Equus Summary

Peter Shaffer


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Equus Summary

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Equus is a 1973 play by English playwright Peter Shaffer. Focusing on a young man with a pathological religious fixation on horses, and the psychiatrist who attempts to unravel the mysteries of the young man’s psyche, it was inspired by a true story of religious mutilation of horses near Suffolk that led Shaffer to try to figure out what could have motivated the culprit. Focusing on themes of religious obsession and ritual sacrifice, it constructs a unique theology in the young man’s mind involving horses and a fictional deity named Equus. It also explores the conflict between a person’s own values and satisfaction versus societal mores and institutions. Shaffer has stated that the play is rooted in the classic Greek conflict of Apollonian values such as reason and Dionysian values that appeal to emotions and instincts.

Act one focuses on Martin Dysart, a man who works as a psychiatrist in a mental hospital. He opens the play with a monologue about a challenging case he’s dealing with, that of seventeen-year-old Alan Strang. He feels dissatisfied in his life, finding an endless supply of troubled young people who need his help, but he’s not sure if he’s actually making a difference or just helping them fit into a meaningless life like his own. Although Alan Strang’s crime was supposedly extreme, Dysart wonders if that’s what’s needed to break free from the chains of ordinary life.

Martin is visited by a court magistrate named Heather Saloman who believes that he may be able to help Alan, who is imprisoned for a violent act involving six horses. At first, Alan is essentially unresponsive, answering Martin’s questions by singing songs from TV commercials. Martin attempts to gain insight from Alan’s parents, and finds that they’re bitterly divided on the topic of religion, with Alan’s mother being a devout Christian and his father being a dogmatic Atheist. Both strongly push their belief system and sabotage the other’s teachings. However, Alan seems to have developed an unhealthy fascination with the more violent aspects of the Bible, as well as an odd fixation on horses.

In a monologue, Martin reveals that he often has disturbing dreams of participating in gruesome human sacrifices, but feels pressured by society in the dream to keep doing what he’s doing. This emphasizes the play’s frequent theme of societal pressure driving people to do unhealthy things.

Martin’s attempt to get to the root of Alan’s issues leads to Alan revealing the root of his obsession to horses. It stemmed from the biblical tales his mother told him, as well as many influences in media and family. Eventually, that fascination began to develop into a sexual obsession, as he found himself getting aroused by the horse’s hair, body, and even the smell of their sweat. He first got to ride a horse when he was six, but his parents yanked him off the horse after only a minute. During hypnosis, Alan reveals that he’s fixated on removing the bit from horses’ mouths, which he sees as freeing them from slavery.

When Alan was seventeen, he met a young woman named Jill Mason at his job, and found out that she worked at a local stable. Upon hearing him express his fascination for horses, Jill introduces him to Harry Dalton, the owner of the stables, who offers him a job. Alan proves himself to be a model worker, although he develops an obsession with one particular horse, Nugget. Alan tells Martin tales of how he secretly takes him for naked midnight rides. Alan has a vision of himself as a king, sitting atop the deity Equus as they destroy their enemies. It is on this visual that act one ends.

In act two, Martin gives Alan what he says is a truth pill but is only a placebo, hoping to get to the root of Alan’s trauma. Alan reveals that he had a relationship with Jill, and once she asked him to take her to an adult theater. However, upon arriving there, he encountered his father watching a pornographic film. This traumatized him, seeing his father compromised in this way. As he and Jill head home, she convinces him to come to the stables with her. There, they attempt to have sex, but he’s distracted by the sounds of the horses and is unable to get an erection. He becomes angry and yells at her to leave. He then goes to the horses, who he sees as god-like figures, and begs their forgiveness. He hallucinates the voice of the deity Equus, which manifests as Martin Dysart’s voice, and snaps. He blinds the horses in the stable with a steel spike, believing that they’ve seen his soul and this is the only way he’ll be free.

The play ends with Dysart monologuing once again, wondering whether or not his practice actually helps anyone or whether Alan is beyond help. He also wonders if attempting to cure Alan of his obsession with horses will in fact remove Alan’s humanity and everything unique about him.

Equus was wildly successful, having long-running productions in both London’s West End and on Broadway in New York City. Luminaries such as Anthony Hopkins, Leonard Nimoy, and Richard Burton have played Martin Dysart, with Daniel Radcliffe taking on the role of Alan alongside Richard Griffiths in a 2007 revival. Critically acclaimed since its debut, it won both the Drama Desk Award and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1975, and received several Tony nominations for the 2009 Broadway revival. Peter Shaffer was the author of 18 plays between 1954 and 1992. In addition to Equus, his most famous work is Amadeus, adapted by Shaffer into the Best Picture-winning film of the same name.