Great Books Foundation
Peter Shaffer

Introduction

After premiering in 1973 in London, Peter Shaffer's Equus ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway and won the 1974 Tony Award, as well as three other major drama awards. The play focuses on the causes underlying a seemingly senseless act of violence by an adolescent boy, an act that forces the characters to confront questions of responsibility and ultimate meaning. Through his characters, Shaffer explores the dilemmas of late-twentieth-century existence in England and, by extension, in the entire industrialized world. In an increasingly commercial and mechanized culture, there is little place for ecstasy and worship, yet they remain human endowments. Is our trust in science as foolish—even more foolish—than the pagans' belief in their gods? Does being "normal" in such a culture also entail losing one's individuality and learning to live without passion?

Equus centers on the explosive encounters between Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses with a spike, and Martin Dysart, the middle-aged psychiatrist who agrees to treat him. Shaffer based the plot on an allegedly true story told by a friend about a young man who blinded a stable of horses. Shaffer wrote Equus to "create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible" (p. 9), and the play is structured like a mystery, as Dysart struggles to determine what drove Alan to commit the crime. But Equus is far from a conventional mystery, in which solving the crime relieves tension and restores a stable society. Instead, Dysart's search for the meaning of Alan's act leads him to doubt his own vocation and integrity. The closer he comes to understanding his patient's motives, the more confused Dysart is about how he should respond to Alan and the mental world he has created. The ultimate, insoluble mystery is embodied in the horse-god Equus himself. At the beginning of act 2, Equus asks Dysart, "Do you really imagine you can account for Me?" (p. 75). The play issues readers and audiences the same challenge.

In Equus, the characters, as well as readers and audiences, face a bewildering range of explanations for Alan's mental state. Hesther Salomon, the magistrate who refers Alan to Dysart, sees Alan as a victim in pain and relies on psychiatry to relieve that pain. Alan's parents, Frank and Dora, blame each other to some extent but also acknowledge their inability to comprehend their son and his crime. Dora finally attributes her son's act to "the Devil" (p. 78), and Shaffer does not allow us to dismiss her view lightly. In an eloquent speech to Dysart, Dora attacks the tendency of conventional psychiatry to blame parents for their children's neuroses. She insists that Dysart recognize that "Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn't find why he did this terrible thing—because that's him; not just all of our things added up" (p. 78). It is this last possibility—that Alan's "illness" is an intrinsic part of his selfhood—that throws Dysart's view of the world into confusion.

After his first meeting with Alan, Dysart dreams he is a gold-masked pagan priest cutting the hearts from hundreds of living children in an elaborate ritual. For the rest of the play, Dysart agonizes over questions he has never before considered: By helping the children he sees become "normal," is he actually harming them? Is his allegiance to psychiatry a defense against the passion and spiritual mystery that inform Alan's worship of Equus?

Outwardly, Alan is ordinary, even pathetic, in his lack of vocational or social success. He has a boring job in an appliance store and picks up part-time work grooming horses at a local stable. He is painfully uncomfortable with Jill, the girl at the stable who is the only other person his age we see him interact with. Yet Alan creates a fantastic internal world of ecstatic devotion. He builds this world from whatever comes to hand—biblical quotations, bits of Greek mythology, a photograph of a horse his printer father brings home from work, and an emotionally charged seaside horse ride he takes as a child with a stranger. The play insistently raises the question of what horses, and the horse-god Equus in particular, represent to Alan. Alan hears Equus say, "'I see you.' I will save you'" (p. 66), but also hears him laughing after the failed sexual encounter with Jill in the stables. A horse is both "the most naked thing you ever saw" (p. 49) and a ruthless judge of Alan's own vulnerability. After Jill leaves the stable, the terrified Alan pleads for forgiveness from Equus and finally commits his desperate act of cruelty. Equus is Alan's "God-slave" and, after he tells Dysart about blinding the horses, Alan cries "KILL ME! . . . KILL ME!" (p. 105–6).

At the end of the play we are left, like Dysart, to contemplate two unattractive alternatives. One is leaving Alan with his worship, but clearly in intense psychic pain; the other is "curing" Alan at the cost of destroying his passion. Shaffer heightens the audience's role as observers by placing the actors on stage throughout the play. They sit on benches in rows when they are not in a scene. The continuous presence of this audience on stage—an audience that looks much like a jury—makes explicit our own voyeurism and responsibility. The last scene leaves us to ask what Dysart has done and what he should have done. We can accept his assessment that "the Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest" (p. 65) or Hesther's insistence that "the boy's in pain. . . . That's all I see" (p. 83). We may embrace Dora's view of the Devil as "an old-fashioned word, but a true thing" (p. 78). Whatever view we adopt, we are left with Dysart's anguished "What dark is this?" and the question of how to understand his last line: "There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out" (p. 109).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Alan blind the horses? Why does he say "KILL ME! . . . KILL ME!" after he relives the act with Dysart? (p. 106)
  2. Why does Alan initially respond to Dysart's questioning with advertising jingles? (p. 22–23) Why does he dislike his job in an appliance store and list appliance makers as his "foes"? (pp. 53, 73)
  3. What does Dysart mean when he says that Alan is a "last straw" or a "last symbol"? (p. 18)
  4. Why does Shaffer have Frank, who praises books and reading, speak in repetitive catch phrases such as "receive my meaning," "swiz," etc.? (p. 27)
  5. Near the end of the play Dysart says, "If you [Alan] knew anything, you'd get up this minute and run from me fast as you could" (p. 107). Does Dysart really believe that Alan would be better off without therapy? Does Shaffer intend us to believe this?
  6. Is Dysart more concerned about Alan's welfare or his own?
  7. On the beach, why is Frank so angry with the young man who takes Alan riding? Why is this event so important to Alan? (p. 42)
  8. Does Alan want Dysart to "cure" him? Why does he reveal his inner world to Dysart?
  9. What does Dysart mean when in the play's last scene he says, "There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out"? (p. 109)
  10. Jill tells Alan that love of horses can be a "substitute" for sex (p. 90). Is this true in the world of the play? To what extent does sexual repression shape the characters and their actions?

For Further Reflection

  1. In "Note on the Play," Shaffer writes, "I had to create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible" (p. 9). To what extent does Equus succeed in doing this?
  2. Is it better for someone with a mental illness like Alan's to be treated and become "normal" and without passion, or to be left alone?
  3. How are worship and passion related? Do they depend on each other? Is one a substitute for the other?

About Peter Shaffer

Peter Shaffer is known for the quality of his plays and the variety of their subject matter. In addition to Equus (1973), Shaffer's best-known plays are Amadeus (1979), about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his rival Antonio Salieri, and Lettice & Lovage (1987), about two British tour guides mixed up in an attempted murder. From the beginning of his career, Shaffer has enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim. His first play, The Salt Land (1954), was produced for television by the BBC. Four years later, Five Finger Exercise opened in London under the direction of Sir John Gielgud and won the Evening Standard Drama Award. To date, Shaffer has won two Tony Awards, for Equus and Amadeus, and an Academy Award for his screenplay of Amadeus, as well as a host of other awards.

Shaffer was born in Liverpool, England in 1926. His twin brother, Anthony Shaffer, is also a playwright (Sleuth, Frenzy, The Wicker Man). The family moved to London when the boys were nine. Shaffer was educated at Cambridge, and his early career included stints as a coal miner, an assistant at the New York Public Library, and an editor for a firm of music publishers. Before writing his plays, he wrote novels jointly with his brother. In 1987, Shaffer was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Related Titles

Bertolt Brecht, The Good Woman of Setzuan (1940)
This play concerns the meaning and place of God in the modern world. Shaffer is strongly influenced by Brecht's theories about theater.
Euripides, Hippolytus (428 B.C.)
A tragedy about a horse-obsessed young man, gods, and a disastrous attempt at love.
Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905)
Freud's case study provides an introduction to the basic theory of psychoanalysis along with a gripping plot involving incest, adultery, and abandonment.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge(1944)
Following World War I, a young American soldier sets off on a personal odyssey to discover God's place in a changing world.
Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959)
In this popular and influential book of stories, Sillitoe depicts young working-class Englishmen who rebel against the society that limits their opportunities.