Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785
Martin Dysart, an overworked psychiatrist, is given the case of Alan Strang, a stableboy who has recently shocked the country by blinding nine horses with a hoof pick. At first reluctant, Dysart becomes intrigued with Alan, whose contemptuous stare makes him feel “accused.”
Meanwhile, Dysart questions Alan’s mother and father and discovers that both parents, though well-meaning, have strong views: His mother is a pious Christian, and his father is an atheist and old-style Socialist. Repulsed by a lurid crucifixion that Alan has chosen to hang over his bed, his father one day replaced it with a calendar that shows a horse photographed straight-on that seems to be all eyes.
When Alan got a job as a stableboy, the owner suspected him of secretly riding at night. Dysart hypnotizes Alan and gets him to act out his naked midnight rides on Equus. The ride, which begins with religious ritual, ends in masturbation. This overpowering scene ends act 1.
Dysart confesses to the magistrate that he is envious of Alan’s passion, but she reminds him that his job is to return Alan to the world of the “normal.” Dysart begins asking Alan about the girl he worked with, Jill. One night after work, Jill asked Alan to take her to a “skin flick.” During the movie, Alan was aroused but spotted his father in the audience. An argument ensued, and Alan refused to go home with his father.
Jill took him to the stable where she attempted to seduce him. But Alan felt threatened by the presence of Equus and sent Jill away. In a rage, Alan blinded the horses.
Act 2 ends with Dysart’s indictment of his own part in relieving Alan of his feeling, but Dysart admits that he is as much a slave as is a horse. “There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.”
Despite his crime, Alan is seen finally as a boy willing to risk anything for what he believes. Additionally, there is Alan’s effect on Dysart, whose faith in eliminating individual passions and returning patients to normality is severely eroded.
Touching upon the mythical, religious, and moral, EQUUS is a meticulously crafted psychological detective story that is visually compelling (the horses are stylized humans) and reaches the spectator at the most basic level of emotions.
Beckerman, Bernard. “The Dynamics of Peter Shaffer’s Drama.” In The Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley, edited by Michael Bertin. Lanham, Md.: University Presses of America, 1986. This article examines the stagecraft of Peter Shaffer by examining the dramatic structure of several of his plays.
Gianakaris, C. J. Peter Shaffer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. This book-length study focuses on thematic issues in Shaffer’s dramatic works, examining particularly the role of stagecraft in terms of the presentation of those themes.
Klein, Dennis A. “A Note on the Use of Dreams in Peter Shaffer’s Major Plays.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 9 (March, 1989): 25-32. This article is an examination of Dysart and the role that dreams play in Equus, focusing both on the dreams of Alan and those of Dysart in terms of progress of the play’s meaning.
Klein, Dennis A. Peter Shaffer. Boston: Twayne, 1979. One of three book-length studies of Shaffer’s work, this one begins with a chapter of biography before it moves to a chronological handling of Shaffer’s plays, providing basic background as well as major thematic concerns.
Klein, Dennis A. “Peter Shaffer’s Equus as Modern Aristotelian Tragedy.” Studies in Iconography 9 (1983): 175-181. After detailing Aristotle’s vision of the nature of tragedy and how it is encapsulated in drama, Klein examines the ways in which Equus fits the patterns of tragic drama that Aristotle outlines.
Mustazza, Leonard. “A Jealous God: Ritual and Judgement in Shaffer’s Equus.” Papers on Language and Literature 28 (1992): 174-184. Focusing on the treatment of Equus as the jealous, demanding god figure in Alan’s life, this article examines the relationship of the play’s meanings to the mythic figure of Dionysius.
Plunka, Gene A. Peter Shaffer: Roles, Rites, and Rituals in the Theater. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988. This study of Shaffer’s dramas examines the uses to which Shaffer puts ritual and rite—particularly religious ritual and rite—in his theatrical productions and notes the effects of these rites, both in terms of the meaning of the dramas and in terms of how the dramas are produced on stage.
Witham, Barry B. “The Anger of Equus.” Modern Drama 22 (1979): 61-66. Focuses on Dysart’s dilemma of whether he should “heal” Alan, thus depriving him of his ability to worship passionately, or allow Alan to keep the passion that Dysart is missing.