Peter Shaffer Shaffer, Peter (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 924 words.)

Ronald Hayman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 577 words.)

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1400 words.)

Doris M. Day

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 931 words.)