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Equus | Study Guide

Peter Shaffer

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Equus | Themes


Primal versus Modern

Underneath his brisk professional exterior, Dysart shares Alan's distaste for many aspects of modern life. He practices a modern profession—child psychiatry—but he fantasizes about that profession in terms of ancient rituals of sacrifice and prophecy. The difference between psychiatrist and high priest is, in Dysart's view, not necessarily a positive one: the "sacrifices" performed by a priest take only a minute, whereas those conducted by a psychiatrist can take years. Broadly, Equus makes the point that the modern world obscures suffering and numbs pain but that it robs people of much of their vitality in the process. Inasmuch as it helps people adjust to modern life and become "normal," psychiatry may even be part of the problem.

Alan, through a strange combination of parental influences and chance meetings, develops a primal fascination—part religious, part erotic—with horses. For him, the horse becomes a symbol of something vital, powerful, and "sexy"—something utterly inaccessible in a world of televisions and electric hot plates. Dysart might be expected to pity Alan for his inability to fit easily into the modern world. However, Dysart actually envies the boy's ability, through ritual, to escape "normal" society. Real worship, for Dysart and for Alan, is a means of accessing primal feelings for which modern society offers no real outlets. Dysart's fundamental reservation about treating Alan is the fear that he will "take away" the boy's "worship" and turn him loose in a world that offers no real satisfaction. When Frank Strang describes television as a "swiz" (swindle) that seems to give but actually takes away, he might as well be speaking of modernity as a whole.

The primal world—represented variously by horses, ancient Greece, and the Old Testament—is undeniably brutal in some respects. It is a place of strife and warfare, of human sacrifice and gruesome injuries. Alan captures this well when he describes the "Straw Law" of Equus: "Ride—or fall!" Yet it is also an "intuitive" and "instinctive" world, where people can feel deeply connected to nature and develop a rich sense of place. Dysart captures this idea when he describes the ancient Greco-Roman custom of having "a thousand local gods ... living Geniuses of Place and Person" instead of a single "abstract and unifying God." What may look like superstition or obsession through a modern lens can also be seen as a way of keeping in touch with reality.

Moreover, the modern world has brutalities of its own. Dysart, in his closing monologue, suggests that people may be comforted by the empty idea that "animals are treated properly." In fact, this means driving some animals to extinction and keeping others subjected and out of sight, where they continue to suffer. People are unconnected to this suffering because they are unconnected to the animal world. Instead of riding horses, they drive cars over highways that, again, erase one's sense of place. They place bets at the racetrack, with only the jockeys witnessing the strain and agony of the horses' exertions. Meanwhile, people suffer in their own painless but undeniable way. They become stupid and shriveled, wasting their evenings in front of a TV screen. The great "swiz" of modernity, Dysart seems to conclude, is its erasure of everything real and specific in favor of the "abstract and unifying."

Worship, Faith, and Sacrifice

Bound up with the play's conflict between "primal" and "modern" worlds is a contrast between faith and secularism. Dysart, who for better or worse is the play's main spokesperson as well as its protagonist, sees faith as an essentially ancient enterprise. He has much more respect for and interest in the ritualistic, even superstitious beliefs of the ancient Mediterranean (the "local gods" and their attendant customs) than for the "abstract" Christianity of modern Britain. He speaks longingly of deities such as Zeus, whom he views as symbols of a once vital and sadly defunct tradition. In his dreams he even conflates his work as a psychiatrist with that of an ancient high priest sacrificing children to the gods.

This is not to say Equus presents Christianity itself as lacking in vitality or vigor. Dora, Alan's mother, is a deeply pious woman. The Bible stories she shares with Alan are ones that highlight the similarities between Christianity and the ancient Greek polytheism Dysart so admires. She reads to him of great battle scenes, full of "fierceness and rage" and the sounds of trumpets and thunder. She tells him of a god who is always watching, inadvertently setting him up for the outburst of paranoia that leads him to blind the horses. It is unsurprising that Dora should see Alan's crime through a religious lens: as evidence not of psychological illness, but of demonic possession.

Alan, though he thinks of his mother's sermons as a form of nagging, is every bit as religious as she is. His attitude toward institutional religion may be one of rejection or neglect, but in other ways he enthusiastically embraces the idea of communing with a deity through rituals and acts of devotion. More than a year before the horse-blinding incident, he is already coming up with his own ceremonies. He adapts his Christian upbringing to the service of a new god, whom he calls Equus. Far from shrinking away from the religiosity of his mother, Alan has taken it even further. He rediscovers a violent and demonstrative side of Christianity he almost certainly did not learn from Dora. Alan's Equus worship has close ties not just to the sacred acrobats of Crete—an analogy Dysart suggests—but also to the whip-wielding flagellants and hair shirt–wearing monks of medieval Christendom.

Ultimately, Equus makes no simple or definitive claims about the societal value of religion or its role in the life of the individual. Instead, it presents a series of vivid and ultimately irreconcilable views for the audience's consideration. Dora draws sustenance from her Christian faith, but her zeal also blinds her to the role she plays in her son's illness. Alan is even more invigorated by religion than his mother, but his attempts to break free of it, even for a moment, result in sudden violence. Dysart admires ancient religions for their intuitiveness and charm, but he is too urbane to put his money where his mouth is and give up his comfortable life. It would be simplistic to say religion makes any of these characters happy, yet the play offers no real challenge to Dysart's claim that "without worship you shrink."

Two Sides of "Normal"

Dysart's treatment of Alan is complicated by his recognition that making someone "normal"—provided it can be done—is not a completely benign act. He expands on this idea in several monologues, perhaps most strikingly in Scene 19. He sees "the Normal" in "the good smile in a child's eyes." However, he also sees it in "the dead stare in a million adults." He adds that "the Normal ... both sustains and kills—like a God." On the one hand, "it is the ordinary made beautiful." On the other, "it is ... the Average made lethal."

In this speech, Dysart goes on to position himself as a "Priest" of "the Normal," which he describes as "the indispensable, murderous God of Health." At this point in the play, Dysart is making a fairly uncontroversial point. He is willing to acknowledge that normality can be valuable but can also be oppressive. In pursuing it he has helped people but has also "cut" away the things that make them unique.

Toward the end of the play, though, Dysart's assertions about the evils of "the Normal" start to wear a little thin. As he continues to harp on these evils, he seems to lose touch of the suffering Alan endures in his unwilling exclusion from "normal" teenage pastimes such as dating. When, in Scene 35, he promises that Alan will emerge from treatment "more or less completely without pain," Dysart himself suspects this is a bad thing. Pain is an essential part of the human experience, he feels, and its absence is a sign of a diminished state of being. Dysart may or may not be right about this, but his presumption that "normal" people live painless lives seems unrealistic, as does his presumption that Alan can be so completely cured that he feels no pain. Hesther, meanwhile, spends her last couple of visits with Dysart trying to convince him of what few would deny: that helping Alan suffer less is a good thing, a worthy goal. Dysart's objections, though very cleverly phrased, ultimately amount to variations on "well, what's so great about being normal?"

In his therapeutic sessions, Dysart tries to get patients to abreact—to act out—their own feelings and past experiences. It's not too much of a stretch, however, to say that acting out is what Dysart himself does in his monologues. His rejection of "the Normal" is predicated on his own unhappy experiences of normality. His career leaves him unfulfilled despite professional success, and the thrill is most certainly gone from his marriage. In that sense at least, Dysart's doubts about "normal" life are authentic. He wants more than the "normal" lifestyle he has, and he projects this desire onto others who may have very different needs and abilities.

In doing so, however, Dysart is failing—or perhaps refusing—to see there are happy, well-adjusted "normal" characters in the play. Moreover, their normalcy is not necessarily a miserable compromise with the demands of a soulless society. Hesther, who is perhaps Equus's number-one spokesperson for the virtues of the normal, does important work helping to divert teenagers from the prison system. She has doubts about her career, as almost everyone does. Still, she is content with the idea that she is helping people and that society is better for her efforts. Jill Mason, who is a quarter century younger than Hesther, also seems content—not just numbly tolerant—with an outwardly unremarkable life. These characters may not be the grand visionaries Dysart admires, but they prove that living in "normal" society does not mean becoming a mindless, TV-addicted drone.

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