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In the inexplicable crime of teenager Alan Strang – the blinding of six horses with a metal spike – Peter Shaffer’s Equus presents us with a reflection of the seemingly senseless violence of our time, as acted out again and again in our own backyard, be it Auschwitz, Kosovo or Columbine. As child psychologist Martin Dysart tries to treat Alan, he encounters the young man’s fervent passion for the horses, a passion expressed in ritualistic acts of worship. By contrast, Dysart’s own life seems passionless, mundane – modern. As the high priest of the Normal, the social conformity which mocks the idea of spiritual transcendence, Dysart is society’s rusty scalpel, lobotomizing rebellious youth: “The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes,” he says. “It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a god.”
In Alan and Dysart’s parallel processes of self-discovery, we encounter the challenge this play offers us, even after twenty-five years. As one critic wrote in his review of the first U.S. production in 1974, “Mr. Shaffer’s play does an unusual thing. It asks why? Most plays tell us how.” It is a powerful distinction, drawing us from the familiar plot-driven Hollywood entertainment “product,” where answers are provided in the final reel, into an interior space of questioning and ambiguity–the domain of art.
Peter Shaffer’s first major success, Five Finger Exercise, came in 1958 at London’s Comedy Theatre and placed him firmly within the chronology of the New Drama then sweeping the British stage. Though not as unconventional in subject matter or as influential in defining the shift from the drawing room to the row house as John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Shaffer’s play nevertheless established him as a fresh voice and set a course for more challenging work. With The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) and Equus (1973), Shaffer staked out his claim to theatrical prominence. The long and successful runs of Amadeus (1979) in London and New York, as well as the subsequent Oscar-winning film, won him his widest audience.
The Big Ideas and the questions that emerge from them
In his preface to Equus, the playwright talks about the moment the idea for the play came to him:
One weekend . . . I was driving with a friend through bleak countryside. We passed a stable. Suddenly, he was reminded by it of an alarming crime which he had heard about recently at a dinner party in London. He knew only one horrible detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted a minute–but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.
The act had been committed several years before by a highly disturbed young man… It lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.
For Shaffer, it seems the real horror lies not in the what the unnamed boy did, but in why he did it: “Every person and incident in Equus is of my own invention,” he continues, “save the crime itself. . . . I am grateful now that I have never received confirmed details of the ‘real’ story, since my concern has been more and more with a different kind of exploration.”
Shaffer’s exploration of the “why” of Alan’s crime is both theatrical and philosophical. His choice of forms, ideas, images and metaphors is critical in guiding first the actors and the director, then the audience to the final destination he has in mind. With Equus, Shaffer chose his dramatic elements with extreme care to produce a powerful effect.
Four of these essential ingredients are:
- The forms of Greek tragedy mimicked in Equus
- Horses as a central image and metaphor
- The idea of ritual as a way to produce meaning
- The idea that society determines the line between normal and abnormal behavior
Greek Tragic Forms in Equus
The Tragic Hero: In the Greek tragedies, kings and other high figures were often brought low by their own humanness, their own inability to see the all the consequences of their actions. Their basic nobility and this “tragic flaw” combined to bring them down, making them tragic heroes. In some of the plays – Oedipus Rex, for example – some scholars point to Oedipus’s pride and arrogance as the cause of his downfall. In others, the reasons are more complex, and in some of the plays (like Medea by Euripides) the protagonist is not brought low at all, but exalted while the tragedy befalls others. Both Alan and Dr. Dysart suffer tragic circumstances in Equus. Alan’s tragedy is the more obvious, but Dr. Dysart, too, suffers a “fall from grace.”
Who is the protagonist of Equus — Alan or Dr. Dysart? What is the nature of Alan’s “fall”? Dysart’s? Are either of them tragic heroes?
The Theater Space: Greek tragedies were performed in massive, outdoor amphitheaters (the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, above, is the best-known). The actors and chorus appeared on a large, circular, flat playing space at the bottom of the amphitheater (the orchestra), with the audience looking down on them from three sides. Since these plays were performed in broad daylight, with no lighting to focus attention on the stage, the audience became part of the drama. (Imagine performing a play in the end zone of Mile High Stadium, during the day, with the audience in the stands.) Though we have not done this in our CU production, when Equus was first produced in London and New York, some of the audience was seated in bleacher-type seats on the stage, giving the play that same participatory feel for the audience. The people in the regular theatre house could watch the audience on stage as they watched the play!
How might having an audience on stage with the performers affect the performance? Would the reactions of the people sitting across from you affect the way you felt about what was happening on stage?
The Tragic Chorus: Greek playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides also used a convention known as the chorus–a group of actors (usually 12-15) who probably moved and spoke as a group, either in unison or each taking different lines in the choral odes which came between scenes of the play. Once it entered, the chorus was always present on stage. In Equus, Shaffer has given us a chorus of horses who produce the “Equus noise,” a kind of choral chant made up of voices and sounds. In the CU production, all the actors, equine and human, stay on stage throughout the entire performance.
In ancient Greece, we believe drama with individual characters evolved from a purely choral form (dithyramb) and, from the plays we still have from that era, we know the chorus usually represented a group of the common people (the “city council” in Oedipus Rex, the women of Thebes in Medea) who commented on and were sometimes involved with the affairs of the great and powerful characters that were the primary subjects of tragedy. What reasons would a playwright have for using a chorus in a modern play? Does the “horse chorus” of Equus function like the chorus in other Greek plays you might have studied?
Tragic Costumes: In one more comparison, Greek actors in the Hellenistic period wore masks, elaborate robes (chiton) and may have worn elevated shoes (cothornus). The actors portraying horses in Equus are masked figures. In some productions, they also wear footwear designed to suggest hooves.
What do masks do for the performer? What might be the drawbacks? How might masks have worked differently in the big amphitheaters of ancient Greece than they do in today’s smaller, indoor theaters?
Horses as a Central Image
The horse is one of the most powerful images in human culture. It first appears in cave paintings dating back to the last Ice Age (around 20,000 BC), making horse images among the earliest and most common forms to appear in human art and myth. In the legend of the Trojan Horse, the armies of Greece conquered the city of Troy by hiding in the belly of a wooden horse. In Greek mythology, winged Pegasus is a symbol of justice and righteousness. As noble mount, carrying knights into battle and kings to their thrones, as working companion in fields, on range and road, as subject of sculpture, painting, ritual and drama since prehistory, the horse has worked its way deep into human psychology. In the blended form of the centaur, man and horse are united in way that suggests lust and the bestial while, at the same time, conferring equine attributes of grace, power and dignity on the human half of the pairing. This seems to be what is happening at the end of the first act of Equus, when Alan mounts one of the horses, crying “Make us One Person!”
Why are the horses in Shaffer’s play such a powerful presence? How might this be related to the horse’s importance in art and myth since prehistoric times? Aside from the obvious practical considerations, what is the theatrical impact of a costuming a human actor as a symbolic horse, rather than, for example, putting real horses (or more realistic horse costumes) on stage?
Ritual in the Modern World
Very simply, rituals are the ways a given society applies human meaning to abstract symbols. We may think of ritual as something primitive, but in fact, it’s all around us in our private and public lives. Private ritual might be something as simple as having the same routine every morning, a repetition that gives us comfort in starting our day “right.” It might be something as complex and potentially dangerous as Alan’s worship of the horses in Equus. Public rituals are easier to define. Christmas is a ritual. We buy presents, we have family dinners, we watch the same movies and TV shows year after year. (How many times have you seen It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol?) Superbowl Sunday is an American ritual. Churches, courtrooms and legislatures are important sites where ritual is used to give their proceedings added weight and significance. Rituals, when properly used, create tradition and traditions build community, tie generations together and connect people with a higher power, whether that power is their government or their god.
How does Equus describe the process of ritual? Does Alan create a ritual, or merely enact the rituals of others? How does Alan’s private ritual connect or separate him from his parents? Dysart? What other rituals are described or enacted in Equus besides Alan’s? How are they related to what Alan does? What does theatre have in common with ritual?
Normal Vs. Insane: Who Decides?
Near the end of the play, Dysart begins to see that it may be possible to “cure” Alan of his “madness” so he can fit in. He might be able to “make this boy an ardent husband – a caring citizen – a worshipper of abstract and unifying God” but he also realizes that curing Alan “is more likely to make a ghost!” He implies that turning Alan into what society says is normal will, in some way, also destroy Alan, make him “a ghost.” Peter Shaffer was strongly influenced by the theories of psychologist R.D. Laing when writing Equus. One of Laing’s central ideas concerning human psychology is that, to some extent, mental illness is society’s shared idea. Labels like “schizophrenic” and “psychotic” may describe a physical or biological condition, but they are also ways of re-imagining the healing function of the doctor/patient relationship as an adversarial relationship in which the doctor, as representative of “normal” society, tries to impose society’s definition of normal on the patient. This suggests that many people society considers “insane” are merely people who are responding in socially unacceptable ways to the same pressures, stresses, and biological processes which affect us all. If the insane are then treated by doctors who are only interested in making them normal the doctor may, in the process, destroy something that is fundamental to that person’s individual personality.
Questions: What are some of the other means by which society encourages its members to be “normal”? What is “normal” and who determines it? How are Alan and Dr. Dysart alike at the end of the play?
Theatre of Dionysus–A semi-circular seating space built into the slope of the Acropolis, the highest hill in Athens (where the Parthenon stands). It was here that the tragedies and comedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and many other playwrights were first performed in competitions at the City Dionysia–a celebration of the god Dionysus–during the fifth century BC, the Greek golden age.
New Drama – Term for a “renaissance” in British drama which began in the late 1950s and attempted to address the frustrations, failures and lingering class struggles in postwar England. Many of the significant works of New Drama were performed by the English Stage Company and the Theatre Workshop and came from the pens of playwrights like John Osbourne, John Arden (Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance), Brendan Behan (The Hostage), Harold Pinter (The Homecoming) and Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey). The hero of Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter, came to represent an entire generation of “angry young men.”
R.D. Laing (1927-1989) — Controversial Scottish psychiatrist and psychological theorist, born in Glasgow in 1927. He authored several significant books including The Divided Self (1969), The Politics of Experience (1967) and The Politics of the Family (1969) and Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964, with Aaron Esterson). His ideas influenced authors and dramatists throughout the Sixties and Seventies and remain current today.
References used in compiling this work:
- Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, 7th Edition.
- Evans, Richard I. R.D. Laing: The Man and His Ideas. 1976.
- Fairley, John. The Art of the Horse. 1995.
- Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Study, 1995
- McMurraugh-Kavanagh, Madeleine. Peter Shaffer: Theatre and Drama. 1998.