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As I left a performance of Peter Shaffer's Royal Hunt of the Sun, I tried to recall the last drama of such stature to come from a British pen. Anything on Pinter, Osborne, Fry, Eliot? No. Then I realized that Royal Hunt is the finest British play since Shaws Saint Joan burst on the boards four decades ago.
How could this be? What had Shaffers given us already? Balance of Terror, The Salt Lands, Five Finger Exercise, The Private Ear and The Public Eye-all tidy, competent pieces of work, but of no great moment. Yet somehow, and in his midthirties, he wrought a masterwork that dwarfs everything else his nation has produced for nearly half a century.
Like Saint Joan, it is a play about Catholicism and heresy, among other things. Could it be that the theme of religious faith inspired him to outdo himself? It is undeniable that, over the years, this theme has stimulated playwrights to remarkable and frequently their best work-from Prometheus Bound, Antigone and The Bacchae through Tartuffe, Athalie, Faust and Brand to Easter, Partage de Midi, Murder in the Cathedral, Galileo, Billy Budd, A Sleep of Prisoners, and Waiting for Godot.
In Royal Hunt Shaffer has tackled some of man's profoundest problems: God, Faith, Hope-Despair, Joy-Pain, Greed, Honor. In the Introduction to the printed text, he states some of his premises: "What is most distressing for me in reading history is the way man constantly trivialises the immensity of his experience" the way, for example, he canalises the greatness of his spiritual awareness into the second-rate formula of a Church-any Church..... To me, the greatest tragic factor in history is man's apparent need to mark the intensity of his reaction to life by joining a band, to give itself definition, must find a rival, or an enemy."
Shaffer has not fallen into the trap of abstract debate, however. He explores his theme by dramatizing a segment of actual history-the Spaniards' conquest of Peru, and more specifically, the period 1529-1532 and the events surrounding the crucial confrontations between Pizarro the Conquistador and Atahuallpa the God-Become-Man.
These two are obviously men of "magnitude" in Aristotle's sense, and they produce a true tragic catharsis. The conflict is dramatic in many other ways: a Christian vs. a Pagan, a bastard vs. a bastard, an intelligent illiterate vs. an intelligent illiterate, an older man vs. a younger man.
Royal Hunt is just as purely an epic as is the lliad (and one could point out numerous parallels between the two). It also shows high quality in all six departments postulated by Aristotle for tragedy: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song. Shaffer says he was aiming for "total this theatre," and he definitely has achieved it. For this is not just a play to be spoken. Lighting, sets, costumes, masks, instrumental music, singing, sound effects, mime, dance, ritual-all are wonderfully integrated and absolutely indispensable.
Divided into two parts of an hour and a quarter each, the result has grandeur, sweep, fluidity, and occasionally some ingenious simultancities. Not does it lack wit.
Now just as Shakespeare could not have done without Holinshed's Chronicles, Shaffer could not have done without Prescott's Conquest of Peru (an astounding achievements-researched and written Jasmite the almost total blindness Prescott incurred from a food throwing fracas among Harvard students-and still, after more than a century, the definitive work on the subject). And Shaffer did his homework well. He follows the account in Book III of Prescott rather more closely than Shakespeare kept to his historical sources.
Shaffer has, however, departed in certain instances from Prescott. Some deviations are inconsequential details, but others are important. Shaffer has moved the murder of Atahuallpa's brother Huascar ahead in time. And he has made Pizarro eventually a more sympathetic character than emerges from Prescott, who rightly stated that "the treatment of Atahuallpa, from first to last, forms undoubtedly one of the darkest chapters in Spanish colonial history." But these changes are invariably justified dramaturgically, Shaffer has retained, compressed, omitted, and changed the right things to insure a better play.
I do not mean to imply that this is a flawless work. There is, near the end of Act II, one abrupt and unmotivated shift in Pizarro's attitude that Shaffer failed to validate (Prescott didn't have the answer either). Also the Narrator can't seem to make up his mind whether the Spanish forces numbered 160, 167 or 187.
The Broadway production is lucky to have retained the services of three persons involved in the play's British premiere at the Chichester Festival last year: designer-costumer Michael Annals, composer Marc Wilkinson, and director John Dexter.
Opting for a bare raked forestage, Annals has erected a plain wooden back-wall containing an enormous medallion, which can open to form a twelve-rayed golden Incan sun and reveal a raised acting area behind. This sun is so constructed that, in a way I must not reveal, it later contributes appreciably in conveying a feeling of horror at the Spaniards' avaricious plundering of Incan wealth. His exotic, colorful (and, at one point, tinnient) costumes for the Peruvians contrast effectively with the Spaniards' blacks and grays, only occasionally relieved by white and red. And Martin Aronstein's lighting is as full of meaning as Annal's costumes and stage.
Wilkinson's vocal and instrumental score is unsurpassably integrated. There are about two dozen cues, ranging from five seconds to five minutes. We have Gregorian chants, and an organ fantasia in the style of Cabezon. But most noteworthy is the substantial amount of Indian music and sound effects, performed both on and off stage. This has been meticulously written out, with a vast instrumentarium including slide-recorders and some twenty varieties of exotic percussion. Its impact is indescribable.
Aided by a special mime-superviser, Mme. Claude Chagrin, director of John Dexter has piloted his forty or so players with a sure hand. At the performance I saw, a few of the smaller parts were not well spoken, but these should improve. The role of narrator-page Martin Rulz does not greatly tax the outstanding skills of George Rose, but he handles it splendidly.
The chief acting burden naturally falls on Christopher Plummer as Pizarro and David Carradine as Atahuallpa. Both performances are stunning. Now there are two kinds of excellent actor. One molds each role into an extension or variation of his own marked personality-like Gielgud, Hawkins, Mastroianni, Robards, Fonda. The other, and greater, is able to obliterate the self and mint an entirely fresh being-like Chaplin, Jouvet, Oliver Guinness, Brando. Plummer belongs to the second type. Having recently seen his Hamlet, Arturo Ui, and Pizarro, I just can't believe they were all played by the same man.
Plummer drives far into the complex character Shaffer has provided him. The gruffness is there, but so is the melancholy. The outward conflicts are there, but so are the just as real ones within him. He does wonders with the large number of Pizarro's short ariosos, marvelously rhythmed and filled with evocative and fresh metaphor. And his final scene is one of extraordinary beauty and deep pain.
Carradine is an actor ideal for the part. He looks like a young god, projects his specially stylized diction affectingly, and has superb control of his bodily movements. The moment of astonishment when he discovers the existence of writing is a sight to behold; and, when he lies dead for minutes on end, I'd swear he didn't take a single breath.
Royal Hunt will appeal not only to drama buffs, but also to those interested in ballet, anthropology, history, music, ethnology, and theology. It should be seen, studied on the page, and re-seen. A master piece of historiography has been fashioned into a masterpiece of dramaturgy and now emerges as a masterpiece of total theatre.
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