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An Analysis Of Shaffer's Equus

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4910 words Published: 19th May 2017

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The play is in two acts, the first consisting of twenty-one; the second of thirty-five scenes. It is not realistic in that it includes flashbacks performed onstage (like a movie). However, it is an explanatory one with Shaffer’s notes while read. It is a play consisting of individuals rather than types. Each character has his/her individuality along with his/her own perspective of life. We learn about the characters from what other characters tell about them; from what they tell about themselves; as well as from Shaffer’s explanation about them within parentheses. Although it is an open ended play it goes far from the lineer plot structure with its amazing climax. The forward and backward action of the play makes it a different one. Moreover while the play has speech when the time is present, it contains action when it is backward. It is a symbolic play and can be called “a journey into the mind” of Alan Strang, a seventeen year old boy. It analyzes Alan’s religious obsession with horses which is based on his complicated feelings due to his religious background and his increasing sexual side as a teenager. This confusion of religion, in fact, is a consequence of some signals from his religious, middle-class mother and his atheist, working-class father. Alan’s perception of religion and sexuality is conflicted and his way of praying becomes a fear of a horse spirit named Equus. He ends up with blinding six horses in the stable because of the fact that they have watched him with a girl. Rosefeldt states that Equus is “…inspired by a real-life event of which the author had very little details. Someone told Shaffer about a boy who blinded horses” (Rosefeldt 89). Equus, the horse gradually becomes a source of freedom and worship for Alan. As he worships Equus passionately, Alan goes away from being ‘normal.’

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There are two main characters in the play, Martin Dysart and Alan Strang, the protagonist. While the play is Alan’s story, it soon becomes Dysart’s story, too. Dysart is a psychiatrist and is asked to treat Alan Strang. Dysart admits to treat Alan as a patient, believing his lawyer friend Hesther Salomon that the boy has something special. In Act I, the audiences learn that Alan comes from a Christian mother – Dora Strang – and an atheist father – Frank Strang who have argument in agreeing how to raise Alan. Alan’s mother tries to impose religion on Alan and does not avoid talking about sex as well. As he grows up and becomes a teenager, his mother’s words become confusing for him. Alan’s obssesion with the horses is actually a typical result of his mother’s words:

Dora. … I used to tell him a funny thing about falling off horses. Did you know that when Christian cavalry first appeared in the New World, the pagans thought horse and rider was one person?

Dysart. Really?

Alan. (sitting up, amazed) One person?

Dora. Actually, they thought it must be a god.

Alan. A god!

Dora. It was only when one rider fell off, they realized the truth.

Dysart. That’s fascinating. I never heard that before . . . Can you remember anything else like that you may have told him about horses.

Dora. Well, not really. They are in the Bible of course. “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.”

Dysart. Ha, ha? (Equus 11)

Dora has also let Alan watch some Western films “without his father’s knowledge” (Equus 12). She is the one in the play introducing the word “equus” stating that it is a Latin word for horse by which Alan is “fascinated” since he has not heard a word with “two Us” (Equus 12). As for Frank, he has never approved of his wife teaching Alan Bible since he is an atheist. For Frank, Alan’s psychology has been corrupted because of Dora’s teachings of Bible.

Alan has been having nightmares in which he keeps saying “Ek! . . . Ek! . . .Ek!” (Equus 14). Dysart first tries psychotherapy to learn the reasons for Alan’s problems. However, those therapies consequently reveal some interesting clues about Dysart’s own problems. Alan is a clever boy and he tries to work on Dysart’s psychology in the way Dysart does:

Dysart. Do you dream often?

Alan. Yes, do you?

Dysart. Yes. Do you have a special dream?

Alan. No. Do you?

Dysart. Yes. What was your dream about last night?

Alan. Can’t remember. What’s yours about?

Dysart. I said the truth.

Alan. That’s the truth. What’s yours about? The special one.

Dysart. Carving up children. (Equus 14)

Shapiro who analyzes the play technically, suggests for the relationship between Dysart and Alan:

[T]he symbolic aspect is in the phrases Dysart uses to set the scene in motion. What they symbolize is Dysart’s dishonesty, as Alan’s symbolic event also reveals…Alan is playing a symbolic event with an iconic, “truculent” aspect, the object of which is the audience’s recognition of Dysart’s dishonesty… In this case the audience knows from the Nurse’s previous indexical event that Dysart knew about Alan’s nightmares. Thus, they should recognize that Dysart began the interview with a lie. Consequently, the interview cannot proceed until Alan turns indexical. He will do this once Dysart becomes truthful. Hence, Alan suggests that they interview each other. (Shapiro 111)

In the tenth scene of the first act, the audience is again introduced to a flashback. During this second therapy, Alan goes back to the time when he was six years old:

Horseman. Whoa! . . . Whoa there! Whoa! . . Sorry! I didn’t see you! . . . Did I scare you?

Alan. No!

Horseman. (looking down at him) That’s a terrific castle!

Alan. What’s his name?

Horseman. Trojan. You can stroke him, if you like. He won’t mind. (Equus 19)

In this scene Alan’s parents arrive and warn the horseman. His father takes him from the horseman’s shoulders and they get angry with the horseman. Frank who is strictly against riding horses is sad to see Alan hurt, however Alan is glad to have ridden a horse. He explains his act saying “I wanted to laugh!” (Equus 20). It is here clear that Alan as a boy, demands to have joy; no matter how his parents think. It is the passion destroyed by his parents.

What Dysart really wants to learn is the reason why Alan blinded the six horses in the stable. As a psychiatrist, Dysart wants to go into the deepest places of Alan’s psychology in order to give some meaning to this act of Alan. However, Alan neither explains why he blinded the horses nor tells something that can help Dysart find some reason behind it. He continues playing with the psychiatrist.

In the eleventh scene we are told that Alan, when he was twelve, “… insisted on buying … {the picture of Christ loaded down with chains} with his pocket money, and hanging it at the foot of his bed where he could see it last thing at night” (Equus 21). However, Frank, the atheist father tore and threw it away. Instead of the picture, he put a photograph of a horse which made Alan happy.

In the fifteenth scene, Dysart has finally managed to have more clues about Alan’s situation. He has learnt from Frank about a girl in Alan’s life and decided to ask some questions about the stable. Alan takes the audience to the previous year when he first talked to Jill – a middle-class girl in her early twenties. At this time, Alan is working in a shop and Jill has come to the shop in order to buy some blades for a clipping machine – to clip horses (Equus 29). Jill is working in a stable owned by Harry Dalton. She suggests Alan ride horses however Alan is here hesitant since he knows his parents would be against it. He finally agrees to go to the stable and meet Dalton. As soon as he arrives the stable, Dalton tells him about the horses and teaches him how to ride a horse. Here we are introduced to Nugget, a horse which will soon have an important part in the play. When Alan is left alone with the horses in the stable, his passion returns. What Dysart wants to learn is whether Alan had a date with Jill; however Alan is again escapist in his answers and he instead tries to question Dysart about his own dates. It is in scene seventeen where the audiences come to realize the inner conflict of Dysart. Alan tries to catch Dysart from his weakest point. Dysart has never had any sexual relationship with any women in his life, including his wife. He is nervous when he is asked why he does not have any children and suddenly needs cigarettes. His soliloquy in this scene is a clear evidence about this psychiatrist’s psychology:

What am I, then? . . . Wicked little bastard — [Alan] knew exactly what questions to try. He’d actually marched himself round the hospital, making enquiries about my wife. Wicked and — of course, perceptive. Ever since I made that crack about carving up children, he’s been aware of me in an absolutely specific way. Of course, there is nothing novel in that. Advanced neurotics can be dazzling at that game. They aim unswervingly at your area of maximum vulnerability. . . Which I suppose is as good a way as any of describing Margaret. (Equus 32)

The next scene reveals Dysart’s problems with his wife Margaret. Dysart explains Hesther why they did not have any children. He blames Margaret for this. He states that Margaret “sits beside [their] salmonpink, glazed brick fireplace, and knits things for orphans”; for him, his wife is a “domestic monster” who is “the Shrink’s Shrink” (Equus 34). While Dysart likes to read about Ancient Greece, Margaret hates such things. Their marriage is including two different persons, being very similar to Alan’s parents’ marriage. Shaffer prefers to give this marriage from one point of view – that of the husband. We never meet the wife. Dysart is unhappy and uncomfortable in his marriage. He tells his friend, Hesther:

Do you know what it’s like for two people to live in the same house as if they were in different parts of the world? Mentally, she’s always in some drizzly kirk of her own inheriting: and I’m in some Doric temple – clouds tearing throuh pillars – eagles bearing prophecies out of the sky. (Equus 34)

In this scene Dysart seems to cure himself; it is his confrontation with his own confused psychology. He is obsessed with the concept of ‘normal’. According to Hesther, Dysart is trying to “restore Alan to a normal life” and Dysart is confused when he thinks about the meaning of ‘normal’ and ‘being a normal person.’ For Hesther, it is the “smile in a child’s eyes” (Equus 35), and for Dysart, “[i]t is also the dead stare in a million adults (Equus 36). Rosefeldt explains Dysart’s psychology as follows:

More than any other character, Dysart is aware that he is trapped in a chain of substitutions. Dysart longs to reach the passion of pagan worship. His wife reduces the sacred acrobats to “absurred” [50] freaks and equates the heroes of the Iliad with “ruffians” [50]. He cries out, “Oh the primitive world. . . what instinctual truths were lost with it” [50]. Alienated and alone, Dysart knows he has lost contact with these primitive truths and is hopelessly trying to regain them. For communicating with the gods, Dysart substitutes the vicarious experience of reading books on “the cultural shelf” [50]. Instead of reaching up to the gods, he brings home “Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus” [50]. The power of the gods rests in the Hellenic pantheon…Also, Dysart touches “a reproduction statue of Dionysus” [50}. The power and essence of the god is replaced by the physical presence of the god, which is replaced by the statue of the god, which is replaced by a reproduction of the statue. (Rosefeldt 92)

Dysart, in order to learn more about Alan, now chooses hypnosis technique and Alan’s problems are revealed as follows:

Dysart. Now, Alan, you’re going to answer questions I’m going to ask you. Do you understand?

Alan. Yes.

Dysart. Good. Now I want you to think back in time. You are on that beach you told me about. The tide has gone out, and you’re making sandcastles. Above you, staring down at you, is that great horse’s head, and the cream dropping from it. Can you see that?


Dysart.You ask him a question. “Does the chain hurt?”


Dysart. Do you ask him aloud?

Alan. No.

Dysart. And what does the horse say back?


Dysart.Then what do you say?

Alan.”I’ll take it for you.”

Dysart. And he says?

Alan.”It never comes out. They have me in chains.”

Dysart.Like Jesus?


Dysart.Only his name isn’t Jesus, is it?


Dysart.What is it?

Alan.No one knows but him and me.

Dysart.You can tell me, Alan. Name him.

Alan. Equus. (Equus 37)

Alan is now unconscious with the effect of hypnosis. In his imagination, the horse is chained like Jesus. Now it is clear that Alan’s imagination has been influenced by his mother’s teachings of Bible as stated before by Frank. For Alan, Equus lives in all horses and is chained because of “the sins of the world” (Equus 38). When Alan goes back to the time he was twelve, looking at the picture of Equus, Dysart asks him questions about the stable. The stable is the “temple” of Equus where Alan washes and brushes him. Equus wants to be ridden by Alan but he does not show Alan how to ride him: “He showed me nothing! He’s a mean bugger! Ride — or fall! That’s Straw Law” (Equus 39).

…Equus is no pagan idol; he is unmistakably the Judeo-Christian God, “born in the straw” [39] (stable of Bethlehem) and wearing the “sandals” [40] of Christ. As Christ suffered for mankind, Equus “takes the punishment” for Alan’s sake. The Ark of the Covenant symbolizing the contract between God and man becomes the “Ark of the Manbit” [41], which Alan holds in his mouth. The lump of sugar becomes Equus’ “Last Supper” [42]. Alan beckons Equus, “Take my sins. Eat them for my sake” [43]. Equus is Jesus, the Son of God, the Redeemer who takes away the sins of the world. Just as Christ launched his attack against the House of Mammon, Alan launches Equus against their mutual “foes”: The Hosts of Philco and “The Hosts of Remington”, the rulers of the shallow and materialistic world of substitutions. Equus is Alan’s redeemer, the “Godslave” [43]. (Rosefeldt 92)

Alan rode Equus every three weeks in Dalton’s stable. He stole the stable’s keys and went there secretly to ride Equus. Dysart wants Alan to remember a scene in the stable: “He throws out his arms and shows himself fully to his God, bowing himself before Nugget” (Equus 41). Alan is pleased to touch Nugget but he is distressed when he remembers his eyes. He gives Nugget’s sugar, the “last supper” before “Ha ha.” Here “…[Alan] whispers his God’s name ceremonially: Alan. Equus! . . . Equus! . . .Equus!” (Equus 42), and he says: “Stay, Equus. No-one said Go! . . . That’s it. He’s good. Equus the Godslave. Faithful and true”(42).

The Equus voice increases in volume

Alan. (Shouting) 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!



I’m raw! Raw!

Feel me 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!

He rides Equus frantically (Equus 44)

The end of Act I is the climax, a strange combination of religion and sexuality. Equus is now the god that rules Alan. The word “AMEN!” ends Act I (Equus 44).

In Act II, Frank is interestingly absent in the play. (That may be symbolic but we do not know why). Dora seems to realize her faults in rising Alan. She comes to see that it is not the child but the parent who is faulty. She sees Alan as a “little victim” who has “done nothing at all” (Equus 47). However in her speech to Dysart, she strangely puts the blame on Alan and blames Dysart for ‘questioning’ her family as if they are ‘guilty’:

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Dora. (ignoring him; more and more urgently) Look, Doctor: you don’t have to live with this. Alan is one patient to you: one out of many. He’s my son. I lie awake every night thinking about it. Neither of us sleeps all night. You come to us and say Who forbids television? Who does what behind whose back? — as if we are criminals. Let me tell you something. We’re not criminals. We’ve done nothing wrong. We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. All right, we quarrel sometimes — all pparents quarrel — we always make it up. My husband is a good man. He’s an upright man, religion or no religion. He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy. Alan had love and care and treats, and as much fun as any boy in the world. I know about loveless homes: I was a teacher. Our home wasn’t loveless. I know about privacy, too — not invading a child’s privacy. All right, Frank may be at fault there — he digs into him too much — but nothing in excess. He’s not a bully . . . (Equus 47)

This speech of Dora reveals both her and Frank’s faults although she typically insists that they have been good parents to Alan. Shaffer uses this technique for many characters in this play in order to be effective: The character is here revealing herself through her own words; that is to say Shaffer lets the character talk about herself in order to achieve objectivity. Dora, the religious mother lastly puts the blame on the Devil thinking that Devil came to Alan. She is portrayed as a typical irresponsible mother who is unaware of the process her son grows up: “I only knew he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came” (47). Both of the parents fail in dealing with their teenager son. It is a step of Alan for adolescence in which Alan is learning about life. Parents’ quarrelling is not something as trivial as Dora thinks. It really affects the child since he stays between two different versions of beliefs, two different truths – those of the mother and of the father.

Alan’s crisis has in fact begun when Jill Mason attempted to seduce him one night when Alan’s horse god, Equus was there in the stable. Alan blinds six horses with “a metal spike” (Equus 3) in the second act of the play and it is seen as a consequence of his guilt and shame. Although he does not want to remember anything about Jill, Dysart makes him tell about all at last. It is the most important flashback after the one about Equus. Dysart encourages Alan to remember it in order to get over it. Everything begins with Jill’s inviting Alan out. Although he has to go home, he accepts her offer and they go to the cinema. At the cinema, Alan tells Jill, there was no girl except for her. Soon, it is understood that the film is a pornographic one. Dysart asks him: “Was that the first time you’d seen a girl naked?” and Alan says “Yes!” (Equus 58). Then suddenly, Alan realizes that his father is at the cinema, too. With the fear of being caught at such a film, he tries to hide himself.

When he is caught, Frank shouts at Alan and the three leave the cinema. Outside, Alan tries to speak to his father:

Alan. I — I — I’ve never been there before. Honest . . . Never . . .(to Dysart) He didn’t seem to hear. Jill tried.

Jill. It’s true, Mr.Strang. It wasn’t Alan’s idea to go there. It was mine. (Equus 59)

Alan. (to Dysart) The bus wouldn’t come. We just stood and stood . . . Then suddenly he spoke.

Frank. (stiffly) I’d like you to know something. Both of you. I came here tonight to see the Manager. He asked me to call on him for business purposes. I happen to be a printer, Miss A picture house needs posters. That’s entirely why I’m here. To discuss posters. While I was waiting I happened to glance in, that’s all…I had no idea they showed films like this. I’m certainly going to refuse my services.

Jill. (kindly) Yes, of course.

Frank. So long as that’s understood. (Equus 59)

Interestingly enough, Frank explains why he himself is there instead of asking Alan why he is there. He has certainly come to the cinema for the same reason with Alan and Jill. Thus Alan and Frank are scared of each other. Frank leaves them and Alan stays with Jill. More importantly, Alan has been now introduced to the adult life with the film. He wants to make love with Jill. She takes Alan to the Stables because they cannot go to Alan’s or Jill’s house. Alan does not want to go to the Stables; he prefers a home.

Alan. Why not your place?

Jill. I can’t. Mother doesn’t like me bringing boys back. I told you . . . Anyway, the Barn’s better.

Alan. No!

Jill. All that straw. It’s cosy.

Alan. No!

Jill. Why not?

Alan. Them!

Jill. Dalton will be in bed . . . What’s the matter? . . . Don’t you want to?

Alan. (aching to) Yes!

Jill. So?

Alan. (desperate) Them! . . . Them! . . .

Jill. Who?

Alan. (low) Horses.

Jill. Horses? . . .You’re really dotty, aren’t you? . . . What do you mean?

He starts shaking

Oh you’re freezing . . . Let’s get under the straw. You’ll be warm there.

Alan. (pulling away) No! (Equus 62)

Alan does not want to be seen by the horses since he thinks it would be a shameful act according to his ‘religion’. Although Jill shuts all the doors in order not to be seen by the horses, he is not comfortable. Alan cannot help but think of Equus and he sees Equus instead of Jill. Thus, his attempt to make love with Jill fails. Angrily, he shouts at Jill: “Get out!” (Equus 65). His psychology in this scene is horrible:

Alan. (to Dysart) He was there. Through the door. The door was shut, but he was there! . . .

Dysart. Laughing?

Alan. (to Dysart) Mocking! . . .Mocking! . . .

Standing downstage he stares up towards the tunnel. A great silence weighs on the square.

(To the silence:terrified) Friend . . . Equus the Kind . . . The merciful! . . .Forgive me! . . .


It wasn’t me! Not really me. Me!. . . Forgive me! . . .Take me back again! Please! . . . PLEASE! (He kneels on the downstage lip of the square, still facing the door, huddling in fear) I’ll never do it again. I swear . . . I swear! . . .

Dysart. And He? What does He say?

Alan. (to Dysart whispering) “Mine! . . . You’re mine! . . . I am yours and you are mine!” . . . (Equus 67)

Equus’s – Nugget’s – eyes are rolling and Alan is sure that he has seen them make love. “Eyes! . . . White eyes! . . . – never close! Eyes like flames – coming – coming! . . .God seest! God seest! . . . NO! . . .” (Equus 68). Alan stabs out Nugget and other five horses’ eyes. He yells “in hysteria as he collapses on the ground” (Equus 68).

Dysart is about to finish his process of ‘normalizing’ Alan. However he does not know whether he should be happy to have this patient cured. He calls it “madness” (Equus 68). In the end, Dysart appears to have cured him.

{Equus is a] troubling play about a psychiatrist’s struggle to understand the passionately conceived but torturous personal mythology of Alan, a disturbed adolescent. If a psychologist of religion had gone after the young man’s associations to “G-o-d,” he or she might have retrieved references to the pallid secondhand God of Alan’s parents, but would likely have missed Alan’s dramatic psychic creation of a personal diety he called “Equus”. Although it might be argued that this is the kind of exceptional case that falls more into the psychopathology of religion and is no basis for generalization, I am more and more struck by how distinctive and sometimes quite original are the spiritual formulations of individuals. (Mc Dargh 90)

The play really includes the idea of ‘passion versus reason.’ It is about a psychiatrist who thinks he can solve everything by reason and at the same time about an adolescent who is filled with passion but forced by his family to leave his passion. The battle of passion and reason in the case of Alan seems to end with the defeat of passion; however, Shaffer certainly prefers a combination of two. It is not only Alan’s but also becomes the inner conflict of Dysart. While the horses represent freedom and sexuality, Martin Dysart represents reason as a doctor. During the play, the two characters have difficult times. Dysart shows a change in his attitude towards passion. As for Alan, he is treated by the psychiatrist to become ‘normal.’ Alan is caught up between his own creation of religion and what is expected by him. He has to “feel himself acceptable” (Equus 68) since reason – rather than passion – is what is accepted by society. Dysart lacks passion and is “jealous” of Alan (Equus 50); he is uncomfortable in this process of “normalizing.” He gradually gets worried that he should not cure Alan because this would be the end of Alan’s passion, so he does not want to give an end to that “passion” which he lacks but desires. Dysart confesses to Hesther, “…that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have ever felt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it” (Equus 50). Dysart is thus obsessed with passion saying “Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created” (Equus 69).

It is a disturbing play in which Shaffer makes use of sound effects to make it psychologically effective. The horses are performed by actors who wear horse masks. As for the scene props, Shaffer makes use of light in order to emphasize his themes (Innes 228). Light is used in the play as an indication of Alan’s psychology. There are dream sequences, and a scenic structure that “cuts across the logic of time as well as cause and effect following the irrational associations of the subconscious, plus ritual chanting, stylized masks and mythic archetypes” (Innes 228). Shaffer ignores the “three unities” of Aristotle; there are scenes belonging to different places and different times; and there is no unity of action. However, Shaffer directly connects the past action of the play to the plot of present events; and the scenery connects more with the psychological life of the character than to the surface plot.

As for the setting, it changes from scene to scene it is both internal and external; even in a single scene being both internal and external. It begins when Alan is seventeen years old and goes back to the previous years.

The point of view is also variable; Shaffer lets the audience see the things from each character’s point of view and Shaffer uses the omniscient narrator in order to emphasize each point of view. The play is about an adolescent who has deep complicated conflicts in his relationships with his parents and his first flirt Jill. “… {The play is not only} an extremely useful source book for an understanding of madness and family processes, it is also an affirmation of the dramatherapist’s long-held credo: that art can tell us things that science cannot” (Davis xiii). Shaffer is successful at portraying the psychology of characters and Equus is a good work of drama in which the themes of passion, reason and worship and the idea of “normal” and “abnormal” are linked by Shaffer in order to make his audience question their beliefs and society.


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