Five Finger Exercise, pr., pb. 1958
The Private Ear, pr., pb. 1962 (one act)
The Public Eye, pr., pb. 1962 (one act)
The Merry Roosters Panto, pr. 1963 (music by Stanley Myers, lyrics by Lionel Bart)
The Royal Hunt of the Sun, pr., pb. 1964
Black Comedy, pr. 1965 (one act)
The White Liars, pb. 1967, 1968 (one act; originally as White Lies, pr., pb. 1967)
Shrivings, pb. 1973 (with Equus; originally as The Battle of Shrivings, pr. 1970)
Equus, pr., pb. 1973
Amadeus, pr. 1979
The Collected Plays of Peter Shaffer, pb. 1982
Yonadab: The Watcher, pr. 1985
Lettice and Lovage, pr., pb. 1987
The Gift of the Gorgon, pr. 1992
The Woman in the Wardrobe, 1951 (as Peter Antony; with Anthony Shaffer)
How Doth the Little Crocodile?, 1952 (as Peter Antony; with Anthony Shaffer)
Withered Murder, 1955 (with Anthony Shaffer)
The Public Eye, 1972 (adaptation of his play)
Equus, 1977 (adaptation of his play)
Amadeus, 1984 (adaptation of his play)
The Salt Land, 1955
Balance of Terror, 1957
The Prodigal Father, 1955
Whom Do I Have the Honour of Addressing?, 1989
Peter Levin Shaffer (SHAF-ur) is one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century. He is the son of Jack Shaffer, a realtor, and his wife, Reka Fredman Shaffer. He was educated at St. Paul’s School, London. In wartime he was conscripted for service in the coal mines, where he served from 1944 to 1947. He then completed his education, receiving a B.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950. Shaffer then began to write mystery novels, beginning with The Woman in the Wardrobe under the pseudonym Peter Antony. The next year he collaborated with his twin brother Anthony to write How Doth the Little Crocodile? After living in New York, where he worked in the New York Public Library from 1951 to 1954, Shaffer returned to England and got a job with a firm of music publishers in London, where he worked for a year. In 1955 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced his radio play, The Prodigal Father; that same year, an independent television company produced his first television play, The Salt Land. In 1955 the Shaffer brothers published one more mystery, Withered Murder.
It was clear to Shaffer, however, that his genre was dramatic writing, whether for stage or screen. After writing another teleplay, Balance of Terror, produced in 1957 by the BBC, Shaffer wrote his first stage play, Five Finger Exercise, which opened at the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End on July 16, 1958, where it ran for a year before moving to New York in December, 1959. Although the play was conventional in form, in it Shaffer’s fascination with psychology was already evident: The story traces the effects that a German tutor has on various members of a household. From 1961 to 1962 Shaffer served as a music critic for Time and Tide, while continuing to explore various possibilities in drama. In 1962 Shaffer moved toward comedy of the absurd with two one-act plays performed together, The Private Ear and The Public Eye. The following year, Shaffer collaborated with Peter Brook on a screenplay for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). It was not used for Brook’s film, but Shaffer gained valuable experience for later adaptations of his own plays.
Shaffer’s first major success was the historical play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a highly stylized play with elements of the Japanese Kabuki theater. Although critics differed about the effectiveness of Shaffer’s dialogue and his realization of character, no one questioned the high quality of the play as spectacular theater. With Equus in 1973 Shaffer proved his quality as a thinker, as well as his ability in theatrical invention. The play is the story of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who is attempting to treat a boy named Alan Strang by discovering why he blinded several horses in a north England stable. As the play proceeds, Dysart concludes that curing the boy means depriving him of his contact with divinity, which Alan had found in the horses. At the end of the play, the tragedy is not only Alan’s, but Dysart’s as well, and probably that of the whole modern world, which cannot reconcile sanity and faith. Equus brought Shaffer the Tony Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. When the play was made into a film in 1977, Shaffer wrote the screenplay.
Two years later came the play which many consider Shaffer’s masterpiece. Amadeus is the story of the composer Antonio Salieri’s obsessive jealousy of the young musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Shaffer based his play on a rumor that Salieri had poisoned Mozart. Using that story, he writes of a second-rate artist whose anger is directed at the God who denied him genius, to bestow it upon a foolish boy; in order to revenge himself upon God, he turns his fury on Mozart, vowing to destroy him. Amadeus was acclaimed by the critics and embraced by the public. It won for Shaffer the Tony Award and the Best Play of the Year award from Plays and Players. When it was made into a film in 1984, with Shaffer writing the screenplay, it received the New York Film Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, and the 1985 Academy Award for Best Picture. Shaffer also received the Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation. Although none of Shaffer’s later plays has shared the critical or popular success of Amadeus, the intellectual comedy Lettice and Lovage attracted a following in both London and New York. Shaffer continues to hold his place as one of the most interesting playwrights and filmwriters of the twentieth century. In 1987 the British government recognized his achievements by naming him a Commander of the British Empire.
Although some of Shaffer’s best plays have been set in the past, for example, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, placed in the sixteenth century, and Amadeus, in the eighteenth, his themes arise from what he sees as the tragic elements in modern life. In The Royal Hunt of the Sun, for example, the central character, Martin Ruiz, is portrayed by two actors, who split the role between them, one playing the young Martin, who sees the conqueror of Peru, Francisco Pizarro, as a hero, and the other assuming the role of the older Martin, who realizes that when Pizarro brought Christianity and civilization to Peru, he brought the infidelity and the uncertainty of modern life. In Equus the loss of faith is again a central theme. The rational psychiatrist Dysart, appalled by Alan’s seemingly senseless cruelty to the horses, comes to realize that even though Alan’s religion is allied to madness, the boy has experienced a contact with divinity that Dysart himself has never known. For all his rationality, Dysart feels a terrible sense of emptiness.
The mystery of genius is one of the themes of Amadeus, yet it is related to the believer’s eternal quest for some understanding of God’s actions. Shaffer explores the character of Salieri, a Job without God’s favor, who dies as miserably as he lived. If Salieri had not had faith, he could have endured the blind judgments of fate, which denied him genius; because he does believe in God, he is tortured by the evidence of God’s injustice. Ironically, the only gift God gives Salieri is the power to perceive the genius of his rival. In the play Yonadab Shaffer went to the Old Testament for the story of Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar, which eventually led to Absalom’s murder of Amnon and his rebellion against his father David. In Shaffer’s version of the story he has the rape orchestrated by a court hanger-on, the title character of the play, who honestly believes a legend that incest in the royal family is good, rather than evil. Here once again Shaffer poses a question that is essentially religious: How does one decide among competing systems, whether of faith or of ethics based on faith? Shaffer’s success is based on the fact that, as he himself has said, he does not repeat himself, in setting, in theatrical technique, or in theme. Certainly his audiences are spellbound by his plays. The literal-minded are delighted by the pure spectacle; the thoughtful find that Shaffer’s plays, in the tradition of the best drama from Aeschylus on, pose more questions than they answer.