Peter Shaffer 1926-
(Also collaborated with Anthony Shaffer under joint pseudonym Peter Antony)
Shaffer is a British playwright who has earned a reputation as a preeminent craftsman in several theatrical genres, including psychological drama, historical drama, domestic tragedy, and comedy. He has gained critical and popular acclaim for Equus, Amadeus, and other plays which explore themes of idolatry, conflicts between passionate and rational impulses, and the quest for immortality. Shaffer is by his own admission "fascinated by the endless ambiguity of the human situation," and his work is marked by the psychological intricacy of his characterizations.
Shaffer was born in 1926 in Liverpool to Jack and Reka Shaffer, just moments after his twin brother Anthony. In 1936 the family moved to London, where Shaffer attended St. Paul's School. At St. Paul's Shaffer studied piano, giving him a musical background which was integral in the development of Amadeus. Between 1944 and 1947 Shaffer worked as a coal miner before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge. There, he and his brother co-edited the literary journal Granta. Soon after graduation in 1950 Shaffer moved to New York City for four years. Living near New York's theater district afforded Shaffer the opportunity to attend numerous Broadway performances and to learn about American audiences. The difference between English and American audiences would manifest itself later in his career; Shaffer developed a passion for revising, especially when transferring a production overseas. In 1954, after working at a bookstore and the New York Public Library, Shaffer returned to London. There, he worked for a music publisher, served as a literary critic for Truth magazine and subsequently as a music critic for Time and Tide. After receiving favorable reviews for his television plays The Salt Land and Balance of Terror, Shaffer decided to pursue his career as a playwright.
Shaffer's most successful dramas are based in myth and explore the psychological motivations of his characters. His innovative use of masks, music, and dance illuminates thematic concerns, and his conflicts are developed through characters who function as dramatic foils. His 1964 work, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, reenacts the sixteenth-century conquest of Atahualpa's Inca empire by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The play focuses on the debased qualities of both characters and the relationship that evolves between them. The psychological drama Equus, for which Shaffer received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1975, explores the spiritually based motivations of a stable boy who is institutionalized after blinding six horses that he believes are deities. The boy's disillusioned psychiatrist faces his own personal conflict when he questions whether the boy's treatment will strip him of a rare and precious spiritual passion, thus relegating him to a mundane existence. Shaffer's exploration of the human psyche culminates in Amadeus, a drama of jealousy and revenge which he has described as "a fantasia on events in Mozart's life." In this play, a successful court composer of moderate ability contemplates with bitter irony why his pious devotion to God has been ignored while the vulgar, self-centered Mozart is blessed with genius. Realizing that God chose to reward him by allowing him to recognize the power of Mozart's genius, the composer takes his ultimate revenge on God and humanity by poisoning his rival. Amadeus won a Tony Award in 1981. Shaffer turned to the genre of farce with Lettice and Lovage, a play which addresses the decline of modern civilization as symbolized by post-industrial English architecture. In 1987 Lettice and Lovage was awarded the Evening Standard Drama Award as play of the year. Shaffer followed this with Gift of the Gorgon, a three-act play examining the conflict between passion and rationality. Shaffer has also written many screenplays, including the film adaptation of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies, as well as the screen versions of his own Equus and Amadeus. This last won an Academy Award for Best Picture and Shaffer received the Best Screenplay Adaptation Oscar.
The use of bold visual emblems—such as the great medallion that transforms into a golden sun in The Royal Hunt of the Sun—as well as elements such as music, dance, ritual, and mime, is characteristic of Shaffer's dramaturgy, and critics have often focused on the plays' fusion of such overtly theatrical devices with realism. Equus, for example, mixes naturalistic dialogue and characterization with a highly abstract presentation of the horses. Shaffer's plays have also been praised for their brilliant rhetoric and complex characterizations, though his plots have sometimes been censured as forced and contrived. The subjects of Shaffer's plays have often stirred debate. Some critics have charged that Equus is little more than a case study in abnormal psychology; similarly, some reviewers have argued that Shaffer's depiction of Mozart in Amadeus as childish and crude undercuts his effort to examine the nature of genius. Such criticisms notwithstanding, Shaffer's plays continue to challenge, intrigue, and move audiences and reviewers alike.