The Theatre Of Ideas Loses A Master

Christopher Fowler
royal_huntIn a West End saturated with tacky musicals aimed at children (at least, ones with very rich parents; tickets for 'Harry Potter and the Doorstop Of Clichés' are changing hands for thousands on eBay) we need someone like Peter Shaffer, a vigorously intellectual playwright who was fascinated by gods and mortals, in particular the gap between those whom the muses touch and those who never manage to leave the ground. I've always wondered whether being a twin (his brother is Anthony 'Sleuth' Shaffer) who was also a playwright affected his choice of subject. Shaffer's
key plays, 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun' (above), 'Equus' and 'Amadeus' all deal with this conflict, most notably in 'Amadeus', the film of which won eight Academy Awards. The three are wildly different, concerning the Spanish expedition of conquest across the Andes in 1533; a psychiatrist's battle for the soul of a boy accused of blinding the horses he loves; and the 18th-century court battles of Mozart and Salieri. Some accused 'Amadeus' of twisting the facts to make its case for the foul-mouthed man-child blessed by the gods, pointing out that Salieri was hardly the failed earthbound composer Shaffer portrayed. Salieri was immensely successful, but simply doesn't have what Mozart possesses; the ear of the divine, and Shaffer's approach was valid to making a particular point. A late entry, 'Lettice and Lovage', was written for Maggie Smith (playing an English Heritage terrorist) and is hilarious, if rather dated in its views of British architecture. Shaffer rewrote the ending for American audiences, and probably improved the piece by doing so. Like so many great playwrights, Shaffer unconsciously created controversy. He said; 'My plays all get a very strong reaction from the audience. That's why one wants to write plays. I don't set out to stir up controversy – you write plays because you can't help it. . . but it's true that my plays are often about revenge. It's a very urgent theme in today's life.' He will be sorely missed.


Roger (not verified) Thu, 09/06/2016 - 19:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I loved the stage direction in 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun': "They cross the Andes.". Worthy of Savaranola Brown, at first, but Shaffer and the RSC carried it off!

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 10/06/2016 - 17:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The list of plays is certainly a life work to satisfy anyone, but there's always the question of "What did he not get to say?"