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Shaffer, Sir Peter (b. 1926)  
 
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The flatness of both revivals unfortunately led a number of reviewers to question whether Shaffer's plays were not part of a cultural moment that had passed.

In 2001, Shaffer was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to British theater.

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Rejecting the Mere

Shaffer's plays deal with the absence of wonder, and a corresponding absence of worship, in the contemporary world.

In Equus, a child psychiatrist is called upon to treat a teenaged boy who blinded six horses with a metal spike. His sessions with the boy reveal that when forced to live in a commercialized world in which advertising jingles function as hymns and brand names become the gods worshiped by devout consumers, the boy, Alan Sprang, created for himself an alternate religion that centered upon the majestic strength and beauty of a horse whose all-seeing eyes eventually fill him with guilt.

Alan's refusal to worship "the god Normal" fills the social authorities with such revulsion that they demand that he be sacrificed, much as ancient theater insisted upon the sacrifice of a scapegoat to ensure the restoration of social order following a crisis. In the course of the treatment program, Dr. Dysart is forced to contrast his own joyless yet supposedly sane existence with the boy's ferocious rejection of a world that is "utterly worshipless."

At the end of their break-through session, Dysart recognizes that Alan's "cure" will free the boy of the pain that drove him to blind the horses, but will also force him to live without passion: "with any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent" after release from the juvenile detention facility. But Dysart also recognizes that he himself will spend the remainder of his life tormented by the knowledge of how devoid of passion his own existence is.

This conflict between Passion and Normalcy, between Creativity and Conformity, is at the heart of every Shaffer play. In Five Finger Exercise teenaged Clive's description of education as "the process of being taken in by surprise" is at odds with his businessman father's manufacture of sturdy, cheap furniture and disdain for the "arty-tarty boys" with whom Clive associates.

A similar need to be "taken in by surprise" drives Bob--who finds the daily grind of working in an office to be a "blasphemy" against the sacrament of life--to listen to classical music in The Private Ear, much as Belinda allows herself to dally from a distance with the deliciously unconventional detective hired to follow her after she finds that marriage to stodgy Charles is causing her to "dry up."

To save herself from drowning "in middle-class mediocrity," Sophie refashions herself as a gypsy fortune teller with a romantic past in White Liars. Mark's "incapacity for Immediate Life" leads him to destroy the peace center in which his estranged son has taken refuge in Shrivings. And, in Whom Do I Have the Honour of Addressing? (1989)--the last of Shaffer's radio plays--a middle-aged woman, who takes pride in her accuracy and efficiency as a typist, escapes the "dowdiness in England" in general, and the "dreariness" of her own life in particular, by moving to self-indulgent, hedonistic southern California.

As Shaffer's career progressed, he seems to have grown increasingly aware of the tragic consequences of the loss of wonder. Royal Hunt dramatizes the brutality with which Spanish Christians imposed their authority upon the native people of Peru who were filled with a natural reverence for the cosmos and whose society was founded upon a deep faith in the divinity of their king. The play enacts the destruction of joy in the modern world.

Similarly, in Amadeus Shaffer places on stage a man who is so painfully conscious of his mediocrity that he attempts to destroy the one member of his generation who seems to be divinely gifted, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As the play closes, Salieri blesses the audience ("Mediocrities everywhere--now and to come--I absolve you all!"), in effect implicating them in his destructive and self-serving actions.

And in Yonadab, a civil war that sets brother against brother and son against father is the result of the title character's unsuccessful attempt to escape the bounds of mediocrity and experience a transcendence that is as much spiritual as it is sexual.

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