Critic's Notebook: Peter Shaffer, Master of Duality

Amadeus Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy Everett Collection

Amadeus Film Still - H 2014

The playwright was a classicist who distanced himself from the angry young men of his generation in elegantly structured dramas such as 'Amadeus' and 'Equus.'

A wunderkind composer and the resentful rival whose talents he eclipsed. A disturbed young man obsessed with horses and the psychiatrist digging to find out what triggered his horrifically violent act. An invader pushing Christianity and hungry for gold, whose crisis of faith is fueled by the nobility of the supposed savage he is sent to vanquish.

Those vividly drawn characters and the fireworks generated by their clashes in the plays Amadeus, Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, respectively, are cornerstones of the legacy of Peter Shaffer. The British dramatist died Monday in Ireland at 90, leaving behind a distinguished body of critically and commercially successful works of bold theatricality.

The polarity of two opposing viewpoints is a common element in drama, but Shaffer specialized in carrying both sides of an argument with equal weight, interest and respect. He found the common ground in adversarial relationships, often etched with as much mutual attraction as friction.

Perhaps being one of identical twins had a lot to do with this affinity for complex dualities. His brother Anthony Shaffer, who died in 2001, was best known for another volatile battle of wits between two equally clever men with an ax to grind, Sleuth.

The savage domestic tensions of a long-married couple were at the heart of Five Finger Exercise, which first brought attention to Peter Shaffer in 1958. But arguably the most imaginative of his faceoffs was Royal Hunt of the Sun in 1964, which examined civilizations in conflict through the historical figures of 16th century Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Atahualpa, sovereign Inca of Peru. Shaffer's desire to create theatrical spectacle on a cinematic scale is illustrated by a stage direction from the play: "They cross the Andes."

Unlike the so-called angry young men who emerged in mid-'50s Britain, led on the theatrical front by John Osborne, Shaffer remained a classicist. His work was more intellectually probing than anarchically anti-establishment, his plays models of structure, erudition and articulacy.

His 1973 drama, Equus, was groundbreaking for its time in its use of psychoanalysis to explore themes of religious and ritual sacrifice and repressed sexuality through the fictionalized story, inspired by a true crime, of a 17-year-old stablehand who blinds six horses. The play also was notable for its graphic nudity, which gave the violent perpetrator of the play's key dramatic episode startling vulnerability.

Daniel Radcliffe starred opposite Richard Griffiths in a 2008 Broadway revival of Equus, which revealed it to be somewhat dated in its wonky therapy-speak though still highly effective as a series of taut, fraught encounters.

Shaffer's biggest success came in 1979 with Amadeus. It also would become the most popular of his film adaptations in the 1984 Milos Forman screen version that won eight Oscars, including best picture and best adapted screenplay for Shaffer.

The story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is told by court composer Antonio Salieri as an old man whose window of fame has closed, leaving him with the corrosive effects of his own mediocrity and the consuming humiliation of the younger man's ascension to greatness. As an impassioned portrait of the rage of the second-rate when faced with the elusiveness of genius, the play is a fearsome study in professional jealousy.

A revival of Amadeus was already in the works prior to Shaffer's death. The production is set for October at the National Theatre in London, an institution with which the playwright had a long and fruitful association.

No subsequent Shaffer work ever matched the acclaim given to Amadeus, which became a legitimate theatrical sensation. The playwright did, however, receive a warm response in 1987 to Lettice and Lovage, his first comedy in more than 20 years, which again focused on uncomfortably twinned personalities.

In this case it was two acerbic middle-aged women — one with a flair for the theatrical, the other more scholarly — whose shared distaste for ugly modern English architecture pulls them into an unlikely alliance.

Written for Maggie Smith, who starred opposite the late great Margaret Tyzack in the original London production that transferred to Broadway, the charming if somewhat slight play's call to arms is "Enlarge! Enlighten! Enliven!" That exhortation is spoken by Lettice Douffet, who spices up tedious country house tours by inventing juicy historical details until she's fired by her humorless employer. But the two women eventually forge a conspiratorial bond.

Shaffer's plays are almost always battles of one kind or another: madness against reason, mediocrity against genius, fiction against fact, idealism against reality, god against man. The internal conflict that ignited his best work will ensure that it continues to be performed.