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Shaffer, Anthony 1926–
A British novelist and dramatist, Shaffer collaborated with his twin brother Peter on several detective novels. He gained fame in his own name with the commercial success of his play Sleuth, a clever parody thriller which charmed audiences.
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[In "Withered Murder" Anthony and Peter Shaffer] attempt a formal detective story in the classic Grand Manner: murder on a stormbound island off the coast of Cornwall sternly solved by a flamboyantly eccentric Great Detective. Unfortunately the wit of Mr. Fathom, who admits that he is "the finest detective alive," is more rude than penetrating; his detection more lucky than astute; and the trick solution is both banal and preposterous. But the writing is often literally amusing; and even a minor specimen of the now rare classic form is welcome. (pp. 26-7)
Anthony Boucher, "Report on Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1956, pp. 26-7.∗
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["Sleuth"] is as clever as a wagonload of monkeys solving the crossword puzzle of The Times of London and as intricate as the Hampton Court Maze. It is good, neat, clean and bloody fun…. It is one of the most purely entertaining plays of many a season—an entrancing tale of detective-story mayhem with a touch of urbane intellectualism added for savor.
Mr. Shaffer's writing is delicious. It has a ponderous frivolity to it that sparkles like golf course sunshine on early-morning corpses. And even if you spot the twists, crinkles and decoys of Mr. Shaffer's plot (and with no undue modesty let me say I did—virtually from the very beginning of the second act) it is still enormously satisfying to have the brilliance of your deductions so satisfyingly confirmed. Mr. Shaffer is one of those rare, rare murder writers it is even a pleasure to see through.
Clive Barnes, "Stage: Shaffer's 'Sleuth'," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1970, p. 25.
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[Anthony Shaffer] has labeled his play Sleuth "A New Thriller." This is highly accurate, for, although it provides all the suspense and melodramatic devices of a thriller, it is new in that it simultaneously spoofs the preposterousnesses of the form itself.
To begin with, the play is set in an English country house inhabited by Andrew Wyke, a snobbish writer of detective stories….
Shaffer brings the fiction world and the real world together with superb simplicity. Wyke invites into his lair a trusting young man named Milo Tindle, who has secretly been having an affair with Mrs. Wyke. Instead of playing by the rules of the game of life in which a sophisticated husband tends to avoid confrontation, the host startles his guest, who has just settled down with a drink, by casually telling him, "I understand you want to marry my wife." Now the decorums have been violated, and Wyke and Tindle find themselves locked in a game. What might a vindictive husband do to his wife's lover if this were all happening in a detective novel?
The ensuing action is marvelous cat-and-mouse byplay in which comedy and terror fluctuate. The comedy comes partly from Shaffer's banter, which is laced with such recondite words as "hebdomadal" and "ossiferous."… And within the bounds of humor there is merrily savage criticism of intellectual arrogance … and of various British institutions….
The first act of Sleuth is complete in itself, and when the curtain falls, one wonders what the author can possibly do for the rest of the evening. However, it is not until midway in the second act that we become fully aware of the author's design. Without laboring the point or even stating it directly, the play suggests that there is lethal danger in mixing rational game-playing with the always unpredictable irrationalities of live-living. Of course, the success of Sleuth depends not on its message but on its adopted style of manufactured suspense and macabre satire, which it sustains right through the final curtain.
Henry Hewes, "Two Can Play at a Game," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 48, November 28, 1970, pp. 6, 12.
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Sleuth is written with a certain literary coquetry which the innocent mistake for style. Apart from an initial incredibility in the story's premise—which the audience has to allow in order to have fun with what follows—the rest is clever enough for those who like the game.
There is some stage wit in the recipe, even a dab of social comment. It is suggested that detective stories and thrillers (all except this one, of course) appeal to the privileged of a heartless class society and are to a degree a sign of decadence. This is not to be taken seriously and no one in the audience pays it any mind: it is embroidery….
I am little interested in such toys as Sleuth. I do not in the least resent those who like to play with them, but I am a little miffed when reviewers rhapsodize about them. Is it possible that this is the sort of mumbo-jumbo they prefer above all else? (p. 573)
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'Sleuth'," in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 211, No. 18, November 30, 1970, pp. 572-73.
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[Sleuth offers] a thoroughly entertaining and highly literate twist on that old warhorse, the theatrical murder mystery, not a whodunit, but a did-he (they)-do-it. And, thanks to the playwright's often delightful deviousness and a program note enjoining audiences, not to mention critics, from disclosing the plot, it borders on the unreviewable.
The plot I am not supposed to reveal involves a highly successful mystery writer … who invites his wife's lover … to his country house for a visit. "I understand you want to marry my wife," says Andrew Wyke. "Well, yes," says Milo Tindle, travel agent-lover, "with your permission, of course." Wyke then proceeds to play games. In fact, both play games, and both become enmeshed in a witty and intricate tour de force involving a faked burglary and … I can't go on, of course, without giving away the elaborate machinations and artifice of Shaffer's very funny, very erudite thriller. He combines both spoof and mystery genre, and plays it for all it's worth.
Catharine R. Hughes, "Broadway Hails Britannia," in America (© America Press, 1971; all rights reserved), Vol. 124, No. 2, January 16, 1971, pp. 46-8.∗
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[Sleuth] is dedicated to a number of fictional detectives, including Father Brown and Gideon Fell. They are all detectives in the high tradition—"great" detectives, not just ordinary coppers. Shaffer himself has said, however, that the contribution the play makes to the detective tradition lies essentially in its introduction of a working class character, Milo Tindle, on equal terms with the other main, upper-class, character, Andrew Wyke, the detective story writer. That cross class fertilisation, Shaffer says, was necessary to save the English detective story from becoming a country house set, one class-ridden, variety of crossword puzzle.
"Crime Compendium," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 231, No. 7508, October 6, 1973, p. 454.∗
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In Sleuth, Andrew Wyke, a mystery story writer, invites his wife's young lover, Milo Tindle, to his home in order to punish him for the affair. (p. 289)
The two characters in this play [engage] in an intense ambivalent relationship; extreme hate and profound affection alternately appear. Milo tries to take Andrew's wife from him, and Andrew retaliates cruelly in the first act. Thereafter, Milo repeatedly strikes back, identifying with and imitating his opponent as he tries to make things equal, 'to even the score'. Although he is first presented as a rather dull young man, Milo is transformed into a person capable of playing Andrew's intellectual game. As the play proceeds, the affection between the two men becomes more apparent. The attacks have a sadistic quality, and stem from love as well as hate. The games of the two protagonists of the play are like games of a sexual nature played by children living at close quarters. A latent homosexual attraction is hinted at in their relationship…. Clearly Andrew prefers Milo to women; he explicitly asks him to stay with him rather than go off with Marguerite [Andrew's wife]. Despite his boasts, it is revealed that Andrew is not potent heterosexually. Rather his energies are directed to games, and Milo appeals to him because of his abilities in this area.
The attachment of the two men to the same women [Andrew's wife and Andrew's mistress] has a homosexual determinant but the positive œdipal theme is apparent as well. A younger man attempts to win the wife of an older man and the two rivals struggle to destroy each other. The fact that the two women do not appear on stage and that their personalities are not developed by the author contributes to their representation as preœdipal sources of sustenance for which the men compete. Andrew's attachment to Tea [his mistress] whom he describes as a goddess, is sadistic rather than tender or genital in the psychoanalytic sense. So too his relationship to his wife is immature and is not genital. He states that 'sex is the game and marriage the penalty'. Milo appears to function on a more mature level but soon becomes caught up in the gamesmanship with Andrew.
Milo and Andrew use identification and imitation as prime means of attaining their love object as well as for defensive purposes. Not only do they copy each other but each enjoys imitating other characters. (pp. 291-92)
In their struggles to win games, the two men are continuously reversing roles, changing from passive to active, playing now the aggressor and now the victim. They alternate between male and female as well. These identifications with the aggressor serve to reverse matters so that the victim attempts to master a situation in which he may be harmed. In addition, the pronounced use of identification suggests a poor distinction between self and object representations. And there is a libidinal element: the identification signifies a type of pleasurable union of the two, a union which may succeed in quelling hostility through the triumph of affection. Further, identification may diminish mutual antagonism by keeping things equal; the pressing need to establish equality is a motivating force behind the behavior of both Milo and Andrew.
There are many references to halves and doubles in the play. Milo's father is half-Jewish and Andrew jokes that 'some of my best friends are half-Jews'…. One of the clues planted by Milo for Andrew contains the phrase, 'For any man with half an eye' … must see what stands before him. A second clue, referring to a pair of shoes, begins, 'Two brothers we are/Great burdens we bear'…. When Milo selects a name for himself as the Inspector, it is 'Doppler', meaning double or Doppelgänger, which Milo translates as 'double image' but is more accurately translated as 'double'.
The preoccupation with equality suggests a fantasy of being half a person and an attempt to make up for this deficit by remaining near another, by having close contact through the types of activity engaged in by children, including story telling and games which may be, as with children, overtly sexual. Each character feeling like half a person may be compelled to steal to regain the missing part. The protagonists in Sleuth are preoccupied with theft. Robbery is a significant theme in the play. Andrew plans his revenge because Milo has stolen his wife; Milo, at least in fantasy, steals Andrew's mistress; the two men plan a theft in the first act, while the final encounter between them involves the feigned theft of a fur coat. Andrew, of course, is well prepared for illegal activity since he earns his living inventing and solving crimes. In a direct reference to twins, Andrew imagines himself an identical twin accused of having committed a crime. (pp. 292-93)
The various conflicts, fantasies, and wishes that seem to be acted out in the differing roles the two characters play are highly suggestive of the complicated interrelationships that exist between two males whose development proceeds simultaneously in respect to each other and to preœdipal and œdipal objects. This occurs most frequently in twins who grow and develop together. In identical or fraternal twins, individual differences may not be great enough to separate one from the other. Hence, many of the conflicts, wishes, and fantasies displayed by Andrew and Milo in Sleuth resemble those described in the studies of twins by many authors. Most important in the psychology of twins is the feeling on the part of each that he is not a complete individual without the presence or existence of the other; without the accompaniment of his twin, he is only half a person. As pointed out above, Andrew and Milo make many references to 'half'.
As the two characters in the play, Sleuth, suggest the type of psychological conflict found in studies of twins, it is of interest that the author, Anthony Shaffer, is one of a twin pair. (pp. 294-95)
Jules Glenn, "Twins in Disguise: A Psychoanalytic Essay on 'Sleuth' and 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun'," The Psychoanalytic Quarterly (copyright © 1974, by The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Inc.), Vol. 43, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 288-302.∗
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Now, I am inclined to regard having-it-both-ways as one of the less admirable perversions, at any rate where drama is concerned. It worries me when a man exploits all the resources of the country-house thriller, with art and consummate cunning, and then rounds on me and rebukes me for having presumed to enjoy his efforts. How can he tell me that 'the detective story is the usual recreation of snobbish, outdated, life-hating, ignoble minds' when he plainly wants my outdated bum in his theatre seat, my ignoble money in his pocket, and my life-hating applause in his ears? Yet this was the message that rang out at the moral climax of Sleuth, and it is heard again, differently phrased, at the end of Murderer….
There are two main surprises [in Murderer], neither very surprising. There's also a lot of chat, mostly about murderers and murder, between Norman and wife, Norman and mistress, Norman and friendly, beer-drinking policeman. It is a long, desultory stroll down the Lustgarten, with, alas, very little happening in the shrubbery. Anthony may, once again, end by ticking me off for having enjoyed his attempts to titillate and thrill me; but I can't feel too guilty, because this time I did not enjoy them….
The truth is that Murderer has no more psychological than moral depth: it is just another thriller, and not a very good one. (pp. 393-94)
Benedict Nightingale, "Highbrowbeaten," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 89, No. 2296, March 21, 1975, pp. 393-94.∗