Peter Shaffer

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Joan F. Dean

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, 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.

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 consciousness. As a young man, Martin was attracted to Pizarro as the representative of chivalry and adventure…. Only after prolonged exposure to the contrast between Pizarro and Atahuallpa does Martin appreciate the ghastliness of the Spaniards' mission.

Left alive to tell his story with the urgency of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Old Martin has extracted the gruesome lesson of the Spaniards' conquest of Peru. Old Martin himself remains irreconcilably estranged from both the Spanish and Incan worlds.

Martin Ruiz's namesake and counterpart in Equus, Martin Dysart, is similarly torn between two diametrically opposed principles. On the one hand, there are the claims of the courts and society, Dysart's responsibilities as a child psychiatrist, and his life as a respected member of the bourgeoisie; on the other hand, his understanding and even envy of Alan Strang's worship of Equus…. Although Dysart remains psychologically well-adjusted by either intellectualizing or repressing his envy, his treatment of Alan thoroughly humanizes the need for worship and belief. Dysart's own inner turmoil, verbalized in his direct address to the audience, makes him, as much as Alan Strang, the object of inquiry.

Like Martin Ruiz and Martin Dysart, Mark Askelon is beset by a similar schizophrenia. In his duel with Gideon, Mark freely and easily becomes the "Ruffian with the pistol" …, the classroom cynic grown to middle age, the betrayer and seducer. But equally intrinsic to his personality are the roles of father, pilgrim to Shrivings, and penitent…. His need for forgiveness as well as for belief is manifested in his confessional monologues to the primitively hewn icon of his wife. The use of liquor to stimulate his expansive confessions suggests a conscious plunge into Dionysian frenzy as well as a Lethean drunk. While Mark is downstairs in the company of David, Lois, and Gideon, his aggressive and destructive side dominates; but his heinous deeds are counterbalanced by his poignant private prayers to his dead wife. (pp. 300-02)

Among Shaffer's characters, Mark Askelon is not alone in his despondent feelings; Pizarro, Martin Ruiz, and Dysart are all keenly aware of the joylessness and meaninglessness of their lives. Through their contact with an intensely experienced religion, untainted and vital, unlike that offered them by their Western culture, they sense an emptiness, a void where there exists the latent need for worship and belief. They clearly perceive that their lives and cultures afford no opportunity to channel such drives productively….

As part of their joylessness, these characters express a repugnance toward the natural cycle of birth and death. Fearing death and not having produced new life, some of them lash out against the promise of the spring and of birth; they call it false and mistrust it deeply…. (p. 302)

The real ghastliness of the Civilized for Martin Ruiz, the Normal for Martin Dysart, and the Unalterable for Mark Askelon lies in the fact that each man has engaged with and perpetuated his own bête noire. For both Martins, the lucidity to see what their well-intentioned beliefs lead to comes too late. Old Martin, who began his adventures replete with idealism and optimism, is drained of all hope and promise by the play's end. Dysart will cure Alan Strang, but not without full awareness of the cost of the rehabilitation. (p. 303)

Whereas Dysart and Ruiz are idealistic and destroy only inadvertently the very things they respect, Pizarro and Mark Askelon assume much more aggressively destructive guises and act out of less lofty motives.

The end of Shrivings reiterates the pattern established by the end of The Royal Hunt of the Sun: both plays demonstrate the loss of faith on all sides….

Whether to provide a vehicle for confession and absolution of human weaknesses, to accommodate man's fear of his own mortality, or to intimate the supernatural, these characters fulfill a primal need unsatisfied by contemporary Christianity. That as widely differing individuals as a seventeen-year-old British boy, a fifty-year-old poet, and a sixteenth-century explorer should demonstrate this need for belief suggests it is an essentially human condition.

While Shaffer uses geographical associations as an index to characterization, this technique underscores his most important themes: man's need for faith, his fear of mortality, and his estrangement from his Western culture. That cultural and societal institutions are often obstacles to the fulfillment of an individual's deepest human needs forms the basis of Shaffer's indictment of modern society. Though theatre of spectacle has gained critical as well as commercial success for Shaffer, a more dramatically conventional work like Shrivings also indicates that he is a playwright of important ideas. (p. 304)

Joan F. Dean, "Peter Shaffer's Recurrent Character Type," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1978, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. 21, No. 3, September, 1978, pp. 297-307.

Martin Esslin

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

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 society, at the very court of the Emperor. And this precisely is what Shaffer does: the result is a figure of grotesque inappropriateness, a veritable monstrosity….

On the other hand, Mozart is not really the main character of the play, which is seen from the point of view of Mozart's rival, Salieri, who tells his story in flashback, quick-changing from doddering elder into the dashing courtier of his prime and back again to salivating dotage. It is Salieri whose tragedy we see: the tragedy of the man of modest talent, musical enough to recognise (perhaps alone among his contemporaries) the true greatness of genius, but not talented enough himself to match it….

[Yet] the flatness of the language in which the part is written and the limitations of the potential of the character (who explicitly represents 'mediocrity' writ large) militate against its reaching [any] real heights….

Martin Esslin, "Reviews: 'Amadeus'" (© copyright Martin Esslin 1979; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 27, No. 2, November, 1979, p. 20.

John Russell Taylor

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 217

[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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

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 their wire and leather mask heads and high metal heels), and the cloaked figure (reminiscent of Mozart's Don Juan, who stalks the composer to his death). Yet none of the contradictions is resolved. Shaffer exploits the ambiguity of Atahuallpa's immortality, the role of the horses, and the death of Mozart, because the plays are exploring contemporary society's loss of worship from a mystical point of view.

This is one reason why Shaffer uses ceremonial a lot and why his highly organised texts find their dramatic completion in gesture and visual effect. (pp. 11-13)

With each play, the labour becomes murder, says Shaffer, and the hurdles to jump become higher. Equus, which started from an anecdote, was a personal play, though audiences liked its questioning of notions of sanity and normality (while in the US, says Shaffer, it was the censure of environmental psychiatry that really engaged people). In Amadeus, which began 'idly when I was reading an account of a storm at the burial of Mozart which drove mourners away but which is not mentioned in the Vienna meteorological records', Shaffer wanted to transform a private kernel into a public event without betraying it. He researched for two years … before coming up with a 'serious and spectacular play just right for the Olivier [Theatre]' which contrasts the childlike prattler Mozart who has no social value with Mozart the 'perfectly finished channel of inspiration who could just write down the notes without pausing'….

[Shaffer] writes plays with ideas that are not too demanding, and, at their best, not too verbose, and manages to popularise them by making accessible techniques often pioneered in experimental drama (as in Equus) or (as in the opening cross chat and chanting of Amadeus) by getting away with what otherwise critics would have slammed as trite. Secondly, his melodrama captures a mood of despair and says 'do not worry'. He offers a focus for a feeling of being lost—for example in the dangerously simple parallels of Equus between Dysart and Alan. There is no examination of why we may feel let down by society or how we got to this point. History, like Shaffer's divinity, is beyond our reach, so we need not feel guilty. After all, if even Mozart was a puppet of some external force … Shaffer offers comfort for our shortcomings, and says himself he is not influenced by anything specific 'save my own inadequacy'. The amazing thing is that he gets so many people to applaud not the recognition of a common, resiliant humanity, but of a shared, accepting mediocrity. (p. 13)

Colin Chambers, "Psychic Energy" (© copyright Colin Chambers 1980; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 27, No. 5, February, 1980, pp. 10-13.

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