Obituary: Sir Peter Shaffer
Playwright who wrote 'Equus' and won an Oscar for 'Amadeus', helping to move British drama away from kitchen sink
Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30
Sir Peter Shaffer, the playwright, who died last Monday aged 90 while visiting friends in Ireland, was a giant of post-war British theatre, producing a string of dramatic - and cinematic - triumphs, including The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus, in the process bringing ritual, magic and music back into a theatre in danger of disappearing into kitchen sink naturalism.
Shaffer's first play, The Salt Land (1954), a tragic parable of modern Israel, was presented on the BBC, but he made his theatrical debut with Five Finger Exercise (1958), a play in which an angry young outsider upsets a country weekend in Suffolk. Rejected by the Royal Court as "unsuitable", it was staged at the Comedy Theatre by John Gielgud (who, after reading the script, declared: "I wouldn't mind directing that. I've never done anything bourgeois before."). It won the Evening Standard Drama Award, then moved to Broadway, where it ran for 607 performances, snapping up the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.
In 1964 Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a spectacular epic about the Spanish conquest of Peru, became the first world premiere of a new play by Laurence Olivier's recently established National Theatre. Conceived as "total theatre", in which mime, masks, make-up, music, magic and scenery contribute to the theatrical effect, the play, starring Robert Stephens as Atahualpa, the Indian 'Sun King', won ecstatic reviews and became famous for the mimed sequence following the stage direction: "The men then climb the Andes". The ascent of the Andes symbolised the conquistadors' morally destructive conquest and summed up the territory Shaffer was determined to stake out as his own - what he called "the nearly abandoned kingdom of epic theatre".
In his quest to maximise the play's theatrical force, Shaffer was always ready to make revisions - even at rehearsal. Directors loved him, finding him one of the easiest playwrights to work with, if (at a time when most playwrights wore their politics on their sleeves) the hardest to pigeon-hole. Shaffer went on to provide the National with three more hits - Black Comedy, Equus and Amadeus.
The first, a farce in which a blown fuse leaves characters drawn from the standard pack (the timid spinster, the peppery colonel, the camp neighbour and so on) feeling their way around in "the dark" (actually a floodlit stage), prey to mistaken identity, social gaffes and sexual possibilities, demonstrated Shaffer's gift for comedy, but it was Equus and Amadeus that established his popular reputation.
A psychological "whydunnit" based on a true story, Equus was a journey into the mind of a 17-year-old boy from a respectable family who, having blinded six horses with a metal spike in a frenzy of sexual frustration and semi-religious fervour ("Alan stabs out Nugget's eyes... The horse stamps in agony," reads one stage direction), is referred to a psychiatric hospital. The play focused both on the thought processes of the boy (played by Peter Firth in the original National Theatre production in 1973), and the response of his psychiatrist (played by Alec McCowen) who finds himself almost envious of his young patient's ability to live the feelings which he can only read and talk about.
Equus seemed to tap into contemporary worries over the cultural legacy of the 1960s, exploring the dilemma of the individual faced with the loss of moral certainties. It transferred to Broadway, with Anthony Hopkins as the psychiatrist, and in 1977 was made into a film starring Richard Burton. "In London," Shaffer recalled, "Equus caused a sensation because it displayed cruelty to horses; in New York, because it allegedly displayed cruelty to psychiatrists." It was revived on the West End stage in 2007, with the Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as the troubled teenager.
In Amadeus (1979), meanwhile, Shaffer presented the musical genius Mozart as a farting, giggling, foul-mouthed enfant terrible who drives his mentor, Salieri, to despair. Like Equus, the play (which starred Paul Scofield as Salieri and Simon Callow as Mozart in its original production at the National), focused on a power battle between two strongly delineated characters in a series of highly theatrical set-pieces - as when Mozart at the piano effortlessly turns a feeble march by Salieri into Figaro's Non piu andrai. Shaffer felt that the best drama "is made out of the conflicts between opposing states of mind".
What hooked the audience about Amadeus, however, especially in Milos Forman's film version (which won eight Oscars including an award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Shaffer), was Shaffer's love for the composer's music, which he brilliantly communicated through the voice and ears of Salieri. Before the play a Mozart wind serenade might have sold 10,000 copies; after Amadeus sales of over a million became common.
Interviewers often wondered whether the odd twinships in Shaffer's plays (Mozart versus Salieri, the psychiatrist and the boy in Equus) reflected a rivalry between Shaffer and his own identical twin brother, the scriptwriter and playwright Anthony Shaffer, best known for the perennially popular thriller Sleuth.
Though Peter Shaffer always insisted that the dualities to be found in his plays were more "enactments of my own internal tension", there is no doubt that sibling rivalry was a factor.
Peter Levin Shaffer was born in Liverpool on May 16 1926, into a prosperous family of Orthodox Jews, five minutes after his twin brother. His father was in the property business and the boys became drawn to theatre during family trips to the Liverpool Playhouse.
The family eventually moved south where, after education at St Paul's School, the brothers were both conscripted as Bevin Boys to work in the Kent coal mines. Peter recalled passing the long hours down the pit mentally rehearsing the tragic Shakespearian roles. On his rare days off, he would go to see Old Vic "golden seasons" productions at the New Theatre. After two-and-a-half years as a miner, he fell ill with a bleeding ulcer, and it was while he was convalescing that he picked up WH Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru and found the subject that would inspire The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
After the war ended the brothers went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, Peter to read History and Anthony to read Law. They co-edited Granta magazine and, after graduating, co-wrote books about a fictional detective called Mr Verity, sharing the nom de plume "Peter Anthony". Subsequently, while Anthony began a career as a barrister, then an advertising copywriter, Peter moved to New York, working in a bookshop, at a railway station, in a department store and at the New York Public Library.
Returning to London in 1954 he joined the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes, but left after a year to "try to write". Eventually he returned to New York, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life, though he retained his British citizenship and always premiered his plays in London.
Despite Peter's claim that he had never been jealous of his brother, a series of letters written in the late 1960s (when Anthony had ditched his advertising career to work on Sleuth), laid bare Peter's frustration. The letters, discovered at Anthony's London home after his death in 2001, include such passages as: "I do feel threatened. As if my little Kingdom has been invaded, and I am no longer to be The Playwright, but again part of that faintly cute and annihilating 'Which one of them did it?'" In another letter, he implored: "Before it's too late? I beg you to take another name for writing." Anthony declined, and instead maintained the family name for Sleuth, before going on to write screenplays for the Alfred Hitchcock film Frenzy, and The Wicker Man.
Yet Peter was hardly short of success. Through West End hits such as Five Finger Exercise and The Private Ear and the Public Eye, by the early 1960s he had become the favoured dramatist of the theatre impresario Binkie Beaumont.
Even so he had to look further afield to find someone prepared to take on The Royal Hunt of the Sun: "I was staying at Binkie's country cottage for a weekend," he recalled, "having heard nothing from him about the play. I went to get myself a drink and was just about to go into the main room when I overheard Binkie and his partner, John Perry, discussing it. I heard John say to Binkie: 'And then the Spanish soldiers go up the Andes.' And Binkie said: 'They do what?' John replied: 'They climb the Andes, dear.' 'And what do they do then?' asked Binkie. 'They climb down the other side,' said John. To which Binkie simply said: 'Fancy!' At that moment I thought perhaps I hadn't sent the play to the right management."
But the play excited the imagination of John Dexter, who ultimately directed it for the National at Chichester.
Shaffer never allowed himself to be type-cast as a magic realist or anything else. Lettice and Lovage (1987) was a success on the West End and Broadway mainly due to the brilliant performance of Dame Maggie Smith (for whom the play was written), as Lettice Douffet, the most eccentric tour guide ever to lead bored American and Japanese visitors through a dull English stately home. Nor did Shaffer always get it right. Yonadab flopped at the National in 1985 and White Lies and The Battle of Shrivings were also commercial failures. The Gift of the Gorgon (1992), though nominated for an Olivier award, was dismissed by The Daily Telegraph's critic Charles Spencer as "a load of tosh".
Despite revivals of his plays, Shaffer did not really produce anything fresh after 1996. He claimed to have several plays in "manila folders, half written", but confessed: "I feel slightly like that donkey in Aesop's Fables that can't decide which pile of hay to eat, so eats neither and starves to death."
Anthony Shaffer's death from a heart attack in 2001 affected Peter deeply.
Despite an element of sibling rivalry, the brothers spoke together on the phone most days and it is known that Peter was shown first drafts of many of his brother's thriller scripts.
Peter Shaffer, who was unmarried, was appointed CBE in 1987 and knighted in 2001.