The Royal Hunt of the Sun

by Peter Shaffer

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“This story is about ruin,” says Martin Ruiz at the beginning. Old Martin, a soldier of Spain now worth millions, serves as the chorus, telling the story of how Francisco Pizarro, a man in his sixties, managed to conquer an empire of twenty-four million Incans with an expeditionary army of one hundred and sixty-seven men. Ruiz regrets the day he first set eyes upon Pizarro.

The action then goes back forty years, when Pizarro is recruiting soldiers in Spain for his Peruvian expedition. Young Martin, at the age of fifteen, is schooled in the codes of chivalry and is an idealistic advocate of his king and religion. He eagerly enlists his services. The next scene introduces the churchmen: Valverde, the Dominican chaplain; his associate, the Franciscan de Nizza; Pedro de Candia, cavalier from Venice, in charge of weapons; and the arrogant Miguel Estete, overseer in the name of King Carlos who threatens to challenge Pizarro’s authority in the New World. The expedition departs into the forest.

The third scene introduces the God-king Atahuallpa, sovereign Inca of Peru; Villac Umu, his high priest; and Challcuchima, his general. Atahuallpa believes the white god is coming to bless him. This naïve belief will be his undoing.

The action alternates between the Inca court, fortified high in the mountains, and the approaching Spanish army. After six weeks, the army passes through the forest and arrives at the border of the Inca Empire, finding a road fifteen feet wide. The army is met there by the Incan General Challcuchima, who brings commands that the Spaniards should visit the God-king at Cajamaarca, a month’s march up into the mountains. After the Spaniards arrive, the sovereign Inca demands to see their god, whom he believes to be Pizarro. Valverde, angered by this blasphemy, orders Pizarro to attack. The first act ends with the mime of the great massacre. The Incans are massacred and Atahuallpa is taken hostage. Pizarro crowns himself king.

Act 2, “The Kill,” is about the conflict between Pizarro and the captive Atahuallpa, who still has the power and authority to crush Pizarro and his army. Communication is at first complicated by Felipillo, the treacherous Incan interpreter, who lusts after the Inca’s wife, but young Martin has learned enough of the Incan language to recognize Felipillo’s deceit and advises Pizarro. The tactful and honest Martin from that point forward becomes the interpreter, and he is therefore “privy to everything that passed between them during the next months.”

Pizarro, a cynic mainly interested in plunder, promises to set Atahuallpa free if the Inca will fill with gold a room twenty-two feet long by seventeen feet wide. The trusting Atahuallpa commands that the gold be gathered from across his empire. Coming from a more honest culture, he does not entertain thoughts of Spanish treachery. During the time required to accumulate this treasure, Atahuallpa debates the nature of divinity with the churchmen and the nature of kingship with Pizarro.

The Spaniards put pressure on Pizarro to kill the Inca, which he would rather not do. Pizarro soon realizes, however, that his reputation as conqueror will only be assured if he murders his Incan counterpart. Atahuallpa calmly believes he cannot be killed because of his divinity. He tells the sixty-three-year-old Pizarro: “You will die soon and you do not believe in your god. That is why you tremble and keep no word. Believe in me.” Torn between desire and duty, Pizarro finally allows a Spanish court to accuse Atahuallpa “of usurping the throne and killing his brother; of idolatry and having more than one wife.” The God-king is found guilty and murdered, failing the ultimate test of his divinity. Pizarro curiously seems to want to believe in Atahuallpa’s divinity and is devastated.

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