By Rachelle Hughes
Playwright Peter Levin Shaffer took on the human psyche through humor, satire, and drama in his portfolios of plays produced during his career. Many of his plays tackle the grittier side of mental struggles, and his award-winning Amadeus is no exception as he tells one version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life.
There were whisperings in Mozart’s time that the boy genius had a jealous rival in court composer Salieri. There were rumors of revenge and poison, and, in the play Amadeus, Shaffer capitalizes on this drama as he tells the story as it could have been of a musical genius who in Shaffer’s depiction could be both charming and childlike, genius and immature, and, to his demise, plagued by one who was driven murderous with envy.
Born in Liverpool, England on May 15, 1926 to Orthodox Jewish parents Jack and Reka Shaffer, Peter Shaffer may or may not have grappled with the dark side of his own emotions, but he most certainly ran across people who did in his varied life leading up to his career as a playwright. In an article in Transatlantic Review Shaffer stated “All art is autobiographical inasmuch as it refers to personal experience” (“Peter Shaffer: Biography, Critical Essays,” Enotes, http://www.enotes.com/topcis/peter-shaffer). He, however, admits much of that experience came from observing. Shaffer did not find his playwriting groove immediately. Whisperings of his future career began while editing the Cambridge University college magazine. He earned his degree in history in 1950. The history degree would certainly help him flesh out his later plays that often relied heavily on historical research. His first literary works, however were a team effort with his twin brother, Anthony. Their first mystery novel, Woman in the Wardrobe (1951), was published under the pen name Peter Anthony. They collaborated on two additional novels under the name Peter Anthony, How Doth the Little Crocodile (1952) and the Withered Murder (1956). The last two novels were later picked up by publishing house Macmillan. Anthony went on to be a playwright in his own right and both he and Peter saw success in their shared love of writing.
During these first years of writing, Shaffer was trying his hands at different types of work after he moved to New York in 1951. After a brief time as a salesperson in a Doubleday bookstore he obtained a job in acquisitions with the New York Public Library. In 1954 he returned to London to work with the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes. Finally in 1955, with the success of his teleplay The Salt Land and radio play The Prodigal Father he settled on playwriting as a career. Turns out it was a good career move for Shaffer. His plays have seen success on both sides of the Atlantic.
His first work for the stage, The Five Finger Exercise (1959) garnered accolades in both London and New York, winning the London Evening Standard Drama Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play of the Season in 1960. He continued to build on his playwriting successes with the one-act comedies The Private Ear and The Public Eyes, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. With Equus, the story of a disillusioned stable boy who blinded six horses, he reached new heights as the play won the Tony Award for the Best Play of the 1974-1975 season along with the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award. Its Broadway run of 1207 performances was matched in London where it had a run of over 1000 performances.
Of Mozart’s music, Shaffer says in a YouTube video “They are marvelous and inexhaustible works” (Peter Shaffer, Amadeus: Mozart’s music, Feb 15, 2012), In Amadeus, Shaffer took on a character who fascinated him both in the genius of his music and the contrasts Shaffer saw in his personality. In an interview by Anna Tims in the January 2013 edition of The Guardian, Shaffer says this of his inspiration for writing Amadeus:
“I came up with the idea for this play after reading a lot about Mozart. I was struck by the contrast between the sublimity of his music and the vulgar buffoonery of his letters. I am often criticised for portraying him as an imbecile, but I was actually conveying his childlike side: his letters read like something written by an eight-year-old. At breakfast he'd be writing this puerile, foul-mouthed stuff to his cousin; by evening, he'd be completing a masterpiece while chatting to his wife” (“How We Made: Peter Shaffer and Felicity Kendal on Amadeus,” TheGuardian.com, January 14, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/jan/14/how-we-made-amadeus).
The 1979 play Amadeus once again took a bevy of awards including the Standard Drama Award, the Plays and Players Award, and the London Theatre Critics Award for Best Play. The New York production won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for 1981. In 1984 the film version brought Mozart fame in a way he never would have imagined in his lifetime. Amadeus won eight Oscars in 1984, including Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Not one to rest on his laurels or be typecast as a themed playwright, Shaffer continued to flex his pen and write dramas, comedies, and historically-based plays like Yonadab (1985), the comedy Lettice and Lovage (1987), and the Gift of Gorgon (1992).
Currently eighty-eight years old, Shaffer has crafted a playwriting career spanning almost three decades, bringing with it controversy, intrigue, and perplexity. At least six of his plays were adapted into films, and in 2007 he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.