Amadeus playwright Sir Peter Shaffer passed away peacefully in a County Cork hospice in Ireland. He was 90.
Belonging to a generation of British playwrights who believed in letting their art do the talking, Shaffer (born in 1926 in Liverpool) was a quiet paragon of a unique degree of psychoanalytic perception in theatre. As a playwright, he was never in your face; as a personality, he was even less so. He nonetheless won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay of Amadeus, a Golden Globe for best screenplay (for Amadeus, again) and had a neat collection of Tony Awards for the several plays he wrote. Shaffer’s plays inspired a future of writing for the stage and his death drew the curtains to an extraordinary contribution, as noted by theatrician Michael Arden on Twitter.
Like his twin brother Anthony, who wrote among other plays, the fascinating script of the crime drama, Sleuth, Peter enjoyed success both on stage and in the world of motion pictures. The latter proved especially receptive to the play scripts of Amadeus and Equus — two of Shaffer’s most well-known and intriguing dramas.
Amadeus opened in the hallowed expanses of the Royal National Theatre in London in 1979. Directed by Sir Peter Hall, it was the story of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his artistic shadow, the musician Antonio Salieri — a leap in imagination of a clash of unequal dualities that proved a success on screen as well, with the film version of 1984 sweeping eight Oscars.
Not only were viewers faced with a richness of colour and smoothness of transition when they watched Amadeus, they were also forced to ruminate on a lighter, frothier aspect of artistic genius — the fact that it cannot be imitated. While Salieri struggled with the lack of his musical prowess compared to Mozart’s, critics pitted the dichotomous tussle on screen and stage as that of the real life one between the Shaffer twins, both of whom were uncomfortable with being identified as the other. The celebrated film critic, Roger Ebert, was one of those who saw the fine touches that made Amadeus a grand gesture.
“Notice the way Jeffrey Jones, as the emperor, balances his duty to appear serious and his delight in Mozart’s impudence. Watch Jones’ face as he decides he may have been wrong to ban ballet from opera. And watch Abraham’s face as he internalizes envy, resentment and rage. What a smile he puts on the face of his misery! Then watch his face again at Mozart’s deathbed, as he takes the final dictation. He knows how good it is. And he knows at that moment there is only one thing he loves more than himself, and that is Mozart’s music.”
Far from the internal lilting narrative of Amadeus is its precursor, Equus — a 1973 journey by the playwright into the depths of the mind of a troubled youngster who blinds six horses in a rage. Also made into a successful film, the lead roles of Alan Strang and his psychologist Martin Dysart have been played by just about the most illustrious male actors in the world, including Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Richard Griffiths, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Firth and last but not the least, Daniel Radcliffe. Earlier, Radcliffe paid grateful tribute to Shaffer, calling him “incredibly kind, generous, and funny.”
Of his 18 plays, the three others that received widespread applause were Five Finger Exercise(1958), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), and Lettice and Lovage(1986), the last of which Shaffer wrote for Dame Maggie Smith, earning both quite a few Tony Awards in the process. Even though his success as a screenplay adapter spelled a degree of financial comfort for Shaffer, Sir Peter was a quiet presence who was unassuming in interviews and never in need of expressing flair, an aspect of his that resonated in the frequent revisions that he subjected his own plays to.
Shaffer’s last play was The Gift of the Gorgon (1991), an exercise in grief that many think was led by the death of Robert Leonard, his companion and partner. Shaffer’s language was one of grandeur and it was a simple and sublime grandeur. Like any true playwright, the man behind Amadeus had an impeccable sense of timing, in life as in death, as expressed by his agent Rupert Lord’s note on his passing.
“He was simply at the end of his life but delighted to have been able to celebrate his 90th birthday with friends and then, I think, decided it was time.”
[Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images]