Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Underrated Peter Shaffer

As students of playwriting, we're taught to concentrate on those influential dramatists with blazingly original styles, overwhelming visions, and large-looming reputations. But that can get a little intimidating--not every one of us is destined to be a Shakespeare or a Beckett--and in moments like these, I look to the next tier of playwrights for inspiration. The ones whose works probably didn't change the world, but are consistently intelligent, solidly crafted, and theatrically effective. And one of my favorites of this underrated bunch is Sir Peter Shaffer.

Shaffer will celebrate his 82nd birthday on May 15. (His identical twin brother Anthony, author of Sleuth, died in 2001.) Sir Peter is best known for his plays Equus and Amadeus; I am also familiar with Black Comedy and Lettice and Lovage. All in different genres; all with something noteworthy about them.

Black Comedy, which I saw many years ago in a high-school production, is a British farce, with all the silliness that implies--governed by the theatrical conceit that when the lights are fully illuminating the stage, for the characters it's a pitch-black power outage. Lightweight entertainment, but it's stood the test of time for over forty years, so it must have something that other farces lack. And perhaps it inspired Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies often play with theatrical conceits in a similar way.

Equus, which tends to be remembered as "that play where the boy gets naked and falls in love with a horse" is actually an intense and moving theatrical work. I saw it at Vassar in a student production where the actors did not get fully nude and the role of the psychiatrist was played by a woman (Martin became Margaret), and I still found it a powerful work of art. If that doesn't testify to the play's sheer indestructability, I don't know what does.

Amadeus, now better known in its excellent film version, is another drama that just works. Mixing historical fact with a dash of legend, it's not just a "bio-play," but taps into the deep fear we all have of being "mediocrities" like Salieri. Its juxtaposition of Mozart's beautiful music with the ugly emotions of jealousy and rage give it its power.

Lettice and Lovage, like Black Comedy, is fluffy, but even it has a number of interesting features. "Star vehicle" comedies were once a huge part of the theatrical landscape but have now died out; Lettice and Lovage is one of the last, written in 1987 for Maggie Smith. The play provides outstanding roles for two middle-aged actresses; it concerns women as they relate to one another, not to their children or husbands or lovers; and the humor is sophisticated, relying on knowledge of British history, etc.

You can't instantly recognize a Shaffer play from reading a page of its dialogue (as you can with some playwrights), but his works do have a theme and a voice running through them. As Frank Rich wrote of Lettice and Lovage, it is "a high camp, female version of the archetypal Shaffer play, most recently exemplified by Equus and Amadeus, in which two men, one representing creativity and ecstatic passion and the other mediocrity and sterility, battle for dominance." Yet because Shaffer explores this theme in such a variety of settings, it doesn't feel like he's repeating himself.

And, though Shaffer is not a great avant-garde innovator, he has an eye for the theatrical; none of these plays are small and sitcom-like. Just think of the actors-as-stylized-horses in Equus, for instance. (Side note: My freshman-year roommate was in the student production of Equus that I saw, and kept as a souvenir one of those abstract, soldered-metal horses' heads. It hung on our wall for the rest of the year--a little frightening.) In his preface to Amadeus, Shaffer writes that his plays are "intentionally gestural and spectacular in effect"; in his preface to The Royal Hunt of the Sun (I still haven't read the play itself--soon, soon!) he writes "I did deeply want to create, by means both austere and rich--means always disciplined by a central aesthetic--an experience that was entirely and only theatrical."

To me, that is a noble goal--something that I myself want to achieve as a playwright. I have a lot of respect for Peter Shaffer's ability to craft plays that are theatrical, smart, and entertaining all at once, and wonder why I have never heard other writers cite him as an influence. (Still, I can see it in places--I think M. Butterfly is a Shaffer-esque play.) By way of comparison with another of my favorites, Tom Stoppard, Shaffer is ten years older, less well-known, less prolific, and less "intellectual." But isn't it admirable that Shaffer's plays are always intelligent, yet not intimidating the way Stoppard's sometimes are?

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