Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

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Peter Levin Shaffer was born to Orthodox Jewish parents, Jack and Reka Shaffer, in Liverpool, England, on May 15, 1926, with a twin brother, Anthony. Another brother, Brian, was born in 1929. Anthony is also a writer, author of the prizewinning play Sleuth (pr. 1970). Brian is a biophysicist.

A middle-class British family, the Shaffers moved to London in 1936. World War II brought several relocations, in part because of safety concerns and in part because of the demands of Jack Shaffer’s real estate business. In 1942, Shaffer was enrolled in St. Paul’s School in London. In 1944, the twin brothers were conscripted for duty in the coal mines, working first in Kent, then in Yorkshire. Shaffer entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, on a scholarship in 1947.

At Cambridge, Shaffer discovered his talent and taste for writing while editing a college magazine. Taking his degree in history in 1950, he sought employment with various publishers in England, to no avail. He moved to New York in 1951. From a brief stint as a salesperson in a Doubleday bookstore, he moved to a job in the acquisitions section of a branch of the New York Public Library. Shaffer returned to London in 1954 and worked for the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes for about a year. With the broadcast of his teleplay The Salt Land and his radio play The Prodigal Father in 1955, he decided to turn to writing as a full-time career.

The 1958 success of Five Finger Exercise at London’s Comedy Theater in the West End brought Shaffer renown as a serious playwright. The play opened in New York in December, 1959, setting a pattern followed by most of his subsequent stage plays. His pair of one-act plays, The Private Ear and The Public Eye, opened in London in 1962 and in New York in 1963. The Christmas season of 1963 saw the production of The Merry Roosters Panto in London.

During 1964, Shaffer and Peter Brook worked on a film script of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), but it was not used for the eventual film version of the novel. Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun opened at the National Theatre in Chichester, England, in July, 1964; in London in December of that year; and in New York in October of 1965. At the behest of Sir Laurence Olivier, the director of the National Theatre, Shaffer wrote Black Comedy. It played at Chichester in July, 1965, then in London, and was presented in tandem with White Lies in 1967. This second pair of one-act plays was staged again in London in 1968, by which time Shaffer had rewritten White Lies and retitled it The White Liars.

For Shaffer, the 1970’s began with a lull: The Battle of Shrivings opened in London in February, 1970, but did not run for long. July, 1973, however, saw the London premiere of Equus, which in October, 1974, opened in New York for its remarkably long run. When Atheneum issued its edition of Equus in 1973, Shaffer included in it the book Shrivings, his revised version of The Battle of Shrivings, which had not survived onstage. In this general time period, Shaffer also developed the screenplay for the film version of Equus, which was released in 1977.

Finishing the 1970’s with the highly successful Equus, Shaffer moved into the 1980’s with the equally noteworthy Amadeus, which opened at the National Theatre, Chichester, in November, 1979, and subsequently opened in London. Shaffer revised his already very successful script during a run of the production in Washington, D.C., prior to its December, 1980, opening at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. A film version was released in 1984 under the direction of Milo Forman.

After the unsuccessful Yonadab, based on biblical themes, Shaffer returned to comedy with a star vehicle written for Maggie Smith, Lettice and Lovage, which received favorable reviews. Shaffer calls New York City home, despite his British citizenship and frequent returns to England.

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