I was saddened recently to read of the death of Peter Shaffer, the playwright, although he had reached a goodly age, he was ninety years old.
Peter Shaffer played an important rôle in my life. I was working in London, I was thirty years old, a repressed, studious and earnest young woman – living with my mother – we shared a comfortable bed sitting room in a flat belonging to a Jewish couple in Hampstead and I was working as a secretary at ICI on the Embankment. I hated my job, I had tried unsuccessfully to make my way in publishing, and so finally opted for a better paid job.
In 1958 Peter Shaffer’s first play, Five Finger Exercise, was produced in London by John Gielgud and I went to see it. I loved the theatre and saw many plays, usually without my mother, she was not with me on that occasion. Being deaf it was hard for her to hear.
I no longer remember the details of the play, it was about family tensions, but the catalyst for me appears to have been a scene where one of the characters was making an Indian curry; he was doing something that he loved doing.
There was little in my life at that time that I loved doing. I disliked my job, I did not know what to do next, and I was full of a sense of duty about looking after my mother. I remember how the play struck me like a revelation; it was akin to Joseph Campbell’s idea of ‘following your bliss’. I sent Peter Shaffer an enthusiastic fan letter.
He was 32 years of age and this was his first play on the London stage. I received a handwritten, two page reply from him, dated Jan. 22nd, 1959, in which he said: “it is so enheartening to receive a letter like yours, although I don’t believe a word of those fine things you said about me.” He went on: “if only one used anything like one’s total abilities as a person, I think we go through life being half-people or quarter-people. I’m delighted my play affected some kind of resolution of tension inside you, that’s a wonderful thing for me to know. Even if the resolution is only partial (as you indicated), it’s good I think – relaxation leads to relaxation.”
Of course I prized this letter, and I am wondering now how instrumental this was in my applying for a job at NATO in Paris.
I had fallen in love with Paris on my 21st birthday, the 14th of July, when I was driving through it on a coach on my way to Spain. We drove along the Champs Elysees to the Place de la Concorde. The sun was shining, there were flags and bunting everywhere, and the Parisians were out en masse celebrating. I was entranced.
To work in Paris seemed like a dream, and I did in fact move there in July 1959, that very same year. This move was to change the course of my life.
I went to see all of Peter Shaffer’s plays, Amadeus, in the cinema and on the stage, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus, this last one after I had retired to Bath. I thought he was an extraordinary playwright, and I would like to think that my early fan letter was an encouragement to him at the start of his career, just as his reply to me and his play helped me to change my own life.