Monday, June 06, 2016

Peter Shaffer Dead at Ninety

The playwright Peter Shaffer passed away yesterday at the age of 90 and the announcement brought back memories for me that go back over fifty years.

I can tilt my head up right now and see on the bookshelf above my computer screen copies of Black Comedy, Equus, Amadeus, Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Lettice and Lovage.  I'm not sure what happened to my well worn acting edition of his Five Finger Exercise, but hope I can be excused as I built the set for that show in 1961 or 62.

How has Mr. Shaffer impacted my life?  Let us just say that he has been in and out of my consciousness for a long long time.  I directed his Black Comedy for Parents Weekend at Monmouth College in October of 1969.  It is a funny play and had a marvelous cast. All but Lon Helton have disappeared from my mailing lists though I think Dr. McNamara still hears from Roger Yochelson.  I do remember a few names though. From the left in the photo below are  Lon Helton,  Pam Renick, Chuck Jackson, and Roger Yochelson.    

My next contact with Shaffer was when I saw the original National Theatre Production of Equus from the on-stage seats at the Old Vic in 1972.  Tickets for the little wooden operating theatre that surrounded the acting area were less than a pound.  Peter Firth played Allan Strang and the show was dynamite.   It burned into my memory like a fireball and I couldn't wait until it was released for amateur production.  We did it at Monmouth College in 1978 in a production that I think rests easily in the top ten of the best shows I have directed.

It was also one of,  if not the very first, amateur production of the play in Illinois.  Jeff Quinliven played Allan.  Joel Nadel was Dysart. (You were great Joel.) and  Linda Fottler was Jill.  Doug Rankin fashioned the metal horse heads (one is still in the theatre I think)  and also played the lead horse.    Doug, of course, I still see regularly as he is now chair of the MC Theatre Department. I think Dan Clay also played a horse and another minor role.   Who played the 3rd horse?  Was it Dwight Tierney?  I've lost the names of the rest of the cast. One of the women died in a car crash. Was her first name Marilyn?  Help me.  Doug, the production list on the theatre web site needs a digital copy of each program.  Student project!

I was also able to see the original production of Amadeus in London at the National Theatre in 1979. The cheap same-day seats in the Olivier are often in the front row and at the end of the show Paul Scofield was kneeling at spittle distance about four feet from me.  The movie was fine, but the live production was magnificent.

Moving on I saw Lettice and Lovage in London in the 1990's. I believe it was at the Globe on Shaftsbury Avenue but it was after Maggie Smith had left the cast. I don't recall being impressed with that one.  Royal Hunt of the Sun  I never saw in England, but did catch a splendid touring production in Chicago at the theatre that is or was attached to the old Bismark Hotel.  I forget the date now.

RIP Sir Peter.  Over the years you have dazzled and moved me. You have challenged and stretched my creative muscles.  You have made a mark on all the performers and audiences at Monmouth College who witnessed your work.  Your gifts to the world and to the theatre will continue to flourish in the coming years.   Thank you.


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