Masaryk university of brno faculty of education

The plays in the context of postmodern British theatre

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1.2. The plays in the context of postmodern British theatre

This part of my thesis introduces Peter Shaffer in the context of British post-modern theatre. A suitable source elaborating this topic appears to be the publication Peter Shaffer: Theatre and Drama by Madeleine MacMurraugh-Kavanagh who had the chance the meet the author personally in London in autumn 1996 and with whom she spared the time on series of interviews discussing his work (xiii).

The author highlights Shaffer’s control over dramatic dialogue and a verbal skilfulness that remained one of his stylistic features. His dramatic plot “satisfies the hunger for crafted dialogue that leaves his audience craving for more” (Kavanagh1). According to the author, Shaffer’s contribution to the contemporary theatre lies mainly in his insistence to follow the principles of well-made play where structure and development are central concerns of the writer. His plays are, in addition, upgraded with an integration of musical sensibility, which the playwright reveals in a statement “I like plays to be like fugues – all the themes should come together in the end” (Kavanagh 2).

Another dramatic technique that pleases the audience in theatres is Shaffer’s ability to weave a convincing story that involves the audience in dramatic suspense, human identification and complexity of conflicts. The playwright is fully aware that story-telling is central to the dramatist's art, stating “It is my object to tell tales; to conjure up the spectres of horror and happiness [...] to perturb and make gasp: to please and make laugh: to surprise” (Kavanagh 2). It is, therefore, the grip of the audience that serves with the artistic experience of unforgettable performance. Furthermore, the integration of satire and irony appears natural to Shaffer’s style, which I develop later in my thesis.

All these aspects of Shaffer’s dramatic narration seem to contribute to the fact that his writings move easily between theatre, paper edition, cinema and television as media the author respects automatically. Shaffer’s story-telling is, however, rejecting easy and comfortable expectations the audiences may have from his work and confuses their preconceptions. He takes a dramatic risk, and challenges their attitudes with unexpected dramatic moments or rather unfamiliar themes.

Apart from ‘dramatic craft’ Shaffer handles strong theatrical intuition. Although his masterpieces have been presented in different media, he is above all a playwright for theatre, an environment where his writings acquire the right meaning as stated by Shaffer’s desire to “make theatre, to make something that could only happen on stage” (Kavanagh 3). The author states the importance of the psychological and emotional effects, writing:

With the ability to utilize every resource available to him in this arena (lighting, music, choreography, communal atmosphere, and so on), Shaffer involves his audience imaginatively in his drama where metaphor, allusion and illusion prevail. For this playwright, it is not enough that the audience should respond purely intellectually to his work; it is his desire that they should be caught up in, and surrender to, the magic and the mystery that differentiates live theatre from any other dramatic experience (Kavanagh 3)

Before showing on stage, Shaffer had to prepare the platform as to become respected playwright in academic (theatrical) world. Shaffer’s early plays assigned him to a position where he could launch himself into theatrical arena which he had always considered to be his fertile land. These early works made in 1950s included themes on social realism, though, in Balance of Terror, a story about a cold war espionage, Shaffer demonstrated his ability to come up with an attractive genre. Also his second play The Salt Land, a classical tragedy constructed on the events of modern Israel, was regarded as an interesting attempt preparing the path for his later work. Apart from the expansion of dramatic writing, this was also the time of media boom, and radio and television provided a training ground to these young dramatists where they gained experience before they embarked on theatre production. This time could be considered as the ‘real’ start of Peter Shaffer’s career as a dramatic writer (Kavanagh 6).

All these areas of Shaffer’s dramatic component help to understand the popularity of his plays over such a long time. Simultaneously, this success goes hand to hand with negative, especially certain British critics’ reviews adopting a suspicious stance on intellectual hollowness and tendency to intrude on the audience. As a result, there have been voices accusing Shaffer of superficiality and ‘popularism’.

Moreover, his success has been attributed to the directors, namely John Dexter, with indications that these theatrical masters have continuously concealed the weaknesses of the plays. The playwright has also been charged with blinding the audience with conceitedness and abuse of the historical facts (Kavanagh 3).

This antipathy has further grown into split between the audience who enthusiastically appreciated the dramatist and the critics who hastily depreciated them. The situation has evolved to the degree that any admiration of the playwright has been considered by these critics as blind following a misguided mass deceived by rhetoric and stage effects. In addition to this, the author implies that since Shaffer’s plays lack the ‘political’ motif, compering to authors like David Hare or Howard Brenton, the critics have withheld their approbation as if politics should be the critical ‘standard’ by which all else is measured. Generally speaking, Kavanagh critically views the suspicious atmosphere of any commercial success in Great Britain and implies that this is the reason why Shaffer may have received less critical reactions in The United States. For Shaffer himself, however, popular success simply means that “the problems one has tried to solve have in some ways been solved', and 'validation' has resulted” (Kavanagh 4).

However the author stands up for Peter Shaffer, she does not argue that there are no weak elements in his plays referring to the failure of The Battle of Shrivings as the author’s first commercial flop. Shaffer then alerted to the 'danger in my work of theme dictating event', while “a strong impulse to compose rhetorical dialogue was beginning to freeze my characters into theoretical attitudes” (Kavanagh 4). Concerning the critical reviews, however, it is the audiences in the theatre what finally maters to the playwright rather than newspapers or journals. Shaffer comments that his drama is written “for the public”, and is realized “with the public” (Kavanagh 5)

The comprehension of Shaffer’s work in the context of postmodern theatre lies in the fact that he is introduced as one of the authors who deliberately broke the established well-made play rules and turned to more expansive approach of dramatization (Elsom 96).

Shaffer’s success came in 1958 with his well-made play Five Fingers Exercise concerning various emotional conflicts in a household environment and focuses on bourgeoisie country house of a middle-class society. This play was successfully staged in London’s West End and the author proved to be capable of writing high-quality plays according to the standards of the mid-fifties drawing a dramatic link with a construction of ‘well-made’ dialogues and naturalistic form (Elsom 96). It opened in London under the direction of John Gielgud and won the Evening Standard Drama Award.

Although this dramatic piece established Shaffer’s name in the commercial sector, British critics mostly warmly approved but at the same time labelled Shaffer a 'Tory Playwright, an Establishment Dramatist, a Normal Worker” (Kavanagh 7) which the author strictly objected and took him a long time to shake it off. Nevertheless, the play had over six hundred performances which, according to Oleg Kerensky, a contemporary ballet critic and performer (“The Independent”) “constitutes an extremely long run for a serious drama” (Kavanagh 6). When Five Finger Exercise moved to New York in 1959, it was equally well received and landed Shaffer the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.

The masterpiece of the Five Finger Exercises was followed with a number of short plays with varying success including The Private Ear and The Public Eye that opened in London in 1962 and in New York one year later. Shaffer was not satisfied with these standards and broke away from well-made play to tackle historical subject on an epic scale in his play The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Elsom 97).

The play is featured by a narrator, an old man who recalls his past of being a member of Spanish mercenaries undergoing the conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. The breakthrough advancement did not lie as much in the flashback-like narration that could help to bridge the awkward passages on the stage as it did in “a kind of total theatre, involving not only words but rites, mimes, masks and magics” (Elsom 97). “The text cries for illustration. It is a director’s piece, a pantomimist’s piece, a musician’s piece, a designer’s piece and, of course, an actor’s piece, also as much as it is an author’s.” (Shaffer “Preface to The Royal Hunt”) John Elsom points out that Shaffer in his play showed his ability to absorb some Brechtian and Antonin Artaud’s techniques demanded a theatre of mime, ritual and inarticulate cries (97). He also preserved the well-made play dramatic features of definite crisis, and strong conflicts between two characters that represent opposing forces of morality and ethical codes and rejected traditional naturalism. The crisis in Shaffer’s plays is represented by the conquest of one side over the other with, in an addition of ‘romantic’ attitudes that usually prevail, at least on an emotional level. “Atahuallpa might be killed, but Pizarro the cynic suffered the more prolonged and terrible fate” (Elsom 98). Madeleine Kavanagh in her publication expresses the feeling of the audience that witnessed an unexpected ‘intellectual spectacle’ distinct from any other Shaffer’s previous plays.

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