PETER SHAFFER 1973
Peter Shaffer was inspired to write Equus by the chance remark of a friend at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The friend recounted to Shaffer a news story about a British youth who blinded twenty-six horses in a stable, seemingly without cause. Shaffer never confirmed the event or discovered more of the details, but the story fascinated him, provoking him “to interpret it in some entirely personal way.” His dramatic goal, he wrote in a note to the play, was “to create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible.”
Equus depicts the state of mind of Alan Strang, the imaginative, emotionally-troubled stableboy who serves as the play’s protagonist. In relating his themes, Shaffer combines psychological realism with expressionistic theatrical techniques, employing such devices as masks, mime, and dance. The ongoing dialogue between Alan and Dr. Martin Dysart, the boy’s analyst, illustrates Shaffer’s theme of contrary human impulses toward rationality and irrationality. Curing Alan, making the boy socially acceptable and more “normal,” Dysart frets, will at the same time squelch an important spark of passionate creativity in the youth.
Equus, which some critics labeled a “psycho-drama,” premiered in London at the Old Vic Theatre on July 26, 1973. The production was a huge success, impressing both audiences and critics alike and securing Shaffer’s reputation as an important contemporary dramatist. Equus had its American premiere at New York’s Plymouth Theatre on October 24, 1974, and later received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play was adapted into a film in 1977.
Peter Shaffer and his twin brother Anthony (also a playwright and novelist) were born May 15, 1926, in Liverpool, England. Peter attended St. Paul’s School in London, graduating in 1944, near the end of World War II. For the remainder of the war, he was conscripted to work as a coal miner; because a large number of England’s adult male workforce were off fighting the war, many labor positions were filled by women, children, and young adults.
After the war Shaffer attended Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he received a degree in 1950. Following graduation he moved to New York City, where he worked in a book store and the New York Public Library. He returned to London in 1954, working for music publishers Bosey & Hawkes. He began writing scripts for radio and television during this period as well as serving as literary critic for the journal Truth from 1956-57.
Shaffer’s first stage play, Five Finger Exercise, was produced in 1958. He followed it with the paired one-acts The Private Ear and The Public Eye in 1962. In 1963 Shaffer cowrote, with noted stage director Peter Brook (Marat/Sade), the screenplay for Brook’s film adaptation of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies.
Shaffer’s reputation as an accomplished dramatist was secured by the 1964 premiere of his full-length work Royal Hunt of the Sun: A Play Concerning the Conquest of Peru. The play—which creatively blends ritual, dance, music, and drama—reenacts the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest, by Francisco Pizarro, of the Incan empire. The Incas dominated the culture of western South America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the center of their empire lay in what is now Peru, a country founded by Pizarro. Shaffer’s plays of subsequent years include the one-act Black Comedy (1965), a piece based on a device borrowed from Chinese theatre in which actors pretend to be in total darkness although the stage is lit.
Shaffer’s 1970 full-length The Battle ofShrivings was widely considered a disappointment, but the playwright followed it with Equus (1973), a play that is generally considered his greatest achievement to date. Equus received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Shaffer also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Equus in 1977.
In 1979, Shaffer produced what is generally considered his best-known work, Amadeus, which he has described as “a fantasia on events in [18th century composer Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart’s life.” Like Equus, Amadeus is a probing exploration of the human psyche, centering on the royal court composer Antonio Salieri and his jealousy of Mozart’s seemingly effortless brilliance. Mozart is portrayed as a vulgar, self-centered genius, a sort of prototypical rock star. The play won the 1980 Tony award, and the 1984 film adaptation won Academy Awards for best picture and best screenplay adaptation (for Shaffer’s script). Shaffer’s plays since Amadeus include Yonadab: The Watcher (1985) and the popular comedy Lettice andLovage (1987).
With a long-standing reputation for craftsmanship, Shaffer’s career is marked by theatrical success and prestigious honors. In addition to his many popular successes in drama, he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of the Dramatists Guild, and was granted the title Commander of the British Empire in 1987.
The play opens on two scenes: Alan Strang fondles the head of a horse, who in turn nuzzles the boy’s neck; subsequently, Dr. Martin Dysart addresses a lecture audience about the case of Alan Strang, a troubled boy of seventeen who blinded six horses. Dysart begins his narrative with the visit by his friend Hesther Salomon, a magistrate who managed to persuade the court to put Alan in a psychiatric hospital rather than in prison. As the action on the stage enacts this recollection, Salomon tells the doctor that she feels something very special about the boy. Dysart agrees to see Alan, although he is already overworked.
In their first session, Alan is evasive, singing advertising jingles in response to Dysart’s questions. Alan is clearly startled when the psychiatrist coolly responds to the jingles as if Alan were speaking normally. Upon conclusion of the meeting, the boy is reluctant to leave the doctor’s office, and, as he is finally ushered out, he makes a point of passing “dangerously close” to Dysart.
Returning to the lecture format, Dysart reveals to his audience that he is suffering nightmares in which he is a ancient priest sacrificing children, on whom he sees the face of Alan. At the same time, however, Dysart feels he has achieved a breakthrough with his patient, who is beginning to open up. Dysart pays a visit to Alan’s parents in the hopes of learning something of the boy’s background. The father, Frank, is still at work, but his wife Dora informs the doctor that Alan was always captivated by horses, particularly a story about a talking horse called Prince, who could only be ridden by one special boy. Alan also memorized a Biblical passage about horses in the Book of Job; he was particularly taken with the Latin word Equus. When Frank returns home, he tells the doctor that he blames Alan’s problems on the Biblical passages about the death of Jesus, which Dora read to the boy night after night. Frank shares his belief that religion is only so much “bad sex.”
Dysart must discover the reason behind Alan’s screams of “Ek!” in the night. Although Alan has grown more communicative, he still resists interviewing, making the doctor answer his own queries for each question Dysart poses. Question follows question, but when Dysart asks Alan directly why he cries out at night, the boy reverts to singing television jingles. Dysart dismisses Alan, and this reverse psychology causes Alan to begin talking about his first experience with a horse. At the beach, a man let Alan join him on his horse and ride as fast as the boy liked. Alan’s parents saw him, became worried, and caused him to fall. Alan claims this was the last time he ever rode a horse.
In three unexpected visits, Dysart acquires a great deal of new information. From Dora Strang, he learns about a particularly graphic image of Christ, “loaded down with chains,” on his way to crucifixion, which used to hang above Alan’s bed. It was torn down by Frank after one of their frequent fights about religion and replaced with a photograph of a horse that pleased Alan immensely. In the second visit, Mr. Dalton, the stable owner, informs Dysart that Alan was introduced to the stables by a young employee of his, Jill Mason. Dalton comments
that Alan was always a terrific worker before the blinding incident but that for some time he suspected the boy may have been taking the horses out at night to ride them. Finally, Frank Strang pays Dysart a visit, describing with great difficulty how he once discovered Alan reciting a parody of a Biblical genealogy and then kneeling reverently in front of the photograph of the horse and beating himself with a coat hanger. Frank also reveals that Alan was out with a girl the night he blinded the horses.
In their next conversation, Dysart asks Alan more directly about Jill. The boy calls the doctor “Bloody Nosey Parker!” and in turn asks about Dysart’s relationship with his wife, suspecting that the couple never has sex. Startled that Alan so quickly discovered his “area of maximum vulnerability,” Dysart orders the boy out of his office. Speaking later with Hesther, Dysart laments his sterile marriage. Hesther reminds Dysart that it is his job to make Alan normal again, but Dysart questions the value of what society views as normal. When Alan next comes before the doctor he is more subdued, and Dysart succeeds in hypnotizing him through a game he calls “Blink.” In this state, Alan is persuaded to discuss in detail his ritualistic and ecstatic midnight rides. An expressionistic, theatrical enactment of one of these rides brings the first act to a close.
In another monologue, Dysart continues to question rhetorically the value of his profession. The speech is interrupted by the entrance of a nurse, who reports that Mrs. Strang has slapped Alan after violently refusing the lunch she brought for him. Dysart confronts Mrs. Strang and orders her to leave. She expresses to the doctor the frustration she feels as a mother, wanting Dysart to understand that what is wrong with Alan is not a result of anything she or Frank did to him. “I only know he was my little Alan,” she mourns, “and then the Devil came.”
In a subsequent discussion with Dysart, Alan denies anything that he said under hypnosis. At the same time, however, the boy suggests that he would take a “truth drug,” to make him reveal things he is withholding.
Talking again with Hesther, Dysart reveals further reluctance to cure Alan, especially if it means denying him the worship which is central to his life. The doctor envies the boy’s passion. Alan later apologizes for having denied what he said under hypnosis and acknowledges that he understands why he is in the hospital. Dysart is extremely pleased. Sending for Alan in the middle of the night, he gives the boy a placebo—an aspirin that he tells Alan is a truth drug—and with encouragement Alan begins to speak freely about his relationship with Jill Mason.
Jill started talking to Alan one night after work, commenting how she noticed his beautiful eyes and obvious affection for the horses. She suspected that, like her, Alan found horses, especially their eyes, very sexy. Jill encouraged Alan to go to a pornographic film with her, and in the cinema, seeing a woman naked for the first time, Alan was mesmerized. Suddenly noticing his father in the audience of the film, however, Alan was ashamed to be caught at a “dirty” movie (though he was more shaken to discover his father there). Alan refused to go home with Frank, insisting it was proper to see Jill home first.
On their walk home, Alan made two important discoveries: first, he finally saw his father as man just like any other, and second, he realized he wanted very much to be with Jill, to see her naked and to touch her. Alan eagerly accepted when Jill suggested that they go off together but was disturbed to learn that her destination was the stables. The young couple undressed, but Alan found himself unable to touch Jill, “hearing” the disapproval of Equus. Furious, Alan ordered Jill out of the stables, took up a pick, and put out the eyes of Dalton’s horses.
With the repressed pain of Alan’s angry and destructive act now brought to the surface, Dysart feels he can relieve the boy of his nightmares and other mental anguish. But Dysart’s monologue that ends the play is the strongest indictment yet of the work he is doing. Dysart laments that in treating Alan, he will relieve the boy not only of his pain but of all feeling, inspiration, and imagination. As for himself, the lesson of Alan has showed him how lost he truly is: “There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain,” Dysart concludes. “And it never comes out.”
A stable owner. He is bitter about Alan’s blinding of his horses and feels the boy should be in prison, not “in a hospital at the tax-payers’ expense.” Before the blinding incident, however, Dalton was extremely friendly and supportive of Alan when the boy came to work at his stable; he told Alan, “the main rule is: enjoy yourself.”
A psychiatrist in his mid-forties. He reluctantly accepts Alan as a patient, persuaded by his lawyer friend Hester Salomon that there is something special about the boy. While Dysart is able to help the young man face his problems, the experience of analyzing Alan has a profound effect on Dysart’s view of his own life as well. Alan’s probing questions about Dysart’s relationship with his wife—a Scottish dentist named Margaret—causes the Doctor to reflect upon how estranged they have become as a couple. They have no children and share minimal, if any, sexual intimacy. Dysart regrets how “briskly” he and his wife have lived their lives together.
When he compares himself to the boy he is treating for insanity, Dysart questions himself. He can cure Alan and make the boy more “normal,” but he regrets that the cost of this process may be Alan losing his unique passion and creativity. Dysart comes to doubt the value of his own work and, perhaps as a result, suffers nightmares. In these dreams he sees himself as a high priest killing children in ritual sacrifice rather than healing them.
The Horseman, who Alan describes as “a college chap,” and Frank later calls “upper class riffraff,” provides six-year-old Alan his first experience riding a horse. Alan’s parents are frightened for Alan’s safety, and Frank pulls his son violently from the horse, causing Alan to fall. The Horseman is incredulous at the anger of Alan’s parents. He flippantly calls Frank a “stupid fart” and makes a point of starting his horse so that its hooves cover the family with sand and water as he rides away. The same actor who plays the Horseman also plays Nugget, one of Dalton’s horses that Alan takes for his midnight rides. This actor is among the chorus of six actors who depict horses.
In her early twenties, “pretty and middle class.” Jill introduced Alan to Harry Dalton, helping the boy get a job in Dalton’s stables. Jill is attracted to Alan and encourages him to take her to a pornographic film, where they run into Alan’s father. Later, in the stable, Jill and Alan have a failed sexual encounter. In his shame, Alan sends Jill away and blinds the horses, a deed which catalyzes the play’s dramatic action. Dalton reports that Jill had a nervous breakdown after hearing of Alan’s act.
A magistrate. She brings Alan to Dysart after pleading with the court to allow the boy a psychiatric evaluation. She is a friend to Dysart and hears him out as he relates his personal problems—many of which he has been forced to face as a result of treating Alan. She tries to persuade Dysart that his psychiatric work has value and that curing Alan is an important task: “The boy’s in pain, Martin,” she observes. “That’s all I see. In the end.”
A “lean boy of seventeen,” who is arrested after blinding six horses at Harry Dalton’s stable where he works. He appears very troubled; in his first session with psychiatrist Martin Dysart, Alan will only respond by singing advertising jingles. Alan has developed a complex ritual of devotion to the god Equus, which he practices through ecstatic
- Equus was adapted into a film in 1977 by United Artists and directed by Sidney Lumet. Shaffer’s script received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay based on material from another medium. The film also received Academy Award nominations for best actor (Richard Burton portraying Dr. Dysart) and best supporting actor (Peter Firth as Alan).
- A BBC sound recording of Equus was made in 1984 (distributed in the United States by Audio-Forum).
midnight rides on Dalton’s horses. Alan’s pagan ritual transfers much of his mother’s Christian faith onto the image of the horse, which Alan associates with the forbidden since the disaster of his first riding experience. Frustrated and ashamed following his sexual failure with Jill, Alan blinds the horses to protect himself from the vengeance of Equus, who “saw” the boy in disgrace.
After resisting Dysart’s initial attempts to help him, Alan gradually grows more comfortable with the psychiatrist. Although Dysart regrets that curing the boy might give him a life as devoid of real passion as the doctor’s own, professional considerations prevail. Alan purges a great deal of pain in his later sessions with Dysart, and the play concludes with the implication that the doctor will continue to heal the boy’s mental anguish.
Alan’s mother, a former school teacher (Alan declares proudly to Dysart, “She knows more than you”). She is religious, frequently talking to Alan about the Bible (much to the frustration of her atheist husband, Frank). Dora also feels she married beneath herself socially, a regret that shows itself in various ways. She comes from a “horsey family,” while Frank finds riding to be an affectation of “upper class riff-raff.” She did not want Alan to work in a shop because “shops are common.”
Dora visits Alan in the hospital, and when the boy throws his lunch at her, she slaps him. She regret this act of violence but expresses to Dysart the level of her frustration under the present circumstances. She is incredulous that Dysart would view Alan’s violence as a product of his upbringing. “I only know he was my little Alan,” she mourns, “and then the Devil came.”
Alan’s father, a printer by trade. He is a self-declared atheist, which goes hand-in-hand with his political beliefs (Dysart calls him an “old-type Socialist. Relentlessly self-improving”). He frequently quotes Karl Marx’s adage, “Religion is the opium of the people” in response to his wife’s religious beliefs. As an atheist, he sees religion as “just bad sex,” holding his wife responsible for Alan’s psychological condition.
Frank comes alone to Dysart’s office to describe to the doctor how he once discovered Alan reciting a parody of a Biblical genealogy and then kneeling reverently in front of a photograph of a horse and beating himself with a coat hanger. Frank also reveals to Dysart that Alan was out with a girl the night he blinded the horses, neglecting to mention that he knows this because he encountered the couple in a pornographic cinema.
There is an ethical ambiguity explored in Equus, the conflict between two ideas of right. The freedom of the individual to do whatever he or she wants must always be balanced with the social need to limit this freedom when a person’s actions are harmful to others. This is certainly the case with Alan’s shocking crime; society’s highest priority in this case is to put Alan away, or to cure his psychological distress so that, hopefully, he will not again cause such harm. Dysart recognizes that he cannot simply allow Alan to act entirely of his own will, but at the same time he is loathe to administer a cure that will most likely quell or kill the boy’s imagination and passion. The doctor also worries that the force driving Alan’s actions is something closer to instinct rather than a simple mental problem. He is concerned that squelching such impulses will essentially rob Alan of all identity. Yet the concerns of society as a whole prevail in this case; Alan’s actions, if left unchecked, will ultimately hinder the freedom and happiness of others.
God and Religion
Not only is religion a significant theme in Equus, it has shown itself important to Shaffer’s writing throughout his long career. Shaffer is fascinated by the human need to believe in a god, to discover a suitable form of worship. In this play the primary theological distinction is between Christianity and paganism (in the form of a horse-god). Alan has been brought up in a Christian faith by his mother, but the horrific tales of Christ’s crucifixion disturbed him. He creates his own religion, channeling Christian beliefs and practices into his worship of the god Equus, a horse figure that is far more comforting to him than the bloodied Jesus. Dr. Dysart, with his passion for classical culture, makes associations between Alan’s beliefs and the ancient, pagan Greek society which is viewed as so influential upon Western civilizations (Greek culture embraced many gods who they believed influenced various facets of their lives; they built a system of arts and social government that is often cited as a model for modern society). Dysart understands intellectually (and begins to feel genuinely) that, as he says, “life is only comprehensible through a thousand local gods.”
Growth and Development
Horse figures play an enormous role in Alan’s development. Images of the horse pervade the play, appropriate for a near archetypal figure which has such important historical and cultural associations. Dora Strang relates how Alan was fascinated as a boy with a historical fact regarding the conquest of the Americas: when Christian cavalry arrived in the new world, the indigenous people often mistook horse and rider for one creature, a four-legged animal with the powers of a god. This anecdote greatly influences the development of Alan’s personal mythology of Equus; as he matures and begins his naked midnight rides, this mythos incorporates sexual elements as well. This is depicted in the last scene of Act One. In a near sexual/religious frenzy, Alan rides the horse, crying, “Bear me away! Make us One Person!”
Other encounters with horse images, or actual horses, were also important to Alan’s development—the storybook his mother read to him over and over, the odd photograph of a horse which
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Compare and contrast the beliefs that Alan’s mother and father have on concepts such as class, religion, sex, and, of course, horses. What effect have each of the parents had on Alan’s development?
- Dora Strang describes the religious picture which hung above Alan’s bed as “a little extreme” in its depiction of Christ “loaded down with chains,” being beaten by Roman soldiers on his way to crucifixion. Research the figure of Christ in the history of Western art, analyzing some of the different ways in which he has been depicted. What do you think disturbed Alan about Jesus and the Christian religion as a whole? What prompted him to start his own religion?
- Discuss whether Equus ultimately seems to be supportive or critical of the value of psychoanalysis.
- Research the theories of Carl Jung, who Shaffer has called “one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.” Drawing on Jung’s concept of archetypal images and other aspects of his philosophy, discuss the importance of the horse (and the centaur) as a symbol in Equus.
- Research the mythology and religious practice of Classical Greece. Discuss the significance of this pagan culture to the themes and characters of Equus. In particular, how does Shaffer’s play enact the philosophical clash between the Apollonian, or rational, and the Dionysian, or instinctive?
- Research Sigmund Freud’s theories of human psychology, including such concepts as Id/Ego/Superego, transference, repression, and defense mechanisms. Use as many of the concepts as seem applicable to provide a Freudian analysis of Alan’s childhood development and how he came to commit his particular act of violence.
replaced the portrait of Christ’s crucifixion, and the traumatic experience of being pulled from a horse by his father after a thrilling oceanfront ride. Other cultural associations with horses—their speed and power, their majestic carriage—make plausible to a contemporary audience the idea that a boy could find divinity in the equestrian image.
Memory and Reminiscence
A form of reminiscence—the replaying of scenes from the past—provides Equus with a dramatic structure. Memory, especially repressed memory that must be brought to light, is additionally an important thematic component in the play. In a classic Freudian formula, Alan has repressed certain memories in his subconscious and as a result suffers nightmares and other forms of mental unrest. Dr. Dysart uses techniques such as hypnosis and a “truth drug” placebo to lower Alan’s psychic defenses and allow these repressed memories to rise to the surface, where they can be confronted and treated by the psychiatrist. There is an abreaction, a venting of psychic pain, which takes the form of theatrical performance and provides each act with an expressionistic conclusion (Alan on one of his midnight rides at the end of Act One; his recollection of blinding the horses near the end of Act Two).
Sanity and Insanity
Like the theme of religion, this theme operates on many levels in the play. Dysart is confronted, on the one hand, with a boy who is psychologically troubled, has committed a violent act society views as insane, and whose pain can be removed by treatment. The play unfolds dramatically, in fact, precisely because of Dysart’s success in uncovering Alan’s repressed memories, and it concludes with the implication that Dysart can cure Alan’s distress. But in treating Alan, Dysart begins to view these labels of sanity and insanity as social constructions, values which appear fixed but actually change greatly over time and across cultures. Dysart is scared that by curing Alan, making the boy sane in a socially-accepted manner, he might take away from Alan a passion for life which most people never feel (and which Dysart admits he envies).
Sex and religion are probably the two most significant, and closely intertwined themes, in the play. Both are crucial factors in Alan’s childhood development; in both instances, Alan makes a transference of what society views as “normal” forms of sex and worship onto his pagan, equine religion. The play hints at the sexual undertones of many events in Alan’s childhood. Frank Strang’s comment that Christianity to him “is just bad sex,” and his reference to a particularly graphic depiction of Christ’s crucifixion as “kinky,” imply connections between sexual desire and religious ecstasy which the father may have instilled in Alan as a youth. Alan’s ride with the Horseman is also given sexual undertones, a pleasure he is clearly attempting to replicate on his naked, midnight rides with Equus. (Alan has essentially made a religious practice out of a masturbatory act.) At the play’s climax, Alan is confused when he finds himself sexually aroused by Jill Mason. He feels great shame as a result both of his “infidelity” in the presence of Equus and his inability to actually have intercourse with Jill. Sex is thus a major factor both in Alan’s development, and in the violent act which initiates the dramatic action of the play.
Equus closely resembles a suspense thriller in form and structure, revealing Shaffer’s fondness for detective stories. Dysart is much like a classic sleuth solving a crime; he painstakingly tracks down the factors that led Alan to blind the six horses. Shaffer has worked in many dramatic genres, including domestic tragedy, farce, and historical drama. Many critics have noted that what makes Equus a unique theatrical experience is its seamless incorporation of several dramatic genres. In addition to being a serviceable suspense tale, the play has also been credited for its intriguing examination of the roots of mental illness as well as its canny updating of Greek tragedy. The play’s popularity among audiences and critics has been attributed to its ability to appeal to numerous tastes. Likewise, not linked to any one dramatic school of thought, Shaffer has demonstrated his versatility with each new play.
Point of View
In Equus—as he has in other plays such as Amadeus—Shaffer uses the dramatic device of the raisonneur, a kind of “color commentator” who directly addresses the audience, providing details that assist the viewer in understanding the play’s action. Thus, the point of view of Equus is largely that of Dysart (the play’s raisonneur), who provides the context in which the story unfolds. However, certain elements in the play are clearly presented from Alan’s perspective: the flashbacks are a theatrical reenactment of Alan’s memories.
The set for Equus, rather than being realistic, is flexible and allows for numerous different performing spaces. The almost cinematic structure of the play—multiple, brief scenes in numerous locations—requires rapid changes in staging. This effect is achieved through a rotating turntable as well as other set techniques such as spot lighting and sparse use of props. For example, Alan picks up benches at one point and moves them, forming three stalls for a scene at Dalton’s stables. The use of mimed objects and actions is also significant to the play’s theatrical technique. Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times that Shaffer “has his theatre set up here as a kind of bullring with a section of the audience actually sitting on stage.” In addition to members of the audience, all the actors are seated on stage, rising to perform in scenes and then being seated, still in view of the audience. Thus, there is little separation between stage and audience, creating an intimacy which underscores the intensity of the drama. Irving Wardle wrote in the London Times that the stage “combines the elements of rodeo, stable, and Greek amphitheatre.”
Rather than moving forward in strictly linear time, Equus combines a main plot unfolding in the present with repeated flashbacks to past events. Dysart’s opening monologue in each act, and some of the therapy sessions with Alan, take place in the present. Incidents involving Alan’s childhood and the night of his crime are in flashback, as are the sequences in Dysart’s life that lead up to his treating the boy. The different temporal threads are woven together, with overlapping elements providing points of transition.
For example, the Nurse’s comments to Dysart about Alan’s condition are melded with Dysart later relating the same details to Hesther. By staging both events on stage at the same time, Shaffer achieves a kind of cinematic edit that allows the same topic to be simultaneously discussed in two distinct settings. The Nurse tells Dysart that Alan has been having nightmares during which he repeatedly screams “Ek!” Hesther, however, not Dysart, asks “Ek?” but the Nurse continues, “Yes, Doctor. Ek.” The past is revealed in glimpses, usually an acting out of what one character is telling another in the present. As these memories are recalled in the present, lighting and set placement allow the actors to slip to another part of the stage and enact the past event being described.
Many critics have called Equus a “modern tragedy,” some evoking Aristotle’s principles of tragedy (as he outlines in his Poetics) to discuss the manner in which the play operates. While Equus does not truly follow the formula for tragedy, it does contain many of the genre’s important components. One of the most closely related is that of catharsis: the purgation of feelings of pity and fear, which Aristotle identified as the social function of tragedy. Parallel to the concept of catharsis is that of abreaction, the discharge of the emotional energy supposed to be attached to a repressed idea, especially by the conscious verbalization of that idea in the presence of a therapist. Thus, the staging of Alan’s repressed memories has a therapeutic purpose that mirrors the potential cathartic effect of the play upon an audience.
The 1964 full-length play Royal Hunt of the Sun: A Play Concerning the Conquest of Peru introduced Shaffer’s characteristic technique of opposing two central figures (in that play’s case, the Inca king Atahualpa and the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro) whose actions establish a dialectic on complex philosophical questions. This technique revealed itself again in the pairing of Dr. Dysart and Alan and would later resurface with the characters of Mozart and Salieri in Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus. Dysart and Alan stand, respectively, as philosophical representatives for subdued rationalism and passionate instinct. As the factors underlying Alan’s violent act are revealed, Dysart discovers a dilemma of his own. Ridding Alan of his mental conflicts only succeeds in transferring them onto Dysart himself.
The Horse Chorus
In Greek theatre, the masked chorus serves to comment on the action of the play. Shaffer has a similar concept in mind with his chorus, although they make equine noises of humming, thumping, and stamping rather than speaking. In the early scenes concerning Alan’s interaction with horses, the choral noises intensify the emotional content, making a connection between the early scenes and the foreshadowing of the act Alan will later commit. This non-realistic technique allows the audience a glimpse into Alan’s state of mind—for the noise, as Shaffer comments, “heralds or illustrates the presence of Equus the God.”
Among the chorus are six actors who represent Nugget and the other horses in the play. No attempt is made to make them appear realistic; they wear horse-like masks of wire and leather beneath which the heads of the actors are visible. Barnes observed that while “is not easy to present men playing horses on stage without provoking giggles . . . here the horses live up to their reputed godhead.” Mollie Panter-Downes commented in the New Yorker that “these masked presences standing in the shadows of the stable manage to suggest the eeriness and power of. . . the old hoofed god.”
When Alan mounts Nugget for the first time, all the other horses lean forward to create a visual picture that highlights Alan’s belief that his god Equus resides in all horses. By having the same actor play the Horseman and Nugget, a visual connection is established which suggests Alan’s transference of emotions from humans onto horses.
Equus premiered in 1973, near the beginning of a decade largely characterized in Britain by crisis and economic decline. Recovering from the ruins of World War II, Britain slowly built prosperity on a moderately socialist model. Many private institutions were nationalized, but the foreign debt tripled. The Labour government of the late-1960s lost ground due to the eroding economic situation, especially
the monetary devaluation crisis of 1967, in which the country’s currency dropped precipitously against other world markets.
Although the economy improved slightly in 1969, the Conservative Party rose to power in the election of 1970. Regarding foreign policy, the disastrous Suez Crisis of 1956, in which England lost control of the vital Suez Canal shipping passage, suggested strongly that Britain was no longer a major world power. Since the height of the British Empire in the early twentieth century, important possessions had been surrendered (most significantly, independence was granted to India, one of the Empire’s colonial jewels, in 1947). Beginning in the late 1950s, the British government followed a deliberate policy of decolonization, one that systematically dismantled the country’s once vast system of colonies.
In the early 1970s the British government continued to struggle with inflation. Violence plagued Northern Ireland, as battles between Protestant and Catholic factions continued to erupt. Both problems would dog British governments throughout the decade. In early 1974, Conservatives lost the general
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1973: Children are widely viewed as innocent, and an act of violence like that committed by Alan is considered especially perplexing. As Hesther observes of Alan’s actions in Equus, even psychiatric professionals “are going to be disgusted by the whole thing.”
Today: Rates of violent crime committed by children have skyrocketed in the latter decades of the twentieth century. While the U.S. has been shocked by a rash adolescent violence—notably a series of shootings at schools in 1998—violent crimes by children are less a factor of life in Britain. Through isolated incidents and exposure to international media, however, British society has been made aware of the propensity for violence among troubled youth.
- 1973: While the Conservative Party controls Parliament, the British Labour party is developing strength and will win important elections in the following year. After several more years of recession and other economic problems, however, voters will usher in a new Conservative government in 1979, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Today: Ending eighteen years of Conservative Party control of the Parliament, the Labour Party achieves an overwhelming national election victory in 1997. Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister, but many feel that “New Labour” has abandoned so many of its traditionally leftist policies that the election is not so much a victory for working class people in Britain as it might appear.
- 1973: Britain, like many nations in the industrialized West, is in the midst of an economic crisis characterized by wild inflation and labor unrest.
Today: The economy has largely stabilized. Conservative governments held down inflation in the 1980s and early-1990s and privatized many national industries. The social cost of these policies, however, was a widening of the gap between rich and poor in Britain, cause for even more class resentment like that expressed by Frank Strang in Equus.
- 1973: The British are a people known for their love of animals and are especially reverent toward horses. Shaffer must carefully tailor his depiction of Alan’s crime so that Equus will startle audiences without sickening and outraging them. The 1977 film adaptation of the play depicts the blinding of the horses in a realistic and bloody fashion, drawing protests from animal-rights activists and criticism from Shaffer himself.
Today: The British, like every culture so heavily exposed to the media, have been forced to adjust to ubiquitous images of violence. The welfare of animals, however, continues to be of great concern in Britain, where animals-rights activism is much more common than in other countries.
elections in the midst of a coal miners’ strike. The government’s refusal to capitulate to the miners’ demands forced energy rationing and a fuel-conserving three-day work week. Although victorious, the Labour party lacked a full majority in Parliament, significantly limiting their power to enact policies in support of working people. Labour won a full majority of Parliamentary seats in October, 1974, but Britain continued to be plagued by inflation and economic decline. Widespread economic discontent led eventually to the victory of the Conservatives in 1979, and the election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose term in office would be riddled with controversy, partisan battles, and wildly fluctuating public support.
On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, both sides blaming the other for having initiated the new aggression (Israel had shot down two Syrian jets). The Yom Kippur War (named for the Jewish Holy Day of Atonement on which the conflict began) was the fourth Arab-Israeli war since 1948. The Soviet union gave military support to the Arabs in response to U.S. support of Israel. Thus, the war had a distinctly Cold War context in which Britain was also implicated.
The greatest impact of the Arab-Israeli war on the West, however, was the resulting oil embargo by Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The oil embargo exacerbated an energy crisis that was already gripping the world. Connected to the energy crisis and other factors, the West additionally experienced an inflation crisis; annual double-digit inflation became a reality for the first time for most industrial nations. The oil shock and soaring grain prices precipitated a world monetary crisis and then a worldwide economic recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Britain, these economic contractions contributed to an increasing sense of social hopelessness.
The Bahamas gained full independence July 10, 1973, after 256 years as a British crown colony. The British Empire continued its inexorable progress toward decolonization. As British control was waning in far-flung parts of the world they once dominated, so British independence was challenged by the growing movement toward union among Western European nations. In 1973, Britain joined the European Community after a decade of controversy, agreeing to participate in common decisions on trade, agriculture, industry, the environment, foreign policy, and defense. In 1993, the European Union (E.U.) was created following ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Britain is today an uneasy member of the E.U.; they would not take part, for example, in the creation of a common currency, the euro, which debuted on world markets on January 4, 1999.
Across the Atlantic, 1973 was also a tumultuous year in American society. American troops were withdrawn from the war in Vietnam but bombing raids on that country continued. The U.S. launched Sky lab, its first space station. The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in their landmark decision Roe v. Wade. Public approval for President Richard Nixon continued to plummet, as accusations and evidence continued to support the fact that he had granted approval for the June 17, 1972, burglary of Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington. Like public opinion over Vietnam, Watergate was an important symbol both of stark divisions in American society and a growing disillusionment with the integrity of national leaders. In late 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned under pressure, pleading no contest (no lo contendre) to charges of income tax evasion and consequently setting the tone for scandals that would continue to rock the executive branch (Nixon himself, under threat of impeachment and removal from office, resigned the following year; other cabinet members, such as Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, and Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, would also be implicated in the crime).
Culturally, London had in the 1960s become a world capital of theatre, fashion, and popular music, but this image was tarnished somewhat by ongoing the economic decline. Save some notable exceptions, 1973 was not a banner year for the London theatre: Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular and David Storey’s Cromwell being two of the few works to share acclaim with Shaffer’s Equus. On the American stage, 1973 saw the premier of Lanford Wilson’s Hot I Baltimore, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, and the blockbuster musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim.
When Equus premiered on July 26, 1973, it provoked strong reactions from critics, as might be expected given the play’s startling topic and innovative production. Many reviews praised the philosophical and theatrical complexity of the work, heralding it as the high point of Shaffer’s dramatic career. Dissenting reviews called the play pretentious or contrived; few writers, however, failed to observe that the play was a major theatrical event of the 1973 London season. Michael Billington of the Manchester Guardian described the play as “sensationally good.” Billington observed that Shaffer continued to explore a theme common to his earlier works but judged Equus superior to its predecessors because in it, “the intellectual argument and the poetic imagery are virtually indivisible.” Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times similarly raved about the play.
Taking an opposing view, Ian Christie of the Daily Express called the script “pretentious, philosophical claptrap.” Irving Wardle of the daily London Times, meanwhile, was among the critics who expressed a mixed opinion. Wardle thought some of Dysart’s speeches were excellently written and found the central image of the horse “poetically inexhaustible,” but he found much of Shaffer’s writing contrived. “There is very little real dialogue,” Wardle wrote. “Even the interviews consist of solo turns introduced with wary parleys on both sides.” Wardle faulted Shaffer’s dramatic creations as heavy handed, calling his characters “schematic automaton[s].”
While many critics, even those who appreciate Shaffer’s work, have pointed out the many similarities between his plays (Wardle called Equus a “variation on a theme”), Clive Barnes saluted the originality of this play. Equus, he wrote in the New York Times, “is quite different from anything Mr. Shaffer has written before, and has, to my mind, a quite new sense of seriousness to it.” Although still intended as a popular play, Equus “has a most refreshing and mind-opening intellectualism.” Writing about the New York production (which opened October 24, 1974), Barnes commented that Equus “adds immeasurably to the fresh hopes we have for Broadway’s future.” Walter Kerr, in another New York Times review, similarly found Shaffer’s play to be of great stature. “Equus,” he wrote, “is one of the most remarkable examples of stagecraft, as well as of sustained and multifaceted sensibility, the contemporary theatre has given us.” Building on such acclaim, the Broadway production of Equus enjoyed an exceptionally long run of 1209 performances.
Initial criticism of Equus focused on such questions as whether the intellectual content of the play melded well with its dramatic form and content and whether or not Peter Shaffer’s dialogue was up to par with the play’s theatrical production, which was widely viewed as ingenious. In more extended analyses of the work, critics began to delve deeply into the psychological complexity of Equus, drawing out a number of interrelated themes. As intellectual touchstones, critics have elucidated elements of Equus by referring to the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as well as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Articles have variously drawn upon Freud’s theories of childhood development and the human subconscious, Jung’s philosophies of archetypal images, and Nietzsche’s concept of tragedy (based upon the human failure to transcend individuation).
Starting with Freudian principles, critics have analyzed the structure of the play as a therapeutic reenactment, or abreaction, of memories repressed in Alan’s subconscious. Many articles have illustrated how the play functions primarily as a study of human sexual development. “Here,” wrote John Weightman in Encounter,“was a new and interesting example of the way sex can get mixed up with religion, or vice versa.”
Additionally, many critics have focused on the play’s religious themes independent of their relationship with sexual development. In such an analysis, Alan is a product of conflicting religious impulses, one Christian, one pagan. More broadly, many critics see an ongoing process of theological introspection as a fundamental element of Shaffer’s drama. James R. Stacy, in Peter Shaffer: A Casebook, observed that Shaffer has been engaged on a “search for worship.” John M. Clum, meanwhile, commented in the South Atlantic Quarterly that Shaffer has been “fascinated with the impulse toward faith. For him the adversary of the man of faith is not a cosmic void or universal chaos; it is rationality. . . . Shaffer is not concerned with existence of a god: he is fascinated with man’s need for religion, for transcendence, for passionate submission.”
Wardle, J. W. Lambert, Frank Lawrence, and Doyle W. Walls are among critics who have evoked the cultural associations with the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as a way of contextualizing the play’s intellectual conflict between subdued rationalism (widely viewed as normality) and passionate instinct (viewed as insanity). Lambert wrote in Drama that in this, Equus focuses on “a theme constant throughout human history, never resolved, always relevant, and very much in the air today.”
Equus continues to attract critical inquiry because of its psychological complexity, its theatrical innovation, and its enduring philosophical weight. Writing in Peter Shaffer: A Casebook, Dennis Klein marveled that Shaffer “has so carefully constructed it that there are no loose ends left for the audience to tie together; and yet the play has inspired such diverse interpretations.” Recent critics, reviewing more than four active decades of writing by Shaffer, still consider the success of Equus an important benchmark in the playwright’s artistic development. C. J. Gianakaris wrote in Peter Shaffer that “Five Finger Exercise and The Royal Hunt of the Sun signaled the arrival on the scene of a new, innovative voice in the theatre; Equus confirmed it.”
Christopher G. Busiel
In this essay, Busiel discusses the element of memory in Shaffer’s play. Developed in collaboration with director John Dexter, the playwright’s depiction of Alan Strang’s repressed memories is, in the critic’s opinion, the most stunning element of Equus. As Busiel writes, the scenes of abreaction, in which the past is represented theatrically rather than discussed verbally, lend the play a delicate balance, creating moments where the past collides with the present, sexual desire with religious practice, and realism with abstraction.
Equus is a play in which present and past collide and intertwine in spectacular and thematically significant ways. Psychoanalysis (a process of evaluating mental health that was developed by Sigmund Freud) drives the plot forward, as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart succeeds in drawing out of Alan Strang a series of repressed memories. His intention is to achieve abreaction, which is the discharge of the emotional energy attached to a repressed idea. Theatrically, the past events in the plot of Equus are strikingly represented, diverging from analytical and expository dialogue; rather than related verbally, these memories are acted out in flashback.
By staging the past rather than revealing it through exposition (analysis usually being a process of verbalization), Shaffer takes great advantage of the visual power of the theatre. In the staging of Alan’s memories, he allows himself a more lyrical tone, a more ritualistic style than that employed in the realistic dialogues between Dysart and the other characters in the play. In his book Peter Shaffer, critic C. J. Gianakaris observed: “What will be best remembered about Equus is its brilliant dramatising of man’s attempt to reconcile the personal and the metaphysical aspects of his universe.” As Gianakaris wrote, with the “immeasurable help” of director John Dexter, Shaffer “strikingly fused realism with mimetic ritual,” achieving a “daring stylisation” which is crucial to the success of the play.
Ultimately, the abstract scenes in Equus powerfully reveal the relationship between sex and religion—the two most significant, and closely intertwined, themes in the play. Both sex and religion are crucial factors in Alan’s childhood development: in both arenas, Alan transfers “normal” social views of sex and worship onto his pagan, equine religion. The play hints at the sexual undertones in many events in Alan’s childhood. Frank Strang’s comment that Christianity “is just bad sex” implies connections between sexual desire and religious ecstasy which run through the play. Frank observes of Alan:
A boy spends night after night having this stuff read into him: an innocent man tortured to death—thorns driven into his head—nails into his hands—a spear jammed through his ribs. It can mark anyone for life, that kind of thing. I’m not joking. The boy was absolutely fascinated by all that. He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning.
Alan’s ride with the Horseman is also given sexual meaning; it is a pleasure he clearly attempts to duplicate on his naked, midnight rides with Equus. (Alan has essentially ritualized a masturbatory act into a religious practice.) At the play’s climax, Alan is confused when he finds himself sexually aroused by Jill Mason. He feels great shame as a result both of his “infidelity” in the presence of Equus and his impotence with Jill. Sex is a major catalyst, both in Alan’s development and in the violent blinding of the horses.
The thematic connection between sexual identity and religious practice is cemented in the details of the play’s staging. Equus is a play of thematic complexity and depth, and Shaffer’s writing of dialogue is, by and large, up to the task of expressing this complexity (although some critics have disagreed on this point). The true novelty and genius of Equus, however, may rest in the manner in which Shaffer utilizes theatrical techniques to enact powerfully the psychological and religious dimensions of the play. Past and present collide in theatrical spectacle, as the dialogue of Alan’s sessions with Dysart is given a larger, visual dimension, powerfully underscoring the play’s psychological themes. Gianakaris comments:
The flexibility of the stage design permits striking variations in the way the action is presented. Straightforward realism alternates with imaginative stylised scenes of mime. Dysart’s is the cool, detached world of science where clinical evidence determines one’s actions. His dealings with others are consequently portrayed realistically, with narrated interjections. But Alan Strang’s ritual worship is especially well suited to abstract staging.
The most stunning moments of reenactment (the abreaction) are the extended scenes which conclude each act of Equus. The first act ends with Alan riding horseback to the point of orgasm, with images culled from passages in the Book of Job from the Old Testament. The second act contains an equally dramatic nude scene of attempted inter-course
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Amadeus, often regarded as Shaffer’s greatest dramatic achievement. The 1979 play is a probing exploration of the human psyche, centering on the court composer Antonio Salieri and his jealousy for fellow composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is portrayed as a vulgar, self-centered musical genius. The play won the 1980 Antoinette (Tony) Perry Award. In 1984, the film adaptation won Academy Awards for best picture and best screenplay adaptation, which Shaffer composed from his original text.
- The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a 1964 play which secured Shaffer’s reputation as an accomplished dramatist. The play—which creatively blends ritual, dance, music, and drama—reenacts the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of the Incan empire. Like Equus and Amadeus, this play employs two opposing central characters to create not only dramatic tension but also a philosophical dialectic on central themes.
- One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey (Viking, 1962). Set in a mental institution and told through from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a Native American patient, Kesey’s book was adapted for the stage and made into one of the most successful films of all time. The novel depicts the struggle between the wild and free-spirited Randal McMurphy and the autocratic Nurse Ratched, offering an unqualified criticism of the treatment of individuals at the hands of the psychiatric institution.
- The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe (Fromm, 1993). This novel (recently adapted into a film by Neil Jordan) explores the descent into madness of a boy who has experienced a harsh upbringing in a small Irish town. Like Alan in Equus, Francie Brady inhabits a world largely of his own imagination. Francie’s growing antagonism toward the society around him culminates with an act of startling violence.
- The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct by Thomas Szasz, M.D. (revised edition, Harper Row, 1974). Szasz is the author of dozens of iconoclastic books challenging the fundamental principles of the psychiatric industry. In this ground breaking work, he argues that human behavior has reasons rather than causes, dissects what he views as flaws in the medical model of mental illness, and challenges the notion of psychiatrists as beneficent healers.
(between Alan and Jill), the blinding of the horses, and words from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. The themes of religion and sex are repeatedly linked
In the first case, having hypnotized Alan through a game he calls “Blink,” Dysart encourages his patient not merely to talk about his ritualistic worship of Equus but to act out the process as well. Dysart’s prompts provide an important encouragement, but gradually the voice of the doctor fades out and the theatrical reenactment subsumes the dramatic action. With a hum from the chorus, the actors depicting horses slowly rotate a turntable, on which Alan and his mount are fixed in a bright spotlight. Alan’s “ride” becomes more and more frenzied, and as the choral humming increases in volume, Alan shouts powerfully:
WEE!. . . WAA!. . . WONDERFUL!. . . I’m stiff! Stiff in the wind! My mane, stiff in the wind! My flanks! My hooves! Mane on my legs, on my flanks, like whips! Raw! Raw! I’m raw! Raw! Feel me on you! On you! On you! On you! I want to be in you! I want to BE you forever and ever!—Equus, I love you! Now!—Bear me away! Make us One Person!
Alan rides ever more frantically, chanting ritualistically “One Person!” and then, simply, “HA-HA!” With Alan’s body twisting like a flame, the chorus gradually brings the turning square to a stop. Alan drops off the horse, kisses his hoof and cries up to him: “AMEN!” The act concludes completely within the framework of this reenactment without returning to Dysart for commentary or further dialogue between doctor and patient.
The conclusion of the play is given a similarly startling theatrical dimension. Dysart has prompted Alan through the process of reenactment, even taking on the voice of Equus himself as he says: “The Lord thy God is a Jealous God! He sees you.” But as in the first act abreaction, Dysart gradually retreats to the background as the reenactment of Alan’s repressed memory takes over the stage:
ALAN: Thou—God—Seest—NOTHING! (He stabs out Nugget’s eyes. The horse stamps in agony. A great screaming begins to fill the theater, growing ever louder. ALAN dashes at the other two horses and blinds them too, stabbing over the rails. Their metal hooves join in the stamping. Relentlessly, as this happens, three more horses appear in cones of light: not naturalistic animals like the first three but dreadful creatures out of nightmare. Their eyes flare—their nostrils flare—their mouths flare, they are archetypal images—judging, punishing, pitiless. They do not halt at the rail but invade the square. As they trample at him, the boy leaps desperately at them, jumping high and naked in the dark, slashing at their heads with arms upraised, and shouting “Nothing!” savagely with each blow. The screams increase.)
The scale of the reenactment—an exceptional bit of theatricality—suggests the monumental importance of the blinding, both as it originally occurred and in its retelling. Building upon the tremendous sense of release Alan will feel from this abreaction, Dysart hopes he will be able to cure the boy of his mental anguish. John Weightman wrote in Encounter that the stabbing out of the horses’ eyes “gives another fine frenzy when the scene is re-enacted as psychodrama.”
Through such reenactments there is an important mirroring of revelation in the play; the audience makes important discoveries just as Dysart is making them. Past and present are folded into one another as theatrical representation takes the place of expository dialogue. During the flashback scenes, the lights turn warm in color and intensity, investing the remembered action with a great deal of theatricality. The staging of the events allows the audience a glimpse into Alan’s mind; he views the world with a passionate sense of wonder few people possess. The purposefully non-realistic depiction of the horses, for instance, allows the animals to “evoke the essence of horses as we recognize them in daily life” but also, crucially, gives them “the regal bearing of transcendent beings as Alan perceived them,” noted Gianakaris. Shaffer notes that in the depiction of the horses, “great care must also be taken that the masks are put on before the audience with very precise timing—the actors watching each other so that the masking has an exact and ceremonial effect.”
While audiences marveled at the theatrical power of Equus, critics have differed in their assessments of Shaffer’s writing and his success at integrating a variety of complex themes and theatrical styles. Reviewing the play in the Manchester Guardian, Michael Billington judged Equus superior to Shaffer’s earlier work because in this play, “the intellectual argument and the poetic imagery are virtually indivisible.” While some critics have found considerable merit in the unity of the work, others argue that the real strength of Equus lies only in its theatricality. Henry Hewes commented in the Saturday Review that “the play’s statement is less impressive than is Shaffer’s skillful theatrical fabrication, which deftly finds layers of comic relief as he inexorably drills deeper into the hard rock of tragedy.” America’s Catherine Hughes similarly focused on the staging, arguing that “on the level of theatricality . . . Equus is stunning. . . . Although Shaffer’s philosophizing is too shallow, sometimes to the point of glibness, to be entirely convincing, one in the end forgives it in the wake of the play’s brilliantly rendered imagery.”
A few critics have argued against even the theatrical power of the concluding scene, although such harsh criticism is rare. J. W. Lambert, for one, commented in Drama that “Mr. Shaffer has not made [Alan’s] course of action seem inevitable. The act of gouging out the horses eyes, when it comes, seems if not arbitrary then hardly less perverse than it would have done had we been given no reasons for it at all. And after all the purpose of the play’s exposition is to offer us some reason for the irrational.”
Shaffer has observed that theatre “is, or has to be, an ecstatic and alarming experience. And a beautiful one. That doesn’t mean it’s one continuous shout-out; it also must have great spaces of tranquillity and lyricism in it.” The powerful scenes of abreaction in Equus lend the play both lyricism and ecstasy. Further, they offer a glimpse into Alan’s mind, which is crucial given the philosophical importance lent to the passionate instinct with which the boy has led his life. While Equus is cleverly constructed from top to bottom, the enduring power of the play may still rest in the skill with which Shaffer and director John Dexter chose to depict the memories repressed deep within the subconscious of its primary character.
Source: Christopher G. Busiel, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Barry B. Witham
Witham examines Shaffer’s play, finding it to be neither “great theatre nor bad psychology.” The critic does, however, find Equus to be “an exhilarating play” that succeeds in being simultaneously thought-provoking and melodramatic. In his discussion of anger in the play, Witham compares Shaffer’s play to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Peter Shaffer’s Equus is neither great theatre nor bad psychology, but it has elements of both. It is an exhilarating play: a remarkable blend of delayed exposition and theatrical effect, of melodrama and circus, which has inspired huge ticket sales and adoring critical reviews. And it is that increasingly rare serious drama which capitalizes on lurid events while maintaining a devotion to “ideas.” Yet, in spite of its wide popular acclaim, Equus is difficult to sort out even when all the clues have been discovered. Why does Alan make his slightly sadomasochistic leap from Jesus to horses? What specifically does the scene in the porno theatre have to do with Alan’s confrontation with Jill and the horses? Is the climactic nude scene an organic part of the play’s structure or simply a gratuitous bow to contemporary fashion?
These questions—and a variety of others—have been raised in the aftermath of the play’s initial sensation. Sanford Gifford has criticized the drama for its faulty psychology and for its deceptive views of the patient-psychiatrist relationship. And John Simon has indicted it as a trumped-up plea for a homosexual life style. James Lee, on the other hand, has praised Equus for the fullness of its dramatic experience, and James Stacy has pointed out the strength of its religious passion, particularly in relation to Shaffer’s earlier Royal Hunt of the Sun. What we are confronted with, then, is a major work of serious drama which continues to enthrall sophisticated (and not so sophisticated) audiences, but which leaves many viewers uneasy because they are uncertain what they are so enthusiastically applauding. Robert Brustein, for instance, has written about his surprise at seeing Broadway audiences heartily endorsing sodomy. It is probable that the controversy will continue, and the purpose of this essay is to shed some light on the traditions which have given
“EQUUS IS THAT INCREASINGLY RARE SERIOUS DRAMA WHICH CAPITALIZES ON LURID EVENTS WHILE MAINTAINING A DEVOTION TO ‘IDEAS’”
us Equus nearly twenty years after a similar work—Look Back in Anger—began changing the face of the contemporary English theatre.
The comparison is not so surprising as might be initially assumed. In its subject matter, its dramatic tradition, Equus is still infused with the same philosophical outlook which was so popular and controversial in 1956. And in spite of a variety of dramatic viewpoints carefully exhibited by two generations of English playwrights, we seem to be back almost where we began. Thus, being truly alive is synonymous with suffering an intensity of experience which frequently borders on the abnormal and which is repeatedly glamorized as “passion.” Alison Porter in Look Back in Anger can only be “saved,” after all—as she herself comes to realize—if she grovels and suffers. (This despite the fact that she confides to Helena that she was very happy for the first twenty years of her life.) Jimmy Porter, whose passions we are sometimes invited to admire in much the same way that we are Alan Strang’s, tells his wife that there is hope for her if she “could have a child and it would die.” Indeed, Jimmy accuses everyone of wanting to avoid the discomfort of being alive, and he describes the process of living as a realization that you must wade in and “mess up your nice, clean soul.” Routine is the enemy for Jimmy Porter, and those who are not willing to take part in his crusade of suffering are forced to desert him.
The same points and counterpoints are echoed in Shaffer’s drama. Dr. Dysart’s bland and colorless life is endlessly exhibited and catalogued. Like Alison and her brother, Nigel, Dysart is not a participant but a spectator. He has never ridden a horse. He experiences passion only vicariously. He is married to an antiseptic dentist whom he no longer even kisses. He travels to romantic climes with his suitcases stuffed with Kao-Pectate. And because he is acutely conscious of his normality, he feels accused by Alan just as Alison is attacked by Jimmy.
Alan Strang, on the other hand, experiences passion in its extremity; a passion which Dysart not only lacks but envies. Like Jimmy Porter, Alan has made a pain which is uniquely his, and uniquely part of his being alive.
DYSART. His pain. His own. He made it. Look. . . to go through life and call it yours—your life—you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you. You can’t just dip into the common bin and say, “That’s enough!”
Dysart’s description of Alan recalls Jimmy’s complaint that, “They all want to escape from the pain of being alive,” as well as Alison’s cry, “Oh, don’t try and take his suffering away from him—he’d be lost without it.”
The pain that defines both Jimmy and Alan, of course, is always contrasted with the commonplace, the normal experiences of everyday life. Both of these plays explore, without ever resolving, the conflict between the abnormal and the ordinary events of our existence. Jimmy wants Alison to show some enthusiasm in order to experience the emotions of being alive. But it is always life by his terms, and his terms are demanding. He wants to “stand up in her tears.” And ultimately he wins. “I was wrong,” she admits. “I want to be a lost cause. I want to be corrupt and futile.” She becomes a kind of victim-healer, because she is willing to give him his pain and reaffirm his vision of a world where “plundering” is equated with being alive.
Shaffer covers much of the same ground. Instead of Jimmy Porter, we now have the tormented Alan, whose horrible acts are translated by Dysart into a kind of enviable pain. The extremity of Alan’s passions is what Dysart covets, and he is reluctant to remove Alan’s pain because (like Alison) Dysart sees in the pain the source of a passionate life.
You won’t gallop any more, Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You’ll save your pennies every week, till you can change that scooter in for a car, and put the odd fifty P on the gee-gees, quite forgetting that they were ever anything more to you than bearers of little profits and losses. You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.
Dysart finally accepts his part as healer because any other alternatives are simply unacceptable. Alan’s extremity—the blinding of the horses—is a shocking dramatic device, but no amount of theatrical trickery can enable Shaffer to equate barbarism with an enviable passion for life.
But what are we to make of all this? Is this stern indictment of the commonplace what is so compelling about Equus? Is it the core “idea” at the center of the drama? Or is it a metaphor for a more complex statement?
John Simon has examined the thematic issues in Equus and discovered a thinly disguised homosexual play beneath the surface of Shaffer’s pseudo-psychology. Simon claims that the depiction of Dysart’s wife and marriage, the sexual imagery associated with the horses, and the inability of Alan to perform with Jill are all clear indications of a viewpoint which rejects heterosexuality—the ordinary—in favor of a homosexual world view. Simon additionally points out that the marriage of Jill’s parents is also painted in a bad light, and that Jill, herself, is presented as a naughty seductress tempting Alan away from his Horse-Eden. Thus, for Simon the play abounds with dishonesty: “. . .toward its avowed purpose, the explication of ‘a dreadful event,’ by making that dreadfulness seem fascinating and even admirable. Dishonesty to the audiences, by trying to smuggle subliminal but virulent homosexual propaganda into them. Dishonesty toward the present state of the theatre, in which homosexuality can and has been discussed openly and maturely.”
This point of view is particularly interesting in light of the comparison with Look Back in Anger, because Osborne’s play has also been analyzed in terms of its strong homosexual overtones. Indeed, psychiatric criticism of the play addressed the mènage a trois implications of the Porter household two decades ago. How else, some critics believed, could you account for the characters’ behavior? Writing in Modern Drama, E. G. Bierhaus, Jr. has argued that the real lovers in the play are Jimmy and Cliff, and that while both of the women pursue Jimmy, he pursues only Cliff. “That Alison loses her baby and Cliff keeps his ulcers is symbolic: neither can give Jimmy what he needs.”
Uncovering homosexuality in literature, however, is often a shell game, and the degree of sleight of hand frequently vitiates the worth of the results. Once certain premises are established, almost anything is fair game. Perhaps Simon is accurate, and Bierhaus too, but there may be a more obvious answer to the apparent disdain with the ordinary which seems to infuse both Look Back in Anger and Equus.
Certainly the “angry young men” of the 1950’s did not require a homosexual world view in order to see the failures of the welfare state, the outdated monarchy and the vanishing empire. Assaulting the commonplace was for Osborne and his contemporaries a thematic way of rejuvenating the English drama as well as tapping the angst that was so compelling in the surrealistic experiments of Beckett and Ionesco. And the normal represented everything from the inequalities of the class system to the blunders at Suez. In its world view, then, Equus is an extension not only of Look Back in Anger, but also of John Arden’s Live Like Pigs, Arnold Wesker’s Roots, Harold Pinter’s The Lover, and numerous other dramatic ventures which contrasted the passion of the abnormal with the drabness of the postwar English world, and which, consequently, have led to an often misplaced admiration of violence and aberration.
In the final analysis, the thematic issues in Equus sometimes seem muddled and confused not because the play is disguised homosexuality, but because it is part of an ongoing fascination with life as “passion,” a fascination which also has its counterparts in English films and popular music. The current extremity termed “punk rock,” for example, owes its lineage to the grittiness of the early Rolling Stones just as much as Equus descends from Look Back in Anger. Iconoclasm has become institutionalized. The original “causes” are somewhat shrouded, but the rebellion goes on. Life as “passion” continues to be dramatic and highly theatrical, but after twenty years somewhat unsatisfactory as “IDEA.”
Fortunately, like so many other English plays of the past two decades, Equus lives not by what it says but by the sparks that it ignites in its attempts to be articulate. And while Shaffer’s dramatic traditions go back to Look Back in Anger, his theatrical tradition is closely linked to the experiments of a decade ago in the modes of Brecht and Artaud. For what is ultimately applauded in Equus is not its message but its packaging. Like spectators of Marat-Sade, audiences at Shaffer’s play are frequently carried headlong into a vague kind of catharsis without a very clear knowledge of what they are experiencing or applauding. This is not, and has not been, an unusual occurrence in the contemporary theatre. It would be interesting to know, for instance, how many audience members have come away from Marat-Sade confused by the complex arguments of Peter Weiss’s dialectic on revolution, yet enormously moved by the grotesque images in the play: the deranged inmates, the club-swinging nuns, the saliva, semen and revolutionary songs.
The “total theatre” of a decade ago was an exciting theatre. And it did play a large part in replacing a poetry of words with what Artaud called a poetry of the senses. Marat-Sade is the most famous of the total theatre experiments, because of the publicity surrounding its creation and its huge popular success outside the United Kingdom. But there were others of the same ilk. John Whiting’s The Devils is a wonderfully theatrical play which rambles in its structure, avoids an obvious obligatory scene, and strains for “meaning” on a variety of levels. Ultimately, however, it works—or does not work—in terms of its theatrical effects: the possessed sisters, Jeanne’s sexual obsessions, Grandier’s torture. (Interestingly, Ken Russell focused on these very elements in filming Whiting’s script.) In varying degrees, the same may be said of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave ‘s Dance, Shaffer’s own Royal Hunt of the Sun, and others.
It is from this theatrical tradition that Equus also draws, and it is this tradition which frequently convinces us that we are seeing and hearing something important because the images which bombard us are so exciting. Equus is an exciting play. The eerie music and equus noise are provocative and foreboding. The men as horses serve as a compelling theatrical invention which helps to intensify both the act-one curtain and the blinding sequence near the end of the play. The nude encounter between Jill and Alan is strikingly theatrical, as is the physical setting of the drama which allows one scene to flow rapidly into the next.
But ultimately Equus is a schizophrenic play, because its theatrical fireworks cannot mask its muddled logic and tired philosophy. After sorting through what Shaffer has to say, it is tempting to dispense with the intellectual straining and experience the play on a more visceral level. After all, Alan will be better once he is cured. And Dysart, too, may yet survive his menopause and move on to a time and place where he can admire his own great gifts as much as his patients’ horrifying illnesses.
Source: Barry B. Witham, “The Anger in Equus” in Modern Drama, Volume XXII, no. 1, March, 1979, pp. 61–66.
In this review, Hewes praises Shaffer’s play for its powerful portrayal of anger at society. In addition to the originality of the text, the critic commends the quality of the actors and the staging in the production he viewed.
In this remarkable season when the majority of new theatrical attractions on Broadway have been imported from abroad, the most strikingly successful entry appears to be Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
Equus locks together the ordeals of two very different protagonists. One, Martin Dysart, is a quietly unhappy psychiatrist, who has a longing for a Greek civilization where myths and rituals were based on instinctively experienced truths, but who has accepted a frigid marriage and package tours to Greece as a safe substitute for a more passionate and more fully realized existence. Martin’s way of non-life is suddenly challenged when he is asked to treat the play’s second protagonist, Alan Strang. Alan is a teenage psychopath, who has committed the incredibly horrible act of blinding all of the horses in a stable with a spike.
With insistent theatricality Equus follows the psychiatrist, as by means of various tricks and devices he uncovers the pertinent factors that have caused his young patient to go berserk. It is revealed that an incompatibility between Alan’s mother and father has led Alan to acquire a religious fixation, which, when blocked, is transferred to a fixation on horses. Thus his ultimately unsuccessful attempt at lovemaking with a girl in a stable brings Alan a double wave of shame. Not only has he failed as a man among men, but also he has desecrated his temple of horses, whose staring eyes become unbearable. Quite superbly the action builds to a violent and naked climax in which Alan relives for us the terrible moment. This reliving is, we are told, the healthy process of abreaction that will cure Alan of his obsession with horses. However, we are also told that Alan had found, in the fierceness and nobility of the horse, an object worthy of worship in a world where true worship had become most difficult. And Martin concludes with a final lament that his cure will reconcile Alan to a smaller, worshipless living-out of his years.
Some American critics have found in Martin’s situation a disguised statement of the plight of the timid homosexual, who lacks the courage to pursue the dangerous consummation of his desires. However, Shaffer has strongly denied any such intention, and the play works quite well if Martin is taken to represent the apparently ingrained tendency of many modern Britons to accept, without passion or anger, a well-ordered but watered-down existence. Yet the play’s statement is less impressive than is Shaffer’s skillful theatrical fabrication, which deftly finds layers of comic relief as he inexorably drills deeper into the hard rock of tragedy. Indeed, Equus emerges as a surprisingly painless modern tragedy, which accounts for both its popularity and the reservations some serious critics have expressed about its significance.
Certainly a great part of the play’s success comes from its boldly inventive staging, by John Dexter, and the dedication its performers bring to their nightly ritual. Using a stage arrangement similar to the one Ingmar Bergman developed for his Stockholm production of Wozzeck, Dexter creates all the play’s action in an empty space between two opposing groups of theatergoers. Everything is simple and exact, with no scenery and all actors and props always onstage. When horses are required, some of the actors simply put on horses’ heads, made of sculpted wire, and elevated iron hooves. Similarly, when a character must participate in a scene, the performers just rise from their onstage benches and beautifully manage their instant transformations into the characters they must play. Most spectacular is Peter Firth, who makes the furtive and insolent Alan into an ultimately sympathetic victim. And, as the troubled psychiatrist, Anthony Hopkins is frequently electrifying in quick flashes of deeply felt anger. And Marian Seldes, Roberta Maxwell, Michael Higgins, and Frances Sternhagen all suggest hidden depths in characters whose functions are primarily supportive.
All in all, one suspects Equus is at its truest when it is reflecting its author’s anger at his own civilization.
Source: Henry Hewes, “The Crime of Dispassion” in the Saturday Review, Volume 2, no. 9, January 25, 1975, p. 54.
Barnes, Clive. “Equus a New Success on Broadway” in the New York Times, October 25, 1974, p. 26.
Billington, Michael. Review of Equus in the Manchester Guardian, July 27, 1973, p. 12.
Christie, Ian. Review of Equus in the Daily Express (London), July 27, 1973, p. 10.
Clum, John M. “Religion and Five Contemporary Plays: The Quest for God in a Godless World” in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 77, no. 4, 1978, pp. 418-32.
Hewes, Henry. “The Crime of Dispassion” in the Saturday Review, January 25, 1975, p. 54.
Hughes, Catherine. “London’s Stars Come Out” in America, December 8, 1973, pp. 443-44.
Kerr, Walter. “Equus: A Play That Takes Risks and Emerges Victorious” in the New York Times, November 3, 1974, p. 11.
Klein, Dennis A. “Game-Playing in Four Plays by Peter Shaffer” in Peter Shaffer: A Casebook, edited by C. J. Gianakaris, Garland (New York), 1991, pp. 95-113.
Lambert, J. W. Review of Equus in Drama (London), Vol. III, 1973, pp.14-16.
Lawrence, Frank. “The Equus Aesthetic: The Doctor’s Dilemma” in Four Quarters, Vol. 29, no. 2, 1980, pp. 13-18.
Panter-Downes, Mollie. “Letter from London” in the New Yorker, November 12, 1973, pp. 181-84.
Peter Shaffer (“English Authors Series,” Vol. 261, revised edition), Twayne, 1993.
Shaffer, Peter. “Equus: Playwright Peter Shaffer Interprets Its Ritual” in Vogue, February, 1975, p. 136.
Stacy, James R. “The Sun and the Horse: Peter Shaffer’s Search for Worship” in Peter Shaffer: A Casebook, edited by C. J. Gianakaris, Garland, 1991, pp. 95-113.
Walls, Doyle W. “Equus: Shaffer, Nietzsche, and the Neuroses of Health” in Modern Drama, Vol. 27, no. 3, 1984, pp. 314-23.
Wardle, Irving. “Shaffer’s Variation on a Theme” in the Times (London), July 27, 1973, p. 15.
Weightman, John. “Christ As Man and Horse” in Encounter, Vol. 44, no. 3, 1975, pp. 44-46.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale: Volume 5, Volume 14, Volume 18, Volume 37, Volume 60.
This resource compiles selections of criticism; it is an excellent starting point for a research paper about Shaffer. The selections in these five volumes span Shaffer’s career. For an overview of Shaffer’s life, see the entry on him in Volume 13 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Also see Volume 7 of Gale’s Drama Criticism.
Cooke, Virginia, and Malcom Page, compilers. File on Shaffer, Methuen, 1987.
This slim but excellent resource reprints excerpts from a wide variety of sources (reviews, interviews, etc.). It also includes a chronology of works, production, and publication data as well as information on Shaffer’s non-theatrical works.
Eberle, Thomas. Peter Shaffer: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1991.
A resource intended to serve the needs of both teachers/students of dramatic literature and theatre professionals. Organized with each major play as a separate
“EQUUS EMERGES AS A SURPRISINGLY PAINLESS MODERN TRAGEDY, WHICH ACCOUNTS FOR BOTH ITS POPULARITY AND THE RESERVATIONS SOME SERIOUS CRITICS HAVE EXPRESSED ABOUT ITS SIGNIFICANCE”
chapter. The bibliographic entries are subdivided as follows: editions of the text, play reviews, news reports and feature stories, scholarly essays, and (where applicable) film adaptations and reviews. The span of this work is from March, 1956, to May, 1990 (through Lettice and Lovage). It also contains a complete chronology of Shaffer’s plays and additional chapters covering general works (biographies and works analyzing more than one play), interviews, and Shaffer’s early works (prior to Five Finger Exercise).
Gianakaris, C. J. Peter Shaffer, Macmillan (New York), 1992.
A book-length study of Shaffer and his works. Gianakaris writes of Shaffer, “Five Finger Exercise and The Royal Hunt of the Sun signaled the arrival on the scene of a new, innovative voice in the theatre; Equus confirmed it.” In his analysis of specific plays, Gianakaris defines the common threads of theme and technique which run through many of Shaffer’s theatrical works.
Gianakaris, C. J., editor. Peter Shaffer: A Casebook (“Casebook on Modern Dramatists” series, Vol. 10), Garland, 1991.
This collection includes ten essays on Shaffer and a 1990 interview with the playwright. Many of the selections offer comparative readings of Shaffer’s major works. Also included are a comprehensive index of opening dates for Shaffer’s plays and an abbreviated bibliography.
Klein, Dennis A. Peter Shaffer, revised edition, Twayne, 1993.
A general study of Shaffer’s works by a critic who has also published on Equus in particular (“Peter Shaffer’s Equus as a Modern Aristotelian Tragedy” in Studies in Iconography, Vol. 9, 1983). The opening section provides an outline of Shaffer’s life and discusses his early and minor works. Each chapter on one of the major plays provides sections on the plot; the major characters; sources, symbols, and themes; structure and stagecraft; and critical appraisal.
Equus ★★½ 1977 (R)
A psychiatrist undertakes the most challenging case of his career when he tries to figure out why a stable-boy blinded horses. Based upon the successful play by Peter Shaffer, but not well transferred to film. 138m/C VHS, DVD . Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Jenny Agutter, Joan Plowright, Colin Blakely, Harry Andrews; D: Sidney Lumet; W: Peter Shaffer; C: Oswald Morris; M: Richard Rodney Bennett. British Acad. '77: Support. Actress (Agutter); Golden Globes '78: Actor—Drama (Burton), Support. Actor (Firth).