Peter Shaffer’s Equus is neither great theatre nor bad psychology, but it has elements of both. It is an exhilarating play: a remarkable blend of delayed exposition and theatrical effect, of melodrama and circus, which has inspired huge ticket sales and adoring critical reviews. And it is that increasingly rare serious drama which capitalizes on lurid events while maintaining a devotion to ‘‘ideas.’’ Yet, in spite of its wide popular acclaim, Equus is difficult to sort out even when all the clues have been discovered. Why does Alan make his slightly sadomasochistic leap from Jesus to horses? What specifically does the scene in the porno theatre have to do with Alan’s confrontation with Jill and the horses? Is the climactic nude scene an organic part of the play’s structure or simply a gratuitous bow to contemporary fashion?
These questions—and a variety of others— have been raised in the aftermath of the play’s initial sensation. Sanford Gifford has criticized the drama for its faulty psychology and for its deceptive views of the patient-psychiatrist relationship. And John Simon has indicted it as a trumped-up plea for a homosexual life style. James Lee, on the other hand, has praised Equus for the fullness of its dramatic experience, and James Stacy has pointed out the strength of its religious passion, particularly in relation to Shaffer’s earlier Royal Hunt of the Sun. What we are confronted with, then, is a major work of serious drama which continues to enthrall sophisticated (and not so sophisticated) audiences, but which leaves many viewers uneasy because they are uncertain what they are so enthusiastically applauding. Robert Brustein, for instance, has written about his surprise at seeing Broadway audiences heartily endorsing sodomy. It is probable that the controversy will continue, and the purpose of this essay is to shed some light on the traditions which have given us Equus nearly twenty years after a similar work— Look Back in Anger —began changing the face of the contemporary English theatre.
The comparison is not so surprising as might be initially assumed. In its subject matter, its dramatic tradition, Equus is still infused with the same philosophical outlook which was so popular and controversial in 1956. And in spite of a variety of dramatic viewpoints carefully exhibited by two generations of English playwrights, we seem to be back almost where we began. Thus, being truly alive is synonymous with suffering an intensity of experience which frequently borders on the abnormal and which is repeatedly glamorized as ‘‘passion.’’ Alison Porter in Look Back in Anger can only be ‘‘saved,’’ after all—as she herself comes to realize—if she grovels and suffers. (This despite the fact that she confides to Helena that she was very happy for the first twenty years of her life.) Jimmy Porter, whose passions we are sometimes invited to admire in much the same way that we are Alan Strang’s, tells his wife that there is hope for her if she ‘‘could have a child and it would die.’’ Indeed, Jimmy accuses everyone of wanting to avoid the discomfort of being alive, and he describes the process of living as a realization that you must wade in and ‘‘mess up your nice, clean soul.’’ Routine is the enemy for Jimmy Porter, and those who are not willing to take part in his crusade of suffering are forced to desert him.
The same points and counterpoints are echoed in Shaffer’s drama. Dr. Dysart’s bland and colorless life is endlessly exhibited and catalogued. Like Alison and her brother, Nigel, Dysart is not a participant but a spectator. He has never ridden a horse. He experiences passion only vicariously. He is married to an antiseptic dentist whom he no longer even kisses. He travels to romantic climes with his suitcases stuffed with Kao-Pectate. And because he is acutely conscious of his normality, he feels accused by Alan just as Alison is attacked by Jimmy.
Alan Strang, on the other hand, experiences passion in...
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