Playwright Peter Shaffer (15 May, 1926 to 6 June, 2016) has shuffled off the stage. Whilst his best known play was Amadeus, he also wrought, to interesting and arresting advantage, Five Finger Exercise, The Royal Hunt of the Sun (featuring the immortal stage direction in Scene VIII, “the men climb the Andes”) and Equus.
These were all rather vulgarised in film treatments, except Equus, which was superbly done in 1977. Shaffer liked to set the devout and the earthy in opposition to each other (e.g., sun-worshipper vs gold worshipper; genius vs proficient mediocrity) and his stylish settings accentuated this conflict.
Here’s a cute little monologue from Equus that shows Shaffer’s classicist bent and his disturbing turn of phrase. Psychiatrist Dr Dysart (Richard Burton), treating a shockingly mixed-up criminal youth, is recounting an image:
Three nights later, I had this very specific dream. In it, I am a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded... like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick, round stone, holding a sharp knife. In fact, I'm officiating some immensely important ritual sacrifice... on which depends the fate of the crops, or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children...boys and girls stretching in a long queue, across the plain of Argos. I know it's Argos, because of the red soil. On either side of me stand two assistant priests, wearing masks as well...lumpy, pop-eyed masks...such as were also found at Mycenae. Enormously strong, these priests, and absolutely tireless. As each child steps forward, they grab it from behind and throw it over the stone. Then, with a surgical skill that amazes even me, I fit in the knife...and slice elegantly down to the navel, just like a seamstress following a pattern. I part the flaps, sever the inner tubes, yank them out and throw them, hot and steaming, on the floor. The other two then study the patterns, as if they're reading hieroglyphics. It's obvious to me that I'm tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that's got me where I am. The only thing is...unknown to the others...I'm beginning to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it's getting worse. My face is going green behind the mask. Of course, I redouble my efforts to look professional...cutting and snipping for all I’m worth...mainly because I know that if those two others so much as suspect my distress...and the implied doubt that this repetitive and smelly work is doing any social good at all...then I’d be next over the stone. Then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip. The priests both turn and look at it. Their gold pop-eyes suddenly fill with blood. They tear the knife from my hand, and...I wake up.