In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I pay tribute to the late Peter Shaffer. Here’s an excerpt.
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The obituaries for Peter Shaffer, who died the other day at the age of 90 and for whom Broadway is dimming its lights on Thursday, were respectful but not effusive. The respect makes sense, since he wrote, among other things, “Amadeus” and “Equus,” two of the most successful plays of the postwar era. The conspicuous lack of wholehearted enthusiasm, however, also makes sense, since Mr. Shaffer, for all his success, wasn’t anybody’s favorite playwright, nor is his work frequently seen in this country nowadays….
Why has Mr. Shaffer faded from the scene? The main reason is undoubtedly that most of his best-known plays, which were written for England’s state-subsidized theaters, were large-scale works whose big casts (“Amadeus” and “Equus” both require 15 actors) put them out of reach of most American companies. At the same time, though, I get the impression that Mr. Shaffer is regarded by many drama critics as a middlebrow, a purveyor of high-minded, impeccably effective plays in which he watered down challenging subjects to make them palatable to the masses. A poor man’s Tom Stoppard, you might say.
It may be that there’s something to that indictment, though it certainly fails to do justice to “Amadeus,” which has long struck me, both in its original 1979 stage version and in Miloš Forman’s justly successful 1984 screen adaptation, as an immensely potent parable of the terrible mystery of human inequality. As for “Equus,” in which Mr. Shaffer took the tale of a stableboy who blinds horses for no apparent reason and turned it into a gripping study of middle-class emotional inhibition, it’s a bit creakier, but the 2008 revival proved that it still packs a walloping theatrical punch when staged with skill and conviction.
More to the point, though, is that Mr. Shaffer’s plays, whether you like them or not, were both genuinely serious and hugely successful….
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Read the whole thing here.
Paul Scofield in a scene from the original production of Amadeus, directed by Peter Hall and filmed at London’s National Theatre:
F. Murray Abraham in the same scene from Miloš Forman’s film version of Amadeus, adapted for the screen by Peter Shaffer: