Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

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.

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Taking an opposing view, Ian Christie of the Daily Express called the script ‘‘pretentious, philoE sophical 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.’’

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