The success of Equus was attributable partly to the staging designed by John Dexter, who has also directed Black Comedy and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dexter helped Shaffer visualize the abstractions that give the play its power and the rituals that inform the play’s spectacle. The play is about madness, and Shaffer manages to dramatize the fantasies of a disturbed boy’s mind, as well as the frustrations of the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who is asked by his friend Hesther Salomon to cure the boy who has, for no apparent reason, blinded the horses.
Act 1 is a search for motive and meaning as Dysart interviews the boy and his parents. The boy is at first uncooperative but later comes to trust Dysart and reveals his psychological secrets. Using hypnosis, Dysart gets the boy to remember the experience and manages to put the boy on the road to recovery. Dysart seriously questions, however, whether he should treat the boy at all. The boy, Alan Strang, has a vitality and twisted imagination that fascinate the doctor. Dysart questions whether he should rob Alan of his uniqueness and make him normal, which is to say, ordinary. The play is shaped by Dysart’s monologues and by two spectacles, Alan’s “wild midnight ride” at the end of act 1 and his blinding of the horses at the climax of act 2.
Alan is a friendless loner, ignored by his parents. His worship of horses is solitary, not communal, reflecting Shaffer’s own distaste for organized religion. Dysart becomes the boy’s spiritual father, recalling the story of Abraham and Isaac as he sacrifices Alan to social norms. Alan trusts Dysart as his spiritual father, just as Isaac trusted Abraham, but Abraham trusted his God, as Dysart does not. The obedient Abraham is far different from the doubting Dysart; the parable is twisted to fit a new context. There are also biblical echoes of the Book of Revelations in Alan’s incantations during his midnight ride.
The themes of Equus are primitive and elemental (worship, passion, and bestiality), psychosexual (masturbation, sexual frustration, and confusion), contemporary (professional burnout and the dysfunctional family), and ethical (the duty of the doctor to heal and to alleviate pain). All the male characters seem to have sexual problems. Alan and Dysart seem to have a problem in the way they relate to women. Frank, Alan’s father, frequents pornographic film houses.
The key theme of Equus is reiterated by Dysart in his mad and rambling monologue that begins and ends the play: “Extremity is the point.” Dysart is driven to distraction by what Shaffer has described as the “continuous tension” between “the Apollonian and the Dionysian,” symbolized by Dysart and Alan, and between “the violence of instinct and the desire for order and restraint.”
Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist, recognizes that his life is filled with emptiness and pain. He is confronted by this recognition through his treatment of Alan Strang, an adolescent who inexplicably blinds six horses with a horsepick. It is a crime that shocks and outrages the owner of the stables, who believes that Alan should be imprisoned. However, Hesther Salomon, the magistrate in charge of the case, recognizes a deep need in the boy, and she brings him to Dysart hoping that he can make the boy “normal.” Dysart comes to recognize that he can, but at a terrible cost.
At first distrustful of Dysart, Alan sings jingles to block Dysart’s overtures. Unperturbed, Dysart begins seeing Alan and then begins to make inquiries. He finds the Strang household to be absolutely normal superficially, but, beneath this appearance of normality, strange tensions vibrate. Mr. Strang is dictatorial and repressed; Mrs. Strang is filled with religious mania. Neither is able to deal in any real way with what happened.
Alan himself seems unable to deal with his actions, and Dysart works to find ways to allow Alan to tell him things that will help to explain the blinding of the horses. Using a small...
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