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MEET THE READER: Sir Peter Shaffer - Everything You've Heard is True

Ray Morton remembers the late Sir Peter Shaffer, sharing how his approach to writing can inspire writers of all mediums.

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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The renowned playwright and Academy Award winning screenwriter Sir Peter Shaffer passed away on June 6, 2016 at the age of 90.

MEET THE READER: Sir Peter Shaffer - Everything You've Heard is True by Ray Morton | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Born in England on May 15, 1926, Shaffer began his career writing for television and radio in England, as well as penning several mystery novels with his twin brother Anthony (who would go on to write the hit play and film Sleuth). Shaffer’s first play for the legitimate theater – a family drama called Five Finger Exercise – opened at London’s Comedy Theatre in 1959. He would go on to write 17 more plays, most of which were terrific successes in the West End and on Broadway. In 1975, Shaffer won a Tony for his play Equus, which ran for two years in London and for three in New York.

This triumph was followed by the play most consider Shaffer’s masterpiece: Amadeus – the story of Antonio Salieri – court composer to Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor – whose envy of the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart leads him to declare war on God. This war is ignited by the pious Salieri’s anger over the Almighty’s apparently capricious decision to reward a crude and immoral Mozart with the divine talent that Salieri had prayed his entire life to receive, but had never been granted. Mozart becomes the battlefield upon which this war is fought, with Salieri attempting to destroy the young composer in order to prevent God from being able to speak to the world through Mozart’s sublime music.

Amadeus premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1979. Directed by Sir Peter Hall, the production starred Paul Scofield as Salieri and Simon Callow as Mozart and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play. A Broadway production also directed by Hall and starring Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, and Jane Seymour opened in 1980. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and ran for 1,181 performances.

The Academy Award-winning film director Milos Forman saw the play on the night it premiered in London and was so taken with it that he approached Shaffer during the intermission and told the startled playwright that he wanted to make the author’s creation into a movie. Five years later, Forman’s dream came true when the film version of Amadeus – with a screenplay written by Shaffer – opened on September 19, 1984. The film was a major success at the box office and went on to win eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (for F. Murray Abraham playing Salieri opposite Tom Hulce as Mozart). Shaffer himself won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

As both play and film, Amadeus has a great deal to offer writers. Its exploration of genius, jealousy, and the frustrations of recognizing and struggling to transcend one’s mediocrity are guaranteed to touch a chord in any creative person. And the film’s depiction of the creative process – especially in the climactic scene in which a dying Mozart dictates a segment of his ultimately unfinished Requiem Mass in D minor (K. 626) to an overwhelmed Salieri, who lacking Mozart’s genius, struggles to keep up with the Maestro as he translates the music in his head with an effortlessness that even his impeding mortality cannot hinder – is the most accurate and illuminating ever put on film.

Shaffer himself also has a great deal to offer writers – the way he approached his work provides the rest of us with a number of wonderfully inspirational examples:

  • He was passionate. Shaffer wrote about topics that interested him and that he cared deeply about. For example, when Shaffer was very young he heard a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major (K488) and loved it (he was attracted to “its restraint, its certainty”). Thereafter he became a devoted fan of the great composer – he listened to all Mozart’s work and read all he could about the genius. A passage about Mozart’s funeral that appeared in one of the many biographies Shaffer read prompted him to explore the topic further and that is when he conceived the idea for Amadeus. Once he began writing, he poured all of his knowledge of the composer, his life, and his work into the narrative. He also poured his love for Mozart’s music into Salieri’s spoken assessments of Wolfgang’s work. The result was what one critic applauded as being “some of the most beautiful and evocative descriptions of music ever composed.”
  • He was bold. Shaffer wasn’t afraid to tackle big themes (Peter Hall said that all of Shaffer’s major plays were about man’s “quest for God”) and challenging subject matter (eighteenth-century composers, the psychology of disturbed young men, Spanish conquistadors, and so on) in truly daring fashion (one of the stage directions for The Royal Hunt of the Sun – a stage play about Pizarro’s conquest of Peru – famously read “They cross the Andes.”). In this age of formulaic studio pictures and navel-gazing indies, we could all benefit from following Sir Peter’s lead.
  • He was entertaining. No matter how big Shaffer’s subject matter or how weighty his themes, he always filled his scripts with generous helpings of all of those things we go to the theater and the cinema for: drama, melodrama, comedy, wit, action, romance, and spectacle. Amadeus may be the story of a man’s fight with God, but it is first and foremost an entertainment – and a wonderful one at that.
  • He wasn’t afraid to kill his darlings. One of the hardest things for many writers to do is to let go of an idea they love, even when it isn’t working or isn’t appropriate. Shaffer was a very theatrical playwright – he told his stories in ways that utilized the very specific devices of the stage. The use of these devices made for thrilling theater, but would not have worked at all on screen. Shaffer had actually been disappointed by early screen adaptations of his plays, including several written by himself, because they were too theatrical and not cinematic enough. When it came time to write the screenplay for Amadeus, Shaffer retained the core elements of his narrative but otherwise threw everything out and started over from scratch – ruthlessly discarding storytelling devices, scenes, and dialogue that won a Tony and sold record-breaking numbers of tickets on both side of the Atlantic and developing new and completely cinematic ways to tell his tale on film. This must have been an incredibly painful process, but Shaffer bit the bullet and did it and the result won an Oscar, something that would not have happened if he had held on rather than let go.
  • He kept at it until he got it right. Too many writers give up too soon – settling for okay when great is required. Sir Peter did not. He initially conceived Amadeus as an Agatha Christie-like detective thriller about a conspiracy surrounding Mozart’s death, but after writing an initial draft he realized this approach wasn’t working, so he started over again and reworked the thriller into a more effective melodrama. After the play opened in London, Shaffer found himself dissatisfied with the second act. The production’s tremendous success may have persuaded many other writers to just leave high-grossing, award-winning well enough alone, but Shaffer couldn’t. He threw out the original second act and wrote an entirely new second act for the Broadway version. The core of the play’s second act is the final confrontation between Salieri and Mozart. Even in the revised second act, Shaffer felt he didn’t quite get this scene write, so he rewrote it again for a Canadian production in 1997, yet again for the London/Broadway revival in 1998/1999, and refined it even further for the published edition of the revival’s script, at which point he was finally satisfied. I’m not suggesting that most writers spend twenty years working on their scripts, but doing another draft or two beyond “okay” is certainly a good idea.

I’m going to finish with a personal story:

MEET THE READER: Sir Peter Shaffer - Everything You've Heard is True by Ray Morton | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

As you can probably tell, Amadeus is one of my all time favorite things. The 1980 Broadway production remains the best thing I have ever seen on a stage and the film version takes my breath away every time I see it. I am such a fan of this piece that several years ago I wrote a book (Amadeus: Music on Film) about the creation of both the play and the film. As part of my research, I requested to interview Sir Peter, not really expecting he would agree. Much to my surprise and delight, he said yes. He invited me to his gorgeous penthouse apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan and, although he had originally agreed to give me an hour, allowed me to stay for three. During our talk, he took me through the genesis of the play, its transformation into a film, and the workings and mysteries of his creative process. He was sweet and kind and generous and tolerant, even when I reverted to gushing fanboy mode and told him his play was the most moving thing I had ever seen in a theater. After the interview was over, he showed me around his apartment, which included a walk on a very large balcony that afforded a gorgeous view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey palisades as well as a peek at the original color version of the iconic black and white poster for Equus. It was a lovely afternoon that climaxed with a moment that will remain with me as long as I live – as I got in the elevator to leave, Sir Peter shook my hand, thanked me for coming, and as the door closed, said "I'm so glad my work moved you."

When my book was finished I sent him a copy and word got back to me that he liked it very much and felt I had done justice to his brainchild, which is about the greatest compliment he could have ever given me (he also asked for a few extra copies, which I gladly provided).

Sir Peter Shaffer leaves behind an amazing body of work of which Amadeus and Equus are only a part. He also gave me an experience I will treasure forever. RIP.

Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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