Black Comedy (play) - Development


In the early spring of 1965, National Theatre dramaturge Kenneth Tynan commissioned Shaffer to write a one-act play to accompany a production of Miss Julie starring Maggie Smith and Albert Finney. Shaffer later wrote in the introduction to his 1982 Collected Plays: "Without much conviction, but with the sort of energy which Tynan always elicited from me, I described my idea of a party given in a London flat, played in Chinese darkness-- full light--because of a power failure in the building. We would watch the guests behave in a situation of increasing chaos, but they would of course remain throughout quite unable to see one another. Ever one to appreciate a theatrical idea, Tynan dragged me off instantly to see Laurence Olivier, the director of the National. In vain did I protest that there really was no play, merely a convention, and that anyway I had to travel immediately to New York to write a film script. Olivier simply looked through me with his own Chinese and unseeing eyes, said "It's all going to be thrilling!" and left the room."

So, Shaffer set about composing the play. In order to produce a more sustaining dramatic premise than the mere gimmick of inverse lighting, Shaffer devised the notion that one of the characters had a reason to actually keep the others in the dark. It was from this necessity that the idea of the stolen furniture was conceived, and the theme of lies was solidified. Brindsley would keep his guests in the dark--both figuratively and literally.

Tynan would later say of the rehearsal process: "This was farce rehearsed in farce conditions." Due to scheduling difficulties at Chichester, Black Comedy was given very little rehearsal time, and it would later open without a single public preview. The play was directed by John Dexter--who had directed Shaffer's previous play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and would go on to direct Equus--with what Shaffer called "blazing precision." He went on to say that "it was acted with unmatchable brio by Smith and Finney, by Derek Jacobi as an incomparable Brindsley, and by Graham Crowden as a savagely lunatic Colonel Melkett." Maggie Smith had previously starred in two of Shaffer's previous plays, The Private Ear and The Public Eye, which were performed as a double bill at the Globe Theatre.

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