EQUUS – A Horse of a Different Color

In his otherwise frothy farce Private Lives, Noel Coward wrote the startlingly serious line, "I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives." Normal is a term that becomes more nebulous the harder you try to define it, and in the realm of theatre no play has dealt with the concept of normality more perceptively nor more powerfully than Peter Shaffer's Equus, currently playing at the Wilbur Theatre.
Peter Firth and Everett McGill in the original Broadway production of Equus

From the time Equus made its debut on the London stage in 1973, through its universally acclaimed opening in New York last fall, to the current staging in Boston, the play has accumulated more rave reviews and awards than any other drama in Broadway history. It has served to introduce three "unknown" actors - Peter Firth, Tom Hulce, and Dai Bradley - to promising careers on the strengths of their performances as the boy Alan Strang, and it gave Anthony Perkins his best role in years, that of psychiatrist Martin Dysart.

Peter Shaffer has undeniably created a modern theatrical masterwork that heartily deserves such extraordinary praise. The playwright's inspiration originated in a friend's casual recount of a news item concerning the blinding of several horses by a teenaged stable boy in the English countryside. From this tiny spark Shaffer has given birth to a monumental stage piece which explores the psychological, sexual, and religious arenas of 
the human mind with devastating verbal grandeur.

Taken first on theatrical terms, Equus is first and foremost a stage vehicle of unprecedented purity. It could not have been a novel or a film or a radio show or a record album; it strictly plays as a theatrical experience, seemingly utilizing every possible emotional and technical effect that the theater can produce. And while the set and staging make use of enormously sophisticated dramatic techniques, the play draws from Greek tragedy and early Christian drama, whence comes much of its pure and primitive power.

Set in a contemporary psychiatric hospital in southern England, the stage is designed as a square within a circle, a simplicity which permits unlimited multilevel staging possibilities. The square in the center functions as a doctor's office, a home, a store, a stable, and a movie house. Behind this square stands a semi-circle of bleachers inhabited by audience members and players, again a multi-purpose design: the stage looks like a medical amphitheatre and achieves an ingenious clinical effect, and with the audience seated onstage the drama is placed in a theatre-in-the-round situation, breaking the theatre’s "fourth wall" so that everything happens in full sight of the audience. That the play achieves its shocking effects without the use of sleight-of-hand is only one indication of its brilliance.

In order to establish and maintain a rigorously naturalistic atmosphere, anything outside of the theatre's realistic realm is presented stylistically. The most significant example is the representation of the horses onstage. The actors playing horses wear awesomely-sculpted masks and hooves and utilize their amazing mime skills to give the unmistakeable impression of horses interacting with human beings. Before each scene involving the horses, these actors perform a ritual of donning their masks and taking their equine stances with impeccable precision. The use of masks removes the appearances of horses from reality to a point where they become ominous symbols and terrifying spectacles throughout the play.

Stylization additionally enables other actors to act out flashbacks and fantasy sequences with remarkable clarity. A simple mimetic game of skipping stones establishes a scene on the beach; grooming a horse with the aid of neither brush nor horse, the actor indicates the milieu of a stable through nothing more than his controlled physicalization of the act.

The elements of the play which recall Greek tragedy, mime, courtroom drama, and psychodrama lend great depth to what is essentially a fairly simple narrative by pulling theatrical techniques out of thin air to give power and emphasis to otherwise inexpressible ideas.

The ideas expressed through the play are every bit as complex and profound in verbal terms as the theatricality is in its physical vocabulary. The playwright raises questions and conflicts that challenge not only the tormented psychiatrist and his desperate young patient but each and every spectator. 

Whether intentionally or not, in dealing with the search for the source of one young man's passion, Equus can possibly be interpreted as one enormous treatise on homosexuality. The behavior which sent the boy to a psychiatric hospital is described as sick and unnatural, terms widely adopted by the medical profession to describe homosexuality until recent years. And the search for an explanation of Alan Strang's passion undeniably parallels the ongoing search for the source of homosexuality. 

The elements traditionally required to begin this quest include an unhappy homosexual, distraught parents, an attempted cure through psychiatry, and an examination of the standards and attitudes imposed upon an individual by society. All of these could be found in Equus.

When the psychiatrist first takes on the boy's case, the first source of information he turns to is the parents. The family situation reveals a strict, Socialist father and a close, religious mother. Eventually it becomes clear that the father's sexual hangups and the mother's fervor have bred a totally unexpected influence on their son, one that solidified in the child's consciousness long before it manifested itself in behavior.

Faced with the results, the parents cry, “Where did we go wrong?” “He’s my son,” the mother urgently explains to the doctor. “I lie awake every night thinking about it. Frank lies there beside me. neither of us sleeps all night. You come to us and say who forbids television? Who does what behind whose back? – as if we were criminals. Let me tell you something. We’re not criminals. We’ve done nothing wrong. We loved Alan. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him: not just all of our things added up.”

At this point the solution becomes the psychiatrist’s assignment, and when he sees the solution and envisions the price of the cure, he voices his doubts as to whether it’s worth it. When the problem is stated to him as one of restoring “a normal smile in a child’s eyes,” the doctor confronts the great god Normal and stops short in horror. “The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also – beyond question – I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God, in both his aspects. Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods.”

It is the comparison between the boy’s unspeakable passion and his own miserable mediocrity that finally disgusts Dysart about the task he faces. “All right! I’ll take it away! He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable. What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? … My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband – a caring citizen – a worshipper of an abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost! … With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion. Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”

That sounds to me like the best argument I’ve ever heard for societal acceptance of homosexuality. The play includes a great deal more evidence toward this interpretation. The boy’s first sexual attraction is toward horses; he rides them naked in the night for the orgasmic ecstasy he experiences. So when he encounters his first heterosexual experience, he flashes on the only kind of sex he knows. 

“I couldn’t … see her. Only Him. Every time I kissed her – He was in the way. When I touched her, I felt Him. Under me … His side, waiting for my hand. . . His flanks. . . I refused him. I looked. I looked right at her. And I couldn't do it. When I shut my eyes, I saw Him at once. The streaks on his belly. . . I couldn't feel her flesh at all! I wanted the foam off his neck. His sweaty hide. Not flesh. Hide! Horse-hide! . . . Then I couldn't even kiss her."

I can only react to this passage with a shock of recognition that I assume other gay people may share recalling heterosexual encounters. With very little imagination, you can substitute the horse of Alan's desire with a man, and the parallel with homosexuality hits home.

This interpretation, it must be noted, is only one possibility inherent in Equus. In the struggle of individuality vs. normality, “the passion” could just as easily incorporate alcoholism, mental illness, or any deep-seated condition that produces the pain of one’s own choice. 

In addition, Equus contains incredible insights from the point of view of the psychiatrist - aware of his potential power and precarious position, stricken with a desperate fear of his own incompetence and mistrust of his own motivations, he asks important questions - what use is my profession? what right do I have to exercise control over the minds of other human beings? His self-disgust, his envy of the boy's passion, his existential grief at his own limitations produce in Dysart a character of immense humanity, a portrait of a universal product of the crippling "normality" of modern-day society.

Finally, how do the actors' performances affect the experience of Equus? First of all, the play is much more important than any single performance therein; and second, it would take a concerted effort by malevolent actors to destroy the impact of the play. The Boston production does not feature the best acting you might wish for, but it has its highlights, and taken as a whole it is an overwhelming, deeply affecting experience.

Brian Bedford plays the psychiatrist with an often inappropriate comic flair. The doctor does possess an abundant sense of humor, but Bedford plays for comedy too much too soon, and he undercuts the intensity necessary in his first few scenes. However, throughout the entire second act Bedford performs exquisitely, his anger and despair expressed to maximum effectiveness. As Alan Strang, Dai Bradley, who succeeded Peter Firth in the original London production, seems to be more of a punk than a weirdo, which makes the situation all the more believable, and his performance thoroughly convincing.

The remainder of the cast fail to match the acting ability of the two leads. Each one has a particular problem - Delphi Lawrence as the mother is too static, Humbert Allen Astredo as the father is too detached, Sheila Smith as Magistrate Heather Salomon is too mechanical. Mary Hara is briefly terrific as the nurse, however, and the "horses" perform with supernatural splendor.

Credit must be awarded to John Dexter for his swift and lucid direction, John Napier for his scenery and costume design, and Peter Lobdell for his supervision of the production's mime techniques.

Whether you keep up with the theater or not, Equus is an important play to see. Its spectacular theatricality, its profound ideas, and the emotional impact provide an excellent example of live theatre at its best. 

Gay Community News, December 6, 1975