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New playwright opportunity in honour of Sir Peter Shaffer

Trinity will support an aspiring playwright-in-residence in memory of the dramatist Sir Peter Shaffer (1926-2016) whose acclaimed works include Equus and Amadeus.

After conscription to the coal mines in Kent as a ‘Bevin Boy’ during the Second World War, 21-year-old Peter Shaffer arrived at Trinity in 1947 to study history and began writing short stories.

He described student life as ‘heaven’ and Cambridge ‘an astonishing place for many reasons’. Shaffer attended lectures of all kinds, including by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and he met EM Forster at King’s College, where the novelist was an Honorary Fellow.

Peter Shaffer as an undergraduate

Now the Sir Peter Shaffer Charitable Foundation and Trinity are enabling an aspiring playwright to craft and stage a new play via a 12-month playwright-in-residence award, which provides a maintenance grant, research allowance and College accommodation.

Alan Schwartz of the Foundation said:

Peter had a liberating, exhilarating experience at Trinity. This grant reflects his lifelong commitment to the art of playwriting and the further development and encouragement of young writers to create works of enduring value in the English language.

With its history and tradition of literary excellence Trinity is the perfect place for talented young writers to explore and develop their art and, we hope, create new works of scope and substance.

During their 12 months at Trinity, the Peter Shaffer Playwright in Residence will be mentored by an academic while they develop a play, which must be staged before the year’s end. Any student who has graduated from a UK university within the last five years is eligible to apply for the postgraduate award.

From Shaffer’s first lecture in Cambridge, the world changed for the young man who had hitherto spent eight hours a day labouring at a colliery, from which he was invalided out with a gastric ulcer. Years later he recalled this lecture, about an obscure medieval monk who had translated the Bible into an equally obscure language:

This was so vastly different from shovelling carbide that I couldn’t believe my luck. … I was in Heaven. It was everything the university – my idea of university – had promised. And particularly, it wasn’t just so much that I had an unquenchable thirst for Ninth Century Austro-Gothic, but the remoteness from the hellish pursuits of the last two and a half years was genuinely intoxicating. And I just hung on every word. I mean, I just listened to it with such joy.

Shaffer entered a short story competition set by EM Forster. He didn’t win but he did receive an invitation to tea. He recalled:

I said I would love to have tea with him and I went round in some awe of the great man. And he served me tea and he was very shy. … it was tremendously encouraging … the fact that he liked the story and it had merits and he had a way of conveying its demerits … that was very very graceful.

Shaffer went on to huge success on the stage with The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Equus, and on screen with the multiple Academy award-winning film Amadeus. Sir Peter bequeathed his archive of playscripts, photographs and correspondence to Trinity, the first major dramatic archive to be held by a Cambridge College. The archive is currently being catalogued.

Peter Shaffer on the Fountain steps with a friend

Emeritus Professor of English Literature and Trinity Fellow, Professor Adrian Poole, said Sir Peter was part of the important literary legacy of the College, which has been home to Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, AA Milne and Vladimir Nabokov, and continues to this day.

Contemporary writers Trinity has hosted include Ben Okri, Deborah Levy and Jacob Polley; and currently we are fortunate to have with us Ali Smith and Guy Gunaratne.

We encourage all kinds of artistic creativity amongst our students. Many go on to high achievement as writers, performers and directors in various media. We hope that this new opportunity will attract and inspire many young ambitious playwrights.

Acclaimed novelist Ali Smith, the current Senior Creative Arts Fellow at Trinity, remembers the impact of seeing Equus:

When I was 16 or so my best friend and I set off on a train from Inverness down to the Edinburgh Fringe especially to see Equus, a wild and daring and primal and thoughtful play that had electrified us when we’d read its script. I remember it vividly. It meant anything could happen in theatre: depths would surface, institutions would quake, something unsayable would be understood.

You can find out full details of the Peter Shaffer Postgraduate Award for Playwriting including how to apply. The closing date is Friday 12 January 2024 at 12 noon.

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