Antony] (novel) 1952

Withered Murder [with Anthony Shaffer] (novel) 1955

Overviews And General Studies

C. J. Gianakaris (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Artistic Trajectory of Peter Shaffer," in Peter Shaffer: A Casebook, edited by C. J. Gianakaris, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991, pp. 3-23.

[In the essay below, Gianakaris traces Shaffer's artistic development throughout his plays, focusing on his "masterful merging of the literalism of realism with the provocative of the abstract pictorial."]

British playwright Peter Shaffer remains a puzzle today, particularly for critics and academic scholars. A "moving target" with respect to dramatic styles and thematic interests, he is difficult to categorize within tidy literary designations. Is he primarily a realist probing the psychological and social issues facing the modern age? Is he a somber metaphysician seeking answers to universal enigmas? Or is he a teasing farceur who targets mundane human follies? Regular theatergoers will recognize elements of all these types in Shaffer. Within the variety of styles evidenced in his many plays, however, stand key technical and conceptual loci which support his work as a whole, no matter what the veneer of the drama.

Those center points—essentially naturalistic in nature—will be taken up later in this discussion. But the puzzle of Peter Shaffer extends beyond mere technique or subject matter. In a larger frame of reference, there is difficulty in isolating the theoretical audience for whom he writes. Shaffer embodies that rare species of writer whose career straddles the worlds both of popular and "serious" drama. Impressive success on commercial stages has brought him enormous worldwide recognition, ready financial backing, and eagerness of top theater artists to work with him. The Battle of Shrivings (1970) alone of his dozen plays has failed to win an audience. Yonadab (1985), only a modest success, nonetheless ran for a year in repertory at the British National Theatre. All the rest of his works have received strong acclaim whenever they are performed. By most standards, Shaffer enjoys exceptional popularity on world stages and has earned his stature as one of our foremost writers.

Yet by no means does Shaffer pander to mass tastes to gain general audience following. Quite the contrary; his works involve intellectually demanding themes and innovative theatrical staging. Typically, at the center of his plays stands a questioning—or questing—protagonist, obsessed with discerning mankind's true metaphysical status. Shaffer's best known dramas—The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, Amadeus, and Yonadab—feature heroes such as Pizarro, Dysart, Salieri, and Yonadab who probe their respective universes for answers to philosophical and theological puzzles. Eventually, each protagonist moves toward knowledge of God. At the same time, the hero seeks to discover how far man might assume the powers of God and become God—if indeed He exists. More than a hint of Promethian and Faustian hungers exist in his protagonists. Shaffer's underlying thrust in his major dramas resembles that found in ancient classical drama: to define the relationship of mortal man to immortal deity. Simultaneously, Shaffer's dramatic universe infers values mirroring today's God-is-dead intellectual system, thereby allying Shaffer with the existential world view as well. Small wonder that academics find it dicey to pigeonhole Shaffer as a proponent of a single vision. In his wide-ranging and eclectic thinking, he has few peers today, most of whom focus on psychological or social problems.

Nothing in Shaffer's family background mandated a career in the arts. Born in Liverpool on 15 May 1926, Peter Levin Shaffer and his identical twin brother Anthony grew up in a middle-class Jewish household. Jack Shaffer, a property company director, moved his wife Reka and the family to London in 1936. But with the start of the second world war, they moved frequently to evade the German bombers. Despite the ongoing war, Peter and Anthony attended prestigious St. Paul's School beginning in 1942. Both twins were accepted by Trinity College at Cambridge University; but satisfying their service obligations came first. In their case, they served as Bevin Boys, youths who dug coal in the mines of Kent. In 1947 both Shaffers enrolled in Trinity College where they jointly edited the college paper.

Peter Shaffer came down from Cambridge in 1950 with a specialty in history but no definite career plans. Initially he tried his hand at various jobs until 1951 when he traveled to New York City. There, he worked for a book dealer, retail stores, and the New York Public Library. Shaffer later remarked that this period of his life was bleak and frustrating. But one positive outcome was his frequenting New York theaters. As a result of seeing so much theater, he felt encouraged to try writing plays, his first being The Salt Land. Work in the business world provided him little satisfaction, and he returned to London in 1954 to work at a large music publishing house. While holding that position, Shaffer found his initial success in the realm of drama, when The Salt Land was telecast over ITV. Paradoxically, during this same period he also was establishing a reputation as a writer of fiction. He published three mystery novels in London and in the United States: The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951), How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952), and Withered Murder (1955)—the latter two co-authored with his brother Anthony (the Tony-winning writer of Sleuth). In 1957, Shaffer had two more broadcast dramas aired—the unpublished radio play The Prodigal Father over BBC Radio and Balance of Terror (also unpublished) over BBC Television. Once his plays caught on, Shaffer never looked backward. Thereafter, he devoted his entire energies to the theater.

Shaffer's earliest full-length dramas, Five Finger Exercise (1958) and The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), immediately drew applause from critics who recognized a strong new voice in the theater. Awards came swiftly, initially in England and later in the United States, to confirm the importance of his writing to the modern stage. Later, Equus (1973) and Amadeus (1979) thoroughly won over audiences, earning both critical and popular applause. Both pieces became smash hits on Broadway, and each won a Tony Award as best drama. More recently, Lettice & Lovage (1987) received four Tony nominations, including one for best play. (Eventually the comedy won Tonys for Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack.) Thus, to this point Shaffer has established an enviable record of successes both commercially and critically.

Nor are Shaffer's plays solely popular on live stages. Movies have been made of nearly all his works to date. Here, the results are very mixed, however. Shaffer far prefers the stage medium to the screen, and readily admits the films of his works to be uneven. Interestingly, the factors that led to success or failure in transferring his plays to the screen—particularly the theatricality of his unique realism—also shed light on the nature of Shaffer's works themselves. Such a topic deserves separate consideration, and only a few points will be touched on here. But one unavoidable conclusion is that his plays, which are "exuberantly and unashamedly theatrical," have proven difficult to reconceive for the large screen. Not surprisingly, the film director's task is easier with those works built on more conventional realism. One example may suffice. An interesting yet ultimately disappointing film of Five Finger Exercise was made in 1962. Despite an impressive cast (including Rosalind Russell, Maximilian Schell, and Jack Hawkins) the movie version never attains the psychological richness of the original stage production. However, because of the play's original naturalistic premises, the characterizations of the five principals, along with their fully delineated motivations, translate readily to a movie format.

Just how well Five Finger Exercise made the transformation to film—relatively speaking—becomes evident when considering Shaffer's dramas that move beyond realism in their original conception. A disastrous film adaptation of Royal Hunt (starring Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw) followed in 1969, for instance. After viewing the hugely distorted movie made of his noble quest drama, Shaffer knew he no longer could entrust his plays to screen writers. Thereafter, he wrote the film scripts himself for The Public Eye (1972), Equus (1977), and Amadeus (1984). Considering how theater-oriented his pieces are in format and spirit, it is surprising that the movie versions fared as well as they did. There is proof that outstanding results are possible when the play transferences are achieved with imagination and flexibility. An example is Milos Forman's film of Amadeus which accumulated eight Academy Awards including Best Film of 1984 and Best Film Adaptation for Shaffer's movie script. Previously, Shaffer received an Oscar nomination for his film script of Equus—a movie whose graphic simulations during the horse-blinding scenes fatally compromised it at the box office. As with Royal Hunt, the stage script for Equus prohibits its being re-shaped for film in a literal fashion—a fact the director of the movie, Sidney Lumet, learned at a high price, according to Shaffer. On the more recent front, plans for a movie version of Lettice & Lovage are in the works, suggesting that the playwright remains open-minded about filmic versions of his works despite disappointments in the past. Additionally, unlike earlier statements denigrating movies, in a recent interview Shaffer hinted that he might revise Whom Do I Have the Honour of Addressing? as a film. He even acknowledges that his most recent radio piece might also be an ideal candidate for a television play. The entire screen issue then remains open where Shaffer is concerned.

But to return to Shaffer's stage dramas, we need to delineate more closely the appeal of his ideas and techniques. Unlike the opaque conundrums underlying plays by certain other twentieth-century theater experimenters (Beckett and Pinter come to mind), Shaffer's dramas have remained accessible to the theater-going public. This fact tends to devalue his plays for politically oriented theorists who esteem a work according to its bewildering effect on audiences. For such detractors, to be "popular" with playgoers becomes an indictment of a play's worthiness. Only the puzzling, uncommercial, radical avantgarde retains merit for zealots like Brustein and Simon, accounting for their long and active distaste for Shaffer.

Just as his success bridging artistic and popular values elicits mixed reactions, Shaffer evokes ambiguous response and controversy on dramaturgical grounds. If pressed to describe Shaffer's primary writing tools, however, most critics acknowledge the centrality of psycho-logical naturalism. Conventional realism characterizes much of Shaffer's early work, including Five Finger Exercise, the one-act comedies, and the ill-fated Battle of Shrivings (1970, later rewritten as Shrivings, 1974). Although Shaffer temporarily returned to realism with Lettice & Lovage (1987) and the radio play Whom Do I Have the Honour of Addressing? (1989), naturalism never has been the playwright's favored dramatic approach. The initial draft for The Royal Hunt of the Sun already existed when the naturalistic Five Finger Exercise launched his career in 1958. His true inclinations lay in "big, sweeping theatre," as he explained to the interviewer D. Zerdin on BBC's "Profile" (11 September 1979). Shaffer elaborates in his Introduction to The Collected Plays of Peter Shaffer (New York: Harmony Books, 1982) that the times were not right for the unusual mannerisms of Royal Hunt. The tidal wave of realism during the 1950's, he declares, dictated that his early works follow standard conventions: "I became a playwright finally to be part of the grandiloquent and showy world of imaginative reality. It took me some time to acknowledge this to myself. The times, after all, scarcely favored such an ambition. The mid-1950s did not constitute a time when one could admit, with much chance of being sympathetically heard, a purpose to write about gods and grand aspirations, orators and ecstatics. It was a surging time for England, but the cry tended to be for social realism."

Shaffer recognizes the value of representationalism, however. With this first success, he established his ability to write masterfully in the realistic mode. Shaffer states, "On balance, I feel I did crafted work in my first piece. It said what I wanted it to say, and it possessed a shape which made it play easily and finally accumulated its power." Shaffer's next plays—Shrivings and the one-act comedies "The Private Ear," "The Public Eye," "White Lies," and "Black Comedy"—retained a realistic bias, thereby consolidating popularity with theater audiences. But careful observers of the stage understand that realism alone does not win audience support. His endeavors with realism permitted Shaffer to hone his talent for penetrating dialogue. The occasional intrusion of turgid prose and excessive sentimentality in Five Finger Exercise and in Royal Hunt largely was refined away in the crucible of this early period. Shaffer thus worked at and mastered dramatic realism with these works. Yet, good as these pieces played on stage, they did not satisfy what Peter Shaffer ultimately intended to achieve. Five Finger Exercise proved a valuable base from which he later could launch into more innovative theatrical enterprises.

Most crucial to Shaffer's dramatic style are the imaginative risks exhibited in his masterpieces. The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Equus (1973), Amadeus (1979), and even the revised Yonadab (1985) all exhibit the daring theatrical techniques that make up the playwright's imprimatur. What makes the techniques fresh is his brilliant fusion of presentational narrative modes with traditional realism. The four dramas noted convey their respective stories through a system of narrative frameworks. At the outermost perimeter stand the plays' chorus-like narrators serving as moderators or masters of ceremony. Old Martin, Doctor Dysart, Salieri, and Yonadab address the audience from their posts, first as outside observers of the respective story lines; later, they will blend into the inner plot line as active participants. Though not entirely objective, each moderator as watcher enjoys a unique perspective that instantly engages the attention, interest, and curiosity of playgoers, drawing them into the action.

Illustrations from the plays will help. Old Martin, Pizarro's young aide in Royal Hunt, quickly gains audience interest when addressing them directly with his opening lines to the play:

Save you all. My name is Martin. I'm a soldier of Spain and that's it. Most of my life I've spent fighting for land, treasure, and the cross. I'm worth millions. Soon I'll be dead, and they'll bury me out here in Peru, the land I helped ruin as a boy. This story is...

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Irving Wardle (review date 27 July 1973)

SOURCE: "Shaffer's Variation on a Theme," in The Times, London, 27 July 1973, p. 15.

[Equus debuted 26 July 1973 in a National Theatre production directed by John Dexter at London's Old Vic Theatre. In the following mixed review of the premiere, Wardle finds the play rather calculated and forced.]

Peter Shaffer is a writer of formidable intelligence and traditional stage technique whose consistent purpose has been to invoke the primal dramatic forces which would blow his own equipment sky high. In style one can never predict what kind of piece he will write...

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B. A. Young (review date 5 November 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Amadeus, in Financial Times, 5 November 1979, p. 15.

[Amadeus was first staged on 2 November 1979 at London 's Olivier Theatre in a National Theatre production directed by Peter Hall. In the following evaluation of that production, Young finds the play "unimaginative " and contends that "there is no life in Mr. Shaffer's story. Salieri recounts it in the manner of an illustrated lecture. "]

Peter Shaffer has retold the story of how Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart, with some romantic decorations of his own. This is how it goes...

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Further Reading


Thomas, Eberle. Peter Shaffer: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991, 259 p.

Annotated bibliography containing sources of discussions of Shaffer's work up to and including Lettice & Lovage.


Buckley, Tom. "'Write Me,' Said the Play to Peter Shaffer." The New York Times Magazine (13 April 1975): 38, 47-50.

Conversation with Shaffer in which he talks about unfavorable reviews of Equus, his personal and collaborative relationship with his brother Anthony Shaffer, and other topics.

Connell, Brian. "Peter Shaffer: The...

(The entire section is 795 words.)