Peter Shaffer Shaffer, Peter (Vol. 18) - Essay

Joan F. Dean

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

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,...

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Martin Esslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thematically Peter Shaffer's new play [Amadeus] is bold and of profound interest: it deals with the mysteries of genius and of the creative process (as did Equus) and with the contrast between the overcivilised and the natural man (as did The Royal Hunt of the Sun), between sexual restraint and the free flow of self-expression through sex (as did The Battle of Shrivings)…. [Amadeus] is complex and built on an epic scale.

And here, I feel, lies its problem: neither the form nor the language of Amadeus is up to its tremendous subject-matter. To put a man like Mozart on the stage is, admittedly, the most daunting of all projects. How can genius be made manifest in the theatre? The writer of the play would have to be of equal genius to invent lines of convincing impact, otherwise the genius in question would become a mere lay-figure, a mere name being dropped. In the case of Mozart the difficulty is compounded a hundred-fold by the fact that in his letters Mozart reveals himself as an individual of earthy sexuality and scatological expressiveness. What a paradox: the most sublime spirituality issuing forth from a man who is capable of making endless jokes about shit and piss!

Here, I think, Shaffer made his big mistake: it is one thing to be scatological in letters to intimate relations (as Mozart was) another to make him use that kind of language in public, in polite...

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John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Amadeus] is a puzzlement. There are big things obviously wrong with it. It takes for ever to get started, as though Shaffer has thought of three or four possible openings and then used all of them. It tends, as is Shaffer's way in his loftier pieces—Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun—to over-verbalise everything, so that we seldom get a chance to feel his subject-matter in our bones because he is so busy telling us what we ought to be feeling (as if Shakespeare, instead of creating Iago, had written a play explaining him). (p. 48)

[Despite] frequent irritations,… I found myself taking more interest in the play than I felt somehow I ought to be: for quite a bit of its length it does, dammit, work. And I kept, fancifully, seeing other allegories in it…. I wish someone had persuaded Shaffer to prune the play and spruce up his dialogue … because he has the core, more than the core, of a very workable play. A bit stuffy and old-fashioned, a bit determined to be regarded at all costs as philosophical, but then that in many ways makes it the perfect new play…. (pp. 48-9)

John Russell Taylor, "Plays in Performance: 'Amadeus'," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 135, January, 1980, pp. 48-9.

Colin Chambers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Royal Hunt of the Sun took on something of a legend in its own time, as did Equus … and Amadeus…. Apart from their popularity, they share Shaffer's concern for grand, metaphysical themes rooted in dominant images and formally structured through highly-skilled stagecraft…. It is not surprising that he lists music and architecture … as his interests, and likens a good play to a piece of music, analysing thought and deepening emotion through its strict rules. 'It has to be a cathartic experience,' he says, which is what he achieved for many with the three major plays.

They are each essentially about a confrontation between two people…. Despite the different historical settings, the plays have nothing to do with history. In different ways, they are all about what Bernard Levin might describe as 'life force'—explored less successfully in The Battle of the Shrivings …, in which a hypocritical humanist philosopher is constantly challenged by a raucous, bawdy poet.

In Royal Hunt, Equus and Amadeus, what might be called the prevailing values are represented by one of the protagonists and are shown to be based on double standards (the pillaging Christian Pizarro, the expert saviour Dysart who is equally lost as Alan, and the mediocre Salieri, servant of God but shunned by him). Their 'opposites' are somehow blessed with a transcendental quality, living their lives as expressions of some divinity that is not reducible to any time or place nor to any moral or religious system. The main image of the plays unites the contradictions—the sun mask (Atahuallpa and, curiously, Pizarro both believing that the Inca ruler is immortal and will rise again from death with the sun), the horses (with...

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