Today marks the passing of Sir Peter Shaffer, Tony Award-winning playwright of Amadeus, Equus, and many other works, who was an icon of the post-war British theatre. He died at the age of 90 while traveling in Southern Ireland. In his theatrical works, Shaffer created a form of religious criticism that has been innocently overlooked by a large number of atheists, primarily because the voice of social criticism has indelibly shifted from great literature to non-fiction writing: Bazarov of Turgenev and Stephen Dedalus of Joyce are commonly forgotten in lieu of the polemics of Dawkins and the educational texts of Bill Nye. What once was accomplished by poetry is now done by empirical scrutiny.
This is to be expected. But while atheistic criticism of religion has become more commercially popular in the last fifteen years, there is still a thriving tradition of commentary on and against religion from the arts. In the last sixty years, the works from the stage which make the most visceral and ultimately profound statement of the dangers of faith are Shaffer’s Amadeus, Equus, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun (a play which chronicles the forced conversion of the Incas by Spanish Christians, and was his first play that formed his method of religious inquiry.)
“Art and literature,” he tells Michael Billington of The Guardian in April, 2006, “are my surrogate religions. I find in Mozart that ecstasy I don’t find in codified faith. I also find in reading – and even sometimes seeing – Shakespeare that same pleasure in perfection I discover in Mozart. When I read the last act of Antony and Cleopatra and that speech beginning ‘The crown of the earth doth melt’ I feel I’m encountering one of the great achievements of mankind. It’s a beacon somehow, a reminder that there is a perfection of art – whereas I don’t think there is a perfection of religion. I wish I could say I found this in the theatre. Not so long ago I saw Troilus and Cressida, and when we got to: ‘The time scants us with a single famished kiss, Distasted with the salt of broken tears’, there was no sense of the actor being aware of the lines he was privileged to say.”
Many have seen the film Amadeus, but the less-theatrically inclined might not be aware that the play first performed on Broadway with Sir Ian McKellen in the role of Salieri opposite Tim Curry as Mozart in 1980. While the epic theme of great rivaling artists takes primary focus, Salieri’s devotion to god and his denial of the gifts of heavenly music is the true conflict of the work. Salieri, convinced that god speaks through music, devotes his life to the lord–only to find that a rude, belligerent boy has been given the divine instrument instead. His rage, the forsaking of his deity, feeling of betrayal for his service, and obsession with the celestial origin of music drive a fanatical revenge in him, and his life as a patron saint of mediocrities serves as a parable, showing in a grisly fashion the danger of fervid belief.
Grisliness in Amadeus is truly second fiddle to the eye-goring horror of Equus, in which a seventeen-year-old Alan Strang is convinced of the divine nature of horses, devoting his life to naked, ecstatic rides through the night during which he experiences ultimate revelation. His psychotherapist, Dysart, originated onstage by Anthony Hopkins, expressed desperate envy at Alan’s transcendent experiences, and pines for the red soils of Argos to touch his own Greek gods—failed pagan that he thinks himself to be. When attempting to have sex with a young woman in a horse stable, Alan, surrounded everywhere by the eyes of his god, fails to perform and in a fury blinds the horses surrounding him with a hoof-pick in an attempt to kill his god. Alan’s construction of holy rites, including the whipping of his own back with a clothes hanger to emulate the pain of his deity under the crop, creates a haunting fascination and humiliation for Dysart, who yearns for the same religious fulfillment. The eternal prison of the mind that such need creates, the “chain that never comes out,” is portrayed so vividly in this piece that it has always been, to my mind, one of the more excoriating criticisms of religion in art that exists. It’s 2007 Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe (who is an outspoken atheist) shows that the production still holds critical merit.
Equus was one of the first plays I ever read, a text which served to solidify my position as both an anti-theist and a student of theatre, convinced of the idea that the theatre—dying medium though it may be—is an organ for relevant and revolutionary dialectic. Shaffer used it in a fashion that was unrivaled by his peers, and created works that are sometimes relegated but powerful pillars in the recent history of anti-religious literature. He was a hero of mine, if I could be said to have heroes, and he will be forever missed in the theatre world. My sincere hope is that atheists and anti-theists the world over might take this moment to recognize his contribution to our causes, and find it within themselves to miss him as well.