Peter Shaffer, one of the most commercially successful English playwrights of the latter 20th century, and the author of the frequently revived Amadeus and Equus, died June 6. He was 90.
Mr. Shaffer’s wrote both comedies and dramas, but it was for his efforts in a more serious vein that he won his greatest notoriety. His plays were often set in a historical milieu , upon which he imposed a modern, philosophical sensibility. In The Royal Hunt of the Sun, he examined the Spanish conquest of Peru through a imagined and growing closeness between the conquering explorer Pizarro and the Inca King Atahualpa.
Amadeus parted from conventional historical wisdom by presenting Mozart as an emotionally immature savant, while the story was framed by the perspective of Salieri, a forgotten rival composer of lesser talent.
Mr. Shaffer enjoyed a high percentage of success over his five-decade career, in which his output was relatively meager, numbering a dozen and a half plays. Equus and Amadeus had two of the longest runs for straight plays in Broadway history, and Royal Hunt, Lettice and Lovage, Five Finger Exercise and Black Comedy/White Lies all had healthy runs. Both Equus and Amadeus both won Tony Awards for Best Play.
Many of his plays were made into films, most famously Amadeus, which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1985. Shaffer wrote the screenplay for the film, which made stars out of Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, and won an Oscar for his script. His screenplay for Equus (1977) was also nominated for a Oscar.
Peter Levin Shaffer was born May 15, 1926, into a Jewish family in Liverpool, the son of Reka (née Fredman) and Jack Shaffer, an estate agent. His twin brother is the playwright Anthony Shaffer, best known as the author of the thriller Sleuth.
He won a a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study history. Unable to find work in England, he moved to New York in 1951 and worked for a time at the New York Public Library. He wrote his first play, The Salt Land, in 1954. It was produced by the BBC. His next work, Five Finger Exercise, established his reputation at a writer of promise. The play, about a fractious family whose lives are changed by the arrival of a music teacher, was directed by John Gielgud and won the Evening Standard Drama Award. It was subsequently produced on Broadway, again directed by Gielgud. It ran for nearly a year.
A double bill, titled The Private Ear/The Public Eye, followed in 1962, with a young Maggie Smith in the cast. Smith would go on to be a regular presence in Shaffer plays. Public/Private also transferred to Broadway.
His next work, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, was the result of six years’ work. It premiered at the newly formed Royal National Theatre, the theater that would be the home to the premieres of nearly all the writer's subsequent work.
His habit of alternating between drama and comedy showed itself once more in 1965 when he followed up Sun with Black Comedy, a one-act farce—commissioned by Kenneth Tynan, then the dramaturg at the National—in which all the characters are feeling around in the pitch dark, even though, from the audience’s perspective, the room is flooded with light. The London cast featured Smith, Albert Finney and Derek Jacobi. It was a tremendous critical and popular hit.
Equus bested any success Mr. Shaffer had had until then. The 1973 drama focused on a psychiatrist’s treatment of a troubled English youth who had inexplicably blinded six horses--beasts he seems to regard as quasi-religious figures. Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth starred in the leading roles on Broadway, where the show ran for three years.
He topped himself again with Amadeus, which captured the imagination of the public, and revived interest in the composer’s life. The play, as was always the case through Shaffer’s career, attracted the best of talent. Tim Curry and Ian McKellen played Mozart and Salieri on Broadway.
Mr. Shaffer switched gears yet again with his next work, Lettice and Lovage. In the whimsical comedy, Maggie Smith played a willfully eccentric tourist guide who invents much of the history of the landmarks through which she leads visitors, and who eventually wins over a questioning representative from the Preservation Trust.
Though he enjoyed great triumphs in New York, and liked the city, Mr. Shaffer did not savor it as a theater town. “I’ll never originate a play on Broadway,” he said. “When I was coming here for open Royal Hunt, people said to me, ‘New York is theatrically a tough city.’ My answer is, it’s not tough, dear, it’s dead. New York is a theatrical sepulchre.”
Peter Shaffer’s productivity slowed after Lettice and Lovage. He produced only two more works.
Though Shaffer’s plays have proved perennially popular, his work did not always age well. A share of critics ever regarded his more serious plays as middlebrow and intellectually shallow. Reviewing a 2008 Broadway revival of Equus, Ben Brantley of the New York Times, wrote, “You can hear every metaphor falling into place with an amplified click, just as the psychological clues to the detective-story aspect of the play seem to be announced with the equivalent of a suddenly illuminated light bulb.”
Others were more admiring of his far-ranging interests. “Whatever else Peter Shaffer may lack, it isn't courage, it isn't derring-do,” said critic Benedict Nightingale. “His plays traverse the centuries and the globe, raising questions that have perplexed minds from Job to Samuel Beckett.”
The National recently announced a new production of Amadeus.
He was appointed CBE in 1997 and knighted in 2001.
Peter Shaffer is survived by his brother Brian, nephews, Milo and Mark, and nieces, Cressida and Claudia. His twin brother, Broadway playwright Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), died in 2001.
Angela Lansbury and Dana Ivey are scheduled to do a one-night-only reading of Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage June 13 as a benefit for The Acting Company. A company spokesperson said the reading will go on as scheduled, and will be dedicated to Shaffer's memory.
“Peter was a long time friend and supporter of The Acting Company. We are deeply saddened by his passing and will miss having him there” said Producer of Lettice and Lovage and co-founder of The Acting Company, Margot Harley.