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Dramatic Tension in “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” Essay

How does Shaffer create and use dramatic tension in “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” and to what effect?

The Royal Hunt of the Sun is a gripping play about the journey of the Spanish army sent to conquer Peru, and the unlikely friendships that are formed. Shaffer creates dramatic tension with a number of techniques such as the use of Martin to narrate the story to the audience, a unique and powerful use of sounds, and the use of symbolic props and duologue scenes that create dramatic irony. He also employs a number of methods to show the contrasts and similarities of religion, culture and philosophy between the Inca and Spanish armies.

Shaffer initially uses Martin’s narration to foreshadow the ensuing disastrous events. Old Martin generates the audience’s attention at the very start of the play by saying “This story is about ruin.” This creates dramatic irony and suggests a treacherous and threatening atmosphere. In “The Mime of the Great Ascent” Old Martin speaks about the tribulation the army faced “…we crept forward like blind men, the sweat freezing on our faces” in order to gain the sympathy of the audience. Old Martin’s emotions are showed in different ways throughout the play, “Look at the warrior where he struts… salvation in his new spurs. One of the knights at last.”

Here Shaffer uses Old Martin’s cynicism and bitterness to exaggerate the loss of Young Martin’s innocence and childhood and gain the empathy of the audience. As the story unfolds, the reason for Old Martin’s pessimism becomes clear to the audience, “I went out into the night… and dropped my first tears as a man… Devotion never came again.” Here Shaffer uses Old Martin’s reflection on his past as a window through which the audience can see how Martin’s broken youth shaped him as a man, and uses realism to involve then in the action onstage, creating suspense.

Shaffer makes use of stage directions, which play a big part in revealing the symbolism of the performance, and creating dramatic tension. The use of “Tropical bid cries” throughout the play creates a dangerous and threatening atmosphere, and hints at the power Atahuallpa has over Peru and the Spanish army. During the climb of the Spanish Army to reach the city, Shaffer uses “an eerie, cold music made from the thin whine of huge saws.” This creates an unnerving atmosphere, putting the audience on edge. Symbolic props also play a large part in creating contrasting moods throughout the performance.

“Four black crucifixes, sharpened to resemble swords” are placed on the back wall, criticizing the hypocrisy of the church, and the use of religion as a pretext for killing whilst representing the conflicted and violent theme. During the course of the play, Shaffer uses the imagery of the “golden sun” which is placed at the back of the stage. “Diego… drives his halberd into a slot in one of the rays.” This symbolizes the destruction of the Inca empire, and once again sound is used to create tension when “The sun gives a deep groan, like the sound of a great animal being wounded.” Here the personification of the sun creates sympathy and compassion amongst the audience.

Peter Shaffer uses scenes of duologue between the main characters to give the audience an insight into the relationships between them, and create dramatic irony. During the play there are moments where Pizarro is alone with Young Martin, and speaks to him in confidence; here the audience is encouraged to sympathize with the characters’ predicaments and anxieties. When Pizarro warns Young Martin that the Army is “Nothing but years of Us against Them” the audience becomes aware of the extreme differences in their opinions and views, which creates great tension and unrest between the characters. Shaffer enables Pizarro to freely suggest the extent of is own greed and betrayal during his duologue scenes with Martin, “if the time ever came for you to harry me, I’d rip you too, easy as look at you.”

Here Shaffer creates more tension, causing the audience to question Pizarro’s loyalty to Martin, whilst hinting at the slightly more malevolent and spiteful side to Pizarro. The duologue scenes between Pizarro and Atahuallpa allow the audience to see the fragile and personal characteristics of the otherwise powerful, dominant male figures. At first Atahuallpa shows his lack of distrust in Pizarro when proclaiming him dishonest “you have no swear to give”. Atahuallpa takes a leap of faith and trusts his captor, to the surprise of the audience, creating an uneasy and nervous atmosphere. “You make me laugh! (In sudden wonder) You make me laugh!” It is at this point in the play that Pizarro realizes he has formed a genuine friendship with Atahuallpa, and the audience feels the tension rise once again as Pizarro is forced to decide the fate of Atahuallpa.

A main theme of the play is the contrast between the Inca and Spanish cultures. Atahuallpa is nearly always shown sitting high up in front of the golden sun, showing his power and authority, whereas the Spaniards wore heavy, clumsy clothing, which symbolizes their awkwardness in the foreign land, and their ignorance of other cultures. Domingo says “God-dammed place. I’m starting to rust.” This could indicate of the immorality and true objectives of their journey. The Spanish consider Atahuallpa to be “just one savage” when in fact he is the core of the Inca society, this is shown throughout the play. Atahuallpa finds it difficult to understand the Spanish way of life as the Incan religion and society was built on concepts and simplicity rather than material wealth and gain, creating tension.

Despite many differences, both religions believe in a supreme being who would rise from the dead. Until Pizarro met Atahuallpa, he had lost faith in all conventional religion, and exclaimed, “I’m going to die! And the thought of that dark has rotted everything for me.” Atahuallpa gave him a new sense of belonging and introduced him to the Inca religion, “Believe in me. I will give a word and fill you with joy.” Pizarro found this concept very attractive and was instantly fascinated by Atahuallpa. This creates tension and increases the audience’s interest in the story. The great contrasts between the two cultures and the similarities between the two men create a sense of mystery and rising tension as the story continues, this is greatened by the audience’s knowledge that Pizarro will have to kill Atahuallpa.

Shaffer uses stages directions, imagery, sound and narration to create an ongoing sense of tension throughout the play, it is extremely effective. I particularly enjoy his use of duologue scenes to create tension and allow the audience to gain an insight into the story.


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