The play “Equus” by Peter Schaffer investigates ideas of faith, passion, violence, and adolescent sexuality. Schaffer was inspired to write the play after hearing a true story; a crime involving a teenage boy’s seemingly motiveless violence and injury to horses. Equus is a fictional account of what Schaffer believes could have happened before the incident, helping to explain the psychology and reasoning behind the boy’s mysterious and disturbing crime. Equus follows closely the character of 17 – year-old boy Alan Strang, but also his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. In this piece of writing, I plan to explain how we explored the play of Equus in a variety of different activities within our drama class.
The play opens with Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist, performing a soliloquy that introduces the main themes of the play. Scene one is devoted entirely to this speech, which shows its importance and vitality. We learn much about Dysart from this speech. For example, the line “All reined up in old/language and old assumptions” illustrates how he feels trapped and frustrated in his life. In addition, he says, “I’m desperate” which shows his exhaustion and frustration.
This Scene was particularly challenging to rehearse and perform for various reasons. For one, it is a long speech so there is the challenge of learning it. Also, you need to make sure that your volume, tone, and speed are correct. There are very few stage directions so there is the added difficulty of knowing how to act when performing, and how to show his pain and anger. It is also hard, when rehearsing a piece, not to lose its spontaneity – which is particularly vital in this speech.
In Scene two, Dysart is visited by Hester Salomon, a magistrate and close associate of Dysart, and Alan’s horrific crime is revealed to the audience. The line Hester speaks is very simple, but tells all that is necessary: “He blinded six horses with a metal spike”. My initial response to this line was shock, revulsion, and horror, but at the same time I was intrigued why Hester thought Dysart would be able to ‘fix’ Alan (Does he have more power or authority than the psychiatrists?) My feelings, however, did change as the play unfolded and I became more understanding and less shocked as the question of “why did he do it” was explored.
At the beginning of Scene three (and the end of Scene two), we are introduced to Alan Strang, who has committed this terrible act. In this scene, Dysart questions Alan, but rather than simply replying, Alan chooses to sing television adverts. This gives a very strange first impression. We later find out that Alan was forbidden to watch TV – so how does he know these ‘tunes’? This was a very difficult scene to rehearse and perform without laughing and it was amusing to watch.
Another scene we studied closely was Scene seven. In this scene, Dysart goes to visit Alan’s parents, Mr and Mrs Strang. From this scene, we learn much about Alan’s upbringing and how events in his childhood may have subconsciously had a negative effect on Alan, and how it may have influenced what he did.
One of the main factors that had a strong influence on Alan was his mother’s somewhat extreme obsession with religion. Dora Strang is a very religious woman, with strong Christian beliefs, whereas Alan’s father, Frank, is an atheist who is worried that Dora’s constant reading of the Bible to Alan has had a negative effect on him; “…it’s the Bible that’s responsible for all this…an innocent man tortured to/death – thorns driven into his head – nails into his hands…it can mark anyone for life…all that stuff to me is just bad/sex”
In reading this scene, I think Schaffer wanted the audience to feel intrigued about the big part religion has played – also, in a conversation between Dora and Dysart near the start of the scene, she says: “Alan’s always been such a gentle boy. He loves animals! /Especially horses! This confuses the audience slightly because it makes you think that if he liked horses so much, why did he do such a terrible thing to them? This information enables us to understand Alan’s obsession with horses, later revealed in the play.
The scene also draws very strong images of Frank and Dora, who are both very different from one another: Dora has unintentionally influenced her son with religion, and she is very upset over the matter: “I simply…don’t understand…Alan! (She breaks sown in sobs)”. Frank, on the other hand, seems to spend little time with Alan, and didn’t let him watch TV (Dysart): But surely you don’t have a set, do you? I understood Mr Strang doesn’t approve.” This may also have affected Alan because it prevented him from being like ordinary children – encouraging him to become weird.
Schaffer creates a negative image of both characters for this reason, but also makes you pity them. They purposely mean to hurt Alan and are both shocked and distraught about what has happened. As a director, I would want to emphasise how the Strang family is very different from an ordinary family, Dora with her strong religious beliefs and Frank insisting on no TV.
The third and final scene we studied in depth was Act 2, Scene 33. In this scene, Jill has lured Alan back to the stables – although Alan is reluctant and unsure of whether he should go. Scene 32: (Alan – to Jill) “The stables?” (Jill) “Of course!”… (Alan recoiling) “No!” Alan says ‘no’ to Jill three more times, but they still go. Later, in Scene 33, Alan insists that the door is locked. Also, in this scene, Alan becomes very uneasy. One reason for this is because he cannot go through with having sex with Jill and is humiliated, although Jill is very understanding. The other reason is that he believes that God has seen what has happened through the eyes of the horses in the stable. This is the reason why he blinded the horses – so God could not witness him committing a sin. This fear puts Alan in a distraught state that follows on to the act of him blinding the horses in the final scene.
The corresponding activity I participated in was “hot-seating” Alan about that night. We took it in turns to play Alan, and each did our best to answer questions about the night in character.
After reading the play we spit into groups of five. In these groups we decided which three points of the play were the most important; or had the biggest impact on the audience and had to present them as three ‘freeze-frame’ images. The first point we chose to depict was in Scene 3; Dysart has just met Alan and is asking him various questions. We showed this by having Alan on Dysart’s ‘couch’ looking bewildered and confused. Our group also thought it would be a good idea to have three ‘onlookers’ looking in on them, wearing disgusted expressions. They represented Bennett, Thoroughgood, and the public who are mentioned in Act 1, Scene 2 – just before Hester reveals Alan’s crime.
The second idea that we chose was Alan’s confusion about which parent he should listen to: his mother with her religious ideas, or his father who insisted on no television. To do this we sat Alan in the middle of the sofa, with Dora on one side reading an imaginary Bible, and Frank on the other pointing at Alan with a stern stare, frowning at Dora.
The third and final image we chose was of the main event – Alan blinding the horses. For this we had three people as horses, with Alan standing in front of them looking terrified, confused, and angry. I think that the images we chose really captured the main points and essence of the play. The last one especially helped me to understand Alan’s motivation for this terrible act.
The next thing we did was to rehearse the main scenes we had focused on: 1-3, 7, and 33-34. Everyone was given the chance to play Dysart in Scene 1 – him being the only character in the scene. This, as I have previously said, was a very difficult task due to the emotions conveyed and the tone required. In Scene 7, I played Dora. This I actually found tougher than playing Dysart because I found it more difficult to act her and was embarrassed when she read from the Bible. I also found it hard to speak in a ‘proud voice’ when she is reciting from a book called ‘Prince’ that Alan used to enjoy when he was younger.
To capture the thoughts and feelings on the night of the ‘act’, I have written a one-hundred word monologue from Dysart’s perspective (at the end of the play):
“There he was, sitting there with Jill, the stable girl. Alone together…but they weren’t alone…Equus was there; watching. Listening. Seeing.
Suddenly, Alan caught sight of him. He knew that Equus had seen him fail…so God had seen him fail. He must stop God from seeing him. He has to prevent the horses from looking at him. God looking at him…he must blind them. All six. And fast.
I have taken Equus from Alan. He is ‘normal’ – but at what cost, and to whom? Now Equus lives with me…there is, in my mouth a sharp chain. And it never comes out.”
Ultimately, Equus is as much about Alan as it is about Dysart. As a director, I would advise the actors to not just ‘act’ the character, but ‘be’ the character – learn and understand Dysart; how he feels, thinks, and accepts people, whatever they’ve done.
I would want the audience to feel intrigued about Dysart’s complicated life and emotions, but also leave the theatre thinking about what will happen next…
I found many things interesting in performing Equus and the themes it explored. One of the things I enjoyed in performance was the variety. For example there were humorous scenes – such as scene 3, in which Alan sings – but also more serious and dramatic, scenes as well – such as Dysart’s soliloquy in Scene 1. In performing, I also enjoyed the fact that it explored lots of different emotions: Alan’s madness and Dysart being, in a way, traumatised by his dreams of cutting up children.
Equus also tackles a range of themes. The play, in itself, has an unusual theme right from the start. I can relate to the theme of religion as my mum is a Christian and my dad is an atheist.
In class we watched the film adaptation of Equus. There were many differences between the film and the play. I feel that the play works better and it has a more powerful effect on the audience. Also, I felt that in the film Dysart’s opening speech wasn’t as good as it could have been. The whole speech was just a close-up of his face, and the actor did not show much emotion through his features, or use it to his best ability.
Performing the play myself was very different from watching the film or watching other people perform. When I performed the play, I was very surprised at how I found it easier to perform Jill and Dysart than the other characters. Jill I found easy because she is a similar age to me – so I could relate to her emotions and feelings. However, I can’t begin to understand why I found it easy to Dysart. I have nothing in common with him and he seems to be a very complicated character. It is possible that it was because he is so different that I found it easy to play him – the two extremes; someone similar to me and someone completely different. Another possible reason why I found him easier was because I think that when you start reading the play, you subconsciously choose between Alan and Dysart, and I chose Dysart. I found Alan hard to relate to. Even though we worked very hard in class to understand why Alan committed the crime, I didn’t fully understand until right at the very end – after the rehearsals.
If I had had more time to prepare or learn Equus, I think it would have been easier because it was not until the very end of our work that I started to really understand it.
One person in the group whose work really impressed me was Marc. I thought that Marc really connected with and understood Alan. He was really convincing and performed well in various activities. Even when he had to sing he did it with a lot of confidence and enthusiasm. Many of us would have been very embarrassed about having to do this – especially in front of peers. He really impressed me when we were doing the “hot-seating” activity. He had played Alan and we were asking him questions about the night of the ‘act’. What impressed me was how, when asked a question he didn’t know the answer to, he sang one of the tunes – because that’s what Alan does in the play when Dysart questions him.
Overall, I really enjoyed working on, and participating in activities about Equus. I thought that the play was fascinating and exciting, but also interesting and stimulating.