Five Finger Exercise

by Peter Shaffer

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

Originally titled Retreats, the current title, Five Finger Exercise, is a clever and symbolic reference to a piano exercise for pianists. The play has five characters that must “exorcise” their conflicts, and piano music is used throughout to underscore and punctuate dramatically heightened moments. Shaffer has admitted the autobiographical nature of the play, stating in the preface to his collected plays that it “expressed a great deal of my own family tensions and also a desperate need to stop feeling invisible.”

The play focuses on the Harrington family, who are spending a holiday together in their cottage in Suffolk, England. There is a snobbish mother, Louise, who fancies herself a Parisian aristocrat; a working class father, Stanley, who has done quite well for himself and his family in the furniture business; a troubled and sensitive son, Clive, who is just entering college, drinks too much, and is trying to find himself; and a smart-mouthed, feisty, fourteen-year-old daughter, Pamela. The fifth character is a young German music tutor, Walter, employed by the Harringtons to teach Pamela to play piano.

Walter acts as a catalyst for the family in bringing their underlying resentments out into the open for discussion and resolution. Louise resents Stanley for stifling her creative nature, while Stanley dismisses Clive’s yearning for something more fulfilling than making furniture. Pamela thinks her brother is spoiled, and Clive feels unappreciated and misunderstood by his father. Walter, however, expresses only happiness and gratitude that he has found a family and a safe place to live. In conversations with each family member, Walter helps them see their situations more objectively, which helps them find solutions to their problems. He is the model of what Clive should become: an independent, self-sufficient, educated, and artistic young man, who is comfortable with himself.

Clive is jealous of his mother’s attentions toward Walter and tells his father that they are having an affair, but he later regrets it when Walter proves to be his true friend. Once Louise and Stanley agree to go away together in an effort to save their marriage, Louise turns against Walter and asks Stanley to dismiss him. Although Walter begs to stay with the family, they remain firm, blaming Walter for their children’s problems.

While Walter plays his gramophone upstairs, Louise learns about Clive’s lie and rejects his apology. In the midst of their argument, Walter’s record skips, and when Stanley knocks on his door he discovers that Walter has attempted to commit suicide by turning on the gas in his room. The others galvanize to save him, as they seem to suddenly realize what Walter has done for them, and he is resuscitated. The play ends with Clive praying for courage, which Gene A. Plunka, in his book Peter Shaffer: Roles, Rites, and Rituals in the Theater (1988), defines as “adhering to one’s own norms and values no matter how different they are from the . . . accepted societal mores and standards.”

This play deals in part with the difference between the truly artistic, romantic, and sensitive versus those who do not understand them. Shaffer explores this theme again in Private Ear and most effectively in Equus, when creativity and theatricality in his playwriting reach a summit.

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