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Obituary: Peter Shaffer

Peter Shaffer, right, pictured with Simon Callow. Photo: David Jensen

In an article marking Peter Shaffer’s knighthood in 2007, the actor Simon Callow (who had created the role of Mozart in his most popular play, Amadeus, at the National Theatre) described him as “the playwright who forced the mainstream audience to think about the big ideas of their times”.

He did so in a remarkably varied body of work that tackled subjects as diverse as the Spanish conquest of South America, the image of contemporary psychoanalysis and the ineffable nature of creative genius. Shaffer himself maintained that “the theatre should lead people into mystery and magic”, as he told The Stage shortly after his first stage play, Five Finger Exercise, opened at the Comedy Theatre in 1958. “It should give them a sense of wonderment and, while entertaining, reveal a vision of life,” he pointedly added.

It was a credo that served him well in a career that produced 18 plays in almost four decades. In his defining relationship with the National Theatre, Shaffer provided the company with three of its biggest hits: its first original commission in 1964, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, one of its most controversial offerings, Equus (1973), and one of its greatest commercial successes, Amadeus (1979).

All three – and much else that he wrote – were the product of a writer for whom the intimate immediacy of the theatre was the spur to plays that courted the epic while being rooted squarely in the individual traumas and triumphs, foibles and fortitude of characters who found their world – and themselves – challenged and transformed by circumstances beyond their control and, often, beyond their understanding.

Directed by John Gielgud, Shaffer’s theatrical debut, Five Finger Exercise (a tale of middle-class equilibrium disturbed, literally, by foreign intervention) fashioned the mould early on. It also earned Shaffer an Evening Standard Drama award and led to his first Broadway transfer. With a double bill of one-act plays, The Private Ear and The Public Eye (starring Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams respectively) he returned to the West End at the Globe Theatre in 1962 and to Broadway the following year.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun cemented Shaffer’s reputation and broadened it into the realm of visual spectacle and irrefutable metaphor in which, he told The Stage, he was striving for the “high theatricality of a Bach Passion”. Conceived with more than a hint of Brecht’s ‘total theatre’ in mind, it employed a rich gamut of theatrical devices and, in Michael Annals’ striking designs, John Dexter’s appropriately monumental direction and the vivid performances of Colin Blakely’s Pizarro and Robert Stephens’ Atahualpa, it gave a substantial boost to the nascent National Theatre’s contemporary credentials.

Never a writer to follow a tried and tested formula, Shaffer’s next play was Black Comedy, a one-act farce (commissioned by Kenneth Tynan to accompany Strindberg’s Miss Julie) in which an electrical fault casts a motley assortment of characters into total darkness played out for all (but them) to see. It was the simplest of ideas, but one executed with a winning blend of flair and finesse at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1965 before transferring to London’s Old Vic and, in 1967, to Broadway.

Equus, seen here in a 1978 production in Worthing, created a sensation when it opened at the National in 1973
Equus, seen here in a 1978 production in Worthing, created a sensation when it opened at the National in 1973

The failure of Shrivings – despite the presence of Gielgud and Wendy Hiller and direction by Peter Hall – at the Lyric Theatre in 1970 offered little clue of the provocation and shock that lay ahead. When Equus opened at the National in 1973, it caused a sensation in its concatenation of adolescent sexuality, religion and psychiatry and, not least, its depiction (based on real events) of the blinding of six horses by a 17-year-old boy. Its Broadway transfer ran for more than 1,200 performances and won Shaffer and director John Dexter Tony awards in 1975. More recently, it was revived with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as the troubled teen at the Gielgud Theatre in 2007.

Peter Hall’s awards-laden production of Amadeus achieved similar success on the Great White Way in 1981 following its premiere at the National (and subsequently Her Majesty’s Theatre) two years earlier, with Simon Callow as the child-like Mozart and Paul Scofield as his jealous nemesis, Salieri. A 1984 film version directed by Milos Forman won eight Oscars including best picture and best adapted screenplay for Shaffer. On stage it was most recently seen as the inaugural production in the newly reopened Chichester Festival Theatre in 2014 and is scheduled to return to the National Theatre in October this year.

Shaffer reunited with Maggie Smith in 1987 for Lettice and Lovage – a deliciously comic sparring match between Smith and Margaret Tyzack. It, too, enjoyed the success in the West End and on Broadway that was to elude his theatrical swansong, The Gift of the Gorgon, with Peter Hall directing Michael Pennington and Judi Dench, at the Pit in 1992.

Peter Levin Shaffer was born in Liverpool on May 15, 1926. He studied history at Cambridge and spent his national service as a ‘Bevan boy’ in the coalmines. After working briefly in New York and in music publishing in London, he turned to writing in 1954, initially collaborating with his twin, Anthony (who would later enjoy success with the thriller Sleuth) on a series of mystery novels. He was appointed a CBE in 1987 and knighted in 2001. He died on June 6, aged 90.

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