Anthony Shaffer

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Anthony Joshua Shaffer (SHAF-ur) is best known for his play Sleuth, which reinvented the murder mystery by creating a new genre: the comedy thriller. He was born five minutes before his twin brother, dramatist Peter Shaffer. Their parents, Jack and Reka Shaffer, moved to London in 1936 where Jack’s real estate business was successful enough to fund the brothers’ enrollment in St. Paul’s School. During World War II, the twins were conscripted as “Bevin boys” to work in the coal mines of Kent and Yorkshire. After the war they entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, where they coedited the school newspaper, Granta. While Peter decided to become a writer, Anthony became a barrister, a profession that stimulated his interest in murder mystery. Peter, who had already written one mystery, The Woman in the Wardrobe (under the name Peter Antony in 1951), convinced Anthony to coauthor two murder mysteries, How Doth the Little Crocodile? and Withered Murder. The distinguishing trait of these novels is that from the discovery of the murder to the moment of revelation, the stories are told almost exclusively in dialogue. As Peter became established as a playwright, the brothers embarked on separate professional paths. Anthony was working in advertising and film production, but at his brother’s prodding he decided to try to earn his living as a writer. His first play, This Savage Parade, a thriller about the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, closed after only one performance.{$S[A]Antony, Peter (joint);Shaffer, Anthony}

Shaffer had been studying classic English mysteries by such greats as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers; however, he viewed these as amusing puzzles and erudite games for intellectuals. The murders were never believable, but there was great pleasure in the extreme characterizations, clever clues, false leads, and the experience of solving “who done it.” His enjoyment of, but irreverent attitude toward, the suspense thriller, and his belief that television had destroyed their viability, became major influences on his writing.

Shaffer decided to satirize the murder mystery while using its form—“having my cake and eating it too,” he said. The result was Sleuth, considered by many to be the greatest murder mystery of the modern theater. Sleuth has all the trappings of the English murder mystery, but the audience soon discovers that it cannot trust the viability of anything they see or hear, down to and including the printed program. The entire confrontation between an older, outrageous mystery writer and a younger, outraged emigrant whose wife is having an affair with the older man is presented as a series of humiliating games that keeps the audience laughing while trying to figure out who (if anyone) has actually been murdered. By starting with the premise that the form of the thriller is artificial, Shaffer ignores the depiction of reality and focuses on artifice, satire, wit, and suspense.

The play’s impact was such that murder mysteries can be categorized as “before Sleuth” or “after Sleuth.” Writers of these new comedy thrillers, such as Ira Levin (Deathtrap, 1980) and Gerald Moon (Corpse, 1985), devise theatrical trickery in blatant attempts to hoodwink their audiences. Shaffer’s own later attempts to combine satire and suspense have not fared so well on the stage. Murderer tells of a man obsessed with historical murders. Audiences found it too difficult to move from gore to satire in this play’s exploration of the relationship between murderer and victim, while playing the playwright’s game of “right murderer/wrong corpse, wrong murderer/right corpse.” Whodunnit is an attempt to satirize Christie, but the amusing and clever plot twist in the...

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second act does not compensate for the tedious setup of the entire first act.

Shaffer found more success as a screenwriter. His combination of wit and suspense provided the framework for Alfred Hitchcock’s “comeback” film Frenzy in 1972. This was followed by the successful screen adaptation of Sleuth. The Wicker Man, a modern horror story, became a cult classic. His stylish adaptations of Christie’s Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun found widespread popularity.

For more than a decade, Shaffer dropped out of sight, producing nothing for either stage or screen. Peter Shaffer, at a 1990 press conference for his play Lettice and Lovage, remarked that Anthony had been living in Australia. In 1995 Anthony Shaffer surfaced in an article in Sight and Sound, saying that he was head of script development at Ealing Studios. He announced that he was writing a Goya-esque film for a Spanish studio based on a novel by Arturo Perez as well as a script for a film set in Australia (the working title was “Tell Me Lies”), based on a novel by John Gordon Davis. Even though Shaffer appears to have moved entirely to the genre of film, his literary reputation rests primarily upon Sleuth and the establishment of the modern comedy thriller.


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