Themes and Meanings

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Although Equus ends with Dysart believing that he can make Alan normal, he also paradoxically believes that to be normal is to be spiritually dead, unoriginal, and homogeneously predictable. This latter belief is a source of great tension in the play, and Dysart’s struggle between his personal conviction and his professional duty allows Peter Shaffer to explore his central concern: the ways human life is shaped by spiritual belief, as well as the extent to which it can or should be shaped by such belief. Indeed, Dysart’s life becomes profoundly complicated when, in the process of uncovering the reasons Alan blinded the horses, he discovers that he envies Alan’s passion and religious fervor.

At the play’s beginning, Dysart tells the audience that he is “reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there.” He doubts the worth of what he does professionally (he is experiencing, he says, “professional menopause”), and he leads a boring life without passion or spiritual engagement of any kind. His longstanding and childless marriage to a dentist is one of mutual convenience and a shared domicile. His wife finds “repulsive” his abiding interest in ancient Greece, its art and religion, and he wishes he had one “instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person” with whom he could share Greece and “stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods.’ And not just the old dead ones . . . no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England!” While Dysart prides himself on his knowledge of ancient gods, he is—despite his high-sounding rhetoric—exactly what he calls his wife: worshipless.

Dysart does, nevertheless, serve a god—the “murderous God of Health” and normality. He regrets having—as a “priest” of his society—“cut” from children “parts of individuality repugnant to this God.” Alan’s god Equus, as well as the boy’s intensely passionate religiosity, shatters Dysart’s static complacency over the habitual shaping of young psyches; the doctor imagines the equine god saying, “Account for me. . . . First account for Me!” By example, Alan exposes Dysart to his own spiritual vacuity; he exposes him as being Barabbas-like in the realm of the human spirit. Dysart believes there is nothing “worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship,” but professionally he does exactly that. He exposes him, in short, to the blatant and apparently inescapable hypocrisy of his life. Alan “has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life,” Dysart says near the play’s end. “And let me tell you something: I envy it.” The similarities between what Alan does to the horses and what was done to Christ physically are rendered as a provocative motif in Equus; nevertheless, the similarities drawn ironically between Dysart and Alan are even more unnerving in their implications: Dysart describes himself as standing “in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!”


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Freedom There is an ethical ambiguity explored in Equus , the conflict between two ideas of right. The freedom of the individual to do whatever he or she wants must always be balanced with the social need to limit this freedom when a person’s actions are harmful to others. This is certainly the case with Alan’s shocking crime; society’s highest priority in this case is to put Alan away, or to cure his psychological distress so that, hopefully, he will not again...

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cause such harm. Dysart recognizes that he cannot simply allow Alan to act entirely of his own will, but at the same time he is loathe to administer a cure that will most likely quell or kill the boy’s imagination and passion. The doctor also worries that the force driving Alan’s actions is something closer to instinct rather than a simple mental problem. He is concerned that squelching such impulses will essentially rob Alan of all identity. Yet the concerns of society as a whole prevail in this case; Alan’s actions, if left unchecked, will ultimately hinder the freedom and happiness of others.

God and Religion Not only is religion a significant theme in Equus, it has shown itself important to Shaffer’s writing throughout his long career. Shaffer is fascinated by the human need to believe in a god, to discover a suitable form of worship. In this play the primary theological distinction is between Christianity and paganism (in the form of a horse-god). Alan has been brought up in a Christian faith by his mother, but the horrific tales of Christ’s crucifixion disturbed him. He creates his own religion, channeling Christian beliefs and practices into his worship of the god Equus, a horse figure that is far more comforting to him than the bloodied Jesus. Dr. Dysart, with his passion for classical culture, makes associations between Alan’s beliefs and the ancient, pagan Greek society which is viewed as so influential upon Western civilizations (Greek culture embraced many gods who they believed influenced various facets of their lives; they built a system of arts and social government that is often cited as a model for modern society). Dysart understands intellectually (and begins to feel genuinely) that, as he says, ‘‘life is only comprehensible through a thousand local gods.’’

Growth and Development Horse figures play an enormous role in Alan’s development. Images of the horse pervade the play, appropriate for a near archetypal figure which has such important historical and cultural associations. Dora Strang relates how Alan was fascinated as a boy with a historical fact regarding the conquest of the Americas: when Christian cavalry arrived in the new world, the indigenous people often mistook horse and rider for one creature, a four-legged animal with the powers of a god. This anecdote greatly influences the development of Alan’s personal mythology of Equus; as he matures and begins his naked midnight rides, this mythos incorporates sexual elements as well. This is depicted in the last scene of Act One. In a near sexual/religious frenzy, Alan rides the horse, crying, ‘‘Bear me away! Make us One Person!’’

Other encounters with horse images, or actual horses, were also important to Alan’s development— the storybook his mother read to him over and over, the odd photograph of a horse which replaced the portrait of Christ’s crucifixion, and the traumatic experience of being pulled from a horse by his father after a thrilling oceanfront ride. Other cultural associations with horses—their speed and power, their majestic carriage—make plausible to a contemporary audience the idea that a boy could find divinity in the equestrian image.

Memory and Reminiscence A form of reminiscence—the replaying of scenes from the past—provides Equus with a dramatic structure. Memory, especially repressed memory that must be brought to light, is additionally an important thematic component in the play. In a classic Freudian formula, Alan has repressed certain memories in his subconscious and as a result suffers nightmares and other forms of mental unrest. Dr. Dysart uses techniques such as hypnosis and a ‘‘truth drug’’ placebo to lower Alan’s psychic defenses and allow these repressed memories to rise to the surface, where they can be confronted and treated by the psychiatrist. There is an abreaction, a venting of psychic pain, which takes the form of theatrical performance and provides each act with an expressionistic conclusion (Alan on one of his midnight rides at the end of Act One; his recollection of blinding the horses near the end of Act Two).

Sanity and Insanity Like the theme of religion, this theme operates on many levels in the play. Dysart is confronted, on the one hand, with a boy who is psychologically troubled, has committed a violent act society views as insane, and whose pain can be removed by treatment. The play unfolds dramatically, in fact, precisely because of Dysart’s success in uncovering Alan’s repressed memories, and it concludes with the implication that Dysart can cure Alan’s distress. But in treating Alan, Dysart begins to view these labels of sanity and insanity as social constructions, values which appear fixed but actually change greatly over time and across cultures. Dysart is scared that by curing Alan, making the boy sane in a sociallyaccepted manner, he might take away from Alan a passion for life which most people never feel (and which Dysart admits he envies).

Sex Sex and religion are probably the two most significant, and closely intertwined themes, in the play. Both are crucial factors in Alan’s childhood development; in both instances, Alan makes a transference of what society views as ‘‘normal’’ forms of sex and worship onto his pagan, equine religion. The play hints at the sexual undertones of many events in Alan’s childhood. Frank Strang’s comment that Christianity to him ‘‘is just bad sex,’’ and his reference to a particularly graphic depiction of Christ’s crucifixion as ‘‘kinky,’’ imply connections between sexual desire and religious ecstasy which the father may have instilled in Alan as a youth. Alan’s ride with the Horseman is also given sexual undertones, a pleasure he is clearly attempting to replicate on his naked, midnight rides with Equus. (Alan has essentially made a religious practice out of a masturbatory act.) 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 inability to actually have intercourse with Jill. Sex is thus a major factor both in Alan’s development, and in the violent act which initiates the dramatic action of the play.