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Shaffer, Sir Peter (b. 1926)  
 
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A psychological dramatist concerned primarily with the nature of human creativity and the costs that the creative individual pays in conformist, unimaginative contemporary society, Peter Shaffer emerged in the 1960s in the paradoxical guise of the century's last great poet of the numinous who was also capable of writing commercially successful plays that could be turned into equally successful films. Although Shaffer has not written about his sexual orientation in essays or discussed his homosexuality in interviews, --and in some cases explicitly homosexual--tensions infuse his work.

Life and Career

Shaffer and his twin brother Anthony were born in Liverpool on May 15, 1926, to a Jewish real estate agent, Sir Peter Levin Shaffer, and his wife. He (along with Anthony, who would also become a successful playwright and screenwriter) attended St. Paul's School, London. After serving as a conscript in the coal mines during World War II, he matriculated to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in history.

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Shortly after leaving Cambridge, Shaffer moved to New York City, where he supported himself through a series of odd jobs (bookstore clerk, airline ticket salesman, acquisitions librarian). Frustrated to find no more satisfying employment, he returned to London where he worked initially for a music publishing firm, and then as a music and literary critic.

This early confusion in direction, however, had two important consequences for his life and career. First, his early fascination with Manhattan led, once he was able to afford to do so, to his maintaining residences in both New York and London, and dividing his time annually between them. And, second, his professional involvement with music allowed him to place the experience of creating or listening to music at the center of plays like Five Finger Exercise, The Private Ear, and, most notably, Amadeus.

Toying with the possibility of having a literary career, Shaffer first wrote murder mysteries. The Woman in the Wardrobe appeared in 1951 under the pseudonym "Peter Antony." Two subsequent novels--How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952) and Withered Murder (1956)--were coauthored with twin brother Anthony. Although both brothers abandoned the genre early on, its conventions inform many of the plays that each would later write--most obviously Anthony's Sleuth (1970) and the film scripts that Anthony wrote from three novels by Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Death on the Nile (1978), and Evil under the Sun (1982).

The influence of the detective genre on Peter's plays is more subtle. A metaphysical mystery, which the protagonist struggles to comprehend, lies at the heart of almost every one of Shaffer's plays.

For example, Pizarro is eager to discover if the Aztec king is genuinely a god capable of rising from the dead in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. An overworked provincial psychiatrist struggles to understand why a teenaged boy blinded six horses in Equus. In Amadeus, aged composer Antonio Salieri tantalizes the audience with the possibility that he murdered fellow composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thirty-two years earlier. In The Gift of the Gorgon, Philip Damson must learn that his estranged father's death was not a tragic accident, but a suicide. And the final act of Lettice and Lovage is framed as a solicitor's inquest into an assault that occurred after the close of the previous act and which the audience is at a loss to understand.

Similarly, a private detective, engaged by a businessman to trail the latter's possibly adulterous spouse eventually reveals to his client the mystery of the heart's longing in The Public Eye, while a fortune teller uncovers the lies that people tell others and, more importantly themselves, in White Liars.

In many of these cases, the secrets that people conceal pertain to homosexual desire, as will be discussed below. But across his canon, Shaffer is concerned with the creative nonconformist's struggle to discover new beliefs and standards of behavior after inherited systems of value are exposed as illusory and fail to satisfy his or her need for emotional stimulation and spiritual transcendence.

Shaffer was nearly thirty years old when he decided that theater would be his life's profession. After cutting his teeth writing several television and radio dramas, he was thirty-two years old when he achieved his first significant success with Five Finger Exercise (1958).

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