“Equus,” a play written by British playwright Peter Shaffer in 1973, has turned out to become a modern classic and one of the greatest works of drama. This two-act play first premiered in London and was subsequently staged on Broadway, where it garnered a successful run.
Now playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach, “Equus” is a powerful play, and considered to be one of Shaffer’s best works. He is widely known as the author of “Amadeus,” his other most famous piece, which gives a fictionalized account of the lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.
In “Equus,” Shaffer depicts a psychiatrist’s fascination with a disturbed teenager’s mythopoeic obsession with horses. But this drama is much more than that. It is a story that deals with the struggle of opposites: good and evil; rational and irrational [Alan]; romantic and non-romantic [Alan/Jill; Alan/Nugget]; and religious and atheist [mother/father]. It works always on these two levels, and the audience is looking at the different perspectives through the individuals’ filters or points of view.
Equus refers to a horse. And yet it is not a global term we associate with horses. Equus is actually the name used by the 17-year old protagonist, Alan Strang [Steven Maier], whose story is based on a factual event that took place in the late 1960s about a young man in the southern part of England that had a pathological fascination with horses, and blinded six horses in a stable with a metal spike.
“There wasn’t a great deal of information about the incident, or about the boy and who he was, and what occurred after the fact,” explained J. Barry Lewis, director of the play. And as he explains, the actual event was horrific at the time of the mutilation. Shaffer remembered when the event was recounted to him by a friend. And it stuck with him, and as horrific as the event was, his first thought was, “What was it that created this scenario where a young man would do this kind of evil thing?”
There lies the genesis for this play—a psychological study, and the relationship that is established between Alan and his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart [Peter Simon Hilton], who specializes in the treatment of children, but as of late, feels dissatisfied with his work. One day Hesther Salomon [Anne-Marie Cusson], a court magistrate absorbed with Alan’s case, comes into Dysart’s office to ask him to treat Alan and help keep the boy out of prison. Reluctantly, Dysart agrees to take on the new patient.
Now, this is not a “who-dun-it?” but a “why-dun-it?” type of drama. During the play’s intermission, the surrounding mood was of a buoyancy — not what you would expect from an audience watching a psychological play. People initiated conversations that went something like this: Why did this boy do what he did? Others, like myself, torn with multiple emotions between compassion and hate for Alan, decided not to speak at all.
The answer to that question is revealed in Act II in a series of scenes and in one in particular, where Alan relays on a tape recording the feeling of being on Nugget, his favorite horse. He describes the horse’s skin beneath him with sexual admiration. Later, through a conversation between Dysart and Alan’s dad, Frank Strang [John Leonard Thomson], we learn that Alan’s worship of horses is an expression of the god Equus, a spirit who lives in horses.
As Alan continues his recording, he explains how he would take Nugget out at night, undressing and riding him bareback, achieving orgasm. In Alan’s mind, Equus has taken claim of him and his every move and thought. So is the case that when he enters into a romantic relationship with Jill Mason [Mallory Newbrough], one of the stable girls, he finds himself inadequate and can’t perform sexually. When he goes to ask Equus for forgiveness for betraying his trust, he hears the horse’s reprimand and warning: I will always be watching you. Tormented by that thought and in a state of rage, Alan takes a metal pike and blinds the six horses.
Alan finishes telling the story and falls limply in Dysart’s arms. The doctor soothes him to sleep and promises his young patient that he will do everything in his power to cure him and send him off into a normal life, not knowing himself what normal really is, nor if he is capable to accomplish such thing.
The idea that all of us struggle in our lives as we ask ourselves, “Have I made a difference?” or “Has my work been more than mediocre in its impact?” is one of the prevailing themes in this play. Shaffer, as a playwright, often spoke about his struggle of what he considered to be mediocre, and he was anything but that. But, it tells you that even the very best—the people who are really talented with the gift of words and language—struggle to find purpose in their work.
This is a conceived theme that appears often in Shaffer’s work. In “Amadeus,” Shaffer writes this dialogue with Salieri as he speaks to us: “I hear the voices of God in this snotty, rude child’s work…whereas I have dedicated my life to God and his work, and all I can basically achieve is mundane mediocrity.”
While “Equus” was written in the 70s, what makes this play still so pertinent to the day is the universal human condition that we all struggle within our lives, which is good vs. evil. We always try to come forward with that which will direct our lives. And so, we can look not at the event itself, but rather, the struggle that the doctor finds in treating this young man, that brings up his own questions of “What in life is real, important and necessary?”
Another key factor in the play is that sense of passion and worship found in Alan. When someone has a passion in their lives, and sometimes it is elevated to the level of deity, which is what the young man does with the horse, what happens when his deity is taken away, what does he have?
In a scene with the doctor and Alan’s mother, Dora Strang [Julie Rowe], we learn about a picture of the Passion of Jesus Christ Alan has in his room, which he later replaces with an extreme close up picture of a horse. As Dora tells it, Alan used to worship God, but now that deep devotion has turned its axis upside down and centered on a mere creature created by God.
This is a stunning, powerful play about religion, and people’s creation of deities, and how their minds work to fit those neatly into their lives. And when those deities fail, how people are left to wonder and cope with the reality of their lives. Shaffer doesn’t hold back on his observations of the human existence—our passions, obsessions, love, sex, religion, parenting, relationships, etc., and while it’s difficult to pin point an exact event that shaped Alan into the young man he’s become, the closing statement delivered by Dysart may offer a clue.
“Equus” runs through June 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks. This play contains nudity. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org of call Box Office at 561.514.4042 x2.