The story Equus, by Peter Shaffer is an incredible narrative. It has stuck with me for a long time. Although it is a play, I consumed it in written form so I only think of it as a book. I am sure that the theatrical performance is awesome as well. I hear that the play ran in London for two years and was followed up on Broadway where it ran for 1,209 performances. The Broadway play had a fairly distinguished cast as well, including such thespians as Anthony Hopkins, Marian Seldes, Richard Burton, and Leonard Nimoy.
The story explores a psychiatrist’s attempt to treat a 17 year old boy who has committed the heinous and extremely bizarre criminal act of blinding six horses. I mean that by itself is an attention grabber. When I started reading the story I had no idea what to think. What might be of even further interest is that the very framework of the story is based on a real incident. Peter Shaffer wrote this play at the impetus of trying to come up with a fictional account of what might have happened in the actual, real life case of a 17 year old boy in Suffolk, England who blinded six horses.
The plot surrounds the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart and the boy in question, Alan Strang. Alan Strang is a troubled young man, who through his upbringing has developed a peculiar belief system involving God, horses and sex. Having been raised by a deeply religious christian mother and an atheist father, the boy develops this patchwork ideology of both religious thought and the real world. The interplay is handled masterfully by the author. I can’t do it even the slightest bit of justice in a review but it is rationalized thoroughly within the work. It’s really not so black and white as I have described it. There is a thoughtful interplay between the adolescent experience of beginning to actualize the self with urges and independent thought while also beginning to truly comprehend social mores. However, at the same time the influences of both parents are tugging at his mind. The mother’s influence is by far the greatest. You can see that Alan has incorporated her religiousness deeply within himself. And this will create the groundwork for his own religious formulations. The father contributes two key catalysts that drive the story. I have to leave that out . Otherwise, I will be giving far too much of the plot away.
Although Alan’s issues are the movers of the story, the main character is still probably Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist. Although arguments could still be made against it. In the story, Dysart is actually the person who contemplates the profound questions that arise. He primarily questions normalcy. What does it mean to be normal and is being normal truly a worthwhile aim of treatment. He ponders the validity of treating Alan and other troubled youths by stripping them of their commitment, passion and worship to return to a dull life of normalcy. Dysart also has a number of key monologues and a dream sequence that gets to the heart of the work’s themes.
The story has a number of twists provided by Alan’s father and a character who will remain anonymous in this review. You will see that he and that other character’s actions are really the catalysts for Alan’s eventual crime and breakdown. I say catalyst but do not intend to pronounce blame as nothing was intentional. Alan is already primed to explode far before these catalyzing events. The author leaves you with that sense. No one in this story is really to blame.
Peter Shaffer, Equus. It’s a great read.