The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Equus begins in darkness and silence. Gradually a dim light illuminates what appears to be a boxing ring—a square with railings on three sides; the side facing the audience is open. Suddenly, in the center of this square, a spotlight illuminates a teenage boy, whose head is pressed against the chest of a tall man wearing on his head a large sculpture of gleaming wire in the shape of a horse’s head. The scene is one of tenderness; the boy’s hands stretch up to fondle the sculpted head, and the head itself nuzzles the boy’s neck. The boy, the audience will soon learn, is Alan Strang, and the “horse” is Nugget. Their moment alone is abruptly interrupted by a flash of flame from a cigarette lighter downstage and to the left; then the stage brightens to illuminate a large circle, in the center of which is the square ring. The man with the lighter is now clearly visible, sitting on a bench and smoking a cigarette, and will soon be identified as Martin Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist. His will be the play’s first—and last—words, spoken directly to the audience about Alan, Nugget, and himself.

Initially Dysart admits that he is less interested in the boy than in the horse; as the doctor asks himself and the audience unanswerable questions about the horse’s desires and grief, Alan leads Nugget out of the square and offstage through a tunnel behind the set. Dysart rises and enters the square. He admits to being “lost” regarding Alan’s case, admits to having a “desperate” feeling that he himself is “wearing that horse’s head,” and admits to being filled with longstanding personal and professional doubts which have been made acute by the extremity of the boy’s case. He abruptly truncates his opening monologue by expressing his desire to explain the case to the audience from its beginning. The remaining twenty scenes of act 1, therefore, are flashbacks to crucial episodes in Dysart’s study of Alan and his background. Hesther Salomon, a magistrate and longtime friend of Dysart, visits his office in Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital and pleads with him to admit seventeen year-old Alan to the hospital. This will keep the boy out of jail, Hesther tells him; besides, she feels certain the boy needs Dysart’s expert psychiatric help because the crime he has committed, at the riding stable where he worked, is so horrible that even other doctors will think the boy disgustingly unworthy of help: He has stabbed out the eyes of six horses with a steel spike.

During their first interview, Alan...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Early in Equus, Dysart tells the audience of a dream he had after his first interview with Alan. In the dream he wears a gold mask, wields a sharp knife and is “a chief priest in Homeric Greece.” He is officiating at an important ritual sacrifice of hundreds of children, their bodies laid out before him one by one, and his job is to cut open their abdomens and eviscerate them. Despite his efforts to look professional as he operates, he begins to feel nauseous. His mask begins to slip off his face; he fears his two assistants will notice his slipping mask, see his sweat and distress, and take his knife—and power—away from him. At the instant they do what he fears, he wakes. The dream’s central action, that of pagan sacrifices to a god or gods, is archetypal. Well it should be, since Peter Shaffer portrays in the play an archetypal struggle: that between the Apollonian tendency (its domain being the rational or conscious mind and controlled emotions) and the Dionysian (its domain being the irrational or unconscious mind and wild passions). Shaffer employs several dramatic devices in the play to exemplify this conflict.

The set of the play is itself such a device. Lying on the stage is a large circular platform, and centered upon this is a smaller arena-like square mounted on ball bearings so it can be turned in a circle. The play’s main action takes place within Dysart’s office, the square: a rational and lineal construct with...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital

Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital. British psychiatric hospital to which teenager Alan Strang has been remanded by a court, after he blinded six horses with a metal spike. In contrast to the realistic clinical setting of Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film version of Equus, which included white-coated doctors tending clearly psychotic patients, the set of the original play carefully avoids realistic imagery, other than the occasional appearance of a nurse.

John Napier’s design for the set calls for a wooden square atop a wooden circle. The square resembles a boxing ring, which makes Alan and Dysart resemble evenly matched prize-fighters in their relentless rhetorical counterpunching. Functioning as witnesses, much like a Greek chorus, all other characters sit on benches behind the square, where they remain always visible to the audience. Napier’s stage directions include three tiers of audience seats placed around the circle, “in the fashion of a dissecting theater.” Metal horse-masks, donned by actors, are mounted on wooden poles.

Dalton’s stable

Dalton’s stable. Scene of the blinding incident, which is bloodlessly, almost balletically, reenacted at the play’s climax. To Alan, the stable is a temple for clandestine worship of his horse-god, Equus—and the site of his failed first attempt at sexual intercourse with Jill Mason.


*Mycenae (my-SEE-nee). Ancient Greek site of pagan rituals of worship that are idealized by psychiatrist Martin Dysart, in contrast to the sterility that he believes characterizes the modern world.

Strang home

Strang home. Working-class household in southern England that is the site of various family conflicts, primarily over religion. In his bedroom, Alan reenacts secret rituals of worship before a poster-sized photograph of a horse, which has replaced an image of Christ in chains that his atheist father removed.


Beach. Site of six-year-old Alan’s first ride on a horse, Trojan, which was interrupted when his father pulled him off the horse. The psychologically traumatic scene is reenacted during the play.

Field of Ha-Ha

Field of Ha-Ha. Alan’s name for the site of his exultant clandestine night ride, which is reenacted at the end of the first act. He takes the name from a passage in the Old Testament: “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting” (Job 39:25).

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Equus premiered in 1973, near the beginning of a decade largely characterized in Britain by crisis and economic decline. Recovering...

(The entire section is 931 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Dramatic Genre
Equus closely resembles a suspense thriller in form and structure, revealing Shaffer’s fondness...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1973: Children are widely viewed as innocent, and an act of violence like that committed by Alan is considered especially...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare and contrast the beliefs that Alan’s mother and father have on concepts such as class, religion, sex, and, of course, horses. What...

(The entire section is 272 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Equus was adapted into a film in 1977 by United Artists and directed by Sidney Lumet. Shaffer’s script received an Academy Award...

(The entire section is 72 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Amadeus, often regarded as Shaffer’s greatest dramatic achievement. The 1979 play is a probing exploration of...

(The entire section is 358 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive. ’’Equus a New Success on Broadway’’ in the New York Times, October 25,...

(The entire section is 695 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 395 words.)