Peter Shaffer Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Peter Shaffer began his writing career with a teleplay, The Salt Land (1955), and a radio play, The Prodigal Father (1955). Shaffer has also written several novels. With his twin brother, Anthony Shaffer, he wrote The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951), published in England under the collective pen name Peter Antony. The two brothers also collaborated on two more novels: How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952), likewise issued under the pen name Peter Antony, and Withered Murder (1955), published under both authors’ real names. Macmillan published Withered Murder (1956) and How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1957) in the United States, using the authors’ real names. Shaffer also wrote the screenplays for The Public Eye (1972), Equus (1977), and Amadeus (1984), the last of which won the 1985 Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Once Peter Shaffer settled on playwriting as a career, most of his plays succeeded on both sides of the Atlantic. Five Finger Exercise, his first work for the stage, earned the London Evening Standard Drama Award for 1958 and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play of the season in 1960. The one-act comedies The Private Ear and The Public Eye sustained Shaffer’s reputation as a skilled playwright, as did the exceptional pageantry of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Equus won the Tony Award for Best Play of the 1974-1975 season, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award. With 1,207 performances on Broadway, Equus ranks among the top twenty-five longest-running plays in the history of New York theater. Amadeus again took the Evening Standard Drama Award, the Plays and Players Award, and the London Theatre Critics Award for Best Play. The New York production won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for 1981. The film version of Amadeus won eight Oscars in 1984, including Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 1987, Shaffer was honored with the title of Commander of the British Empire.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

How does Peter Shaffer deal with the issue of religion in his plays? Does he deal with spiritually differently than he does religion?

In Lettice and Lovage, Lettice is fired for making up stories about historical events to entertain the tourists. Is it acceptable to alter historical details for dramatic purposes? How historically accurate are The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Amadeus? Judging from his plays and not his remarks, what is Shaffer’s opinion on the issue of historical accuracy?

How does Shaffer portray women in his plays? Does his dramatic treatment of them change significantly, and, if so, how?

Why does Shaffer rework and rewrite his plays to be produced on the screen? Are there different writing requirements for a film than for a play? How successful has Shaffer been in translating his stage plays into screenplays?

Some critics have suggested that John Dexter’s staging of Shaffer’s plays, especially Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, made them more successful in production than they would have been with a less inventive director/designer. Would you agree? What is the importance of a director in the theater? Should playwrights always collaborate with a director in developing their plays?

In The Gift of the Gorgon, Shaffer portrays a rather unlikable playwright who calls drama teachers “dry sticks” because they misinterpret his plays. Which matters most—what the playwright says about the play or what the playwright says with the play? Is it necessary or even important to know anything about the playwrights in order to understand and interpret their plays?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Beckerman, Bernard. “The Dynamics of Peter Shaffer’s Drama.” In The Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley, edited by Michael Bertin. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986. A structural study, especially of Equus, by an important dramatic critic.

Cooke, Virginia, and Malcolm Page, comps. File on Shaffer. London: Methuen, 1987. An indispensable source with brief comments, play by play, and Shaffer’s own comments on his methods of work, rewrites, film adaptations, and more.

Gianakaris, Constantine J., ed. Peter Shaffer: A Casebook. New York: Garland Press, 1991. Volume 10 in the Casebooks on Modern Dramatists Series. Consists of a collection of essays on the playwright’s work.

Klein, Dennis A. Peter Shaffer. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1993. A combination of biographical and critical information.

Plunka, Gene A. Peter Shaffer: Roles, Rites, and Rituals in the Theatre. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988. Disappointing in the absence of coverage of later plays but strong on The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amadeus. This work is part sociology and part mythology, and it is fed by an interview with the playwright in 1986. It contains occasional insights but is generally too scholarly to get at the essence of Shaffer’s examination of the ways of God to humankind.

Taylor, John Russell. Peter Shaffer. London: Longman, 1974. Provocative essay on Shaffer’s contributions through Equus that sees detachment in the play and “a tendency to analyze emotions without too far engaging himself in them as a dramatist.”

Thomas, Eberle. Peter Shaffer: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1991. Detailed checklist of works on Shaffer, from four full-length studies to six dissertations and theses, to individual studies of plays through Lettice and Lovage. Includes a general chronology.

Trussler, Simon, et al., eds. File on Shaffer. Methuen Writer-Files series. Westport, Conn.: Methuen, 1988. A concise (eighty-eight-page) treatment of the plays through Lettice and Lovage.