Repressed Memory and Play

Topics: Peter Shaffer, Equus, Repressed memory Pages: 5 (1859 words) Published: September 21, 2010
Equus is a play in which present and past collide and intertwine in spectacular and thematically significant ways. Psychoanalysis (a process of evaluating mental health that was developed by Sigmund Freud) drives the plot forward, as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart succeeds in drawing out of Alan Strang a series of repressed memories. His intention is to achieve abreaction, which is the discharge of the emotional energy attached to a repressed idea. Theatrically, the past events in the plot of Equus are strikingly represented, diverging from analytical and expository dialogue; rather than related verbally, these memories are acted out in flashback. By staging the past rather than revealing it through exposition (analysis usually being a process of verbalization), Shaffer takes great advantage of the visual power of the theatre. In the staging of Alan’s memories, he allows himself a more lyrical tone, a more ritualistic style than that employed in the realistic dialogues between Dysart and the other characters in the play. In his book Peter Shaffer, critic C. J. Gianakaris observed: ‘‘What will be best remembered about Equus is its brilliant dramatising of man’s attempt to reconcile the personal and the metaphysical aspects of his universe.’’ As Gianakaris wrote, with the ‘‘immeasurable help’’ of director John Dexter, Shaffer ‘‘strikingly fused realism with mimetic ritual,’’ achieving a ‘‘daring stylisation’’ which is crucial to the success of the play. Ultimately, the abstract scenes in Equus powerfully reveal the relationship between sex and religion— the two most significant, and closely intertwined, themes in the play. Both sex and religion are crucial factors in Alan’s childhood development: in both arenas, Alan transfers ‘‘normal’’ social views of sex and worship onto his pagan, equine religion. The play hints at the sexual undertones in many events in Alan’s childhood. Frank Strang’s comment that Christianity ‘‘is just bad sex’’ implies connections between sexual desire and religious ecstasy which run through the play. Frank observes of Alan: A boy spends night after night having this stuff read into him: an innocent man tortured to death—thorns driven into his head—nails into his hands—a spear jammed through his ribs. It can mark anyone for life, that kind of thing. I’m not joking. The boy was absolutely fascinated by all that. He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning. Alan’s ride with the Horseman is also given sexual meaning; it is a pleasure he clearly attempts to duplicate on his naked, midnight rides with Equus. (Alan has essentially ritualized a masturbatory act into a religious practice.) At the play’s climax, Alan is confused when he finds himself sexually aroused by Jill Mason. He feels great shame as a result both of his ‘‘infidelity’’ in the presence of Equus and his impotence with Jill. Sex is a major catalyst, both in Alan’s development and in the violent blinding of the horses. The thematic connection between sexual identity and religious practice is cemented in the details of the play’s staging. Equus is a play of thematic complexity and depth, and Shaffer’s writing of dialogue is, by and large, up to the task of expressing this complexity (although some critics have disagreed on this point). The true novelty and genius of Equus, however, may rest in the manner in which Shaffer utilizes theatrical techniques to enact powerfully the psychological and religious dimensions of the play. Past and present collide in theatrical spectacle, as the dialogue of Alan’s sessions with Dysart is given a larger, visual dimension, powerfully underscoring the play’s psychological themes. Gianakaris comments: The flexibility of the stage design permits striking variations in the way the action is presented. Straightforward realism alternates with imaginative stylised scenes of mime. Dysart’s is the cool, detached world of science where clinical evidence determines...
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