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Happy Francisco Pizarro Conquistador of Peru Gets Whacked Day.

June 26, 2014

robert shaw


Today in 1541, Francisco Pizarro, the man who had led a bizarrely small number of Spaniards to victory over the Inca empire met his end – a greedy ruthless man dispatched by other rival greedy ruthless men.

My own introduction to the character came at school – where Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) was a set text and where one year we staged it as our school play.  I have a dim and distant sense of being part of a huddled mass of boys sweating in fibre glass armour confronted by strange gongs and chanting and very intense stage lights.

Although approving, like any decent human, of the basic morality of the play I developed (or we developed) a somewhat snooty attitude to Shaffer.  I’d still take the view that Shaffer can do rant but not dialogue.  He has a recurring tendency in Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus (1973), and Amadeus (1979) to want to keep presenting faithless men railing at hypothetical deities.  What we’d regard as conversation is somewhat extrinsic to this endeavour and there are times when you wonder whether Shaffer has ever really experienced what tends to happen when two or more humans try to communicate with one another.  In Equus, there’s actually a thankless supporting role for someone to wander on stage, sit down and say “Dear Chief Protagonist, why don’t you just go on and on about yourself and I’ll just sit here and listen.”

Pizarro himself has a longer history on the English stage.  R. B. Sheridan wrote an epic Pizarro play in the 1790s of such epic scope and confusion that it drove Drury Lane Theatre to the brink of destruction.  Pizarro is the prototypical western imperialist and he can be used to either distract people from other forms of imperialism or else provide an oblique commentary on other imperialisms when direct reflections on more proximate imperialisms might risk censorship or worse.  In the context of the Pittite repression of the 1790s, a play like Sheridan’s Pizarro was dynamite but it was very confused dynamite – difficult to prosecute and easy to defend.  When we condemn Pizarro, who and what else are we condemning?  Or are we just congratulating ourselves on the fact that we’re not Spanish.  Assuming we’re not Spanish.

At least today can be a day to remember Robert Shaw, who played Pizarro in a 1960s film version of Shaffer’s play (opposite a young Christopher Plummer as Atahualpa).  Well known for his role in The Caretaker, he’s less well known for his portrayal of Stanley in a filmed version of The Birthday Party.  Ah, nobody did barely repressed fear and rage quite like Robert Shaw.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Only reposting this because Peter Shaffer is 90 today.

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