Peter Shaffer (1926 – ) wrote one of the best farces in Theatre History, Black Comedy (1965), but he is best known for his popular philosophical dramas The Royal Hunt Of The Sun (1964), Equus (1973) and, most especially, Amadeus (1979), about the destructive jealousy of the 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri over Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This play had sold out houses in London and on Broadway, and it was adapted into one of the most successful films of the 1980s, winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, and Best Director for Miloš Forman.
Many theatre fans found Shaffer to be a playwright of extravagant theatricality and others as a showman disguised as an intellectual. Peter Hall, who directed Amadeus on stage, called it “one of the most remarkable plays I have ever read”. The equally respected director Michael Blakemore, the only person to win Tony Awards for Best Director of a Play and Musical in the same year (2000) for Copenhagen and Kiss Me, Kate, described it as “the longest record sleeve” in history.
Shaffer was born in Liverpool. He had an identical twin brother Anthony, who was also a playwright, and who gave us the thriller Sleuth (1970). Shaffer wrote that all creative acts are autobiography and Shaffer’s “twinness”, and that the duality in his plays, which frequently featured two contrasting but equal main characters, was reflection of that notion.
The struggles between Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus, Atahualpa the Inca god and Pizarro the conquering Spanish atheist in The Royal Hunt Of The Sun and the psychoanalyst Martin Dysart and his patient, who has committed acts of extraordinary violence in Equus, were the root of the dynamic in Shaffer’s plays.
The Shaffer twins enjoyed middle-class Jewish upbringing. He did well in at school, and he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where, with his brother, he edited the college magazine, Granta.
After graduating in 1950 with a degree in History, he moved to New York City, a city he loved, and which became his home after he achieved success in the theatre. At first, he worked a series of jobs including working as a clerk at the Doubleday bookshop and the 42nd Street library, while working on thrillers, including two novels co-authored with his twin brother. In 1954, he returned to Britain for a job with the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes. A year later his first play, The Salt Land, about the formation of Israel, was broadcast on television.
Shaffer had a short stint as music critic for Time magazine. He was finally noticed for his play Five Finger Exercise (1958), that, like Amadeus, reflected his passion for music. Directed by John Gielgud, the play is about an upper middle-class English family whose comfortable existence is disrupted by the arrival of a young German tutor. The Clever and well-constructed Five Finger Exercise was much more in the style of gay playwright Arthur Wing Pinero than the new drama of Harold Pinter, whose play The Birthday Party premiered in the same year.
Shaffer was not avant-garde, but he was always a brilliant craftsman who knew when to borrow from other playwrights, most notably in the Brechtian The Royal Hunt Of The Sun about the conquest of Peru by the Spanish.
The script includes the seemingly impossible stage direction “They cross the Andes,” and when Shaffer offered to change it, the director, John Dexter, replied: “If you are thinking of removing that, I am not doing the play.” Shaffer later wrote that it was Dexter, who also directed Equus, who “helped me to discover the grammar of a bolder kind of theatre”.
The success of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun influenced Laurence Olivier to commission a new play from Shaffer. Black Comedy was a return to the comic form that Shaffer used with some success in his The Private Ear And The Public Eye (1962).
Black Comedy focuses on a London sculptor attempting to entertain his fiance’s father and other guests during a power blackout while also attempting to conceal that his furniture has all been borrowed from his antique-dealing neighbor. It is is a classic farce that still works well today. In many ways this small, rather perfect comedy has a deeper meaning: in darkness deeper truths are revealed. A theme that keeps reappearing in Shaffer’s work.
It was a strange story he heard as a teenager, about a boy sent to an institution after blinding horses that inspired his play Equus (1973). It was huge worldwide hit. It fit the pattern of Shaffer’s plays, where the tension was between two emotional opposites, in this case the dry psychiatrist whose idea of passion is a vacation in Greece and the damaged boy who worships horses. Shaffer once wrote: “Passion, even unholy passion, has something enviable about it.”
The London and Broadway productions were hits. Shaffer dryly wrote:
“If it was a success in Britain, it was because it was about horses, and if it was a success in America, it was because it was about psychiatrists.”
Amadeus was Shaffer’s last hit play, although he continued to have plays produced. His comedy Lettice And Lovage (1987) enjoyed some success on the West End and on Broadway, mostly because of the performance by Maggie Smith, for whom the role of Lettice was written.
For Shaffer’s 80th birthday celebration, the National Theatre staged a revival of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun in 2006 directed by Trevor Nunn. Plus, there was a 2009 revival of Equus on the West End and Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe that brought a new audiences to Shaffer’s work; and a production of Amadeus with Rupert Everett as Salieri played to good reviews and big box-office in 2014.
Shaffer was devoted to theatre and unlike many playwrights of his generation, he didn’t do much screenwriting, except for his script for Peter Brook’s film of Lord Of The Flies (1963).
His own plays were perhaps too theatrical to transfer well to film, although that did not stop producers and directors trying. Shaffer wrote the screenplay for Amadeus and won an Oscar to go with his mantel full of Tony Awards and other theatre awards he won during his long career.
Shaffer was gay but did not write explicitly about queerness. His partner was New York-based voice teacher Robert Leonard, who died in 1990 at 49 years old. Leonard was the vocal coach for Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, and Linda Ronstadt. His obituary in the New York Times names Shaffer as his “companion” and omits the word “AIDS”. Shaffer died in 2016 while on a trip to Ireland, three weeks after his 90th birthday. Leonard and Shaffer are buried together in the Highgate Cemetery in North London.