Peter Shaffer Shaffer, Peter (Vol. 5) - Essay

Shaffer, Peter (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shaffer, Peter 1926–

Shaffer is a British playwright noted for technical skill, versatility, and sophistication. His early successes were Five Finger Exercise and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

[Without] spectacular theatricality, [The Royal Hunt of the Sun] amounts to very little; it may be total theatre but it is strictly fractional drama; and being exposed to Peter Shaffer's meditations on religion, love, life, and death for three solid hours is rather like being trapped in a particularly active wind tunnel with no hope of egress. (p. 114)

[The] conquest of Peru by the Spanish invaders is a natural subject for the theatre; it is the kind of dark myth that fascinated Antonin Artaud as an alternative to the decaying subject matter of the Occidental stage. The idea for the play, as a matter of fact, was probably suggested to Mr. Shaffer by Artaud's first scenario for his projected Theatre of Cruelty, a tableau sequence called The Conquest of Mexico. In this unproduced spectacle, Artaud hoped to "contrast Christianity with much older religions" and correct "the false conceptions the Occident has somehow formed concerning paganism and certain natural religions," while dramatizing, in burning images, the destruction of Montezuma and his Aztecs by the armies of Cortez…. Mr. Shaffer treats the annihilation of the Incas in a similar manner, and (having done his history homework carefully) occasionally engages in some speculative comparative anthropology. But at the same time that he is fashioning cruel Artaudian myths, he is mentalizing, psychologizing, and sentimentalizing these myths. Underneath the tumult and the swirl lie a very conventional set of liberal notions about the noble savage, the ignoble Catholic, and the way brotherly love can bridge the gulf that separates cultures. By the end of the play, in fact, the whole brutal struggle has degenerated into a fraternal romance between a lissome young redskin and an aging lonely paleface—a relationship which is illuminated less by Artaud than by Leslie Fiedler in his essay "Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey." (pp. 114-15)

Robert Brustein, "Peru in New York" (1965) in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 114-16.

On its most readily accessible level, Peter Shaffer's "Equus"… is a mystery story…. The plot of "Equus" is all simply and artfully, in a series of questions and answers, the working out of the mystery: How did an innocent boy come to reach the point where he felt obliged to blind the horses he loved?

Mr. Shaffer is an ingenious playwright, as we have had reason to observe in his "Five Finger Exercise," "The Royal Hunt of the Sun," and "Black Comedy." He is also a superb writer of dialogue, and in "Equus," which he might once have been content to turn into an exercise (this time for ten fingers, and perhaps for ten toes as well), he has taken far greater chances than before. His psychiatrist poses questions that go beyond the sufficiently puzzling matter of the boy's conduct to the infinitely puzzling matter of why, in a world charged with insanity, we should seek to "cure" anyone in the name of sanity. The doctor faces in his personal life a misgiving likely to paralyze him in his practice; he discovers that the boy, sick as he seemingly is, has had the joy of passion greater than any that the doctor himself has ever felt. If he cures the boy, it will be at the expense of that passion, which the doctor envies and would like to share.

Mr. Shaffer offers his big, bowwow speculations about the nature of contemporary life in the midst of a melodrama continuously thrilling on its own terms…. Mr. Shaffer convinces us that there is a pagan "horseness" separate from the life and death of individual horses and well worth our reverence; we violate it at our peril, as we violate our humanity at our peril. The word "equus" stands for more than a single horse, as the word "man" stands for more than a single man. It appears to be Mr. Shaffer's conviction that if only we could be who we are without having to bear the crushing weight of an identity, we would have no need for violence. (p. 123)

Brendan Gill, "Unhorsed," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 4, 1974, pp. 123-24.

It took Shaffer 2 1/2 years to write Equus, the dazzling psychological thriller … about a boy who blinds six horses … that is now Broadway's rarest ticket. [Shaffer] had heard in 1972 about the incident on which the play is based. A stableboy had been brought before the magistrates in a rural part of England, accused of blinding with a poker the 26 horses he cared for. The story haunted Shaffer. He never tried to find out the actual details because "I'm not a journalist or a photographer." He is, however, a consummate technician. He delved into the history of horses as sexual and religious symbols and read extensively in animal and child psychology. Then he worked out the boy's motivations to his own satisfaction. In the play they are revealed in long, troubled dialogues between the boy … who actually worships horses, and a psychiatrist….

Shaffer … resembles Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, both of whom managed to write hits about such then queasy subjects as drug addiction (The Vortex) and homosexuality (Ross). Like them, Shaffer possesses an apparently flawless intuition about how much he can shock the audience without turning it off. Coming from a nation that reveres horses, he shrewdly placed a completely nude love scene—which might otherwise have caused a fuss—just before the boy's outrage on the horses. He also has an ear tuned to his audience's particular anxieties. He speaks of the modern struggle to live with ambiguities: the knowledge that any good course can be immediately opposed by another equally possible one. It is this constant weighing of trade-offs that forms Shaffer's conflicts. In Equus, the psychiatrist can cure the boy; he can exorcise his gods-demons, but he knows that in exchange he can offer only the dubious promise of "normality" and "adjustment."…

Shaffer has fashioned a spectacle dominated by horses: actors who bear on their heads equine masks and on their feet wear 6-in.-high hoofs that thud with the menace of a jungle drum. Shaffer has been fascinated by mask drama ever since he wrote The Royal Hunt of the Sun, about the conquistador Pizarro in Peru. At his suggestion, Inca funeral masks were worn by the Indians in the last act. "Nobody could think how they should look during Pizarro's speech over the corpse of Atahuallpa," explained Shaffer. "I thought of the masks."

The results were rewarding. People asked Shaffer how he got the masks to change their expressions. "They hadn't, of course," said Shaffer. "But the audience invested so much emotion in the play that it looked as if they had." Many of the audience at Equus react similarly: they claim they see the horses' eyes roll. That to Shaffer is the fulfillment of his job. "The playwright must exercise the audience's muscle, its imagination." (p. 117)

Richard Schickel, "Showman Shaffer," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 11, 1974, pp. 117, 119.

Peter Shaffer is a dramatist of talent and intelligence who has always delighted me with his smaller and zanier plays, like The Private Ear and Black Comedy, but left me hungry and disappointed with his mightier efforts, like The Royal Hunt of the Sun and The Battle of Shrivings…. [To me, Equus] is a bundle of anathemas.

First, Equus falls into that category of worn-out whimsy wherein we are told that insanity is more desirable, admirable, or just saner than sanity. At its lowest, this yields a film like King of Hearts; at its campiest, a farce like Bad Habits. Though much more sophisticated than these, Equus still asks us to believe that the crazed passion of a stableboy for horses, which, on the one hand, makes him create and fanatically worship a horse-god, Equus, and, on the other, drives him viciously to blind half a dozen harmless equines that witnessed his abortive love-making with a girl, is a fine and highflown thing, a love that must be quashed because it is too grand, wild, and beautiful for the humdrum world of plodding humanity. To me, this is nonsense, and I don't for a moment believe the play's psychiatrist who is made to verbalize this bull (or horse)….

Next, and relatedly, the play asks us to believe that the psychiatrist who cures and "saves" this horse worshiper and blinder diminishes him: makes him plain, unpoetic, and common. Psychiatry, as its representative is made to confess, is a shriveler of souls. Now I hold no particular brief for psychiatry, having seen it not help about as many people as it has helped. But, fallible as it is—like all medicine, like all human endeavor—scoring facile points off it has always struck me as cheap and wrong-headed. I sympathize when a genius like Rilke or Ingmar Bergman refuses psychotherapy on the grounds that his greatness may somehow be lessened, that the achingly oversensitive artistic introspection may end up blunted. But what has this common stableboy to lose if, instead of naked nocturnal horseback-riding, and whipping himself, figuratively and literally, into a frenzy before a cloven-footed image, he makes love to a nice little girl, becomes a solid citizen, and occasionally wins or drops a few shillings at the races?

I particularly resent the further loading of the dice by making the psychiatrist, the spokesman for normality, an unhappily married man, his sex life with a dull and frigid wife completely atrophied, and his kicks coming from the perusal of illustrated tomes on Greek art. Not the goddesses of Phidias and Praxiteles, we are led to surmise, but the softly boyish kouroi, the charioteers and athletes of, say, Lysippus—after all, note the almost reverential ardor with which the psychiatrist treats and gazes at his ephebic patient's mind and body….

The play, furthermore, espouses the form of the case history, which, with the exception of the courtroom drama, is the most overworked and by now least imaginative form of theatrical offering. It is the difference between a great painting and its exploitation as a jigsaw puzzle: the art is no longer in the magnificent image, but in the fitting together of oddly shaped bits of wood. And then there is that obligatory (here not so obligatory) nude scene … in which the girl is, of course, the aggressor, causing a breach in the boy's equine fidelity. Then comes the grand nude blinding scene, showing off the boy's organ to best advantage, and all that, combined with the far-fetchedness of this whole notion of hippophilia, makes me agree with [the] view that what is really meant here is pederasty. In a season when every second new play seems to be frankly concerned with homosexuality, the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name strategy of Equus strikes me as particularly jejune.

Lastly, we get that fashionably bittersweet semihappy ending: even if being cured is a cosmic cop-out, the boy, at least, will be cured—as if psychotherapy were such a simple matter: a little hypnosis here, a bit of abreaction there, and our hideously disturbed protagonist's mind is safely on the way to total recovery. But the final blow is the ordinariness of the play's language…. What we need is more Lapithae, the mythic race who defeated the Centaurs and invented the bit and the bridle—only for horses, so far, but pretentious playwrights may be next….

[No] amount of external embellishment can overcome the hollowness within.

John Simon, "The Blindness is Within," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), November 11, 1974, p. 118.

When the good and ever-so-earnest doctor [in Equus] cries out in anger and agony at the fact that he, who in his therapeutic task on Alan [the co-protagonist] may be eliminating what is actually creative in the boy, is at the same time freezing his own best impulses, a good part of the audience applauds. The inference is that, once cured, that is, rid of his "divine" suffering, Alan will become a dullard like most normal people. Such applause is an echo of the new cant: that the schizophrenic is closer to the truth of life than the ordinary citizen. But positing such an alternative is false. One need not be "crazy" to live untrammeled by conventional proscriptions. Most of the insane (I have seen them in hospitals) are in every way far more wretched and pitiful than the average man in his quiet despair or humdrum gloom.

As dramatized, I find the play's "philosophy" bogus. Dysart [the psychiatrist] himself needs to be cured of his faulty reasoning. The playwright needs a more fitting "objective correlative" or story analogy for his defense of the irregular or anomalous person. (pp. 506-07)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 16, 1974.

I was never able wholly to accept the psychiatric case-history that Shaffer invented [for Equus] to explain the strange and terrible aberration of the adolescent stable-lad who blinds the horses he supposedly dotes upon, but it's a beautifully organised, arrestingly written play…. (p. 714)

Kenneth Hurren, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 30, 1974.

Peter Shaffer … who began, with Five Finger Exercise (1958), very much in the pre-1956 style and later borrowed rather superficially from Brecht for The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), has suddenly come into his own with Equus (1973). The play is still naturalistic but it moves with impressive suppleness from past to present, reality to dream, narration to dialogue and at moments even into choric frenzy, with actors wearing the stylised masks of horses. It is clear that Shaffer's earlier rather unremarkable versions of psychological drama (though including the clever firework Black Comedy [1965]) were stages in a slow movement towards his real area of interest, a modern use of myth. The Battle of Shrivings, which seemed such an artistic disaster when it was performed in 1970 and which scarcely seems to be much improved in its rewritten version Shrivings, can now perhaps be seen as Shaffer's adieu to unmodified naturalism. Equus teaches us to call no playwright predictable until he is dead. (p. 65)

John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1974–75 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1975.

Some American critics have found in [the] situation [of Martin, the psychiatrist in Equus,] 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….

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

Henry Hewes, "The Crime of Dispassion," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 25, 1975, p. 54.

Equus … surgically probes man's continuing fascination with violent forms of belief, those passionately fanatical, sometimes sacrificial manifestations of religious ecstasy….

Shaffer's dramatic theme isn't new: obsession with the more primitive emotional drives inherent in extremely devout belief repeatedly has been treated in the drama and literature of our Freudian-shaped century, from D. H. Lawrence to Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. Shaffer's own previous work, the colorful and ritualistic Royal Hunt of the Sun, explored the self-sacrificial potentialities brought on by a confrontation of the Aztec and Spanish cultures.

Equus presents a psychiatric search for the reason for a specific violent act. A psychiatrist in a provincial British hospital … is given the case of the stableboy, Alan Strang…. In the argumentative relationship that develops between boy and doctor, Shaffer explores the boy's mental process—the usual ploy of psychiatric thrillers—but he additionally attempts, quite successfully, to set up and comprehend the elemental struggles in Everyman's concept of his individual world….

Central to the playwright's dramatic concept is the idea of the horse as totemic animal, a creature-symbol of male power, an emblem of transcending mastery. Young Strang has come to understand intuitively, with his viewing and appreciation of television cowboys, that the coupling of man and animal can produce a type of grandeur, an intensification of religious experience, unknown in an era of commercial jingles and electrical appliances. In this sense, the boy is not unlike the repressed Army private in Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye who rode naked through the Fort Benning forests.

Earlier, Strang had been attracted, his mother tells his doctor, to more "normal" religious images; he liked, for example, a picture of Christ ascending Calvary "loaded with chains" while the centurions "were really laying on the stripes." His father's objection to such "kinky" pictures causes the boy to change his worship to more Dionysian forms.

Of course, that traditional civil war of the psyche, the Apollonian and Dionysian struggle—the stress created between our simultaneous desires for, on the one hand, order, restraint, and rationality, and, on the other, passion, power, and violence—is evoked. Thomas Mann utilized the same confrontation in his Death in Venice, where the disciplined, craftsmanlike novelist Aschenbach fatally collided with his passionate vision, the boy-god Tadzio.

What is most gratifying about Equus, however, is the play's rich complexities…. Its principals, doctor and boy, are filled with ambiguity. If the boy is to return to "normal," he must lose the very meaningful religious sense he has developed; similarly, the analyst has come to have doubts about his psychiatric "religion" and about his role in it as priest or savior. Dysart, the psychiatrist, recognizes also that the boy he is treating has experienced "a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life." (p. 114)

With Equus, [Shaffer] has provided himself not only with a Lawrentian search into the dark night of the soul; he has also deeply explored the mythmaking necessity of man. (p. 115)

Jere Real, "A Rocking Horse Winner", in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), January 31, 1975, pp. 114-15.

Shaffer is a playwright of very modest talents that, when put to a use commensurate with their scope, can produce a thin but pleasant amusement like Black Comedy or a competent family melodrama like Five Finger Exercise. However, when he attempted a heavier task in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, he turned the conquest of Peru into a public-school history pageant and made a conflict of cultures an exercise in English badinage. In Equus he has scaled down his scene of action but not his ambitions, for although the play is about a young man's undergoing the agony of mental therapy, much more is at stake in this drama than the rehabilitation of an individual psyche. The whole question of cultural vitality, of the Apollonian and Dionysian tension in civilization, is Shaffer's theme. (p. 77)

[This play] seems to me to be a perfect case-study in the mediocrity of insight necessary nowadays for a play to enjoy a popular reputation for profundity. From the schematic psychology to the simpleminded cultural criticisms, there is nothing in this play that either informs us what life is or what it ought to be. It is all contrivance, all middle-class whines and whimpers that generally belong to the fantasies of afternoon television. One sits through Equus and wonders how it could be possible that so much effort was spent trying to make this poor example of a young boy's derangement into a symbol of human vitality. The dark, irrational exhilarations of human life are made by Shaffer to seem so neat and precise a part of our psychology that Equus ends by making pure reason appear the real human adventure; and if one should embark on it during one of the play's many longueurs it comes to mind that the good doctor, and all those critics who agree with him, would not see Alan as such a romantic figure if he'd found his notion of deity in titmice or in a piece of very rare roast beef. The thesis that madness, if not outrightly divine, is at best preferable to the 20th century's ruthless and uninspired sanity, is in this play, as it is in so much fashionable philosophizing, totally dependent on a pleasant, aesthetically rational form of derangement for the credibility of its argument. Great foam-covered stallions in the moonlight are fine, but for titmice cults and roast-beef sects there is no public. (p. 78)

Jack Richardson, in Commentary (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), February, 1975.

After its success at Britain's National Theatre, Peter Shaffer's Equus took New York's critics and audiences by storm. It is well on its way to becoming the first dramatic hit on Broadway in heaven knows how many seasons. Serious plays have been failing year after year on the Broadway stage, where for some years now only comedies or musicals have paid off….

What is there about Equus that may make it the exception to an ironbound rule?

First of all, Equus is pretentious, which the public falls for. (p. 97)

If "normality" is the patsy in this play, psychiatry, clearly, is the villain. (p. 103)

The play pullulates with dishonesty. 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. Dishonesty to psychiatry, which is depicted as a castrator of bodies and souls. Dishonesty toward normality (whatever that is), by making its representatives and defenders, for the most part, pathetic or unappetizing. Dishonesty to art, which does not abide such facile equivocations as "You will be cured," "You won't be cured," "You will be cured, and less healthy for it," to say nothing of the fudging over of that horse-blinding by doing it as a nude scene, and to horses that are mere metallic masks. Greek tragedy showed no acts of violence either, but found a poetry that could richly convey them. It would not have settled for a Dysart [the psychiatrist] who says feebly—as he assumes, for no good reason given, the boy's sick identity—"I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads," followed by the no less feeble lines about his now having a permanent, painful chain in his mouth. Has Dysart become both Alan Strang and Equus?

In any case, the final dishonesty here is toward the very thing meant to be championed: homosexuality. Not only is it obliged to masquerade as zooerastia (also known as bestiality), it is also accorded a false and misleading image. What is the equivalent in basic homophile terms for the key incident of Equus, the blinding of the horses? I can find no valid analogies, yet the fundamental obligation of a metaphor or symbol is to create a thorough, functioning correspondence. Equus fails all the causes it seems to espouse, except for the dubious cause of spectacular theatricality. (p. 106)

John Simon, "Hippodrama at the Psychodrome," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 97-106.

Equus clearly touches a nerve in the New York audience, as it did earlier in London, which means that it is something more serious (i.e., more timely) than the effectively theatrical play it so obviously is. Not that I am completely taken with it as a play. Its main dramatic action lies in the psychiatrist's longing for an experience, however dangerous, as direct (as "primitive," he would say, tongue slightly in cheek) as that of the young man he is attempting to help (cure? turn to plastic?)….

No well-brought up audience can resist the combination of sexuality, religion and violence, and Shaffer attempts to weaken any possible resistance by organizing the play as a series of scenes in which the patient's acting-out becomes theatrical presentation. There is something a bit too concocted about the mechanism for my taste, the transformation of therapy into detective story, answering why rather than who. (p. 78)

We file out into the New York streets and—if I read that applause correctly—go back to our own narrow lives. Equus, it seems, is more than a high-class melodrama. It is a cry for the power of irrationality. Or an echo. (p. 79)

Gerald Weales, in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 25, 1975.