The human quest for spiritual fulfillment or belief in something of spiritual worth seems to be a major concern of Peter Shaffer, and the tragic dimension in many of his plays derives from the playwright’s apparent conviction that, for various reasons often related to feelings of inadequacy and envy, humans seem compelled to destroy either what they believe in or their capacity for belief.
Although Shaffer’s first play, Five Finger Exercise (pr., pb. 1958), was conventional in its setting and its portrayal of a generally banal, upper-middle-class English family, what marked the play as important and Shaffer as a serious dramatist was Walter, a young German tutor whose desperate struggles to attain a place of belonging in such a family (wherein he imagines he will find spiritual peace) destroy him and fracture the family’s complacency.
On a much grander scale, and with an enormous cast and a set representing locales in Spain and Peru, Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (pr., pb. 1964), his second stage play, presents a man murderously determined to succeed in his spiritual quest to find the source of life. The man is Pizarro, Spanish conquerer of the Incas. While he longs to discover the means to achieve immortality and wants desperately to believe that the Inca leader Atahuallpa is the powerful god he claims to be, Pizarro’s megalomania causes the massacre of an entire people—including the revered Atahuallpa himself. At the play’s end, Pizarro sits beside his dead body, waiting for it to live again.
After The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Shaffer wrote three one-act and two full-length plays before writing Equus, and in all these plays he continued to focus on the philosophical and practical problems germane to humans’ pursuit of any kind of spiritual life. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that at the conclusion of Equus Dysart stands over Alan’s unconscious body. The neurotic doctor postures himself to enforce civilization’s mandate that the Strangs of its societies be made predictable, this despite—or perhaps because of—Dysart’s envy of Alan and his own yearning for a passionate spiritual life he is incapable of realizing. Whereas Dysart regrets having to destroy what is uniquely Alan’s, in Shaffer’s later Amadeus (pr. 1979), Antonio Salieri throws his whole being into destroying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as once again Shaffer portrays one man’s envy of another man’s essentially spiritual genius.