Peter Shaffer’s early life and career

Family background

Peter Levin Shaffer was born in Liverpool in 1926 to an Orthodox Jewish family. He had an identical twin brother, Anthony (1926 – 2001), who was also a writer. As children the twin boys were often dressed alike, and grew up with a strong sense of rivalry, made stronger by their similar professions. The Shaffer family was close, although not without some tension, which is reflected in some of the plays.

As a child, Peter Shaffer was interested in a range of things:

  • He liked puzzles and games, which the critic Gene Plunka relates to the psychiatric puzzles of his plays
  • He learned Hebrew, and was bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen
  • He learned music and showed great aptitude. Musical structures appear in several of his plays.

Education

Initially, Peter and his brother went to a local prep school in Liverpool. After the family moved to London in 1936, they attended St Paul’s School in London.Shaffer did well there and won a scholarship, or exhibition, to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Bevin boys in mining trainingHowever, before he could go to Cambridge he was required to do war service, so both Anthony and Peter worked as Bevin Boys in coal mines in Kent. Peter in particular strongly disliked both working underground and the manual labour. Eventually he became ill, and developed a duodenal ulcer. Shaffer has suggested since that both the experience of the hard work and the subsequent illness helped him to empathise with other people.

At university, Peter Shaffer was rather a loner, but did well academically and seemed to be happy. He read History, but with a developing interest in a literary career, especially after a radio play which he had written was accepted by the BBC in 1947.

Shaffer’s early career

Possibly due to his upbringing, Shaffer felt that a career as a playwright would be frivolous, so he tried instead to get a job in publishing. After having no success, he went to New York, where he had a variety of jobs. Whilst he loved the city, he did not seem to settle there, although he did attend the theatre frequently. 

When he eventually returned to the UK, his writing career really began, with novels, radio plays, prose and eventually his first full-length play, Five Finger Exercise. This full-length drama, which has retained its popularity into the present, first opened in 1958 and won awards. Its success launched his playwriting career. At the same time, he also became a music critic for the periodical Time and Tide.

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