The Element of Memory in Equus

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1864

Equus is a play in which present and past collide and intertwine in spectacular and thematically significant ways. Psychoanalysis (a process of evaluating mental health that was developed by Sigmund Freud) drives the plot forward, as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart succeeds in drawing out of Alan Strang a series of repressed memories. His intention is to achieve abreaction, which is the discharge of the emotional energy attached to a repressed idea. Theatrically, the past events in the plot of Equus are strikingly represented, diverging from analytical and expository dialogue; rather than related verbally, these memories are acted out in flashback.

By staging the past rather than revealing it through exposition (analysis usually being a process of verbalization), Shaffer takes great advantage of the visual power of the theatre. In the staging of Alan’s memories, he allows himself a more lyrical tone, a more ritualistic style than that employed in the realistic dialogues between Dysart and the other characters in the play. In his book Peter Shaffer, critic C. J. Gianakaris observed: ‘‘What will be best remembered about Equus is its brilliant dramatising of man’s attempt to reconcile the personal and the metaphysical aspects of his universe.’’ As Gianakaris wrote, with the ‘‘immeasurable help’’ of director John Dexter, Shaffer ‘‘strikingly fused realism with mimetic ritual,’’ achieving a ‘‘daring stylisation’’ which is crucial to the success of the play.

Ultimately, the abstract scenes in Equus powerfully reveal the relationship between sex and religion— the two most significant, and closely intertwined, themes in the play. Both sex and religion are crucial factors in Alan’s childhood development: in both arenas, Alan transfers ‘‘normal’’ social views of sex and worship onto his pagan, equine religion. The play hints at the sexual undertones in many events in Alan’s childhood. Frank Strang’s comment that Christianity ‘‘is just bad sex’’ implies connections between sexual desire and religious ecstasy which run through the play. Frank observes of Alan:

A boy spends night after night having this stuff read into him: an innocent man tortured to death—thorns driven into his head—nails into his hands—a spear jammed through his ribs. It can mark anyone for life, that kind of thing. I’m not joking. The boy was absolutely fascinated by all that. He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning.

Alan’s ride with the Horseman is also given sexual meaning; it is a pleasure he clearly attempts to duplicate on his naked, midnight rides with Equus. (Alan has essentially ritualized a masturbatory act into a religious practice.) At the play’s climax, Alan is confused when he finds himself sexually aroused by Jill Mason. He feels great shame as a result both of his ‘‘infidelity’’ in the presence of Equus and his impotence with Jill. Sex is a major catalyst, both in Alan’s development and in the violent blinding of the horses.

The thematic connection between sexual identity and religious practice is cemented in the details of the play’s staging. Equus is a play of thematic complexity and depth, and Shaffer’s writing of dialogue is, by and large, up to the task of expressing this complexity (although some critics have disagreed on this point). The true novelty and genius of Equus, however, may rest in the manner in which Shaffer utilizes theatrical techniques to enact powerfully the psychological and religious dimensions of the play. Past and present collide in theatrical spectacle, as the dialogue of Alan’s sessions with Dysart is given a larger, visual dimension, powerfully underscoring the play’s psychological themes. Gianakaris comments:

The flexibility of the stage design permits striking...

(This entire section contains 1864 words.)

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variations in the way the action is presented. Straightforward realism alternates with imaginative stylised scenes of mime. Dysart’s is the cool, detached world of science where clinical evidence determines one’s actions. His dealings with others are consequently portrayed realistically, with narrated interjections. But Alan Strang’s ritual worship is especially well suited to abstract staging.

The most stunning moments of reenactment (the abreaction) are the extended scenes which conclude each act of Equus. The first act ends with Alan riding horseback to the point of orgasm, with images culled from passages in the Book of Job from the Old Testament . The second act contains an equally dramatic nude scene of attempted interE course (between Alan and Jill), the blinding of the horses, and words from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. The themes of religion and sex are repeatedly linked

In the first case, having hypnotized Alan through a game he calls ‘‘Blink,’’ Dysart encourages his patient not merely to talk about his ritualistic worship of Equus but to act out the process as well. Dysart’s prompts provide an important encouragement, but gradually the voice of the doctor fades out and the theatrical reenactment subsumes the dramatic action. With a hum from the chorus, the actors depicting horses slowly rotate a turntable, on which Alan and his mount are fixed in a bright spotlight. Alan’s ‘‘ride’’ becomes more and more frenzied, and as the choral humming increases in volume, Alan shouts powerfully:

WEE!. . .WAA!. . .WONDERFUL!. . . I’m stiff! Stiff in the wind! My mane, stiff in the wind! My flanks! My hooves! Mane on my legs, on my flanks, like whips! Raw! Raw! I’m raw! Raw! Feel me on you! On you! On you! On you! I want to be in you! I want to BE you forever and ever!—Equus, I love you! Now!— Bear me away! Make us One Person!

Alan rides ever more frantically, chanting ritualistically ‘‘One Person!’’ and then, simply, ‘‘HA-HA!’’ With Alan’s body twisting like a flame, the chorus gradually brings the turning square to a stop. Alan drops off the horse, kisses his hoof and cries up to him: ‘‘AMEN!’’ The act concludes completely within the framework of this reenactment without returning to Dysart for commentary or further dialogue between doctor and patient.

The conclusion of the play is given a similarly startling theatrical dimension. Dysart has prompted Alan through the process of reenactment, even taking on the voice of Equus himself as he says: ‘‘The Lord thy God is a Jealous God! He sees you.’’ But as in the first act abreaction, Dysart gradually retreats to the background as the reenactment of Alan’s repressed memory takes over the stage:

ALAN: Thou— God— Seest— NOTHING! (He stabs out Nugget’s eyes. The horse stamps in agony. A great screaming begins to fill the theater, growing ever louder. ALAN dashes at the other two horses and blinds them too, stabbing over the rails. Their metal hooves join in the stamping. Relentlessly, as this happens, three more horses appear in cones of light: not naturalistic animals like the first three but dreadful creatures out of nightmare. Their eyes flare—their nostrils flare—their mouths flare, they are archetypal images—judging, punishing, pitiless. They do not halt at the rail but invade the square. As they trample at him, the boy leaps desperately at them, jumping high and naked in the dark, slashing at their heads with arms upraised, and shouting ‘‘Nothing!’’ savagely with each blow. The screams increase.)

The scale of the reenactment—an exceptional bit of theatricality—suggests the monumental importance of the blinding, both as it originally occurred and in its retelling. Building upon the tremendous sense of release Alan will feel from this abreaction, Dysart hopes he will be able to cure the boy of his mental anguish. John Weightman wrote in Encounter that the stabbing out of the horses’ eyes ‘‘gives another fine frenzy when the scene is re-enacted as psychodrama.’’

Through such reenactments there is an important mirroring of revelation in the play; the audience makes important discoveries just as Dysart is making them. Past and present are folded into one another as theatrical representation takes the place of expository dialogue. During the flashback scenes, the lights turn warm in color and intensity, investing the remembered action with a great deal of theatricality. The staging of the events allows the audience a glimpse into Alan’s mind; he views the world with a passionate sense of wonder few people possess. The purposefully non-realistic depiction of the horses, for instance, allows the animals to ‘‘evoke the essence of horses as we recognize them in daily life’’ but also, crucially, gives them ‘‘the regal bearing of transcendent beings as Alan perceived them,’’ noted Gianakaris. Shaffer notes that in the depiction of the horses, ‘‘great care must also be taken that the masks are put on before the audience with very precise timing—the actors watching each other so that the masking has an exact and ceremonial effect.’’

While audiences marveled at the theatrical power of Equus, critics have differed in their assessments of Shaffer’s writing and his success at integrating a variety of complex themes and theatrical styles. Reviewing the play in the Manchester Guardian, Michael Billington judged Equus superior to Shaffer’s earlier work because in this play, ‘‘the intellectual argument and the poetic imagery are virtually indivisible.’’ While some critics have found considerable merit in the unity of the work, others argue that the real strength of Equus lies only in its theatricality. Henry Hewes commented in the Saturday Review that ‘‘the play’s statement is less impressive than is Shaffer’s skillful theatrical fabrication, which deftly finds layers of comic relief as he inexorably drills deeper into the hard rock of tragedy.’’ America’s Catherine Hughes similarly focused on the staging, arguing that ‘‘on the level of theatricality . . . Equus is stunning. . . . Although Shaffer’s philosophizing is too shallow, sometimes to the point of glibness, to be entirely convincing, one in the end forgives it in the wake of the play’s brilliantly rendered imagery.’’

A few critics have argued against even the theatrical power of the concluding scene, although such harsh criticism is rare. J. W. Lambert, for one, commented in Drama that ‘‘Mr. Shaffer has not made [Alan’s] course of action seem inevitable. The act of gouging out the horses eyes, when it comes, seems if not arbitrary then hardly less perverse than it would have done had we been given no reasons for it at all. And after all the purpose of the play’s exposition is to offer us some reason for the irrational.’’

Shaffer has observed that theatre ‘‘is, or has to be, an ecstatic and alarming experience. And a beautiful one. That doesn’t mean it’s one continuous shout-out; it also must have great spaces of tranquillity and lyricism in it.’’ The powerful scenes of abreaction in Equus lend the play both lyricism and ecstasy. Further, they offer a glimpse into Alan’s mind, which is crucial given the philosophical importance lent to the passionate instinct with which the boy has led his life. While Equus is cleverly constructed from top to bottom, the enduring power of the play may still rest in the skill with which Shaffer and director John Dexter chose to depict the memories repressed deep within the subconscious of its primary character.

Source: Christopher G. Busiel, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

The Anger in Equus

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2301

Peter Shaffer’s Equus is neither great theatre nor bad psychology, but it has elements of both. It is an exhilarating play: a remarkable blend of delayed exposition and theatrical effect, of melodrama and circus, which has inspired huge ticket sales and adoring critical reviews. And it is that increasingly rare serious drama which capitalizes on lurid events while maintaining a devotion to ‘‘ideas.’’ Yet, in spite of its wide popular acclaim, Equus is difficult to sort out even when all the clues have been discovered. Why does Alan make his slightly sadomasochistic leap from Jesus to horses? What specifically does the scene in the porno theatre have to do with Alan’s confrontation with Jill and the horses? Is the climactic nude scene an organic part of the play’s structure or simply a gratuitous bow to contemporary fashion?

These questions—and a variety of others— have been raised in the aftermath of the play’s initial sensation. Sanford Gifford has criticized the drama for its faulty psychology and for its deceptive views of the patient-psychiatrist relationship. And John Simon has indicted it as a trumped-up plea for a homosexual life style. James Lee, on the other hand, has praised Equus for the fullness of its dramatic experience, and James Stacy has pointed out the strength of its religious passion, particularly in relation to Shaffer’s earlier Royal Hunt of the Sun. What we are confronted with, then, is a major work of serious drama which continues to enthrall sophisticated (and not so sophisticated) audiences, but which leaves many viewers uneasy because they are uncertain what they are so enthusiastically applauding. Robert Brustein, for instance, has written about his surprise at seeing Broadway audiences heartily endorsing sodomy. It is probable that the controversy will continue, and the purpose of this essay is to shed some light on the traditions which have given us Equus nearly twenty years after a similar work— Look Back in Anger —began changing the face of the contemporary English theatre.

The comparison is not so surprising as might be initially assumed. In its subject matter, its dramatic tradition, Equus is still infused with the same philosophical outlook which was so popular and controversial in 1956. And in spite of a variety of dramatic viewpoints carefully exhibited by two generations of English playwrights, we seem to be back almost where we began. Thus, being truly alive is synonymous with suffering an intensity of experience which frequently borders on the abnormal and which is repeatedly glamorized as ‘‘passion.’’ Alison Porter in Look Back in Anger can only be ‘‘saved,’’ after all—as she herself comes to realize—if she grovels and suffers. (This despite the fact that she confides to Helena that she was very happy for the first twenty years of her life.) Jimmy Porter, whose passions we are sometimes invited to admire in much the same way that we are Alan Strang’s, tells his wife that there is hope for her if she ‘‘could have a child and it would die.’’ Indeed, Jimmy accuses everyone of wanting to avoid the discomfort of being alive, and he describes the process of living as a realization that you must wade in and ‘‘mess up your nice, clean soul.’’ Routine is the enemy for Jimmy Porter, and those who are not willing to take part in his crusade of suffering are forced to desert him.

The same points and counterpoints are echoed in Shaffer’s drama. Dr. Dysart’s bland and colorless life is endlessly exhibited and catalogued. Like Alison and her brother, Nigel, Dysart is not a participant but a spectator. He has never ridden a horse. He experiences passion only vicariously. He is married to an antiseptic dentist whom he no longer even kisses. He travels to romantic climes with his suitcases stuffed with Kao-Pectate. And because he is acutely conscious of his normality, he feels accused by Alan just as Alison is attacked by Jimmy.

Alan Strang, on the other hand, experiences passion in its extremity; a passion which Dysart not only lacks but envies. Like Jimmy Porter, Alan has made a pain which is uniquely his, and uniquely part of his being alive.

DYSART. His pain. His own. He made it. Look . . . to go through life and call it yours—your life—you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you. You can’t just dip into the common bin and say, ‘‘That’s enough!’’

Dysart’s description of Alan recalls Jimmy’s complaint that, ‘‘They all want to escape from the pain of being alive,’’ as well as Alison’s cry, ‘‘Oh, don’t try and take his suffering away from him— he’d be lost without it.’’

The pain that defines both Jimmy and Alan, of course, is always contrasted with the commonplace, the normal experiences of everyday life. Both of these plays explore, without ever resolving, the conflict between the abnormal and the ordinary events of our existence. Jimmy wants Alison to show some enthusiasm in order to experience the emotions of being alive. But it is always life by his terms, and his terms are demanding. He wants to ‘‘stand up in her tears.’’ And ultimately he wins. ‘‘I was wrong,’’ she admits. ‘‘I want to be a lost cause. I want to be corrupt and futile.’’ She becomes a kind of victim-healer, because she is willing to give him his pain and reaffirm his vision of a world where ‘‘plundering’’ is equated with being alive.

Shaffer covers much of the same ground. Instead of Jimmy Porter, we now have the tormented Alan, whose horrible acts are translated by Dysart into a kind of enviable pain. The extremity of Alan’s passions is what Dysart covets, and he is reluctant to remove Alan’s pain because (like Alison) Dysart sees in the pain the source of a passionate life.

You won’t gallop any more, Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You’ll save your pennies every week, till you can change that scooter in for a car, and put the odd fifty P on the gee-gees, quite forgetting that they were ever anything more to you than bearers of little profits and losses. You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.

Dysart finally accepts his part as healer because any other alternatives are simply unacceptable. Alan’s extremity—the blinding of the horses—is a shocking dramatic device, but no amount of theatrical trickery can enable Shaffer to equate barbarism with an enviable passion for life. But what are we to make of all this? Is this stern indictment of the commonplace what is so compelling about Equus? Is it the core ‘‘idea’’ at the center of the drama? Or is it a metaphor for a more complex statement?

John Simon has examined the thematic issues in Equus and discovered a thinly disguised homosexual play beneath the surface of Shaffer’s pseudopsychology. Simon claims that the depiction of Dysart’s wife and marriage, the sexual imagery associated with the horses, and the inability of Alan to perform with Jill are all clear indications of a viewpoint which rejects heterosexuality—the ordinary— in favor of a homosexual world view. Simon additionally points out that the marriage of Jill’s parents is also painted in a bad light, and that Jill, herself, is presented as a naughty seductress tempting Alan away from his Horse-Eden. Thus, for Simon the play abounds with dishonesty: ‘‘. . .toward its avowed purpose, the explication of ‘a dreadful event,’ by making that dreadfulness seem fascinating and even admirable. Dishonesty to the audiences, by trying to smuggle subliminal but virulent homosexual propaganda into them. Dishonesty toward the present state of the theatre, in which homosexuality can and has been discussed openly and maturely.’’

This point of view is particularly interesting in light of the comparison with Look Back in Anger, because Osborne’s play has also been analyzed in terms of its strong homosexual overtones. Indeed, psychiatric criticism of the play addressed the ménage à trois implications of the Porter household two decades ago. How else, some critics believed, could you account for the characters’ behavior? Writing in Modern Drama, E. G. Bierhaus, Jr. has argued that the real lovers in the play are Jimmy and Cliff, and that while both of the women pursue Jimmy, he pursues only Cliff. ‘‘That Alison loses her baby and Cliff keeps his ulcers is symbolic: neither can give Jimmy what he needs.’’

Uncovering homosexuality in literature, however, is often a shell game, and the degree of sleight of hand frequently vitiates the worth of the results. Once certain premises are established, almost anything is fair game. Perhaps Simon is accurate, and Bierhaus too, but there may be a more obvious answer to the apparent disdain with the ordinary which seems to infuse both Look Back in Anger and Equus.

Certainly the ‘‘angry young men’’ of the 1950’s did not require a homosexual world view in order to see the failures of the welfare state, the outdated monarchy and the vanishing empire. Assaulting the commonplace was for Osborne and his contemporaries a thematic way of rejuvenating the English drama as well as tapping the angst that was so compelling in the surrealistic experiments of Beckett and Ionesco. And the normal represented everything from the inequalities of the class system to the blunders at Suez. In its world view, then, Equus is an extension not only of Look Back in Anger, but also of John Arden’s Live Like Pigs, Arnold Wesker’s Roots, Harold Pinter’s The Lover, and numerous other dramatic ventures which contrasted the passion of the abnormal with the drabness of the postwar English world, and which, consequently, have led to an often misplaced admiration of violence and aberration.

In the final analysis, the thematic issues in Equus sometimes seem muddled and confused not because the play is disguised homosexuality, but because it is part of an ongoing fascination with life as ‘‘passion,’’ a fascination which also has its counterparts in English films and popular music. The current extremity termed ‘‘punk rock,’’ for example, owes its lineage to the grittiness of the early Rolling Stones just as much as Equus descends from Look Back in Anger . Iconoclasm has become institutionalized. The original ‘‘causes’’ are somewhat shrouded, but the rebellion goes on. Life as ‘‘passion’’ continues to be dramatic and highly theatrical, but after twenty years somewhat unsatisfactory as ‘‘IDEA.’’

Fortunately, like so many other English plays of the past two decades, Equus lives not by what it says but by the sparks that it ignites in its attempts to be articulate. And while Shaffer’s dramatic traditions go back to Look Back in Anger, his theatrical tradition is closely linked to the experiments of a decade ago in the modes of Brecht and Artaud. For what is ultimately applauded in Equus is not its message but its packaging. Like spectators of Marat- Sade, audiences at Shaffer’s play are frequently carried headlong into a vague kind of catharsis without a very clear knowledge of what they are experiencing or applauding. This is not, and has not been, an unusual occurrence in the contemporary theatre. It would be interesting to know, for instance, how many audience members have come away from Marat-Sade confused by the complex arguments of Peter Weiss’s dialectic on revolution, yet enormously moved by the grotesque images in the play: the deranged inmates, the club-swinging nuns, the saliva, semen and revolutionary songs.

The ‘‘total theatre’’ of a decade ago was an exciting theatre. And it did play a large part in replacing a poetry of words with what Artaud called a poetry of the senses. Marat-Sade is the most famous of the total theatre experiments, because of the publicity surrounding its creation and its huge popular success outside the United Kingdom. But there were others of the same ilk. John Whiting’s The Devils is a wonderfully theatrical play which rambles in its structure, avoids an obvious obligatory scene, and strains for ‘‘meaning’’ on a variety of levels. Ultimately, however, it works—or does not work—in terms of its theatrical effects: the possessed sisters, Jeanne’s sexual obsessions, Grandier’s torture. (Interestingly, Ken Russell focused on these very elements in filming Whiting’s script.) In varying degrees, the same may be said of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Shaffer’s own Royal Hunt of the Sun, and others.

It is from this theatrical tradition that Equus also draws, and it is this tradition which frequently convinces us that we are seeing and hearing something important because the images which bombard us are so exciting. Equus is an exciting play. The eerie music and equus noise are provocative and foreboding. The men as horses serve as a compelling theatrical invention which helps to intensify both the act-one curtain and the blinding sequence near the end of the play. The nude encounter between Jill and Alan is strikingly theatrical, as is the physical setting of the drama which allows one scene to flow rapidly into the next.

But ultimately Equus is a schizophrenic play, because its theatrical fireworks cannot mask its muddled logic and tired philosophy. After sorting through what Shaffer has to say, it is tempting to dispense with the intellectual straining and experience the play on a more visceral level. After all, Alan will be better once he is cured. And Dysart, too, may yet survive his menopause and move on to a time and place where he can admire his own great gifts as much as his patients’ horrifying illnesses.

Source: Barry B. Witham, ‘‘The Anger in Equus’’ in Modern Drama, Volume XXII, no. 1, March, 1979, pp. 61–66.

The Crime of Dispassion

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

In this remarkable season when the majority of new theatrical attractions on Broadway have been imported from abroad, the most strikingly successful entry appears to be Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

Equus locks together the ordeals of two very different protagonists. One, Martin Dysart, is a quietly unhappy psychiatrist, who has a longing for a Greek civilization where myths and rituals were based on instinctively experienced truths, but who has accepted a frigid marriage and package tours to Greece as a safe substitute for a more passionate and more fully realized existence. Martin’s way of nonlife is suddenly challenged when he is asked to treat the play’s second protagonist, Alan Strang. Alan is a teenage psychopath, who has committed the incredibly horrible act of blinding all of the horses in a stable with a spike.

With insistent theatricality Equus follows the psychiatrist, as by means of various tricks and devices he uncovers the pertinent factors that have caused his young patient to go berserk. It is revealed that an incompatibility between Alan’s mother and father has led Alan to acquire a religious fixation, which, when blocked, is transferred to a fixation on horses. Thus his ultimately unsuccessful attempt at lovemaking with a girl in a stable brings Alan a double wave of shame. Not only has he failed as a man among men, but also he has desecrated his temple of horses, whose staring eyes become unbearable. Quite superbly the action builds to a violent and naked climax in which Alan relives for us the terrible moment. This reliving is, we are told, the healthy process of abreaction that will cure Alan of his obsession with horses. However, we are also told that Alan had found, in the fierceness and nobility of the horse, an object worthy of worship in a world where true worship had become most difficult. And Martin concludes with a final lament that his cure will reconcile Alan to a smaller, worshipless living-out of his years.

Some American critics have found in Martin’s situation a disguised statement of the plight of the timid homosexual, who lacks the courage to pursue the dangerous consummation of his desires. However, Shaffer has strongly denied any such intention, and the play works quite well if Martin is taken to represent the apparently ingrained tendency of many modern Britons to accept, without passion or anger, a well-ordered but watered-down existence. Yet the play’s statement is less impressive than is Shaffer’s skillful theatrical fabrication, which deftly finds layers of comic relief as he inexorably drills deeper into the hard rock of tragedy. Indeed, Equus emerges as a surprisingly painless modern tragedy, which accounts for both its popularity and the reservations some serious critics have expressed about its significance.

Certainly a great part of the play’s success comes from its boldly inventive staging, by John Dexter, and the dedication its performers bring to their nightly ritual. Using a stage arrangement similar to the one Ingmar Bergman developed for his Stockholm production of Wozzeck, Dexter creates all the play’s action in an empty space between two opposing groups of theatergoers. Everything is simple and exact, with no scenery and all actors and props always onstage. When horses are required, some of the actors simply put on horses’ heads, made of sculpted wire, and elevated iron hooves. Similarly, when a character must participate in a scene, the performers just rise from their onstage benches and beautifully manage their instant transformations into the characters they must play. Most spectacular is Peter Firth, who makes the furtive and insolent Alan into an ultimately sympathetic victim. And, as the troubled psychiatrist, Anthony Hopkins is frequently electrifying in quick flashes of deeply felt anger. And Marian Seldes, Roberta Maxwell, Michael Higgins, and Frances Sternhagen all suggest hidden depths in characters whose functions are primarily supportive.

All in all, one suspects Equus is at its truest when it is reflecting its author’s anger at his own civilization.

Source: Henry Hewes, ‘‘The Crime of Dispassion’’ in the Saturday Review, Volume 2, no. 9, January 25, 1975, p. 54.