Sunday, 30 January 2011

Equus, by Peter Shaffer

This is one of the most remarkable plays of modern times. It certainly had a startling impact on me when I first saw it in the Seventies in London. Like all plays, it lives much more vividly on the stage than on the pages of a book. The human voice, lighting, costumes, stage and so forth create a powerful artistic package. I saw the play again in Cape Town, though it did not achieve the same impact on me then. There is also a good film based on ‘Equus’, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Richard Burton as the pyschiatrist, which I have seen.

If you have the chance, see this play. Also, see the play first, before picking up the text, for the stage directions on the page are not easy to envisage. One reason for the startling experience is complete nudity at the climactic scene. Another reason is the brilliant artistic depiction of the horses.

‘Equus’ is about God, or Gods. To the psychotic boy, Alan, horses are his God. The psychiatrist who ‘treats’ him reads about and dreams about Greek Gods in coffee table illustrated books, but comes to envy the complete passion of his patient for his God, ‘Equus’. For the boy, ‘Equus’ represents power and dignity and holiness, in a passion transferred from his devotion to religion. It is about sex, desire and guilt. He is mentally torn apart by his desires and guilt, leading him to blind six horses with a spike (apparently a true story, the germ of the idea of the play for Shaffer).

The play is structured as a probing of the past by the psychiatrist, revealed in flashbacks and re-enactments of past events. So the truth is gradually revealed and the complexities of Alan’s relationships with his parents come out, layer by layer, episode by episode. The boy’s discovery of his own father’s ordinary human sexuality is comic, and also affecting. The first encounter of the young boy with a horse on a beach is vivid.

The story drives towards the ultimate meaning of psychosis and the purpose of a psychiatric ‘cure’. The psychiatrist, Dysart, end the play with a monologue about what he has achieved: “I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that’s done, I’ll set him on a nice mini-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it! I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them – blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads!”

Dysart is questioning the value of what he does, and the values that underlie society, particularly its cruel treatment of animals and its brain-washing of the hoi polloi. It is an ecstatic cry for freedom – a rejection of narrow rationality and conventional moral values. There is a place for wonder and worship in our souls, which can break out in destructive ways if suppressed.

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