May 15, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Today marks the birthdate of the playwrights Anthony and Peter Shaffer. Not only were they twin brothers, but they shared the unique distinction of having each won Tonys for Best Play (Peter did so twice). Anthony got there first with his inventive and smash hit mystery Sleuth (1970). Peter won for Equus (1974) and for Amadeus (1980), each running more than 1,000 performances. Peter also went on to win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay when Amadeus was made into a 1984 film that also won Best Picture, in addition to six other Oscars. I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between twins and how their lives intertwine (or dissect), as I have a twin brother and sister. Sometimes, when people I tell this to must not hear me correctly, as I’m often asked, “Are they identical?” Well, not only is that impossible, they are also polar opposite of one another in almost every conceivable way besides their sex. As for Anthony and Peter, who were identical, their story is complete with a complex sibling rivalry, as would befit two brothers going into the same profession, let alone twins.
Anthony and Peter Shaffer were born in England, the sons of Orthodox Jews. Well-educated (their father prospered in the real estate business), both attended Trinity College at Cambridge where Peter studied history while Anthony concentrated on Law. After graduating, they co-authored two books under the pseudonym “Peter Anthony,” about a fictional detective they called Mr. Verity. Eventually, Anthony took the legit route and became a barrister in London, but Peter, in a restless fashion, moved to New York where he took various jobs in a bookshop, at a railway station, in a department store and at the New York Public Library, all the while writing plays in hopes of success
His first play, Five Finger Exercise, about a young man’s sly infiltration of a well-to-do family, premiered in London in 1959 and won the Evening Standard Drama Award. Later that same year, it moved to Broadway, where it ran for over 300 performances. Written two years after John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, a play that changed the face and substance of British theatre, Peter Shaffer was now part of the new breed of “angry young men.” But he wouldn’t settle for that and pushed his own personal boundaries in 1964 with the world premiere of the first play at Laurence Olivier’s recently established National Theatre. The Royal Hunt of the Sun, told with masks, mime, music and dances, took place in 16th century Spain with the explorer Francisco Pizarro as its main character. John Dexter’s vibrantly staged and designed production was a smash. It too went to Broadway and proved Peter Shaffer was no one-hit wonder.
As for Anthony, after five years at the Bar, he changed professions and went into journalism, then into advertising. When he turned to playwriting, it didn’t sit well with his brother. As reported in Peter’s 2016 obituary in the Telegraph, “Despite Peter’s claim that he had never been jealous of his brother, a series of letters written in the late 1960s (when Anthony had ditched his advertising career to work on Sleuth), laid bare Peter’s frustration. The letters, discovered at Anthony’s London home after his death in 2001, include such passages as: ‘I do feel threatened. As if my little Kingdom has been invaded, and I am no longer to be The Playwright, but again part of that faintly cute and annihilating ‘Which one of them did it?’
In another letter, he implored: ‘Before it’s too late? I beg you to take another name for writing.’ Anthony declined, and instead maintained the family name for Sleuth, before going on to write screenplays for the Alfred Hitchcock film Frenzy, The Wicker Man and two Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot adaptations, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.”
Peter did not have much to fear jealousy-wise as he was unquestionably the more successful, with his plays consistently drawing the best actors in the world. The very first production of his farce, Black Comedy at the Chichester Festival outside London in 1965, featured Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and Derek Jacobi, while its later Broadway version had Lynn Redgrave, Geraldine Page and Michael Crawford. London’s Salieri in Amadeus was Paul Scofield, while its American premiere starred Ian McKellan, and Anthony Hopkins was Broadway’s Dr. Dysart in Equus. Lettice and Lovage, a hit in both London and New York, was played by (and specifically written for) Maggie Smith, which happily resulted in her one and only Tony Award.
I was fortunate to see the original Broadway productions of Sleuth, Equus and Amadeus. The latter two (by Peter) were outstanding in brilliantly staged productions (Equus by John Dexter and Amadeus by Peter Hall, both of whom took home Tonys for their work). I was so taken with Equus that I saw it four times in its original run. But I have to admit that as a thirteen-year-old, Anthony’s Sleuth absolutely floored me. It was my 86th play and I had never been “tricked” at the theatre before. The twists and turns took me totally by surprise and I have vivid memories of its key plot developments, how they were staged, and particularly the ending (which I won’t give away), and featured the curtain falling in such a way that it still sends chills down my spine by just typing this.
Two years after Sleuth opened on Broadway, it was made into a film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine that was a box office smash. Unfortunately, these many years later, Sleuth has fallen out of favor and fashion and is now considered a lightweight winner of Best Play (its competition that year was decidedly minimal), and a failed film remake in 2007 did nothing to add to its reputation (this time with Michael Caine in the Olivier role opposite Jude Law). None of that makes any difference to me as I will never forget that first time I saw it. I even went back two years later and bought a ticket with its third cast, the occasion of my 197th play (don’t worry for me… I stopped counting at 200).
Anthony Shaffer died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of seventy-five. It was reported that it deeply upset Peter, who was known to speak to his brother on the phone most days and always made sure to get his opinion on all the first drafts of his many plays. Peter, as mentioned earlier died last June at the age of ninety. They each left a legacy of rich work, with plays I felt the richer for in having seen.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org