Of my lifetime of attending Newry Drama Festival, two plays in particular stand out, Agnes of God and Equus. Tonight is the first return of the latter and it is performed by one of the best societies in Ireland, Silken Thomas of Kildare!
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.
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.
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”. A lan 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.
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 dialogue, 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 theatre. 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.