Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun is about the Spanish conquest of Peru. I find it of immense merit if for no other reason that it contains one of the most challenging stage directions in theatre history – “They cross the Andes”.
Peter Shaffer was born some five minutes after his identical twin brother, Anthony, on 15th May 1926, at 55 Croxteth Road L8. His parents were Jack, a Jewish estate agent, and his wife Reka (née Fredman). When the boys were 9 the family moved to Hampstead. Like his brother, he was educated at St Paul’s School, spent three years as a ‘Bevin Boy’ in the Kent coalfields (though unlike Anthony he did not work underground) and Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied history.
Leaving University in 1950 he had a number of unfulfilling jobs and began to try his hand at writing. He co-wrote some detective stories with his brother and then in 1955 succeeded in having a play, The Salt Land, produced on BBC television. Encouraged to pursue writing full-time his first major success was Five Finger Exercise, produced at the Comedy Theatre under the directorship of Sir John Gielgud. The Royal Hunt of the Sun was a huge success at the National Theatre in 1964 and Equus (1973) was a world-wide box-office hit. Equus was a huge hit both on both sides of the Atlantic prompting Shaffer to comment “If it was a success in Britain it was because it was about horses, and if it was a success in America it was because it was about psychiatrists.” Amadeus (1979) was Shaffer’s last ‘mega-hit’ and when it was transferred to the screen his screenplay won him an Oscar to go alongside a host of other theatrical works which had adorned his career. In 1986 he wrote the satirical comedy Lettice and Lovage for Maggie Smith, the play bringing her a Tony award.
He was awarded a CBE in 1997 and knighted in 2001, He died on 6th June 2016, three weeks after his 90th birthday. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery alongside his partner, Robert Leonard, who had died in 1990.
The Shaffer home in Liverpool
There is an extensive biography of Peter Shaffer at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Wikipedia entry gives a basic outline. The Guardian obituary is worth reading. He was a guest on Desert Island discs in 1979 and the episode is available to listen/download at BBC . In a 1999 TV programme (Theatre Talk) Shaffer was interviewed about Amadeus, this is available on YouTube.
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