Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
In many ways, Equus exhibits strong connections to classical drama, particularly Greek drama. Its solemn, stately, and ceremonial manner duplicates classical ceremonies. The strongest connection, however, is the presence of the chorus, which in Greek drama is meant to comment upon and explain the meaning of what is happening on the stage. Here, the chorus is played by a group of six actors who play the horses. The presence of the god is suggested by the Equus noise that they make in chorus, and it seems that they watch the action throughout; they see everything.
This “seeing” is an important part of Alan Strang’s perception of his god. In one way, Equus is a god-slave, in that Alan can lead Equus out and control him, making him gallop in the field. In this sense, Equus recalls Christ in his chains being led to Calvary. In fact, Alan keeps a gruesome picture of Christ in chains until his father tears it down; he replaces it with a picture of a horse with enormous eyes.
However, in another way, Equus is a beloved. After the gallop, Alan and the horse stand neck to neck, and there is a wonderful intimacy that fills Alan with life and passion. In yet another way, Equus is completely demanding and compelling, taking on the role of the avenging God that Mrs. Strang can envision so vividly. “God sees you, Alan, he sees you,” she insists, presenting God as always hovering, waiting to avenge. Thus, in the stable scene, Alan, though he has come to recognize that he is not the only one with a secret inner life, also senses that the god will always demand him completely, that he will never find passion elsewhere, that he is always within in the sight of Equus. It is this consuming sight against which he strikes.
Perhaps the central crisis of the play, though, is within Martin Dysart. In a dream, he imagines himself wearing a classical mask and being the chief priest at a sacrifice of five hundred children. He must go on with his task, but he cannot continue. This becomes for him a symbol of what he does to children through his psychiatry. He sacrifices essential parts of them that make them uniquely themselves. In fact, he sacrifices them to the god of the normal. When Hesther Salomon suggests that at the least he is able to take their pain away, Dysart realizes that even in doing this he has taken away something that is uniquely theirs, substituting only the safe and bland normal.
Equus is a play about passion and worship, and the strong suggestion of the dramatist is that modern society has lost its ability to worship anything, let alone worship it passionately. Dysart realizes that while he looks at books on classical Greece and travels there with all accommodations booked and all eventualities covered, out on a field a young boy is trying to become a centaur; he is galloping with a god. This worship is what Dysart longs for, this awareness of gods springing out at every turn. Instead, he lives in a dry, sterile flat, in a dry, sterile marriage, taking away passion from children.
Dysart is not the only one in this situation. Dora and Frank Strang lead proper, secure British lives; they will not let their son ride a horse on a beach. They have sublimated all passion in their own lives, Dora into a religious mania, Frank into prurient films which he goes to see secretly. Dora talks about her relatives indulging in “equitation”: dressing in a stately manner and riding horses in a proper and sedate manner. Alan has a safe and secure job, working in an electrical shop and handling brands of merchandise. It is this proper and secure world that Alan fights when he rides, naked on a naked horse, filled with ecstasy. Only Dysart seems to recognize this and envy it. Only he seems to realize the consequences of taking this passion from Alan, consequences damaging to both Alan and himself.
The form of the play contributes to the focus upon Dysart and the dilemma of worship. The setting is minimal, with several benches and railings around a revolving set. All actors are present onstage throughout the performance, and the sense is that they are all witnesses, particularly Dysart, who is trying to discern the pattern in what he is seeing. The horses are noble and stately, but they are mimetic in that there is no attempt to reproduce them with any realism or to make them domestic and safe. They are the carriers of the god Equus, who, thus, is always on stage as well.
Though Alan is riveting, the central dilemma is Dysart’s, and Peter Shaffer indicates this by beginning the play with a rambling statement of that dilemma, even before the audience is aware of the action that has led to it. The first act is in essence a long flashback, and it is composed of a series of vignettes, each of which contributes to Dysart’s understanding. Many of these are reflections of Alan’s sessions with Dysart, and they are played out simultaneously as Alan’s spoken revelations to Dysart and as actions on the stage. Alan reacts with his parents as he is torn from the horse on the beach, but he also is answering—and sometimes not answering—Dysart’s questions.
The result of this technique is to bridge the past and the present and to make them occur simultaneously. It is also to maintain a focus on Dysart, who is helping Alan relive these memories. This focus is particularly striking when Dysart slips away from the action and addresses the audience directly; this kind of address both opens and closes the play. In these addresses, Dysart struggles with his role and explicitly ponders the questions of worship, of passion, and of the normal. By the end of the play, he is unable to rescue the tensions between these or, to put it in his own words, to “account for Equus.”
At the end of the play, the audience, too, is left to account for Equus, a complex and powerful symbol of all that seems to have been lost in a modern society driven to eradicate its own pain. In becoming normal, it has lost the sublime. In eradicating pain, it has lost the chance of utter delight. In creating a world superficially proper, it denies passions that must come to the surface. In all this, what is left to worship, to what to be utterly committed? Is it possible for modern humanity to gallop with gods? All these questions, spiritual at their center, are posed by Equus.