Peter Shaffer

Sir Peter Levin Shaffer CBE (/ˈʃæfər/; 15 May 1926 – 6 June 2016), was an English playwright and screenwriter. He wrote numerous award-winning plays, of which several were adapted into films.

Peter Shaffer

Peter Levin Shaffer

(1926-05-15)15 May 1926
Died6 June 2016(2016-06-06) (aged 90)
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Notable work
Black Comedy, Equus, Amadeus
AwardsAcademy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; multiple Tony Awards; and New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play and Best Foreign Play

Early life

Shaffer was born to a Jewish family in Liverpool, the son of Reka (née Fredman) and Jack Shaffer, an estate agent.[1][2] He was the identical twin brother of fellow playwright Anthony Shaffer.

He was educated at the Hall School, Hampstead, and St Paul's School, London, and subsequently he gained a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study history. Shaffer was a Bevin Boy coal miner during World War II, and took a number of jobs including bookstore clerk, and assistant at the New York Public Library, before discovering his dramatic talents.[3]

Theatrical career

Shaffer's first play, The Salt Land (1955), was presented on ITV on 8 November 1955. Encouraged by this success, Shaffer continued to write and established his reputation as a playwright in 1958, with the production of Five Finger Exercise,[4] which opened in London under the direction of John Gielgud and won the Evening Standard Drama Award. When Five Finger Exercise moved to New York City in 1959, it was equally well received and landed Shaffer the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.

Shaffer's next piece was a double bill, The Private Ear/The Public Eye, two plays each containing three characters and concerning aspects of love. They were presented in May 1962 at the Globe Theatre, and both starred Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. Smith won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Leading Actress at the age of 27.

The National Theatre was established in 1963, and virtually all of Shaffer's subsequent work was done in its service. His canon contains a unique mix of philosophical dramas and satirical comedies. The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) presents the conquest and killing of the Inca ruler Atahuallpa by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro in Peru, while Black Comedy (1965) takes a humorous look at the antics of a group of characters feeling their way around a pitch black room — although the stage is actually flooded with light.[5]

Equus (1973) won Shaffer the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. A journey into the mind of a seventeen-year-old stable-boy who had plunged a spike into the eyes of six horses, Equus ran for over 1,000 performances on Broadway. It was revived by Massachusetts' Berkshire Theatre Festival in the summers of 2005 and 2007, by director Thea Sharrock at London's Gielgud Theatre in February 2007, and on Broadway (in the Sharrock staging) in September 2008. The latter production, which ran in New York until February 2009, required the stableboy to appear naked; its star, Daniel Radcliffe, was still associated with the Harry Potter films intended for general audiences, and this led to mild controversy.[6]

Shaffer followed this success with Amadeus (1979) which won the Evening Standard Drama Award and the Theatre Critics' Award for the London production. This tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and court composer Antonio Salieri who, overcome with jealousy at hearing the "voice of God" coming from an "obscene child", sets out to destroy his rival. When the show moved to Broadway it won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play and, like Equus, ran for more than a thousand performances.

After the success of Amadeus, Shaffer wrote the play Lettice and Lovage specifically for Dame Maggie Smith in 1986, for which he was nominated for another Tony Award and Dame Maggie Smith eventually won the Tony Award for best actress after three nominations in 1990. Lettice and Lovage also enabled Margaret Tyzack to win the award for best featured actress, and the production was nominated for best direction of a play, at the 1990 Tony Awards.

Screen adaptations

Several of Shaffer's plays have been adapted to film, including Five Finger Exercise (1962), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), The Public Eye (1962), from which he adapted the 1972 film Follow Me! (1972), Equus (1977), and Amadeus (1984), which won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Shaffer received two Academy Award nominations for adapting his plays Equus and Amadeus for the big screen. For writing the screenplay for Equus, he was nominated for the 1977 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar but the award went to Alvin Sargent, who wrote the screenplay for Julia. For writing the screenplay for Amadeus, Shaffer received both the 1984 Best Screenplay Golden Globe and the 1984 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Personal life

Shaffer was gay but did not write explicitly about it. His partner Robert Leonard died in 1990.[7] Shaffer died on June 6, 2016, while on a trip to the south-west of Ireland, three weeks after his 90th birthday.[8][9][10]

Peter Antony

He co-wrote three detective novels with his brother Anthony Shaffer under the pseudonym Peter Antony.


Shaffer received the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre in 1992. Two years later he was appointed Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University.

In 1993 he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) by the University of Bath.[11]

Shaffer's play, Five Finger Exercise won the Evening Standard Drama Award when it premiered in London and then won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play when it moved to New York City.[12]

Shaffer's play, Equus won the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics' Circle that year as well.[13] [14] His screenplay adaptation of the play was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1978.[15]

Shaffer's play Amadeus won the Evening Standard Drama Award and the Theatre Critics' Award for its initial London production. Upon moving to Broadway, Amadeus won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play.[16] His screenplay adaptation of the play won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well as the Golden Globe Best Screenplay in 1984.

Shaffer's play Lettice and Lovage was nominated for another Tony Award, and for her performance in it, Dame Maggie Smith won the Tony Award for best actress after three nominations in 1990. Lettice and Lovage also won best supporting actress for Margaret Tyzack and was nominated for best direction of a play in 1990 Tony Awards.[17]


Shaffer was appointed a CBE in 1987 and named Knight Bachelor in the 2001 New Year's Honours. In 2007 he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[18]

Selected works


  1. "Peter Shaffer Biography". 15 May 1926. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  2. "The Jewish Daily Forward". Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  3. Gardner, Lyn (6 June 2016). "Sir Peter Shaffer obituary". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 7 December 2018.
  4. Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 377. ISBN 1-84854-195-3.
  5. "Black Comedy". Retrieved 8 November 2019.
  6. "Naked stage role for Potter star". BBC News. 28 July 2006. Retrieved 22 February 2007.
  7. "Peter Shaffer wanted to make elaborate theatre – and he succeeded". 6 June 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2016 via The Guardian.
  8. "Birthdays today". The Telegraph. 15 May 2013. Retrieved 12 May 2014. Sir Peter Shaffer, playwright, is 87
  9. "Equus and Amadeus playwright Peter Shaffer dies aged 90". The Guardian. 6 June 2016. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
  10. "'Equus' and 'Amadeus' playwright Peter Shaffer dies at 90".
  11. "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". University of Bath. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
  12. "Five Finger Exercise Broadway @ Music Box Theatre - Tickets and Discounts - Playbill". Retrieved 31 December 2016.
  13. "Search Past Tony Awards Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  14. "Past Awards". Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  15. "The 50th Academy Awards | 1978". | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  16. "Search Past Tony Awards Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  17. "1990 Tony Award Winners (". Retrieved 31 December 2016.
  18. "Hall of Fame: theater veterans get a night in limelight". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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