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Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Royal Hunt of the Sun, by Peter Shaffer, Reviewed.

This play was first performed at the National Theatre in Chichester on 7th June 1964, when I was a young man of 16. I've never seen a performance, but I wish I had. Bernard Levin described the work as 'The greatest play of our generation', and I can see why, having merely read the text.

This is a piece of fictionalised history with much taken from recorded sources. It reads as true. It reads as a commentary on the utter hypocrisy of the early Catholic Church, the greed of those who would make Empire their ambition, the incredible courage of some and the cowardice of many. In the characters we find historical personalities and other figures developed to illustrate the generality of those men who accompanied Pizarro on his epic journey to rape and plunder the civilisation of the ancient Incas in Peru.

The motivation of the majority was a desire to escape abject poverty coupled with a promise of untold wealth. In an age when the promise of an afterlife was taken as fact by many ignorant and ill-educated people, the value of real life was held to be low, of course. Others who ventured forth on this great adventure of corruption and theft were driven by political or evangelical ambition. The 'royal' representatives of Spain are drawn with savage honesty, corrupt, self-serving and totally driven by an ideal of royalty that has nothing to do with the older idea of noblesse oblige. Those representing the Catholic Church are drawn with brutal truth as purveyors of a falsehood they are determined to force on the innocent in the hope that conversion of such souls might bolster their own insecurities and bring them the selfish reward of everlasting life for their own souls, regardless of the cost for those they thus pollute.

But it is greed that most drives the characters of this play, as in the real journey. They desire gold, at any price and regardless of the cost in human life. There is no hiding from the facts here. Pizarro, although trying to present himself as a complex character with mixed motives, is, in reality, simply a bully and opportunist with a lust for gold that drowns out all reason. He slowly comes to realise what is defining his life and, to his credit, develops some scruples as events unfold and he discovers that the man he would slaughter as a savage is anything but.

My only slight cause for complaint rests in the depiction of Atahuallpa as an entirely noble sovereign. He is undoubtedly more versed in nobility than any of the western characters, but he is also the head of a state where sacrifice and strict rule exist, circumscribing the lives of his subjects to the extent that they are mere shadows of men. Individuality in this state is definitely not permitted and the word of Atahuallpa is law on pain of death. But I suspect the elevation of the Inca leader is simply a device to make him more admirable than the ruffians, cowards, hypocrites and thieves who invade his land in order to destroy a civilisation simply for monetary reward. The destruction of the art into simple blocks of gold, as a means of sharing, is unforgiveable and underlines the wholly material concerns of the men concerned in the looting.

This is a powerful, disturbing and moving piece of drama. It reads on the page with a presence of power and emotional thrust that performance must render into an amazing experience. If I ever get the opportunity to attend a performance of this play, I will definitely go. In the meantime, I recommend any reader with an interest in the frailty of man, the iniquity of empire, the place of brutality in history, to read the text. It is a worthy use of your time.

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