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Equus (play)

Equus (play)

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Equus is a play by Peter Shaffer
Peter Shaffer
Sir Peter Levin Shaffer is an English dramatist and playwright, screenwriter and author of numerous award-winning plays, several of which have been filmed.-Early life:...

 written in 1973, telling the story of a psychiatrist
A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. All psychiatrists are trained in diagnostic evaluation and in psychotherapy...

 who attempts to treat a young man
The term man is used for an adult human male . However, man is sometimes used to refer to humanity as a whole...

 who has a pathological religious fascination with horse
The horse is one of two extant subspecies of Equus ferus, or the wild horse. It is a single-hooved mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae. The horse has evolved over the past 45 to 55 million years from a small multi-toed creature into the large, single-toed animal of today...


Shaffer was inspired to write Equus when he heard of a crime
Crime is the breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority can ultimately prescribe a conviction...

 involving a 17-year-old who blinded six horses in a small town
A town is a human settlement larger than a village but smaller than a city. The size a settlement must be in order to be called a "town" varies considerably in different parts of the world, so that, for example, many American "small towns" seem to British people to be no more than villages, while...

 near London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

. He set out to construct a fictional account of what might have caused the incident, without knowing any of the details of the crime. The play's action is something of a detective story, involving the attempts of the child psychiatrist
A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. All psychiatrists are trained in diagnostic evaluation and in psychotherapy...

, Dr. Martin Dysart, to understand the cause of the boy's actions while wrestling with his own sense of purpose.

However, numerous other issues inform the narrative. Most important are religious and ritual sacrifice themes, and the manner in which character Alan Strang constructs a personal theology involving the horses and the supreme godhead, "Equus". Alan sees the horses as representative of God and confuses his adoration of his "God" with sexual attraction. Also important is Shaffer's examination of the conflict between personal values and satisfaction and societal mores, expectations and institutions. In reference to the play's classical structure, themes and characterization, Shaffer has discussed the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian
Apollonian and Dionysian
The Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical and literary concept, or dichotomy, based on certain features of ancient Greek mythology. Several Western philosophical and literary figures have invoked this dichotomy in critical and creative works....

 values and systems in human life.

Plot summary

Martin Dysart is a psychiatrist in a psychiatric hospital. He begins with a monologue in which he outlines Alan Strang's case. He also divulges his feeling that his occupation is not all that he wishes it to be and his feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment about his barren life. Dysart finds that there is a never-ending supply of troubled young people for him to "adjust" back into "normal" living; but he doubts the value of treating these youths, since they will simply return to a dull, normal life that lacks any commitment and "worship" (a recurring theme). He comments that Alan Strang's crime was extreme but adds that just such extremity is needed to break free from the chains of existence.
A court magistrate, Hesther Salomon, visits Dysart, believing that he has the skills to help Alan come to terms with his violent acts.

Dysart has a great deal of difficulty making any kind of headway with Alan, who at first responds to questioning by singing advertising jingles. Slowly, however, Dysart makes contact with Alan by playing a game where each of them asks a question, which must be answered honestly. He learns that, from an early age, Alan has been receiving conflicting viewpoints on religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 from his parents. Alan's mother, Dora Strang, is a devout Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

 who has read to him daily from the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

. This practice has antagonized Alan's atheist father, Frank Strang, who, concerned that Alan has taken far too much interest in the more violent aspects of the Bible, destroyed a violent picture of the Crucifixion
Crucifixion is an ancient method of painful execution in which the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead...

 that Alan had hung at the foot of his bed. Alan replaced the picture with one of a horse, with large, staring eyes.

Moreover, during his youth, Alan had established his attraction to horses by way of his mother's biblical tales, a horse story that she had read to him, western movies, and his grandfather's interest in horses and riding.

Dysart reveals a dream he has had, in a Grecian
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

/Homeric setting, in which he is a public official presiding over a mass ritual sacrifice. Dysart slices open the viscera of hundreds of children, and pulls out their entrails. He becomes disgusted with what he is doing, but desiring to "look professional" to the other officials, does not stop.

Alan's sexual training began with his mother, who told him that the sexual act was dirty, but that he could find true love and contentment by way of religious devotion and marriage. During this time he also begins to show a sexual attraction to horses, desiring to pet their thick coats, feel their muscular bodies and smell their sweat. Alan reveals to Dysart that he had first encountered a horse at age six, on the beach. A rider approached him, and took him up on the horse. Alan was visibly excited, but his parents found him and his father pulled him violently off the horse. The horse rider scoffed at the father and rode off.

In another key scene, Dysart hypnotizes Alan, and during the hypnosis, Dysart reveals elements of his terrifying dream of the ritual murder of children. This is only one of numerous "confessions" that take place in the play. Dysart begins to jog Alan's memory by filling in blanks of the dialogue, and asking questions. Alan reveals that he wants to help the horses by removing the bit, which enslaves them. Enslaved and tortured "like Jesus?" asks Dysart, and Alan replies "Yes."

Alan has a job working in a shop selling electrical goods, where he meets Jill Mason. She visits the shop wanting blades for horse-clippers. Alan is instantly interested when he discovers that Jill has such close contact with horses. Jill suggests that Alan work for the owner of the stables, Harry Dalton, and Alan agrees. Alan is held by Dalton to be a model worker, since he keeps the stables immaculately clean and grooms the horses, including one named "Nugget". Through Dysart's questioning, it becomes clear that Alan is erotically fixated
Zoophilia, from the Greek ζῷον and φιλία is the practice of sex between humans and non-human animals , or a preference or fixation on such practice...

 on Nugget (or Equus) and secretly takes him for midnight rides, bareback
Bareback riding
Bareback riding is a form of horseback riding without a saddle. It requires skill, balance, and coordination, as the rider does not have any equipment to compensate for errors of balance or skill....

 and naked. Alan also envisions himself as a king, on the godhead Equus, both destroying their enemies.

Dysart gives Alan a placebo
A placebo is a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient...

 "truth pill" and revealing a tryst with Jill, begins to enact the event. Jill, who had taken an interest in Alan, had asked him to take her to a pornography theatre
Adult theater
An adult movie theater is a movie theater where pornographic films are shown to an adult audience. There are usually continuous showings. The movie posters in front of the theaters normally feature no nudity.- Films and patrons :...

. While there, they ran into Frank. Alan was traumatized, particularly when he realized that his father was lying when he tried to justify his presence in the theater. However, this occurrence allows Alan to realize that sex is a natural thing for all men—even his father. Alan walks Jill home after they leave. She convinces Alan to come to the stables with her. Once there, she seduces Alan and the two start having sex. However, Alan breaks this off when he hears the horses making noises in the stables beneath. Jill tries to ask Alan what the problem is, but he shouts at her to leave. He begs the horses for forgiveness, as he sees the horses as God-like figures. "Mine!...You're mine!...I am yours and you are mine!" cries Equus through Dysart, but then he becomes threatening. "The Lord thy God is a Jealous God", Equus/Dysart seethes, "He sees you, He sees you forever and ever, Alan. He sees you!...He sees you!" Alan screams, "God seest!" Then he says, "No more. No more, Equus." With that he blinds the horses, whose eyes have "seen" his very soul, with a hoof pick.

The play concludes with Dysart questioning the fundamentals of his practice and whether or not what he does will actually help Alan, as the effect of his treatment will remove Alan's intense sexual and religious commitment, and his worship of the horses. Earlier, Dysart had asked Hesther Salomon what it would be like to be robbed of the ability to worship. He also reflects again on his own life, his envy of Alan's passion, and what he imagines is a bit
Bit (horse)
A bit is a type of horse tack used in equestrian activities, usually made of metal or a synthetic material, and is placed in the mouth of a horse or other equid and assists a rider in communicating with the animal. It rests on the bars of the mouth in an interdental region where there are no teeth...

 in his mouth.

Film adaptation

Shaffer adapted the play for a 1977 film starring Richard Burton
Richard Burton
Richard Burton, CBE was a Welsh actor. He was nominated seven times for an Academy Award, six of which were for Best Actor in a Leading Role , and was a recipient of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony Awards for Best Actor. Although never trained as an actor, Burton was, at one time, the highest-paid...

, Peter Firth
Peter Firth
Peter Firth is an English actor. He is best known for his role as Sir Harry Pearce in the BBC show Spooks, of which he is the only actor to have starred in every episode of the show's 10 series lifespan...

, Eileen Atkins
Eileen Atkins
Dame Eileen June Atkins, DBE is an English actress and occasional screenwriter.- Early life :Atkins was born in the Mothers' Hospital in Clapton, a Salvation Army women's hostel in East London...

, Colin Blakely
Colin Blakely
Colin George Blakely was a Northern Irish character actor. He was considered an actor of great range.-Early life:...

 as Frank Strang, Joan Plowright
Joan Plowright
Joan Ann Plowright, Baroness Olivier, DBE , better known as Dame Joan Plowright, is an English actress, whose career has spanned over sixty years. Throughout her career she has won two Golden Globe Awards and a Tony Award and has been nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy, and two BAFTA Awards...

, and Jenny Agutter
Jenny Agutter
Jennifer Ann "Jenny" Agutter is an English film and television actress. She began her career as a child actress in the mid 1960s, starring in the BBC television series The Railway Children and the film adaptation of the same book, before moving on to adult roles and relocating to Hollywood.She...

, directed by Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet was an American director, producer and screenwriter with over 50 films to his credit. He was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director for 12 Angry Men , Dog Day Afternoon , Network and The Verdict...

. The film was heavily criticized by animal rights activists and by Shaffer himself, because of Lumet's bloody, realistic presentation of the abuse of the horses (although most of the horses were in fact puppets).


Equus was presented in Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...

, in 1979 by the Lovegrove Alley Theatre. The production starred a pre-Broadway Charles S. Dutton
Charles S. Dutton
Charles Stanley Dutton is an American stage, film, and television actor and director. He is perhaps best known for his roles as "Fortune" in the film Rudy and "Dillon" in Alien 3...

 in the role of Dysart. Director Brad Mays
Brad Mays
Brad Mays is an independent filmmaker and stage director, living and working in Los Angeles, California.-Background and education:...

 did double-duty in the role of Alan Strang. A young actress named Lauren Raher played Jill Mason, and her real-life mother Rhona Raher portrayed Dora, Alan's mother.

In 2000, a Spanish language version was staged in Mexico, with Mauricio Ochmann
Mauricio Ochmann
Mauricio Ochmann Siordia is a Mexican actor best known for his roles in telenovelas. He also appeared in Kevin Costner's film Message in a Bottle, the TV series That's life and Latino Green. He appeared as Fabián Duque in Telemundo's Dame Chocolate...

 playing Strang.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

' Berkshire Theatre Festival
Berkshire Theatre Festival
The Berkshire Theatre Festival is one of the oldest professional performing arts venues in the Berkshires, celebrating its 80th anniversary season in 2008.-History:...

 revived Equus in the Summer of 2005, staged by Scott Schwartz
Scott Schwartz
Scott Schwartz is a former child actor best known for his roles in The Toy and A Christmas Story.-Career:Schwartz co-starred opposite Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason in 1982's The Toy directed by Richard Donner. In 1982, Schwartz filmed Kidco directed by Ronald F. Maxwell...

, with Victor Slezak
Victor Slezak
Victor Slezak is an American stage, television and screen actor who has appeared in numerous films, including The Bridges of Madison County , Beyond Rangoon , The Devil's Own , The Siege ,The Cat's Meow , Timequest as John F...

 as Dysart and Randy Harrison
Randy Harrison
Randolph Clarke Harrison is an American actor best known for his portrayal of Justin Taylor on the Showtime drama Queer as Folk.-Early life and college:...

 as Strang. Roberta Maxwell
Roberta Maxwell
-Background:Roberta Maxwell began studying for the stage at the age of 12. She joined John Clark for 2 years as the child co-host of his Junior Magazine series for CBC Television, before becoming the youngest actress apprentice at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario,to pursue...

, who originated the role of Jill in the original 1970s Broadway production, played Hester Saloman in this revival.

In 2005 a critically acclaimed production, directed by Danny Weathers, was mounted at the Waterfront Playhouse in Key West, Florida.

George Takei
George Takei
George Hosato Takei Altman is an American actor, author, social activist and former civil politician. He is best known for his role in the television series Star Trek and its film spinoffs, in which he played Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the...

 played Dysart in a 2006 revival, featuring an Asian Pacific
Asian Pacific American
Asian-Pacific American or Asian-Pacific Islander is a term sometimes used in the United States to include both Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans....

 cast, done at East West Players
East West Players
East West Players is an Asian American theatre organization in Los Angeles, founded in 1965. As one of the nation's first Asian American theatre organizations, East West Players today continues to produce works and educational programs that give voice to the Asian Pacific American...

 in Los Angeles,
California. His Star Trek
Star Trek: The Original Series
Star Trek is an American science fiction television series created by Gene Roddenberry, produced by Desilu Productions . Star Trek was telecast on NBC from September 8, 1966, through June 3, 1969...

co-star, Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Simon Nimoy is an American actor, film director, poet, musician and photographer. Nimoy's most famous role is that of Spock in the original Star Trek series , multiple films, television and video game sequels....

, had played Dysart late in the play's 1970s Broadway run.

Equus was revived in 2007 in the West End
West End theatre
West End theatre is a popular term for mainstream professional theatre staged in the large theatres of London's 'Theatreland', the West End. Along with New York's Broadway theatre, West End theatre is usually considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English speaking...

 by producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers
David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers
David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers are West End and Broadway theatre producers.-Biography:David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers first produced Art by Yazmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, at the Wyndhams Theatre in London's West End. This has subsequently become the most successful play in London in...

, starring Richard Griffiths
Richard Griffiths
Richard Griffiths, OBE is an English actor of stage, film and television. He has received the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Actor and a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor...

 and Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Jacob Radcliffe is an English actor who rose to prominence playing the titular character in the Harry Potter film series....

 in the leading roles. The production was directed by Thea Sharrock
Thea Sharrock
Thea Sharrock is an award-winning English theatre director. In 2001, when at age 24 she became artistic director of London's Southwark Playhouse, she was the youngest artistic director in British theatre....

, and opened in February 2007 at the Gielgud Theatre
Gielgud Theatre
The Gielgud Theatre is a West End theatre, located on Shaftesbury Avenue in the City of Westminster, London, at the corner of Rupert Street. The house currently has 889 seats on three levels.-History:...

. The production attracted a lot of press attention, as both Radcliffe and Griffiths appear in the Harry Potter
Harry Potter (film series)
The Harry Potter film series is a British-American film series based on the Harry Potter novels by the British author J. K. Rowling...

film series (as Harry Potter
Harry Potter (character)
Harry James Potter is the title character and main protagonist of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. The majority of the books' plot covers seven years in the life of the orphan Potter who, on his eleventh birthday, learns he is a wizard...

 and Vernon Dursley, respectively). In particular the casting of seventeen year-old Radcliffe caused some controversy, since the role of Alan Strang required him to appear naked on stage. This was despite the fact that many other young actors over the years had performed the play naked. Radcliffe insisted that the nude scene was not "gratuitous" and that he should portray the character and the scene as called for by the script. Peter Firth
Peter Firth
Peter Firth is an English actor. He is best known for his role as Sir Harry Pearce in the BBC show Spooks, of which he is the only actor to have starred in every episode of the show's 10 series lifespan...

 gave more than 1,000 performances as Alan Strang; however, Radcliffe has stated in interviews that he chose not to watch the 1977 film, as he did not want to be influenced by Firth's interpretation of the character. The 2007 London revival was then transferred to Broadway
Broadway theatre
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...

, at the Broadhurst Theatre
Broadhurst Theatre
The Broadhurst Theatre is a legitimate Broadway theatre located at 235 West 44th Street in midtown Manhattan.It was designed by architect Herbert J. Krapp, a well-known theatre designer who had been working directly with the Shubert brothers; the Broadhurst opened 27 September 1917...

, running through 8 February 2009. Radcliffe and Griffiths reprised their roles, and Thea Sharrock returned as director. Radcliffe eventually received a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play
Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play
The Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play was first awarded at the 1974–1975 Drama Desk Awards and has been awarded every year since. Before the 21st Drama Desk Awards, acting awards were given without making distinctions between roles in straight dramas as opposed to musicals, nor were...


The Uptown Players in Dallas presented a Broadway-style production at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in March 2010. Max Swarner played Alan Strang, and Rick Espaillat played Martin Dysart.

The Muncie, IN, Civic Theatre presented Equus in the Studio Theatre April 2-11, 2010.

Alec Baldwin was the Executive Producer and played Dysart in the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY, during the summer of 2010. Sam Underwood was Alan Strang.

Director Doug Finlayson saw Equus on Broadway as a college freshman in 1975, and got to direct it at St. Louis' HotCity Theatre in 2010. He notes that "35 years later the play seemed to be less about a troubled teen ... and more about a man struggling in mid-life to put meaning to his work." He cast popular local actor James Anthony as Dysart, and Drew Pannebecker, who handled the role of Alan and the nude scene well.

Alan Rust played Dysart, and Mark Ford was Alan, in West Hartford, CT, Oct. 6-17, 2010, at the Playhouse on Park, in collaboration with The Hartt School. The production included an original score and sound design by a Univ. of Hartford student.

Alan's big scene was incomplete, played in white briefs by Drew Cash, at the Indiana Univ. Southeast Theatre Dept. Feb. 25-Mar. 6, 2011. Jim Hesselman directed, with J.R. Stuart as Dysart. Stuart had previously been in 200 productions. Cash, and Jennifer Thompson, as Jill Mason, reprised their roles for Actor's Choice in Louisville in July.

The George Mason Univ. Players presented Equus Mar. 3-6, 2011, with Tom Prescott, a Univ. senior, directing. Prescott abandoned the usual stark stage, wire-masked horses, and cast on stage, for scenery including columns and vines, masked horse heads, and rotating scenery pieces. Ryan Fearson was Dysart, and freshman Brandon Herlig performed in the role of Alan Strang.

The Pointe Performing Arts Center in Orlando presented Equus Mar. 3-20, 2011, with Adam Pate as Alan and Travis J. Eaton as Dysart. Director Lowrie Fawley replaced the usual wire horse masks with skillful make-up, and even played one of the horses.

Elizabeth Hunter had the role of Martine Dysart, perhaps the only time a woman has done the role, at Theatre First in Somervillle, MA, June 10-18, 2011. Perhaps because the show was in a church basement, "pants stay on" says Dave Policar in the Director's Note.

Actor's Choice and Bunbury Theatre in Louisville, KY, presented a well-received version of Equus July 28-Aug. 7, 2011, with local actors Roger Fristoe (as Dysart) and Drew Cash (Alan Strang). It was Cash's second time as Strang. A review: http://theartslouisville.com/R​eviews_2011/kw_equus.php

Equus was presented Sept. 17 to Oct. 9, 2011, by the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica, CA.

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal has a new leader-in-chief, Paul Flicker, and his first show is Equus, Sept. 11 to Oct. 2, 2011. Flicker says. “It’s a very powerful piece. I also think that the way it’s being done is going to be incredibly beautiful to watch. It’s also going to be very tastefully done.”

At Fullerton (CA) College in the Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, Equus will be staged by Gary Krinke. Nov. 30-Dec. 4, 2011.

Awards and nominations

  • 1975 Drama Desk Award
    Drama Desk Award
    The Drama Desk Awards, which are given annually in a number of categories, are the only major New York theater honors for which productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway compete against each other in the same category...

     Outstanding New Foreign Play
  • 1975 Tony Award
    Tony Award
    The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, more commonly known as a Tony Award, recognizes achievement in live Broadway theatre. The awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League at an annual ceremony in New York City. The awards are given for Broadway...

     for Best Play
  • 1975 New York Drama Critics' Circle
    New York Drama Critics' Circle
    The New York Drama Critics' Circle is made up of 24 drama critics from daily newspapers, magazines and wire services based in the New York City metropolitan area. The organization was founded in 1935 at the Algonquin Hotel by a group that included Brooks Atkinson, Walter Winchell, and Robert Benchley...

     Award for Best Play
  • 2009 Drama Desk Awards Best Leading actor in a play: Daniel Radcliffe (nominated)
  • 2009 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play- Gregory Clarke (nominated)
  • 2009 Tony Award for Best Lighting Design of a Play- David Hersey (nominated)

External links