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Peter Shaffer’s fatal flaw

Peter Shaffer’s fatal flaw

He wrote some of the most successful plays of the last 50 years, including “Amadeus” and “Equus”. But Peter Shaffer had one major weakness: he wasn’t very good with words

He wrote some of the most successful plays of the last 50 years, including “Amadeus” and “Equus”. But Peter Shaffer had one major weakness: he wasn’t very good with words

Irving Wardle | June 15th 2016

The plays of Peter Shaffer, who died this month at the age of 90, will be remembered for some of the most audacious and visually imperishable events of the postwar British theatre. It is hard to think of any stage images to rank, say, with the modulation of the Inca masks from hope to tragic mourning at the end of “The Royal Hunt of the Sun”, or the transformation of actors into equine divinities in “Equus”. Playwriting, however, is a matter of words; and what you remember from these and other wonderful examples of Shaffer’s work is not the words but the pictures.

In the mid-fifties, when the art of playwriting was being widely re-invented, he made a thoroughly conventional start with a West End family comedy, “Five Finger Exercise” (1958). Immediately evident were its structural expertise, its deep affinity to music, and the weakness of its expressive language. All his subsequent work was conditioned by this frustrating trio of qualities. Shaffer knew his intended destination, but it was equally clear that he was not going to get there unaided. It was his great stroke of luck to find creative partners who helped him to work out the route.

Principal among these was the director John Dexter, from whom Shaffer discovered “the grammar of a bolder kind of theatre”, which made its first appearance with “The Royal Hunt” (1964). With its central relationship between the Inca god-king Atahualpa and his Spanish conqueror, and the notorious stage direction, “they cross the Andes”, it appeared unplayable. Then the production team got to work. The actor Robert Stephens, as Atahualpa, delivered his lines in an unearthly birdsong. The designer Michael Annals found the key to presenting Peru’s golden city on the naked Chichester stage with the help of a table napkin – first enlarged, and then folded, unfolded and torn so as to represent everything from the sun to the peaks of the Andes. With these and other inspired tricks, Dexter’s production became legendary.

As a theatrical midwife, Dexter could go to ruthless extremes, as in the case of Shaffer’s farce “Black Comedy” (1965), which depends on a reversal of lighting values, so that what the audience perceive as a lighted stage is pitch-black to the characters. The play’s opening date had been announced before Shaffer had written a line of it and he had writer’s block. Dexter invited him to stay at his Chichester cottage and departed for the weekend taking the mains fuses with him, leaving Shaffer to blunder around in darkness while coping with the director’s starving dog. After this instructive ordeal, he completed the play with ease.

No less crucial was Dexter’s contribution to Shaffer’s “Equus” (1973), a piece based on the case of a stable boy who unaccountably blinded six horses with an iron spike. To explore the origins of this atrocity, Shaffer designed his play as a series of sessions between the boy and an analyst. Dexter, who could sometimes see the essential play more clearly than the playwright, approved this approach and then informed the author that he needed to dig deeper into himself to find the analyst. Shaffer duly began digging, and uncovered the character of Dr Dysart so completely that he, and not the patient, became the play’s dominant figure. It was Dexter’s advice (together with John Napier’s magical design for the all-seeing horses) that carried the play to worldwide fame.

“Equus” laid bare the recurring structure of Shaffer’s work, almost all of which is built on the play of opposites – in this case, a spiritually ecstatic child against a sedentary rationalist. But Shaffer had a traditionalist’s limitations. We get to know the conquering Pizarro in “The Royal Hunt” and the rationalising Dr Dysart in “Equus” in a way we do not know Atahualpa or the stable boy.

Things went wrong for Shaffer when his uninspired language was coupled with incongruously conventional plotting. In “The Battle of Shrivings” (1970), the biggest flop of his career, a philosopher invites an old pupil, now a poet, to stay as a guest of the family. The philosopher is an idealist, the poet has lost his belief in mankind. They make a bargain: the poet will renounce his nihilistic views if the philosopher refrains until after the weekend from throwing him out of the house. The host complies, at the price of losing his own beliefs. It is not so much the philosophic platitudes and prosaic dialogue that disqualify the play’s ambitions but the idea that any contemporary debate on good and evil can be conducted within the framework of a West End comedy of manners.

After a fight wrecked their friendship, Dexter and Shaffer parted company and the last of Shaffer’s mega-hits, “Amadeus” (1979), was directed by Peter Hall (whom Dexter thereafter dubbed “Lord Vestibule”). The production was a collaboration between two music-lovers, and this time Shaffer knew exactly what he wanted and how to get there. In reworking the old rumour that the established court composer Salieri poisoned the upstart Mozart, Shaffer had all the material he needed from the composer’s sublime music to his malodorous letters to dramatise Mozart. As with Dr Dysart, the best imaginative work went into creating Salieri, spying on the shit-obsessed boy-genius whose immortal dimension he can never hope to enter. Shaffer never wrote anything more expressive than Salieri’s lacerating confessions of envy and creative mediocrity.

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