Equus is what you might call a Second-Day Play.
The first time you meet Equus, you notice its most obvious features. However, by the Second Day the play’s true themes start to reveal themselves to you. Those first impressions and primary attributes peel away and the true impact of the story hits you on the Second Day. Equus has incredibly pronounced First Day features. First Day: the story was triggered for playwright Peter Shaffer by the true account he had heard of a boy who blinded twenty-six horses somewhere in the UK. First Day: Equus is the portrayal of a disturbed kid who has a religiouserotic obsession with horses. First Day: Equus includes a remarkable theatrical representation of horses. First Day: full nudity from both its male and female leads! First Day: Equus, once upon a time, somewhere else, starred Daniel Radcliffe – you know, Harry Potter. Hey, it sells tickets.
Now, all of these selling points and impressions are perfectly valid, of course. But on the Second Day with Equus you start to notice that it’s also a beautifully crafted and complex story about a psychiatrist's breakdown. On the Second Day, maybe it’s not about horses and maybe it’s not even necessarily about that boy in the stable. Dr. Martin Dysart is tasked with treating Alan Strang while personally dealing with the most severe personal crisis of his career. On the Second Day, it’s the doctor's breakdown that might linger with you.
A quick dramaturgical side note – the structure of the Second Day Play is especially popular with British playwrights. British writing is multi-layered, complex and intelligent – there are as many big themes as there are big words. Playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, and Peter Shaffer cover up their character's deep emotions under massive themes of science, god, and education. After all, the British are notorious for their stiff upper lip and for hiding their emotions behind traditions and manners. American and Irish playwrights, such as Sam Shepard and Enda Walsh, don’t necessarily write in a linear or simple fashion but the emotional themes of their plays are less opaque. We wear our emotions closer to the surface on this side of the pond. Plays like Equus, while not necessarily uniquely British, are most certainly quintessentially British.
The conversation on the themes of Equus and their relevance to a modern audience often revolve around the sexual element of Alan's obsession. Audiences, artists and critics alike consistently take the religious-erotic element of the story as a rumination on Alan's repressed homosexuality. Interpreters point to Dysart’s failing marriage, his obsession with Alan’s nightly expressions of unabashed erotic joy, Alan’s sexual otherness and his failure with Jill Mason, and the horses themselves being portrayed by strapping young men. And Shaffer was gay. However, if you read interviews with Peter Shaffer about the themes of Equus, he seems very annoyed that people have taken Equus to be some kind of veiled and tortured self-portrait. Could Shaffer himself be keen to have his audience re-think their First Day impressions of Equus?
In fact, according to Shaffer, Equus went through many significant revisions. First, Frank and Dora Strang went from ‘dotty’ members of a religious cult to perfectly normal, if flawed, illustrations of repressed British parents. Second, the scene in which Jill seduces Alan on the floor of the stable changed from a successful but guilt inducing first sexual escapade to the agonizing failure that incites Alan to lash out against his demons. Dysart also used to have a son. “…but it became too complicated…”, says Shaffer. “It involved me in endless speeches. I had to pare away the child and the psychiatrist's wife to make the central conflict stand out more clearly.” Perhaps, the multi-layered nature of the play’s inception is why our reaction as audience members takes on such a long-term and morphing quality.
Over the years, much of the play’s audience has found the subject matter highly controversial. The extended nudity scene is a rarity on Broadway stages. Psychiatrists and psychiatric patients have attacked Shaffer for what they see as a glorified and false portrayal of their work. The idea that a psychiatrist might have doubts or even, god forbid, be envious of his patient is abhorrent to them. The suggestion that Alan’s insanity is equal to freedom and living in the moment is unacceptable. But Dysart admits that it’s ridiculous to be jealous of Alan. One of the sensations that lingers with people is the creepy crawly sense of kinship with Dysart’s doubts, his feelings of pointlessness, his envy of the unhinged. "It's an enactment", Shaffer says, "of my own internal tension. A part of me is always envious of people who live in the present and are sustained by a sense of spontaneity. Even dogs have that capacity: they're always wanting to participate in something and I don't often have that element in me.” The Second Day Play is often very successful at sticking to your consciousness because of how uncomfortably close it gets to your deepest, darkest fascinations.
If you ask five different audience members which moment they felt most entranced by in the play you will get six different answers. In various speeches, Dysart expresses being torn apart by the thought that his work is not only useless but ultimately harmful. He doesn’t love anything in his life, he doesn’t want anything anymore, his passions are opaque and ephemeral. He has nothing to show for any moment of his life – and no one cares because no one is most concerned for his well-being. On the Second Day – if you can admit to yourself how disturbed you are by Dysart’s ruminations – then you just might be compelled to see the play again and again.
That’s the thing with a Second Day Play – when the true themes hit you, they often hurt. They “clop away with your intestines in their teeth.” Equus employs that wonderful theatrical tool of being able to see into Dysart’s inner thoughts – his private world. He speaks directly to the audience as a true confidant – he lets us in on his secrets slowly, inexorably, painfully. We sit listening like the frog in the pot, unaware of the heat until it’s too late to jump out. Usually, we can only witness this internal kind of breakdown within ourselves. We feel dreadfully unique, alone, isolated and unimportant in our own minds. But when we see Dysart or Alan or Dora or Frank suffering a loss in such recognizable ways, we realize we must not be alone if someone else once wrote it all down. It both stings and soothes.
Despite that feeling of being desperately understood that Equus inspires in so many, some audience members have doubted the importance of Equus to the modern audience. It was written in 1973 and it’s about the difficulties of being male in British society at the time. You wouldn’t be terribly remiss if you argued that a story so heavily told by men is out of date in the time of #metoo and the zeitgeist of the empowerment of women. However, you might also argue that men's ability to embrace and discuss their least flattering emotions is hugely important to any discussion of feminism. Women can certainly be significantly affected by Equus as well. One woman in the audience admitted that she “wasn't able to stand up for the first five minutes after the end of Act One." However, many of the most intense reactions to the play have been from male audience members. Perhaps, Equus allows men with repressed anger, envy and isolation to feel seen. Allowing men to interact with their deepest emotions is a vital component to feminism and gender equity. And Equus is about the community’s responsibility for and response to the violent outburst of a young white male. Don’t say that isn’t frighteningly relevant.
There is a monologue of Dysart’s in which he talks about children’s demons. He says they lie in wait in the dark as palpable beings or objects. He sees the giant horse head that is Alan’s personal demon/god and says that Equus was always there waiting for Alan to come upon him. He can treat the welts that the horse mane left on Alan's soul but he cannot say why or how Equus came to be in the first place. He feels he could not have stopped Alan from falling victim to his demon/god because he cannot tell how he was conceived. “And if I can’t know that, if I can never know that, then what’s the point?” If his brand of treatment can only be reactive and never preventative than what improvement is he actually making in society? Let that sink in for a day.
So, here we are on the Second Day, the second week of rehearsal, the second time seeing the production, the second night ruminating on what you witnessed on stage. Equus is a stunning portrait of something so human and so relatable if you’re willing to delve into the darkness of your own psyche. On the Second Day, you feel the shame in envying Alan’s ability to live in the moment with a total lack of self-consciousness. Second Day: you question what it means to be responsible for the emotional suffering of those in your community. Second Day: you wonder if anything you’ve done in your life with such dogged effort and energy has meant anything in the great happening of the universe. Second Day: you wonder if your colleagues and friends feel this same upheaval and cover it up as you have done. Second Day: you realize that you’ve been blindly stumbling toward an end point without any actual desire to arrive.
In other words, once you get past the metal horse heads, the naked bodies and Harry Potter – then you can see the demons – then you can know yourself more fully through the words – then you can see what Equus is really about. Equus waits for you in the dark on the Second Day.
Come see Equus (in fact, see it twice!) at Palm Beach Dramaworks from May 18th - Jun 3rd. See what the critics are raving about. Call 561 514 4042 ext 2 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org for tickets and more information.
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