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Royal Hunt Of The Sun by Peter Shaffer

Royal Hunt Of The Sun (original 1964; edition 1981)

by Peter Shaffer (Author)

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213585,576 (3.43)8
In the rich, humid air of sixteenth-century Peru, Atahuallpa, the Sun-God King, meets Pizarro the Conquistador, representative of the Spanish Empire at its most insatiable. While the Inca King is convinced of his own immortality, the Spaniard is cynical and greedy, leading to a collision of power and authority. Soon both men are locked in a struggle for survival; one of them must die and the survivor must face mortality, and the terrible truth of the world he lives in. Moving and atmospheric, The Royal Hunt of the Sun is an unforgettable drama of pride, empire and the conquest of bodies and souls.… (more)
Title:Royal Hunt Of The Sun
Authors:Peter Shaffer (Author)
Info:Penguin UK (1981), 96 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Royal Hunt of the Sun by Peter Shaffer (1964)



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Peter Shaffer

The Royal Hunt of the Sun:
A Play Concerning the Conquest of Peru

Penguin Classics, Paperback, n.d.

8vo. 98 pp. Author's Notes [7-8].

First present by the National Theatre at Chichester, 7 July 1964.
First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton, 1964.
First published by Penguin, 1981.


Author’s Notes

Act I: The Hunt
Act II: The Kill

The Music


Francisco Pizarro – Commander of the Expedition
Atahuallpa – Sovereign Inca of Peru
Martin Ruiz – Pizarro’s page
Miguel Estete – Royal Veedor, or Overseer
Fray Vincente de Valverde – Chaplain to the Expedition (Dominician)
Fray Marcos de Nizza – Franciscan Friar
Hernando de Soto – Second-in-Command
Pedro de Candia – Commander of Artillery

Place: Apart from two early scenes in Spain and Panama, the play is set in the Upper Province of the Inca Empire: what is now South Ecuador and north-western Peru. The whole of Act II takes place in the town of Cajamarca.

Time: June 1529 – August 1533


It is a sad thing to read of an author's death and remember you have unread books by him. Peter Shaffer has died a few days ago, aged 90, and I felt guilty enough to expand my knowledge of his output beyond Amadeus (1979).

The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), much like Amadeus, is a historical play firmly based on real people and events, yet boldly building on them in the realms of fiction. The first act shows Pizarro recruiting men for his expedition to Peru and entering deep into the Incan empire. The second act is centred around the unlikely friendship between Pizarro and Atahuallpa. Each act consists of twelve short scenes, but the action is continuous, even though Shaffer, as in Amadeus, plays a trick or two with time compression.

Pizarro is clearly intended as a tragic character, and not an unsuccessful one. He is tormented by everything from his obscure origins and far from distinguished career to Time with capital “T”, old age and death. Now he rails in a rather magnificent, Lear-like manner, then he calmly thinks aloud about atheism, sun worship and the meaning of our existence or lack of such. For all of his self-professed nihilism, he is a man of inflexible integrity and moral courage. Unlike many of his people, he is no racist or religious bigot. I couldn’t care less if this Pizarro is historically accurate or not: he works fine within the play. And for someone presumably illiterate he expresses himself in a remarkably poetic and meaningful way:

Look, boy: know something. Men cannot just stand as men in this world. It’s too big for them and they grow scared. So they build themselves shelters against the bigness, do you see? They call the shelters Court, Army, Church. They’re useful against loneliness, Martin, but they’re not true. They’re not real, Martin. Do you see?

Fame is long. Death is longer… Does anyone ever die for anything? I thought so once. Life was fierce with feeling. It was all Hope – like on that boy. Armour shone, and swords sang, and cheese bit you, and kissing burned, and death – oh, that was going to make an exception in my case! I was never going to die. But once you know you are – really know it – it’s all over. You find you’ve been cheated, and nothing’s the same again.

Several of the other characters stand out. Most important dramatically, though not the most interesting mentally, is of course Atahuallpa. Peter Shaffer is too smart a playwright to waste your time with nonsense like the Noble Savage, and he makes the Incan emperor just as wildly superstitious and vengeful as the Spanish. But there is enough in him to bring out the humanist in Pizarro and involve him into a frightful moral dilemma. Among the varied ranks of the Spanish, the devoted friend De Soto, the outrageously arrogant Estete, the mercenary Venetian De Candia, and the two Martins, the idealistic boy full of chivalrous illusions and the disillusioned old man, are very vivid if not very complex creatures. Of special interest are the two contrasting priests. Valverde is just a stupid brute who knows only how to curse the pagans or bless the converts. De Nizza is “a man of far more serene temper and intelligence”, but that’s precisely what makes him infinitely more dangerous. He is the ultimate example of intellect diseased with theology. Predictably, he has some fierce confrontations with Pizzaro:

De Nizza: Look hard, you will find Satan here, because here is a country that denies the right to hunger.
Pizarro: You call hunger a right?
De Nizza: Of course, it gives life meaning. Look around you: happiness has no feel for men here since they are forbidden unhappiness. They have everything in common so they have nothing to give each other. They are part of the seasons, no more; as indistinguishable as mules, as predictable as trees. All men are born unequal: this is a divine gift. And want is their birthright. Where you deny this and there is no hope of any new love – where tomorrow is abolished, and no man ever thinks ‘I can change myself’ – there you have the rule of Anti-Christ.

De Nizza: When I came here first I thought I had found Paradise. Now I know it is Hell. A country which castrates its people. What are your Inca’s subjects? A population of eunuchs, living entirely without choice.
Pizarro: And what are your Christians? Unhappy hating men. Look: I’m a peasant, I want value for money. If I go marketing for gods, who do I buy? The God of Europe with all its death and blooding, or Atahuallpa of Peru? His spirit keeps an empire sweet and still as corn in the field.
De Nizza: And you’re content to be a stalk of corn?
Pizarro: Yes, yes! They’re no fools, these sun men. They know what cheats you sell on your barrow. Choice. Hunger. Tomorrow. They’ve looked at your wares and passed on. They live here as part of nature: no hope and no despair.

The play has its share of drawbacks, of course. The story is supposed to be told in retrospect by Pizarro’s page, now an old man, who acts as something between narrator and chorus, but he is often intrusive. As made clear in his “Author’s Notes” (full of spoilers, should you care), Shaffer wanted to create “a kind of ‘total’ theatre, involving not only words but rites, mimes, masks and magics.” This is why the play had an extensive score composed for it, lots of sound effects, and an elaborate choreography. Maybe it worked swimmingly on the stage, but it can be a little confusing on the page. Last and least, the bunch of commoners in Pizarro’s expedition have no other business but to demonstrate the greed for gold of the Spaniards. We know that from their officers.

In spite of these defects, this is a fascinating play of more than passing interest. Quick and easy read, yet hard to forget and rather thought-provoking on a number of levels. Certain scenes and speeches represent philosophical drama at its best. Shaffer’s Pizarro, like his Salieri, may be – probably is – just as historical as The Lord of the Rings is history, but this, of course, does not matter at all. It’s a fine piece of characterisation all the same, certainly fine enough to carry the weight of a whole play well worth reading – and, if possible, seeing – 52 years later. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jun 9, 2016 |
  kutheatre | Jun 7, 2015 |
This play contrasts the conflict of the European mind with the simple nature-centred mind of the Inca. Well, in retrospect, the Inca mind doesn't appear to be that simple, but for the purposes of the stage it is a powerful work. Worth the read, as well as worth seeing. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 12, 2013 |
This play, written in the early 60's, deals with the Spanish conquest of the Incas. Pizarro, De Soto and their army of soldiers and priests travel to Peru in search of gold. They find a culture that has no hunger or sin and plenty of gold. The people are ruled by Atahuallpa, the son of the sun. He is held prisoner by the Spaniards until his people bring all the gold they possess to Pizarro, but over the months Pizarro and the king develop a friendship that threatens the Spanish army.
I wanted to read this one after seeing the movie a long time ago. It starred Robert Shaw as Pizarro and Christopher Plummer as Atahuallpa. Yes, Plummer played an Incan, and he was brilliant. Also, the movie has a massacre scene that was filmed in a strangely beautiful way. ( )
2 vote mstrust | Jan 25, 2011 |
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