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Obituaries

Peter Shaffer, ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Equus’ playwright and Oscar winner, dies at 90

‘Amadeus’ writer Peter Shaffer dies
English playwright Peter Shaffer, pictured in 1980 accepting the best play award for “Amadeus” at the Evening Standard Drama Awards in London.
(Mike Lawn / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Peter Shaffer, the Academy Award-winning British playwright whose stage dramas “Amadeus” and “Equus” were turned into acclaimed movies, has died. He was 90.

Shaffer died early Monday at the Marymount hospice in County Cork, Ireland, according to a statement from his agents at Macnaughton Lord Representation in London. He was traveling in Ireland with friends and family to celebrate his birthday last month.

Shaffer experienced a short illness, the agency said, but it didn’t provide a cause of death. 

Shaffer achieved his greatest popular success with “Amadeus,” his account of the rivalry between composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

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“Amadeus” premiered in London, where it opened in 1979 at the National Theatre. It transferred to Broadway in 1980, where it won the Tony Award for best play and ran for three years.

The play was turned into a movie by director Milos Forman in 1984. It won eight Oscars, including one for Shaffer for adapted screenplay and one for best picture.

Shaffer received some criticism from music historians who claimed the play took too much dramatic license with the antipathy between the composers. Some purists were also displeased with the portrayal of Mozart as a callow, silly man-child with an irritating laugh.

“I am often criticized for portraying him as an imbecile, but I was actually conveying his childlike side: His letters read like something written by an 8-year-old,” Shaffer told the Guardian in 2013.

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The success of “Amadeus” was something in which Shaffer took pride. “My great pleasure is that Mozart has now reached millions and millions of people who had not heard it before,” Shaffer said in his acceptance speech on Oscar night. 

The play continues to be revived at theater companies around the world. A production at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa concluded its run on Sunday.

A new revival is scheduled to begin performances at the National Theatre in October.

Shaffer received an Oscar nomination in 1978 for his adaptation of his play “Equus,” which tells the story of a disturbed stable boy who has an extreme obsession with horses.

“Equus” also debuted at the National and later opened in New York in 1974, winning the Tony for best play. A revival starring Daniel Radcliffe opened on Broadway in 2008. 

His other hits include “Lettice and Lovage,” his 1987 comedy that he wrote as a starring vehicle for Maggie Smith, who won a Tony when the play transferred to Broadway in 1990. 

“I think most of the plays we see today are verbally undernourished,” Shaffer told The Times in 1994 when the play opened at South Coast Rep. “It’s not the amount of words they use. It’s a different sort of malnutrition: They do not stimulate the communal imagination of the audience.”

Perhaps because of the popularity and accessibility of his plays, Shaffer never received the same kind of adulation that critics and academics lavished on his contemporaries Harold Pinter and John Osborne, writers who embraced grittier characters and a bleak working class milieu.

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Accusations of middlebrow respectability dogged Shaffer throughout his career. New York magazine critic John Simon wrote in his review of “Amadeus” that the play has “every ingredient the middlebrow hungers for: great historic names, the debunking of great historic names, the debunking of the debunking of great historic names." 

Shaffer was born in 1926 in Liverpool. His twin brother, Anthony, also became an acclaimed writer, penning the drama “Sleuth” and the screenplay to the 1973 horror cult favorite “The Wicker Man." 

The family moved to London in the 1930s, and Peter Shaffer worked in a coal mine. He studied at Cambridge and later moved to New York, where he would spend much of his adult life.

His first major theatrical success was “Five Finger Exercise” in 1958, followed by the double bill production “The Private Ear/The Public Eye,” starring Smith.

“The Royal Hunt of the Sun,” his 1964 historic drama about Spain’s conquest of Peru, was a transatlantic success that helped to establish his Broadway credentials.  

Shaffer was made a commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1987 and made a knight in 2001.

On his 80th birthday in 2006, Shaffer told the Guardian that encountering “Hamlet” as a student was the best education he had in his life.

“I became respectful of narrative and great stories through Shakespeare,” he said. “I want to be enthralled and Shakespeare teaches one an immense amount about how to organize a story.”

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His survivors include a brother, Brian, as well as nieces and nephews. His brother Anthony died in 2001.

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david.ng@latimes.com

 


UPDATES:

12:09 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details of Shaffer’s career and critical reaction to his work.

This article originally published at 9:37 a.m.


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