As already noted, The Royal Hunt of the Sun is more than a history play, but the sketched historical background comes from William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru (1886), which was Peter Shaffer’s main inspiration for the play. The playwright made some minor alterations for symbolic reasons. Prescott supposes Atahuallpa to have been about thirty years old, for example, while Shaffer makes him the same age as Jesus Christ at the time of the Crucifixion. Moreover, the historical Pizarro lived longer than Shaffer’s play suggests. He was murdered in 1541, at the age of about seventy.
Shaffer’s play was praised by some reviewers as a masterpiece, condemned by others as being merely a “showy fraud.” Robert Brustein, for example, found it pretentious and mundane and objected to its “sentimental sermonizing.” Certainly The Royal Hunt of the Sun, like Equus, had its detractors, but the vitality of its spectacle was generally recognized.
Shaffer takes on large themes and therefore opens himself up for criticism as being pretentious. Shaffer himself described the play as being “about a man’s search for immortality,” hardly a modest theme. He has admitted that the play was written to create spectacle and to make magic, “if the world isn’t too debased to convey the kind of excitement I believed could still be created out of ‘total’ theatre.” His intention was to create “an experience that was entirely and only theatrical.”
The play has epic magnitude. It anticipates the historical and chronological dexterity of Amadeus (pr. 1979, pb. 1980). It foreshadows the theme and abstract conflict of Equus. It also anticipates the personal conflicts of Shrivings (pr. 1970, pb. 1973), Equus, and Amadeus and the intense concern for fame and reputation that dements the narrator of Amadeus. Dennis Klein convincingly defends the play’s grandiose themes, heroic characters, and formidable mise en scène, pointing out that the play was intended, after all, for the stage and not for the printed page. If the language may at times seem overblown, it is nevertheless consistently poetic. It was selected for inclusion in the anthology Best Plays of the Sixties, edited by Stanley Richards in 1970.