The Royal Hunt of the Sun was written in 1964 by Peter Shaffer, at a time when people started questioning our culture for the first time, when the idea of counter-culture began. It deals with the demise of the Inca culture by the hands of the Spanish, or, as the play points out repeatedly, by our culture of civilization. The play certainly takes some creative liberties with history but mostly to highlight the differences and clashes between the two cultures even more than the historical accounts already do.
I got to know the play in university, in a very interesting seminar with a terrible professor. It had always fascinated me and now I finally read it in school with students for the first time. I’m not sure if they liked it but the message wasn’t lost on them, I think. It of course fits within the bigger scope of things we’ve discussed this year, from the difficulties of growing up in our culture, to the source and problems of overpopulation to the atrocities of the British Empire. After all those years of teaching counter-culture I even found a new approach of portraying our culture, which boils down to more, more, more. With these three (one?) words you can illustrate and convey so many essential aspects of our culture without going into more details. This idea resonates with most students right away.
It is also one of the elements of the play, as the Spanish not only want more Christian converts but also gold, more of it, more, more, more, and their mission brings them to Peru to get both of these things from the Inca. Pizarro, normally portrayed as a 15th century mass murderer, leads this expedition as a disillusioned mercenary who is struggling to find meaning in anything our culture offers him. As he tells poor young dreamer Martin in the beginning:
Men cannot just stand as men in this world. It's too big for them and they grow scared. So they build themselves shelters against the bigness, do you see? They call the shelters Court, Army, Church. They're useful against loneliness, Martin, but they’re not true. They’re not real.
In one big swipe he disenchants some of the institutions our culture relies upon. A moment later he details our culture’s binary thinking: “Army tradition [is] nothing but Us against Them. Christ-men against Pagan-men. Men against men. […] It’s nothing but a nightmare game, played by brutes to give themselves a reason.” Despite examining the power games of our culture with such sharp words, he still continues with his mission because, again, he hasn’t found any alternative.
One of the strengths of the play, which sets it apart from so many stories that portray our culture as bad in some way, is that it provides such an alternative when the culture of the Inca is introduced. When they meet them for the first time, one of the Inca explains how their culture is organized, how everyone has a specific task for a specific age, how everything is shared and how they have a kind of social security system. One of the Spanish notices how content they are despite them working and Pizarro is astonished to realize that being greedy is not a human trait, but only inherit in our culture. It seems obvious to criticize the play for romanticizing the Inca or how it makes their culture look like communism, but its portrayal is in accordance with traits you find in almost all tribal cultures.
Pizarro becomes more and more fascinated by this culture and by Atahuallpa, but his fault lies in realizing too late that he brought doom to the Inca empire and that there is no way for him to stop it. When Atahuallpa’s dead body lies at his feet, there is nothing for him to say anymore. He is broken because his desire to find meaning for his life was stronger than the desire to save the culture that might provide that meaning for him.
What’s fascinating about Atahuallpa’s portrayal is that it is so relentless. He is arrogant and direct, self-confident and wise. He sees through Christianity and the concept of imperialism and tries to fight the colonizers not with weapons but with vision and conviction. It doesn’t save him and you could accuse him of being naïve but he is just following his culture’s ideals that have helped his people and gave them a satisfying way of life, without more, more, more. I’ve heard people claim that he falls into the noble savage trope but I can’t really agree with that. He is not perfect but also never relies on “savage” qualities that we so often see in other portrayals of indigenous people. His principles are what fascinate Pizarro the most. The Spanish also follow certain principles but none of them are felt or lived but just mechanisms to gain more wealth and power. Atahuallpah represents a true vision of a life that works and without the missionary desire to convert everyone.
Still, the portrayal of the Inca in some ways remains sketchy and the focus is on the characters we as Western readers can identify with more, which is a common practice and helps us not to go too far in the identification process. As I said before, we can live surprisingly well with the idea that the way we live sucks, without thinking about alternatives. The best lines in the play are by Old Martin, who in the end notices:
So fell Peru. We gave her greed, hunger and the cross: three gifts for the civilized life.
This is a striking depiction of our culture, reducing it to some of its core, destructive values. The play offers a bit more by trying to depict the Inca as an alternative that seems to work, but eventually its focus lies more on the devastating consequences of our way of life, which is as relevant now as it was in the 60s. Greed, selfish leaders and a lack of respect for other cultures are as timely as they’ve ever been.