Peter Levin Shaffer (born 1926) became one of England's most popular and respected playwrights; his work was equally successful in the United States, where he chose to live.
Born May 15, 1926, Peter Shaffer worked as a conscript in the coal mines in England from 1944 to 1947; that is, during the last year of World War II and the immediate postwar period. He graduated from Trinity College of Cambridge University in 1950.
The following year he joined with his fraternal twin, Anthony, to publish the first of three mystery novels, Woman in the Wardrobe, under the joint pseudonym of Peter Anthony. He and Anthony, later best known as the author of the play Sleuth, repeated their success with How Doth the Little Crocodile in 1952 and Withered Murder in 1955.
In 1951 his first radio play, The Prodigal Father, was presented on the BBC and his initial venture into television drama, The Salt Land, appeared on ITV. It was followed in 1957 by Balance of Terroron BBC-TV. (Many years later, in 1989, he returned to radio with the dramatic monologue Whom Do I Have the Honour of Addressing? on BBC.) During these years Shaffer worked at the New York Public Library (1951-1954) and for the music publisher Bosey and Hawkes (1954-1955) and served as a literary critic for Truth (1956-1957).
In 1958 Shaffer had his first great theatrical success with Five Finger Exercise, which opened in London, enjoyed a two-year run, and won the Evening Standard Drama Award. It was produced in New York the following year and received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1960. A conventional realistic drama about what has come to be called a dysfunctional family, it surely contains autobiographical elements in the character of the 19-year-old Clive, torn between his unimaginative businessman father and his doting, overindulgent mother. Critic Charles Lyons believed it "manifests the playwright's skill in providing arresting theatrical images…." Ironically, it is in part Shaffer's later plays that make this early work seem dated.
There followed a number of short plays of varying success: the double bill of The Private Ear and The Public Eye opened in London in 1962 and in New York a year later; The Merry Roosters Panto (1963); Black Comedy, written to accompany Miss Juliewith Maggie Smith and Albert Finney, premiered at Chichester in 1965. It was produced in New York in 1966, accompanied by a companion piece written especially for the American production, titled White Lies. While Black Comedy was received with wild enthusiasm, White Lies was not, prompting Shaffer to rework it twice; the subsequent effort was titled The White Liars and White Liars. The revisions, however, were no better received than the original; when the double bill was revived by off-Broadway's Roundabout Theater in 1993, the consensus of critics and viewers was that White Liars had to be endured in order to get to Black Comedy.
Shaffer had begun writing screenplays in 1963, collaborating with Peter Brook on Lord of the Flies, and added The Pad (and How to Use It), based on The Private Ear, in 1966; Follow Me! in 1971; and The Public Eye in 1972.
His next great stage success occurred with The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which opened at Chichester in 1964, was moved to London later that year, and appeared in New York in 1965. Obviously indebted to French theorist Antonin Artaud (who had himself toyed with the idea of a play titled The Conquest of Mexico), the tragedy is as much a spectacle as a drama. Shaffer was delighted with the work, writing, "I do not think that I ever enjoyed doing anything so much …," and generally the critics were equally pleased. One of the commentators who had a mixed reaction was Robert Brustein: "While lauding the spectacular theatricality," he felt that the story of Pizarro's conquest of Peru and the death of Incan Emperor Atahuallpa displayed a very conventional set of liberal notions about the noble savage, the ignoble Catholic."
In 1970 Shaffer's most American play, The Battle of Shrivings, opened in London. The designation was his and he explained that he associated it most strongly with sojourns in New York City in 1968 and 1969" when he became obsessed by the fever of that time." But the story of a community of pacifists, protesters, and vegetarians led by Sir Gideon Petrie, a combination of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Daniel Berrigan, and Abbie Hoffman, had no success with either the critics or the public, and plans to take it to New York were dropped. Shaffer rewrote it and retitled it Shrivings, but it was kept alive in the printed version only.
Shaffer had a resounding hit with Equus in 1974, which ran for over 1,000 performances in London. But if the British liked it, the Americans were ecstatic over the story of a young man who is put into the hands of a psychiatrist after blinding six horses. In his splendid introduction to his collected plays (1982), the playwright tells of the true story that prompted the work and shows how he adapted it to achieve greater universality. In Manhattan in 1975 it won the Antoinette Perry Award (the Tony), the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award, but the critical reception was enormously varied. Brendan Gill in the New Yorker called it "a melodrama continuously thrilling on its own terms" and John Russell Taylor labeled it "at once a spectacular drama and a thinkpiece"; John Simon in New York magazine, on the other hand, opined that "it falls into that category of wornout whimsy wherein we are told that insanity is more desirable, admirable, or just saner than sanity." It was made into a film for which Shaffer wrote the script in 1977.
Even more successful was the 1979 drama Amadeus, about the relationship between the genius Mozart and the near-great Salieri, who, according to one not widely credited tradition, had murdered his young rival, driven by jealousy. Like Equus this work ran for over 1,000 performances in London; it won the Evening Standard Drama Award for 1979 and the Antoinette Perry Award in New York. Made into a film, with Shaffer doing the screenplay, it won an Oscar award for best film in 1984. Generally, it was well received: Frank Rich in The New York Times hailed the triumphant production," while Steve Grant in the Observer called it marvelously engrossing and moving … a feast for the eye and ear." Among the few dissenters was Jascha Kessler of KUSC-TV, who dismissed it as an example of cultural pretentiousness at its intellectual best today."
In 1985 came Yonadab, based on a story of incest in the Old Testament book of Samuel but prompted by Dan Jacobson's novel The Rape of Tomar, which had attracted Shaffer since its publication. It remained in the repertory of the National Theater in London, where it won great praise from Irving Wordle in the Times, who acclaimed it as a spectacle of the utmost virtuosity," and Jack Kroll of News-week, who thought it Shaffer's most daring, most personal, most honest play." Despite these reviews, it was never taken to New York.
Lettice and Lovage, written as a gift for Maggie Smith, opened in 1987 and ran for three years in London, with a shorter run in New York. A frankly commercial comedy, it was labeled "original" by both the Times and the Daily Telegraph in London; while on this side of the Atlantic Henry Popkin in Theater Week judged it "surely the most effective laugh-machine that Broadway has seen in many years."
In The Gift of the Gorgon (1992), Shaffer considers the quest for identity, creativity, and the boundary between justice and revenge in a flashy vehicle drawn from Greek mythology. As usual, critics were divided and audience response was far more uniformly enthusiastic. Aleks Sierz wrote of the production that "as theater it is flamboyant, exciting, brilliant: on cooler reflection, the ideas seem facile, the conflicts simplified, the gore too gruesome."
Taken as a whole, Shaffer's work, as he recognized, was concerned with the dichotomy laid down by Friedrich Nietzsche between the Apollonian (the intellectual, the rational) and the Dionysiac (the emotional, the irrational), with the playwright often coming down on the side of the latter. His oeuvre is important in the history of 20th-century British theater. Benedict Nightingale probably best summed it up in The New York Times: "His plays traverse the centuries and the globe, raising questions that have perplexed minds from Job to Samuel Beckett."
Shaffer received the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater in 1992. He was appointed Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 1994.
Further Reading on Peter Levin Shaffer
Shaffer's introduction to the 1982 volume The Collected Plays of Peter Shaffer is most helpful to an understanding of his work. Published during the height of Shaffer's popularity, critical volumes worth attention are Peter Shaffer by C. J. Gianakaris; Peter Shaffer: A Casebook, edited by Gianakaris; Peter Shaffer by Dennis A. Klein; and Peter Shaffer: Roles, Rites, and Rituals in the Theater by Gene A. Plunka.