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literature

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Shaffer, Sir Peter (b. 1926)  
 
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A drawing room drama indebted to such masters of the "well made play" as W. Somerset Maugham and Terence Rattigan, the play depicts an upper-middle-class household in which a young, spiritually dispossessed German tutor arouses the romantic longing of both an unhappily married middle-aged woman and her sensitive, sexually rebellious college-aged son. Acting on his frustrated desire, the son betrays the guileless tutor, ensuring that the latter is exiled from a relatively comfortable family circle to which the expatriate--ashamed of his own father's Nazi past--yearns to belong.

The play's drama of veiled yet competing sexual tensions initially attracted a strong gay following. In his autobiography, Young Man from the Provinces: A Gay Life before Stonewall (1995), Alan Helms--who at the time was dating Larry Kert, the original Tony in West Side Story--writes of a gay party attended by the chorus boys from Kert's musical and "the whole Five Finger Exercise crowd, who brought along [the play's director] John Gielgud."

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Following Five Finger Exercise, Shaffer embarked on a string of black comedies that skewer the 1960s sexual revolution that earned London the sobriquet "swinging." In The Private Ear (1962), a sensitive young man who responds warmly to classical music attempts to entertain an uneducated young woman who is more attracted to his shallow, conceited, sexually rapacious office mate. The one-act was paired with The Public Eye (1962), another one-act in which a deliciously unconventional private detective piques the emotional interest of the woman whom he has been hired to spy upon by her narrowly conventional husband.

Both plays deal with the need to find joy in a modern, aimless existence--"not eternal joy, or even joy for a week," as the detective, Julian Christoforu, puts it, "but immediate, particular, bright little minutes of joy--which is all we ever get or should expect."

Similarly, in White Liars (1965), Shaffer uses the visit of two band mates to a fortune teller in a dilapidated, off-season seaside resort to reveal not only the anguished confusion that is at the heart of the 1960s search for sexual freedom, but also the lie that informed earlier generations' supposed clarity regarding "what they were--what they wanted!"

Shaffer paired White Liars with Black Comedy (1965), a bumptious farce that adopts the ploy of illuminating the stage when the lights in a London flat are out during a power failure and putting the stage in darkness when the lights are supposedly on--a device that allows Shaffer to distinguish between the carefully groomed social facade that people present to others and the reality of their cloaked or repressed desires.

Thea, who enters her former lover's apartment unseen amidst the chaos caused by the blackout on the very day that Brindsley and his fiancee are entertaining the fiancee's socially conservative father, became the first of Shaffer's glorious female Lords of Comic Misrule. (The part was written expressly for Maggie Smith, who had worked with Shaffer in The Private Ear and The Public Eye, and for whom he would later write Lettice and Lovage.)

The Battle of Shrivings (1970, heavily revised four years later as Shrivings) proved a transitional effort of sorts. Like Five Finger Exercise, the play is a domestic drama that has at its heart the tension between a young man and his father. But, like the farces that followed Five Finger Exercise, the play also questions the integrity of one of the prevailing 1960s social movements--in this case, the peace demonstration. Unfortunately, audiences missed the farcical comedy that they had come to associate with Shaffer, and were put off by the subtlety of the moral debates that took place on stage. The Battle of Shrivings became the first of Shaffer's plays to fail commercially.

With The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) Shaffer became associated with the newly formed National Theatre under the direction of Sir (later Lord) Laurence Olivier, and embarked upon a period of extraordinary creativity in which he used extravagant sound and mime, and relied upon ritual enactments that reveal both the religious dimension of theater and the modern desire for worship, to create a "total theater" along the lines proposed by influential theorist Antonin Artaud.

In Royal Hunt, conqueror Francisco Pizarro figures as the modern person torn between the loss of faith in a god who has become irrelevant and the aching need to believe in some new figure guaranteeing transcendence.

Royal Hunt was followed at the National by the equally successful Equus (1973), which questions modern society's reliance upon emasculating codes of normalcy as a psychiatrist, who is haunted by the lack of passion in his own life, is called upon to treat a teenaged boy who developed a private worship of horses that bordered on the ecstatic.

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