Drama Review – Equus by Peter Shaffer

Equus contained the most unusual trifecta in the history of theatre. In this Tony Award winning play, Peter Shaffer combined these disparate themes: the merits of psychiatry, sexual repression and equine deification. This is just the short list of themes the playwright addressed. The drama certainly earned the litany of awards it received for creativity alone.

A real life event inspired the play. A friend of Mr. Schaffer’s related a story of a young man who blinded several horses. Without learning the actual reason for this bizarre crime, the playwright took creative license and delivered his own take using a similar though fictitious incident. Equus resulted.

I found the play very complex and recondite. It’s not a light-hearted yarn about horses, that’s for sure. It’s an exploration of Alan Strang’s mind as discovered through his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. The doctor attempted to uncover the troubled teen’s motivations for his heinous crime. While doing so, Dysart also ruminated on his own profession’s capability to ‘help’ people by ‘curing’ them. As he observed, “Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.” (Page 109) I told you this play had depth to it.

While I have yet to watch Equus performed on stage, the set-up described by the playwright intrigued me. He wrote:

All the cast of Equus sits on stage the entire evening. They get up to perform their scenes, and return when they are done to their places around the set. They are witnesses, assistants—and especially a Chorus. (Page 3)

I also liked how he directed that actors play the roles of horses. The use of people as opposed to props no doubt enhances the drama. Based on the religious references in the play I suspect he had a symbolic reason for that as well.

As I indicated earlier, Equus would perplex general readers due to its unusual story and theatrical staging. Because of these traits I found the play more symbolic than an actual telling of a story.

The dramatis personae seemed more like symbols than characters. (For more of my thoughts on this technique read my reviews of both the theatrical production and novel version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.) Jill Mason served as the sole believable character in the drama. Mr. Shaffer crafted her as a flirtatious teenaged girl. Both Alan’s father’s hypocrisy and his mother’s religious fanaticism seemed contrived. Although he crafted the latter more measured than the former. I interpreted Alan as primarily source material for Dyson’s monologues. This made it very difficult for me to suspend my disbelief while reading the play.

I really despised the choice to open with the psychiatrist’s soliloquy. This struck me as cliché. I didn’t care for this type of beginning in John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God and I didn’t care for it in this story. (I should note that Equus premiered six years prior to the other show.) To be fair: the playwright presented a much wider take on Dyson’s views regarding Alan’s mental state throughout the drama. Of course, we writers know none of that matters if you lose the audience from the beginning.

I’ve heard of the horse whisperer, but the horse worshipper!? For this reason among others Equus wouldn’t appeal to all audiences. For those interested in an intricate psychological journey, it may be worth the read. All others would be better served cleaning a stable.

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