COSTA MESA — Like Lettice Douffet in his 1987 comedy "Lettice & Lovage," Peter Shaffer never seems at a loss for words. But in a recent interview he worried about sounding glib, something that wouldn't bother her in the least.
"I discover what I mean as I write," the eminent British playwright said by phone from New York, where he lives half the year. "That can be both terrifically exciting and very dangerous, because when you look at your words later you wonder, 'Did I really mean that, or am I just making verbal patterns?' "
Playgoers will have a chance to make up their own minds when a revival of "Lettice & Lovage" opens Friday at South Coast Repertory.
Measured by his three best-known plays--"Amadeus," "Equus" and "The Royal Hunt of the Sun"--Shaffer needn't concern himself too much. Though some critics claim he fits high-flown ideas to middlebrow taste and therefore lacks profundity, a legion of admirers point to his rare talent for turning serious subjects to account on the commercial stage.
"Royal Hunt" (1964) abandoned conventional naturalism for an epic style to evoke the 16th-Century subjugation of the Incas by Francisco Pizarro, the death-obsessed conqueror seeking immortality.
"Equus" (1973) explored the intersection of religion, mythology and psychiatry through its ritualistic dramatization of a youth's aberrant sexual awakening.
"Amadeus" (1979) dealt with the relationship between man and deity--a frequent theme for Shaffer--in its tale of the 17th-Century composer Antonio Salieri, whose fame cannot compensate for the bitter recognition that God prefers the music of his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
But nowhere in his work is Shaffer's consummate theatricality and passion for language more evident than in the title role of "Lettice & Lovage," a character originally written for the British actress Maggie Smith.
Lettice is a middle-aged tour guide at a stately mansion with a history so uneventful that her canned lectures are putting listeners to sleep. Bored to tears herself, she begins to embroider the dull facts and soon is regaling tour groups with fantastic tales made of whole cloth.
This brings her into conflict with Lotte Shoen of the Preservation Trust, which runs the place. Lotte is shocked by Lettice's flights of fancy, of course, and she calls Lettice on the carpet--not unlike the historical preservationists who accused Shaffer of taking creative liberties in both "Amadeus" and "The Royal Hunt of the Sun."
Lettice refuses to back down. She explains that "fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum." She has adopted the credo of her late mother, a dauntless Shakespearean actress: "Language alone frees one. History gives one place." Lettice's motto, which could just as well be the playwright's, is: "Enlarge! Enliven! Enlighten!"
As though to underscore the point, Shaffer has made the play a delicious debate, among other things, between fabulist and factualist. And he has dressed it to the nines in comic charm. Both characters have reams of wonderfully literate dialogue, with the emotional Lettice given to compulsive Wildean bursts of wit and the intellectual Lotte to cooler Shavian eruptions.
"I think most of the plays we see today are verbally undernourished," said Shaffer, a two-time Tony Award winner (for "Equus" and "Amadeus"). "It's not the amount of words they use. It's a different sort of malnutrition: They do not stimulate the communal imagination of the audience. Our function as playwrights to some extent is to make audiences see with their ears, because films make us see with our eyes much better."
Shaffer wrote "Lettice & Lovage" for Smith, a longtime friend, after she complained to him about a dearth of leading roles for middle-aged actresses in the British theater. She had appeared in three of his early one-act comedies--"The Private Ear" and "The Public Eye" (1962) and "Black Comedy" (1965)--but hadn't had a role in any plays of his since.
"I have the impression we were in a taxi, but we may have been at dinner," recalled Shaffer, who turns 68 next month and is this year's Oxford University visiting professor of contemporary drama, an endowed chair whose previous occupants include Stephen Sondheim and Alan Ayckbourn.
"She said to me, 'What are you doing now? Are you writing one of those plays you write for men?' And I said, 'What do you mean?'
"She said, 'Oh, you know what I mean! All of my contemporaries who are men are now starting on their Falstaffs, their Lears, their Macbeths. What is there for me? I've done Viola. I've done Rosalind. There's nothing left for me but freaks, the Lady Bracknells, that sort of thing.'
"I must have whined a bit or done something of the kind. But on the way home I thought, 'My God, she's right.' American actresses have Tennessee (Williams), who wrote glorious parts for women. Who do we have?"