Joan F. Dean

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

While The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus were hailed for their spectacular dramaturgy, The Battle of Shrivings was seen as a retreat to the comfortable ease of the well-made plot and the domestic setting which worked effectively in Five Finger Exercise (1958) and Black Comedy (1967). Shaffer has since returned to the play, rewriting it as Shrivings (1974). In its present form, Shrivings demonstrates more significant affinities with The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus than with his earlier works. These three plays, his most recent full-length dramas, form an impressive triad in which Shaffer recurrently employs certain themes, techniques of characterization, and motifs. They are best considered complementary pieces, shedding and reflecting light upon one another. All three portray a middle-aged man in a crisis of faith…. Though Shaffer's dramatic techniques vary widely among these plays, his most important themes and character types appear with considerable regularity. The failure of modern society to provide a constructive vehicle for man's religious impulses and need for ritualistic worship, the decrepitude of Western religion, and the resultant fragmentation of personality form an important thematic nexus among Shaffer's recent works.

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Shaffer's frequent use of geographical associations provides a key to characterization. Even in as early a play as Five Finger Exercise, he uses nationality as a springboard to character definition. (pp. 297-98)

In a similar vein is Shaffer's recurrent characterization through association with a specific culture…. [The heroes of Shaffer's major plays] are in this way all linked: each is intimately associated with an ancient culture. Corfu, the Peloponnesus, Cajamarca are the refuges these characters take from Western Europe. That each of [the heroes] is closely associated with the heart of a primitive culture is no accident, for each recognizes that these civilizations can fulfill spiritual needs in a way that Western culture and its Christianity cannot.

Underlying Shaffer's use of place as an index to character is an unrelenting disparagement of the traditions of Western European civilization in general and its politics in particular…. In both Royal Hunt of the Sun and Shrivings, as well as Equus, Christianity's inadequacy to channel man's need for belief and worship drives characters to embrace some ritualistic and primitive, if not homemade, religious system. (pp. 298-99)

But Shaffer's attack is no more aimed at the Roman Church in The Royal Hunt of the Sun than at television or the British judicial system in Equus or at a nonvegetarian diet in Shrivings. Instead, his target is the basic structure of modern life and its diminished capacity to channel constructively man's spiritual impulses. (p. 299)

In The Royal Hunt of the Sun, both Pizarro and Martin Ruiz stand uneasily between Spanish and Incan cultures. The tension between these two societies is the clash between the Old World and the New; between the Christian and the pagan; between the moribund and the vital…. Although history, as well as Young Martin, romanticizes Pizarro as a chivalric conquistador, Shaffer portrays him as a miserably terrestrial individual. Pizarro, like Old Martin, eventually realizes the abomination that is his life. He not only ridicules the chivalric traditions, but also mocks the religion in whose name he supposedly conquers. (p. 300)

Perhaps Shaffer's most radical presentation of the schizophrenia which often besets his characters is found in his splitting the personality of Martin Ruiz into Young Martin and Old Martin, characters played by two individual actors. In both his personalities, Martin stands midway between the Spaniards and Incas.

The contrast between Young Martin and Old Martin is indicative not only of the difference in age, but also of the difference in...

(The entire section contains 2734 words.)

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