The play Equus by Peter Shaffer is written in 1973 and deals with the story about a boy, Alan Strang, who blinds six horses, as the play develops the other main character, the psychiatrist Martin Dysart, tries to unfold what happened that could make the boy do such a terrible thing. As the psychiatrist encounter the boy’s imaginary world, his own life is exposed as passionless and frozen. The play then tells the story of a boy, who because of his repressed sexuality, his religious mother and his hypocrite father, makes his own religion based on horses, the bible and sex. The psychiatrist, who is not able to imagine anything like that, who has lost his passion for his wife and who walks around carrying an unfulfilled dream about passion, ends up envying the boy the ability to create and believe in a religion.

This complex story of religion, male sexuality and normality has a very limited setting in the script and the WSU-production of the play is faithful to this description. In Equus the form becomes very important, because the form throughout the play is used as a part of and to accentuate the content. The stage is only equipped with four benches which are moved around and in and out of the stage to allude changes in place and time. Because the setting is so simplistic the audience has to imagine the places where the different scenes take place, this way the audience is drawn into the play from the beginning. Though at the same time this basic setting also has an estrangening effect on the audience, they are all the time both looking at the play unfolding but they are also all the time reminded that this is a staged play. For example by the stylized horses, which are not depicted as real horses but rather has a symbolic form, to remind the audience of horses but at the same time to make the audience aware of the horses symbolic meaning for the boys and in the play. To the boy the horses symbolizes religion, they are his gods and also the only place where he can find an expression for his sexuality. In the play the horses have the effect of a Greek choir; they both visually and aurally emphasize the action on the stage. Though in the WSU-production the part of the sound is almost taken out and instead a soundtrack is used. But the horses still use their hooves to underscore dramatic changes in the play.

The horses function as a Greek choir also points to the psychiatrist’s obsession with Greek art and mythology. This seems to be his only joy in life and he constantly returns to this subject, but in his state of civilized normality he is never able to let go of himself and really enjoy and succumb to his passion. Because the psychiatrist through Alan becomes aware of this lack of excitement in his life, the psychiatrist almost refuses to treat the boy, since he is convinced that Alan will become as numb as he is. This interpretation of the situation is questioned by the female character, the judge, who brought Alan to the psychiatrist in the first place; she emphasizes the boy’s troubled and painful situation. Thus her voice resemble the voice of reason in this celebration of madness, she makes both the psychiatrist and the audience aware of the doubled nature of passion. She points out to the psychiatrist that it is unfair of him to project his own need for passion onto the boy and let him outlive what the psychiatrist is unable to do.

In the play the three female characters generally seem to be more positive figures and less speechless than the men. Hester, the judge, may have an unrevealed love for the psychiatrist, she may even in the eyes of the audience be a sad and lonely person because what seems to be in her life is this non-existing relation to the psychiatrist and her work. But it is never said in the play that she dissatisfied with her life, in the WSU-production there are times when she appears sad about the relationship with the psychiatrist but she never lets this feeling interfere with her opinion about the treatment of the boy. The most frustrated female voice in the play belongs to Alan’s mother. She feels accused by the psychiatrist, because he raises doubt about her influence on the boy. But instead of feeling guilty and responsible she refuses to be ashamed and she lets out her anger and frustration on the psychiatrist. This makes her more honest than her husband who can’t even tell his son about sex, not to mention being honest to the psychiatrist and tell how he knows that Alan took out a girl. That girl is Jill. She is the only character in the play who does not encounter the psychiatrist and she seems to be the only character, which is not unhappy. Her life may not be easy or without problems, but she posses a certain innocence, she just wants to have fun. And though she cannot bring her boy friends home, she finds other ways to experience sexuality in a harmless and curios way.

Thus Jill embodies the opposition of Alan’s problematic and disturbed relationship with sex. Also the fact that she never meets the psychiatrist emphasizes how she escapes the institutionalizing that Alan is put through. But she is also the contradiction of the psychiatrist, who believes that if he treats Alan, Alan will loose his passion and ability to worship. In the mind of the psychiatrist the normal goes together with numbness, this is not the case with Jill. Somehow then she is the one in the play who represents a true and natural sexuality. This is not emphasized in the play; rather the end of the play with the psychiatrist’s dramatic monologue emphasizes the loss of passion. It seems that there is no possibility of both possessing a natural sexuality and still keep your sanity.

by Gry Høngsmark Knudsen

Expected Graduation Date: May 2005
Major: Art History
Hometown: Aarhus, Denmark

Writing has not always come easy to me, but through my academic studies I have become increasingly aware of the importance and elements of writing. This particular paper was inspired in part by my confusion and anger encountering a very limited and Freudian interpretation of sexuality; I thus tried, within the play, to find a less deterministic experience.

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