Peter Shaffer

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Shaffer, Peter 1926–

Shaffer is an award-winning English dramatist, screenwriter, author of radio and television plays, literary critic, and novelist who writes psychological dramas depicting emotional complexities and conflicts. His 1973 play, Equus, was adapted for film in 1977. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

John Russell Taylor

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924

[The] most interesting quality of [Peter Shaffer's] work is its impersonality. His work has all the classic qualities of the traditional dramatist—cast-iron construction, a coherent and well-plotted story to tell, solid, realistic characterization, extreme fluency in the composition of lively, speakable, exactly placed dialogue—but ultimately he emerges in it as mysterious and impalpable as Walter, the central character of Five Finger Exercise, who, if he is the hero, must be one of the most chilly and enigmatic heroes on record. (p. 227)

[It] is unlikely that anyone would have predicted great things for him on the strength of these first two plays; the earlier, Balance of Terror, was a thriller about spies and counterspies tussling over an intercontinental ballistic missile, cunningly put together along conventional lines but nothing very out of the ordinary, and the later, The Salt Lands, was a patchily worked out though serious and well-constructed attempt to present a classical tragedy situation in terms of modern Israel.

All the more surprising, then, that his first performed stage play, Five Finger Exercise, should be so outstandingly successful on every level. For one thing, in it Shaffer invades that most dangerous of all territories for an English dramatist, the prosperous upper-middle-class drawing-room of a house in the Home Counties. Not only that, but his play is put together with the theatrical aplomb of a Pinero, well provided with dialogue of remarkable crispness and articulacy, and technically very much part of the mainstream tradition of British drama; it would have been written in much the same way (though perhaps it would not have found such ready backing) if John Osborne and the rest had never lived. (pp. 227-28)

[Five Finger Exercise] claims our attention not only for its traditional virtues, which are considerable, but because if we look at it more closely it turns out to be an unusually skilful and unexpected foray of new ideas and new perceptions into the fustiest stronghold of convention; having convinced the old-fashioned West End playgoer that it is 'all right'—not sordidly concerned with the kitchen sink, and certainly not in any way experimental, but just an ordinary play about people like you and me—it proceeds bit by bit to strip its characters and their way of life bare with as much ruthlessness as Ionesco sets about rather the same business in The Bald Prima Donna. Only here the weapon is psychological penetration: Shaffer takes the typical Dodie Smith-Esther McCracken family—fussy, scatterbrained mother, stolid, inarticulate father, bossy tomboy daughter, arty varsity-bound son—and instead of accepting them as the self-evident, indisputable données upon which a light comedy or drama can be based, he asks us to look at them, consider why they are as they are, and what would happen if suddenly something unexpected, from outside their normal experience, should intrude on the settled picture of complacent mediocrity.

The intruder in this instance is Walter, a strange, charming, mysteriously reserved young German tutor who acts as a catalyst for all sorts of violent and unexpected emotional reactions. Each member of the household sees him as a potential ally or lover: the mother dreams perhaps of a discreet affair with him or more probably of amorous proposals flatteringly pressed upon her and skilfully parried; the father finds he can talk to him...

(This entire section contains 924 words.)

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in a way which is unthinkable with his own son; the level-headed daughter finds his lack of involvement disconcerting, and the son discovers in him at last the congenial companion he has been seeking (his mother in a bout of bitter fury at the end, when Walter has revealed that his feelings for her are infuriatingly filial, suggests that Clive's feelings for him are tinged with homosexuality, but there seems no real reason for us to believe her).

The originality of the observation, all the more potent for being disguised beneath an apparently conventional surface, is paralleled by the veiled originality of the form of expression used. Taken line by line there is nothing at all surprising or upsetting about Shaffer's style: it is just the usual pruned, heightened realism of traditional stage parlance. But if we look at the play as a whole it at once becomes apparent that the action does not progress, as one would expect, by way of conversations leading purposefully towards clear stages in the dramatic argument; instead, the play organizes itself into a series of splendid self-revealing tirades, usually directed at the passive, uninvolved head of Walter, who remains so mysterious (necessarily to his function in the play) precisely because he alone of the characters is not permitted to reveal himself in this way—the other characters reveal themselves to him just because he does not react sufficiently to spoil the imaginary pictures of him they are building up in their minds or step outside the role each has assigned him in his or her personal drama.

Five Finger Exercise is immensely clever, extremely well written, and completely theatrical in the best possible sense of the term; it is one of the most finished plays we have seen in the last five years. It is also quite impersonal, almost as though the author has felt it his duty to keep himself entirely out of the picture. This is not necessarily a bad thing … but it is disconcerting. (pp. 228-29)

John Russell Taylor, "Peter Shaffer," in his Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama (© 1962 by John Russell Taylor; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), Methuen and Co Ltd, 1962, pp. 227-30.

Ronald Hayman

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Almost nothing about Shaffer's future could have been predicted from Five Finger Exercise, which derives much of its basic plot from Turgenev's A Month in the Country but remains much more pedestrian, with nothing like the same sensitivity to atmosphere or the same penetration below the surface of character, though the adolescent son, with whom Shaffer can empathize most easily, emerges in greater depth than the others. Still, it is an impressively solid piece of theatrical craftsmanship, with cleverly contrived tensions, plentiful opportunities for the actors to engage the audience's emotions and effective build-ups to slightly melodramatic climaxes….

The ambitious Royal Hunt of the Sun … was seriously overrated. Shaffer was trying to present the clash of two civilizations—the Incas and sixteenth-century Spain as represented by the Conquistadores. But the confrontation is mainly a verbal one between two men, Atahuallpa, the Sovereign Inca, and Pizarro, the conquistador who ends up as a convert to the Inca faith….

[In Royal Hunt of the Sun] Shaffer fails to produce dialogue that suggests the sixteenth century. The Narrator's speeches are better written than the dialogue but generally the language is lustreless, tumbling into clichés and even pleonasms like 'trapped in time's cage' when nothing less than poetry would take the strain Shaffer is putting on it.

Of course his courage is admirable in jettisoning naturalism so wholeheartedly…. Time and place are treated equally unrealistically: the action sometimes embraces two scenes going on in different locales. He uses mime and he borrows certain tricks of stylization from the Oriental theatre. He is aiming at total theatre…. The trouble is that instead of unifying to contribute to the same effect, the various elements make their effects separately and some of them are superfluous and distracting. (p. 61)

Many of the ideas behind the play are interesting, particularly the suggestion of an inevitable link between evangelist Christianity and acquisitiveness, but the strenuously epic nature of the form, the crowding of the characters and the congestion of the story-line leave Shaffer with no elbowroom to develop his ideas. The Battle of Shrivings … is hardly less ambitious but it is naturalistic in conception and planned so that the explicit discussion of ideas should be central to the action. The basic conflict is between two Weltanschauungs and again it is worked out in terms of a conflict between two men—an apparently saintlike pacifist philosopher, modelled unmistakably on Bertrand Russell, and an anti-liberal, anti-traditionalist poet. The tension holds until the end of Act One, when war is declared between the two men. Theatrically the possibilities are enormous. They have agreed that the old philosopher will be the loser if he throws the vindictive poet out of his house before the week-end is over and his own pacifist principles prevent him from hitting back. It may have been reckless of Shaffer to commit himself to writing dialogue for two intellectuals of this calibre, but at least it ought to have been possible for him to evolve a theatrically effective battle between them and to develop both characters during the course of it. But again he fails to fuse the action and the debate, imposing a schematic development on both protagonists. The philosopher loses faith in humanism while the poet, like Pizarro in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, ends up unconvincingly as a convert to the beliefs of his victim. (p. 62)

Ronald Hayman, "Like a Woman They Keep Going Back To," in Drama, No. 98, Autumn, 1970, pp. 60-2.∗

John Russell Taylor

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If one could complain about [Five Finger Exercise] (or express doubt at all) it would be on two counts. The first is perhaps largely temporary: the language of the younger characters is full of period slang which has got far enough back to sound dated without as yet taking on a period charm, and, worse, it is the superficial expression of a relationship which has too much heavy whimsy for comfort…. The other cause for complaint may also be rather subjective: it is that, in a period of unmistakably individual, personal drama, Shaffer seems to be resolutely impersonal. (p. 9)

[There] is one noticeable oddity the play has, from which, if we observed it, we might wonder whether Shaffer was more than he first appeared to be. That is the way that the play, while functioning (very well) within a tradition which sedulously avoided eloquence, which cultivated the understated, the matter-of-fact (or to put it in more acceptable terms, tended to depend rather heavily on Harold Pinter's second silence, when what is really happening between people is apparently unrelated, or very slightly related, to what they are actually saying), does suddenly burst out every so often into sizzling monologues in which the characters reveal themselves in quite a different way. (pp. 9-10)

All of these big speeches have one thing in common: they tell us something about the great preoccupation of drama during the decade of theatre of the Absurd and all that: communication, its possibilities and impossibilities…. Rarely do two characters succeed in communicating …, but if this is so, it is not so much because, as it was fashionable to say at the time, communication is impossible, but … because people who can and do communicate perfectly will often fear to communicate. (pp. 10-11)

But still, the playwright does not seem to be personally involved in his play to any significant degree…. This balance of sympathy in a dramatist is of course admirable, and makes for effective drama. But might one not be forgiven for wondering if a vital spark of passion was not missing? (p. 11)

[The Royal Hunt of the Sun] is at once a spectacular drama and a think-piece written in rather elaborate literary terms. As Shaffer himself summarized its theme …, it is 'a play about two men: one of them is an atheist, and the other is a god'.

[Shaffer also stated]:

And the theme which lies behind their relationship is the search for God—the search for a definition of the idea of God. In fact, the play is an attempt to define the concept of God.

                                             (p. 17)

Clearly Shaffer has progressed a long way in his dramatic thinking from the easy naturalism of Five Finger Exercise. The Royal Hunt of the Sun is a chronicle play covering a period of over four years and many thousands of miles journeying. It is, for all that, quite tightly organized, but evidently all the material could not be encompassed in a naturalistic drama—it can be done only by calling on all the resources of the theatre, deriving techniques partly from Kabuki, partly from Shakespeare's way with history, partly from Brechtian epic theatre. (p. 18)

The Royal Hunt of the Sun was a tour de force, to be followed … with another, in its own way perhaps even more extraordinary, Black Comedy. This is a piece of physical theatre at its most exhilaratingly virtuoso, based on an idea of dazzling simplicity. From seeing a Chinese theatre company in action, Shaffer had retained the image of actors creating the idea of darkness by miming it. And from this grew the idea of making a farce by simply reversing the normal light values. (p. 21)

As a piece of sheer theatrical machinery the play is impeccable, as brilliant as anything Shaffer has ever done. And almost indestructible: even in a far less than perfect production the structure carries the play. (p. 22)

The idea [in The Battle of Shrivings] is again, as in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a head-on confrontation between two different ways of life, two opposing approaches to the business of living. But on this occasion the matter is talked out rather than acted out, and consequently the play seems to be lacking a dimension…. The Battle of Shrivings is a talk- and think-piece very much as many of Shaw's later plays are; it forces us to consider the ideas as ideas, and as such they tend to seem shallow and superficial. (p. 24)

[Though verbally Equus] is in places highly developed and breaks out into real eloquence, it is a piece which only fully exists in the theatre, in terms of the astonishing visual imaging of the action and the way the thought is precipitated into meaningful, unparaphrasable happening….

The action of the play was inspired, Shaffer tells us in his note to the published text, by a real-life case of which he was once told the bare outlines—that a highly disturbed young man had inexplicably blinded a number of horses—and no more. This occurrence has been woven into a texture obviously suggested by (or at least heavily influenced by) R. D. Laing's idea that (to oversimplify drastically) conventional modern psychiatry has been unconsciously moulded by the Establishment into a tool for social manipulation, for preserving the 'norm'. (p. 27)

[What Shaffer] shows us, not really tells us—is the process of Alan Strang's gradual deviation from the respectable norm, into neurosis and a crime of cruelty to animals which is found universally shocking, inexplicable and prima facie evidence for his insanity and desperate need for psychiatric treatment which may be hoped to restore him to 'normality'. Linked with this in the play's loose-seeming yet taut and economical structure is a progressive demonstration of the hollowness and self-questioning of Dysart, the psychiatrist who is charged with this job of mental restoration. Shaffer does not make the elementary mistake, any more than R. D. Laing does, of romanticizing madness into a vision of the truth denied to the 'sane', but he does show us Alan's particular brand of insanity as a legitimate and valuable response to experience which brings its own benefits and has to be emasculated by society in the cause of self-preservation: Dysart, with his arid, uncommunicative relations with his wife, his academic devotion to his pet dream-world of classical Greek antiquity, comes eventually to a recognition that at the very least 'That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life'. (pp. 28-9)

The questions [raised by the play] continue to vibrate after the play is over. But the fact that they do so is not so much because of Shaffer's verbal formulations, eloquent though they be. It is because in the play we ourselves have lived through Alan's experience with him, we have experienced vicariously some of his ecstasy in naked, pulsing contact with his god, we have made our own oblation to the dark gods of his dreams. The theatrical experience the play offers is mind-enlarging because it gets at our minds through our emotions, our instincts. It does not expound Laing's theories, it inexorably shows them worked out in practice, and silences argument. Its theatrical logic and power are unarguable, and if something of our instinctive response seeps into our intellect subliminally, that is probably no bad thing. (p. 31)

It is an extraordinary development, from the sober, old-fashioned, intelligent but scarcely profound formulations of Five Finger Exercise to the equally controlled yet in effect explosive expression of Equus…. [Shaffer's] gradual, unsparing exploration of the expressive possibilities of his chosen form, in which technical experiment has been accompanied by (necessitated by, no doubt, since as Shaffer says, the content dictates the form) an uncompromising rethinking of the material proper for drama, his own as well as anyone else's, has little by little established him as a major figure in world drama, a theatrical thinker who triumphantly escapes all narrow definitions and ends up a unique phenomenon, like nobody but himself. After Five Finger Exercise we might have agreed that the play was 'promising', and felt pretty certain that we knew exactly what it promised. After Equus there is just no guessing what he may do next, but it seems inevitable that it will be grand and glorious. (p. 32)

John Russell Taylor, in his Peter Shaffer (© John Russell Taylor 1974; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1974, 34 p.

Doris M. Day

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[White Liars] explores the narrow gap between truth and reality, and how one eventually accepts fiction for fact. Set in a fortune-teller's booth, it shows three characters … the supposedly aristocratic clairvoyant, and two of her clients, twisting the truth to suit their wishes. I feel that it is more effective in presenting the harsh truth than was [the] original script in which a fourth character … intervened in the thought processes of the woman, and created confusion in the situation and development of the theme.

Truth is relative, but there is no doubt that in this play we see the work of a master playwright, someone who understands the medium of the theatre and the demands of a modern, intelligent audience. (p. 82)

Doris M. Day, "Theatre Bookshelf: 'White Liars'," in Drama, No, 126, Autumn, 1977, pp. 80, 82.

John M. Clum

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Peter Shaffer's Equus [is] a play about the creation of a Dionysian religion in a highly rational world, a passionate worship that also reflects the Christian world's inability to integrate sexuality and religion. Equus is one of a number of plays by major contemporary playwrights that deal with the place of religion in a seemingly godless world. (p. 418)

Peter Shaffer has been, in his major work,… fascinated with the impulse toward faith. For him the adversary of the man of faith is not a cosmic void or universal chaos; it is rationality. For Shaffer, it is the cold, clinical, empirical man without faith who has created an orderly, materialistic world that has robbed man of those irrational qualities that can make life an intense experience. Shaffer is not as concerned with the eternal design as he is with the individual who has become a diminished thing. In his play, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Shaffer pitted an historic conqueror of the New World, able to sail across uncharted seas, scale the loftiest mountains, and reduce a wealthy, glorious Inca culture to slavery, against an Inca prince who passionately, if irrationally, believes he is born of the gods of the sun. (p. 427)

What fascinated Shaffer in The Royal Hunt of the Sun is the sense that the dark Christian world offers man no joy, no ecstasy—that perhaps there are more fulfilling faiths. Again, Shaffer is not concerned with existence of a god: he is fascinated with man's need for religion, for transcendence, for passionate submission. Athahuallpa [the Inca prince] has a real, living faith. It does not matter that he is not, as he believes, immortal. It only matters that the faith sustains him throughout his life and makes his death bearable. Pizarro hoped he could worship a god. Ultimately he came to love a son, feel grief for a fellow mortal. Through that feeling, Pizarro's life was, for a few moments, affirmed.

At the center of all the spectacle that entranced one in The Royal Hunt in the Sun was the clash of ideas between two men; one middle aged and despairing, the other young and filled with faith. That same clash is at the core of Equus, but we are no longer in as overtly Christian a society. If Pizarro was the soldier servant of the Holy Catholic Church, killing and conquering so that Christ's kingdom could triumph on earth, Martin Dysart is the conqueror of the new religion of psychiatry, conquering minds in the name of normality and social efficiency. Dysart's nemesis is not the young son of the sun, king of his rich land, but a teenage boy who has created in his mind his own kingdom of god; a boy who has, in the middle of sterile, efficient contemporary society, created and lived a primal, passionate religion replete with ceremonies and sacrifices and total ecstasy.

Equus begins as something of a mystery story, "Why did the boy blind six horses with a metal spike?" but it becomes the clash between Dionysian passion and fluorescent comfort. (pp. 428-29)

Clearly Alan Strang is abnormal in a clinical sense. The job of a psychiatrist is to restore him, or bring him, to a normal state. But what does it mean to be normal? Our psychiatrist is not sure: "The Normal is the good smile in a child's eyes—all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal."… The exorcism necessary to make Alan Strang normal is the destruction of the religion which is the core of his life…. (p. 430)

Alan Strange will be cured. He will be sent back into the normal world. His worship of the horse-god will be exchanged for interest in a motorbike. He will no longer be impotent, but he will have lost the passion Dr. Martin Dysart so longs for.

Equus builds on the strange story of Alan Strang, but Dr. Martin Dysart is Shaffer's central character…. Dysart feels want that cannot be answered by the tangible things of this world. He is successful at his job, but he has gnawing doubts about the meaning of the normalcy for which he is molding people. He has a marriage and the money to live well and travel, but the marriage is now habit and the things do not satisfy. Dysart is missing the sense of transcendence that can come from a real worship. Speaking of himself as someone apart, he says: "What worship has he ever known? Real worship! Without worship you shrink, it's as brutal as that…. I shrank my own life."… What makes Dysart sense a diminution is his awareness that something very basic has been lost in our technological, pragmatic society, something intangible which must be regained if he is to live meaningfully: "I need—more desperately than my children need me—a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this?… What dark is this?… I cannot call it ordained of God: I can't get that far. I will however pay it so much homage."… (p. 431)

Shaffer gives us the temple of man's faith in scientific explanations and miracles but shows that there are basic needs of man that can never be met by efficiency. (p. 432)

John M. Clum, "Religion and Five Contemporary Plays: The Quest for God in a Godless World," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1978 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 77, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, pp. 418-32.∗


Shaffer, Peter


Shaffer, Peter (Vol. 18)