Obituary: Sir Peter Shaffer, CBE, playwright

Born: 15 May 1926, Liverpool. Died: 6 June 2016, Cork, Republic of Ireland, aged 90

English playwright Peter Shaffer. Picture: Getty Images

Sir Peter Shaffer, a giant of post-war British theatre, wrote a string of hugely successful, award-winning plays, including philosophical dramas The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and in particular Amadeus, which was turned into a film directed by Miloš Forman and won eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay for Shaffer.

Respected as “one of the true greats of British theatre”, the ebullient Shaffer penned more than 18 plays and some of British theatre’s greatest performers took roles in them, including Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Christopher Plummer, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Derek Jacobi and Simon Callow.

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Shaffer once remarked: “My plays all get a very strong reaction from the audience; that’s why one wants to write plays … I don’t set out to stir up controversy, you write plays because you can’t help it … but it’s true that my plays are often about revenge … it’s a very urgent theme in today’s life.”

Born in Liverpool in 1926 into a middle-class Jewish family, Peter Levin Shaffer was the youngest of twins born to Jack, an estate agent, and Reka. The boys became drawn to theatre during ­family trips to the Liverpool Playhouse, and Peter’s brother, Anthony, also became a playwright, achieving success with popular thriller Sleuth and later with the screenplays for the Alfred Hitchcock film Frenzy, and cult classic The Wicker Man.

Following the family’s move to London, the twins attended St Paul’s School after which they were conscripted as miners – known as “Bevin Boys” – in the Kent coal mines during the Second World War.

Peter recalled passing the long hours underground mentally rehearsing the tragic Shakespearian roles. Post-war, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read History and Anthony read Law. In 1951, Peter then moved to New York, working in a bookshop, a department store and the acquisitions department of the New York Public Library.

While in New York, he penned his play The Salt Land, about illegal Jewish immigrants to 1947 Palestine; it was produced on ITV in 1955.

On his return to the UK, Shaffer joined the sheet music publishers Boosey & Hawkes but left to concentrate on writing.

The gamble paid off and he established his reputation as a playwright in 1958, with Five Finger Exercise, performed at the Comedy Theatre, London, under the direction of Sir John Gielgud – having previously been rejected by the Royal Court as “unsuitable”.

The play, about the impact of a handsome young German tutor on a middle-class English household, was controversial because of its homosexual undertones, but it went on to win the Evening Standard Drama Award. When it transferred to New York in 1959, it was equally well received and landed Shaffer the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.

Other plays followed, including The Private Ear and the Public Eye, and by the early 1960s Shaffer was one of the West End theatre impresario Binkie Beaumont’s favoured dramatists. The National Theatre was established in 1963, and almost all of Shaffer’s subsequent plays were performed there.

His work was a unique mix of philosophical dramas and satirical comedies as portrayed in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) directed by John Dexter, which presents the tragic Spanish conquest of Peru. Shaffer’s stage direction, “They climb the Andes”, has gone into theatrical history. Dexter is reported to have loved it. “Delete that, Peter and I won’t do the play,” said the director.

The play saw arguably one of the National’s best casts – Robert Stephens, Robert Lang, Colin Blakeley – and sumptuous sets from Michael Annals. The ascent of the Andes symbolised the conquistadors’ morally destructive conquest and epitomised the territory Shaffer was determined to stake out as his own, what he called “the nearly abandoned kingdom of epic theatre”.

This success nudged Laurence Olivier to commission a piece, with Black Comedy (1965), inspired by a Peking Opera sketch, the result. It takes a comical look at the antics of a group of incongruously matched characters feeling their way around a pitch black room during a power cut – although the stage is actually flooded with light.

A classic farce, Black Comedy passed the test of time, as its 1998 West End revival proved. In many ways this small but exquisitely formed comedy has a deeper meaning: that in darkness are deeper truths revealed.

Equus (1973) was the final Shaffer-Dexter collaboration. It is the story of the struggle between a boy, who worships horses yet blinds them, and a psychiatrist who tries to return him to the ordinary, prosaic world he yearns to leave. On Broadway, where Richard Burton was among those playing psychiatrist Dysart, it was attacked for showing hostility towards psychiatrists, but public acclaim easily overrode the complaints. Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe starred in the London (2007) and New York (2008) productions of Equus, winning many plaudits.

Shaffer followed Equus with Amadeus (1979), which won the Evening Standard Drama Award and the Theatre Critics’ Award for the London production. This tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and court composer Antonio Salieri who, overcome with jealousy at hearing the “voice of God” coming from an “obscene, foul-mouthed child”, sets out to destroy his rival. Shaffer felt that the best drama “is made out of the conflicts between opposing states of mind”. On Broadway it won the 1981 Best Play Tony Award and, like Equus, ran for more than 1,000 performances. In 2014, a production of Amadeus with Rupert Everett as Salieri marked the reopening of the Chichester Festival Theatre.

The 1987 comedy Lettice and Lovage had some success in both the West End and on Broadway, largely due to the efforts of Maggie Smith, who won a Tony Award. The role of Lettice was written for her.

After a few more successes, the odd failure and some revivals, in 1996, Shaffer decided to call time on his writing. He claimed to have several “half-written plays in manila folders”, but said: “I feel slightly like that donkey in Aesop’s Fables that can’t decide which pile of hay to eat, so eats neither and starves to death.”

Interviewers often speculated whether the conflicts in Shaffer’s plays (Mozart and Salieri, the psychiatrist and the boy in Equus) reflected a rivalry between Peter Shaffer and his brother Anthony, whose success had taken him aback. Although he never admitted a problem, letters later emerged, following his brother’s death in 2001 that told another story.

In one he wrote: “Now in some hateful way I do feel threatened. As if my little kingdom has long been invaded and I am no longer to be the playwright, but again part of that faintly cute and annihilating ‘Which one of them did it’.” They did, however, remain friends.

Shaffer died after a short illness while visiting family. He is survived by his brother Brian, nephews Milo and Mark and nieces Cressida and Claudia.

Martin Childs