British Playwright Peter Shaffer, Who Wrote 'Equus,' Dies At 90

Jun 6, 2016
Originally published on June 6, 2016 10:03 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

British playwright Peter Shaffer, who wrote the plays "Equus" and "Amadeus," has died in Ireland. He was 90 years old. Shaffer was known for complex psychological portraits and for his love of music. NPR critic Bob Mondello offers an appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Few plays in the latter half of the 20th century created the stir that "Equus" did, the story of a troubled boy who had blinded six horses and the psychiatrist who was tasked with figuring out why. It was a sensation, first in London and then on Broadway. Less so on film, though there were still flashes of fire there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EQUUS")

PETER FIRTH: (As Alan Strang) His flank is cool. His nostrils open for me. His eyes shine. They can see - his eyes -

RICHARD BURTON: (As Martin Dystart) Go on.

MONDELLO: The psychological detective story in "Equus" made Peter Shaffer's name as a playwright. But it was his next play, "Amadeus," that cemented his reputation, largely because of the movie version. Another battle of wills, it was the story of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart seen through the eyes of lesser composer Antonio Salieri.

Shaffer delighted in putting little musical jokes in the play for aficionados like himself - having Mozart show up Salieri, for instance, by improvising off-the-cuff from something Salieri had written...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMADEUS")

TOM HULCE: (As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) The rest is just the same, isn't it?

MONDELLO: ...And turning it into a march that would later end up in "The Marriage Of Figaro."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMADEUS")

HULCE: (As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) It doesn't really work, does it? (Playing piano). Did you try (playing piano)? Shouldn't it be a bit more (playing piano)?

MONDELLO: Actor Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in the movie, says Shaffer made the words and music sing.

HULCE: His sentences, I think, were the closest to Shakespeare's use of language, the kind of sentences that as an actor you could sail on. And his text would carry you through a performance.

MONDELLO: The thing is after a terrible experience with converting "Equus" to the screen, Shaffer knew this show gave him a new problem. I interviewed him when the film came out in 1984 about what he'd done differently for the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PETER SHAFFER: I mean, the paradox is that whereas the screen, it seems to me - the cinema can absorb endless amounts of music, it cannot really with comfort absorb large amounts of words. Not nearly as many words, that is to say, as a stage can.

MONDELLO: His solution was to eliminate many, many words and work with director Milos Forman to do visually on-screen what he'd done verbally on stage. That presented a risk -

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SHAFFER: That it might turn into music that would heighten emotion, but not be important in itself. The music is not used repetitiously to create film atmosphere. It is, in fact, the leading character. There are three leading characters here - there's Salieri, there's Mozart and there is the music.

MONDELLO: His gamble paid off. "Amadeus" won eight Oscars, including one for best picture. The play, too, has been in constant production for three decades, and Shaffer was said to be delighted that Britain's National Theatre, where it was first produced, will be reviving it in the fall. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.