Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294
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 thriller Frenzy.
Though not a prolific writer by modern standards, Shaffer’s theatrical output is a triumph of quality over quantity.
Shaffer’s acknowledged masterpiece, Sleuth, made into a critically acclaimed film in 1972 starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, in two acts details a battle of wits between aging aristocrat Andrew Wyke, a successful cozy mystery writer, and a youthful commoner, the half-Italian, half-Jew Milo Tindle—originally Tindolini—who owns a modest travel agency (he is transformed into a hairdresser in the film). The game-loving Wyke invites Tindle to his country manor ostensibly for a conference regarding his spendthrift wife, Marguerite, with whom Milo is having a torrid affair. Outwardly, Wkye, who has a Finnish mistress, Tea, is concerned that Tindle will be unable to provide for Marguerite’s ostentatious lifestyle, and that he will be stuck with her once the romance has run its course.
The battle lines are drawn early: to Wyke, everything is a game, ripe for humorous riposte, while Tindle is in deadly earnest. Wyke is scornful of the younger man’s background and profession. Tindle is likewise scornful of Wyke’s occupation and proves himself capable of puncturing the writer’s inflated ego.Andrew: (Speaking of his alleged sexual prowess) . . . I’m pretty much of a sexual athlete. Milo: I suppose these days you’re concentrating on the sprints rather than the long distance stuff.
Once the preliminaries are out of the way, Wyke convinces Tindle to steal a box of valuable jewelry that can be fenced on the European continent to produce the wherewithal to provide for Marguerite; Wyke meanwhile will collect the insurance. Andrew concocts an elaborate scheme supposedly for the benefit of investigators, which entails Milo dressing in a clown’s costume to carry out the break-in. At the crucial moment, Andrew reveals a game within a game: he produces a pistol and tells Milo that he is going to kill him; as a homeowner preventing a burglary, he will get away with murder. When Milo asks why he is doing it, Andrew bursts out viciously:Andrew: I hate you. I hate your smarmy, good-looking Latin face and your easy manner. . . . I hate you because you are a culling spick. A wop—a not one-of-me . . .
This humiliating complication sets off a series of increasingly elaborate twists, turns, and one-upmanship as the plot winds relentlessly to its surprising and suspenseful conclusion. Toward the end of the play, Milo, the put-upon dupe, makes the following observation, which forms the thesis of the work:Milo: Take a look at yourself, Andrew, and ask yourself a few simple questions about your attachment to the English detective story. Perhaps you might come to realize that the only place you can inhabit is a dead world—a country house world where peers and colonels died in their studies; where butlers steal the port, and pert parlor maids cringe, weeping malapropisms behind green baize doors. It’s a world of coldness and class hatred, and two-dimensional characters who are not expected to communicate; it’s a world where only the amateurs win, and where foreigners are automatically figures of fun. To be puzzled is all. . . . To put it shortly, the detective story is the normal recreation of snobbish, outdated, life-hating, ignoble minds . . .
The Wicker Man
Cowritten with Robin Hardy (who directed the film), The Wicker Man is a thriller with erotic and mythical undertones. The plot concerns protagonist Neil Howie (played in the film by Edward Woodward), a police sergeant of the make-believe West Highland constabulary in Scotland, who receives a message telling him that a girl, Rowan Morrison—whose snapshot is enclosed—has disappeared on Summerisle, an obscure island beyond the Outer Hebrides. When Howie travels to the island to investigate the claim, he discovers a community of modern pagans (led on celluloid by Christopher Lee). The cult members believe in reincarnation, worship the sun, and perform sexual rituals to appease nature. These practices contrast sharply with the beliefs of Howie, a devout Christian, who is both shocked at the pagans’ uninhibited behavior and simultaneously drawn to one of the earthy and attractive female practitioners of the cult.
During his investigation, Howie receives conflicting accounts of the missing girl: Some deny knowledge of her while others affirm she was there but has died. Howie uncovers evidence that suggests Rowan was, or is to be, a human sacrifice intended to ensure fertile crops. He dresses in disguise to attend a pagan May Day celebration but finds too late that the letter he received was the opening gambit in an elaborate ploy to bring him to the island for the cult’s nefarious purposes.
A chilling, suspenseful, yet plausible examination of age-old Celtic beliefs flourishing in modern society, The Wicker Man and its horrific, yet inevitable, finale linger long in the memory. A 2006 remake of the film—though considerably different in a number of key aspects—starred Nicolas Cage.