Peter Shaffer and Me.
Peter Shaffer has just died. Aged ninety. He’s very far from being my favorite dramatist, but he’s influenced me far more than dramatists I admire more.
Royal Hunt of the Sun was a set text at school. Richard Brinsley Sheridan told the same story, of course, in his Pizarro, more than 200 years ago – a ponderous epic that detained its Drury Lane audience for hours and hours. It is said that Sheridan was still writing its final pages after the curtain had gone up for the first night’s performance.
Royal Hunt of the Sun was something we all knew backwards as well as forwards and perhaps diagonally as well. And then one year we were told that it would be the official school play as well. One of the “advantages” of the play, we were told, was that it had no real female roles and therefore we would not have to invite pupils from the nearby Girls’ School to join us in the cast. This was not an “advantage” that impressed me very much at the time.
I envied the Incas in the play. Led by my old friend Dan Rebellato as Atahualpa, they wore light flowing robes and played tiny cymbals and chanted a lot. As part of the poor bloody Spanish infantry, the likes of me got to complain a lot and sweat inside fibre glass armour.
Peter Shaffer seemed fascinated by the Inca religion, and disappointed himself when Atahualpa declined to return from the dead. It was a running theme with him – jaded secular commentators looking for some new (or at least unfamiliar) religion with which to be teased and then disappointed by.
Certainly it was a theme in Equus, which seemed to be staged most years by some company or other when I was a student. Talk about flogging a dead horse. There is no role I pity more than the role of that female associate of Dysart whose job it is to arrive on stage and say to him “Ah Dysart, I’ll just sit myself down and give you the occasional prompt so as you can just go on about yourself at great length and in great detail. Famous for it.” A more experimental dramatist would have permitted soliloquies, but Shaffer was wedded to the device of dialogue, even when he had no gift for it.
Equus even returns to the world of Royal Hunt when Dysart dreams of being a High Priest atop some Meso-American ziggurat engaged in a production line of human sacrifices. It is the best speech in the play.
And then there’s Amadeus. Shaffer tries to elevate a simple case of professional jealousy into a grand dispute with God Almighty. Shaffer deserves our respect as someone who attempted big themes at least – who railed against a Deus Absconditus. He wasn’t really qualified to be a theologian and the theology often chaffed against the most interesting aspects of his own dramatic imagination, but the attempt was noble.
I recall being in a student production of Amadeus. I had the dream role – that of Joseph II – which from the point of view of work-rate to impact, is just about perfect. Let Salieri rant and rave. As Emperor Joseph you get the best costume – everyone stares at you when you come on stage and your lines consist of a few easy catchphrases – notably the easy “well – there it is.” In rehearsal we were told that in order to pick up the pace and create a nice flow between scenes, actors would move furniture on and off and around the stage as and when then entered and exited and they would remain in character while they did so. Of course, I stuck up my paw and declared that it was impossible for a Hapsburg emperor to move furniture while in character. The director sighed and agreed.
Without having a great respect for the play, I had a reasonably marvelous time on stage. And for that too I must thank Peter Shaffer.