Equus (play)

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the 1993 Longman edition
Written by Peter Shaffer
Characters Alan Strang
Martin Dysart
Frank Strang
Jill Mason
Hesther Saloman
Dora Strang
Harry Dalton
Date premiered 1973
Place premiered Royal National Theatre
Original language English
Subject 17 year old boy blinds six horses with spike, case becomes a catalyst for his psychiatrist's own doubts
Genre Drama
Setting The Present; Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital, Southern England
Official site
IBDB profile

Equus is a play by Peter Shaffer written in 1973, telling the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses.[1]

Shaffer was inspired to write Equus when he heard of a crime involving a 17-year-old who had blinded six horses in a small town near London. He set out to construct a fictional account of what might have caused the incident, without knowing any of the details of the crime. The play's action is something of a detective story, involving the attempts of the child psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, to understand the cause of the boy's actions while wrestling with his own sense of purpose.[2]

However, numerous other issues inform the narrative. Most important are religious and ritual sacrifice themes, and the manner in which character Alan Strang constructs a personal theology involving the horses and the supreme godhead, "Equus". Alan sees the horses as representative of God and confuses his adoration of his "God" with sexual attraction. Also important is Shaffer's examination of the conflict between personal values and satisfaction and societal mores, expectations and institutions. In reference to the play's classical structure, themes and characterization, Shaffer has discussed the conflict between "Dionysian" and "Apollonian" values and systems in human life.


[edit] Plot summary

Much of the play is set in Dysart's office. Dysart is a psychiatrist in an institution for the mentally ill. It begins with a monologue in which he outlines Alan Strang's case, which is among the strangest he has ever dealt with. He also divulges his feeling that his occupation is not all that he wishes it to be and his feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment about his barren life. Dysart finds that there is a never-ending supply of troubled young people for him to "adjust" back into "normal" living; but he doubts the value of treating these youths, since after treatment, they will simply return to a dull, normal life that lacks any commitment and "worship" (a recurring theme).

Dysart also reflects on the mundane existence of horses and their presumed desire to be free. He comments that Alan Strang's crime was extreme but adds that just such extremity is needed to break free from the chains of existence. A court magistrate, Hesther Saloman visits Dysart, believing that he has the skills to help Alan come to terms with his violent acts.

Dysart has a great deal of difficulty making any kind of headway with Alan, who at first responds to questioning by singing advertising jingles. (The dulling effects of television is one of Alan's father's pet peeves.) Slowly, however, Dysart makes contact with Alan by playing a game where each of them asks a question, which must be answered honestly. He learns that from an early age, Alan has been receiving conflicting viewpoints on religion from his parents. Alan's mother, Dora Strang, is a devout Christian who has read to him daily from the Bible. This practice has antagonized Alan's atheist father, Frank Strang, who, concerned that Alan has taken far too much interest in the more violent aspects of the Bible, has expressed his frustration by destroying a violent picture of the Crucifixion that Alan had hung at the foot of his bed. Alan replaced the picture with one of a horse, with large, staring eyes.

Moreover, during his youth, Alan had established his attraction to horses by way of his mother's biblical tales, a horse story that she had read to him, western movies, and his grandfather's interest in horses and riding.

Dysart reveals a dream he has had, in a Grecian/Homeric setting, in which he is a public official presiding over a mass ritual sacrifice. Dysart slices open the viscera of hundreds of children, and pulls out their entrails. He becomes disgusted with what he is doing, but desiring to "look professional" to the other officials, does not stop.

In conversation with Dysart, Frank reveals that one night he saw Alan kneeling in front of the picture of the horse chanting a made-up, Bible-like genealogy of horses. The list of names ends with "Equus." Whilst kneeling, Alan takes a clothes hanger and flagellates.

Alan's sexual training began with his mother, who told him that the sexual act was dirty, but that he could find true love and contentment by way of religious devotion and marriage. During this time he also begins to show a sexual attraction to horses, desiring to pet their thick coats, feel their muscular bodies and smell their sweat. Alan reveals to Dysart that he had first encountered a horse at age six, on the beach. A rider approached him, and took him up on the horse. Alan was visibly excited, but his parents found him, and his father pulled him violently off the horse. The horse rider scoffed at the father and rode off. During this discussion Dysart tells Alan "I've never been on a horse in my life."

In another key scene, Dysart hypnotizes Alan, and during the hypnosis, Dysart reveals elements of his terrifying dream of the ritual murder of children. This is only one of numerous "confessions" that take place in the play. Dysart begins to jog Alan's memory by filling in blanks of the dialog, and asking questions. Alan reveals that he wants to help the horses by removing the bit they wear (or "chain" or "chinklechankle"), which enslaves them. Enslaved and tortured "like Jesus?" asks Dysart, and Alan replies "yes."

Alan has a job working in a shop selling electrical goods, where he meets Jill Mason. She visits the shop wanting blades for horse-clippers. Alan is instantly interested when he discovers that Jill has such close contact with horses. Jill suggests that Alan work for the owner of the stables, Harry Dalton, and Alan agrees.

Alan is held by Dalton to be a model worker, since he keeps the stables immaculately clean and grooms the horses, including one named "Nugget." Through Dysart's questioning, it becomes clear that Alan is erotically fixated on Nugget (or Equus) and secretly takes him for midnight rides, bareback and naked. Alan also envisions himself as a king, on the godhead Equus, both destroying their enemies.

Dysart gives Alan a placebo "truth pill" and revealing a tryst with Jill, begins to enact the event. Jill, who had taken an interest in Alan, had asked him to take her to a pornography theatre. While there, they ran into Frank. Alan was traumatized, particularly when he realized that his father was lying when he tried to justify his presence in the theater. However, this occurrence allows Alan to realize that sex is a natural thing for all men - even his father. Alan walks Jill home after they leave. However, Jill convinces Alan to come to the stables with her. Once there, she seduces Alan and the two start having sex. However, Alan breaks this off when he hears the horses making noises in the stables beneath. Jill tries to ask Alan what the problem is, but he shouts at her to leave. He begs the horses for forgiveness, as he sees the horses as God-like figures. Dysart has stepped in, and fills in the blanks of Alan's thought, and also speaks for Equus. "Mine!...You're mine!...I am yours and you are mine!" cries Equus through Dysart, but then he becomes threatening: "The Lord thy God is a Jealous God," Equus/Dysart seethes, "He sees you, he sees you forever and ever, Alan. He sees you!...He sees you!" Alan screams, "God seest!" and then he says "No more. No more, Equus," and blinds the horses with a hoof pick , whose eyes have "seen" his very soul.

The play concludes with Dysart questioning the fundamentals of his practice and whether or not what he does will actually help Alan, as the effect of his treatment will remove Alan's intense sexual and religious commitment, and his worship of the horses. Earlier Dysart had asked Saloman what it would be like to be robbed of the ability to worship. He also reflects again on his own life, his envy of Alan's passion, and what he imagines is a bit in his mouth.

[edit] Original productions

The play was originally staged at the Royal National Theatre at the Old Vic in London in 1973. It was directed by John Dexter and starred Alec McCowen as psychiatrist Martin Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan Strang, the young patient. In 1976 it transferred to the Albery Theatre with Colin Blakely playing Dysart. It was also presented on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre with Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth.

Later on, Tom Hulce played the role of Alan Strang, and Anthony Perkins replaced Hopkins as Martin Dysart. Perkins was briefly replaced by Richard Burton for the star's return to Broadway for a limited run. Perkins resumed the part when Burton's run ended. Other actors to play Dysart in the Broadway production were Leonard Nimoy and McCowen.

The play received a Tony Award for Best Play in 1975 and for John Dexter's direction. Firth was nominated for Best Actor but lost the award to John Kani and Winston Ntshona for the double bill of Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island.

Equus was acclaimed not only for its dramatic craftmanship and the performances by the stars, but also for its brilliantly original staging. The horses were portrayed by actors in brown track suits, wearing a wire abstraction of a horse's head. The entire cast, including the actors playing the horses, remained seated on stage for the play's duration, watching the action along with the audience. Part of the audience was seated on the stage as well, in bleachers that looked out into the auditorium, creating the effect that the spectators surrounded the action.

[edit] Film adaptation

Shaffer adapted the play for a 1977 film starring Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Eileen Atkins, Colin Blakely as Frank Strang, Joan Plowright, and Jenny Agutter, directed by Sidney Lumet. The film was heavily criticized by animal rights activists and by Shaffer himself, because of Lumet's bloody, realistic presentation of the abuse of the horses (although most of the horses were in fact puppets).[citation needed]

[edit] Revivals

Massachusetts' Berkshire Theatre Festival revived Equus in the Summer of 2005, staged by Scott Schwartz, with Victor Slezak as Dysart and Randy Harrison as Strang. Roberta Maxwell, who originated the role of Jill in the original 1970s Broadway production, played Hesther Saloman in this revival.

George Takei played Dysart in a 2006 revival, featuring an Asian Pacific cast, done at East West Players in Los Angeles, California. His Star Trek co-star, Leonard Nimoy, had played Dysart late in the play's 1970s Broadway run.

Equus was revived in 2007 in London's West End, with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe in the leading roles. The production was directed by Thea Sharrock, and opened in February 2007 at the Gielgud Theatre. The production attracted a lot of press attention, as both Radcliffe and Griffiths appear in the Harry Potter film franchise (as Harry Potter and Vernon Dursley respectively). In particular the casting of seventeen year-old Radcliffe caused some controversy, since the role of Alan Strang required him to appear naked on stage.[3] Radcliffe insisted that the nude scene was not "gratuitous" and that he should portray the character and the scene as called for by the script. Peter Firth gave more than 1,000 performances as Alan Strang; however, Radcliffe has stated in interviews that he chose not to watch the 1977 film, as he did not want to be influenced by Firth's interpretation of the character.

The 2007 London revival has since been transferred to Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theatre, running through 8 February 2009. Radcliffe and Griffiths reprised their roles, and Thea Sharrock returns as director.[4]

In 2008 the production toured the UK with Simon Callow as Dysart and Alfie Allen as Strang.

[edit] Awards and nominations

  • 1975 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Foreign Play
  • 1975 Tony Award for Best Play

[edit] Popular culture

  • In an episode of the television series Get a Life (#207, "Chris the Escort"), Chris Elliott's character attends a performance of Equus starring Max Baer Jr. and Ron Palillo.
  • In the Simpsons episode The Seven-Beer Snitch, a theatre marquee in Shelbyville advertises "Sideshow Mel in Equus". Recently, it was also in another episode, Springfield Up, where Homer decides as one of his new jobs to make Play-doh scenes which shows a scene from Equus. Interestingly, this episode originally aired on the same weekend the 2007 revival premiered in London.
  • In the popular book, (later made a film adaption starring James McAvoy) 'Starter for Ten' by David Nicholls, it is mentioned that Bristol University's Theatre club is putting on Equus that year.
  • The play was the focus of a 2006 article by the satirical newspaper The Onion with the headline Second-Graders Wow Audience With School Production Of Equus.[5]
  • In an episode of The Golden Girls entitled "Mrs. George Devereaux", Dorothy mentions that Sonny Bono and Lyle Waggoner played the lead roles in a production of Equus.
  • Goran Visnjic got his start in acting when he was 12, with a part in a Croatian stage production of Equus. He received a standing ovation.
  • In the June 2007 issue of Out magazine, a fashion story started by model Chad White was inspired by Equus.
  • The play is mentioned in the American Dad episode entitled The Vacation Goo. Upon unknowingly entering a Puerto Rican strip club, Roger believes there to be a performance of Equus occurring after hearing a horse or donkey sound.
  • In one episode of Popular (TV series), Josh and Lily play the parts of Alan and Jill in the school's production of Equus.
  • In the movie Three Days of the Condor (85th minute), an advertisement for the play can be seen in the background.
  • In the Half Man Half Biscuit song 'Evening Of Swing (Has Been Cancelled)' the lyrics mention a play called "Equus On The Buses, starring Mr Ed".
  • In Christopher Durang's satirical play Beyond Therapy (1981), the message of Equus is summarized this way: ...Better to risk madness and to blind horses with a metal spike than to be safe and conventional and dull.

[edit] References

  1. ^ "Equus". Discussion Guides for Penguin Classics. The Great Books Foundation. http://www.greatbooks.org/library/guides/equus.html. Retrieved on 2008-10-20. 
  2. ^ "EQUUS: About The Show". EQUUS on Broadway. The Shubert Organization. http://www.equustheplay.com/about/index.php. Retrieved on 2008-06-18. 
  3. ^ Staff writers (28 July 2006). "Naked stage role for Potter star". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/5223520.stm. Retrieved on 2008-06-18. 
  4. ^ Andrew Gans (8 April 2008). "Equus, with Radcliffe and Griffiths, to Play the Broadhurst Theatre". Playbill. http://www.playbill.com/news/article/116612.html. Retrieved on 2008-06-18. 
  5. ^ Onion writers (25 January 2006). "Second-Graders Wow Audience With School Production Of Equus". The Onion. http://theonion.com/content/node/44683. Retrieved on 2008-06-18. 

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

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