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 ‘‘psychodrama,’’ 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.