Returning people to the ‘normal’ is somehow inappropriate in Martin Dysart’s mind. As a professional psychiatrist, he sees himself stealing and virtually destroying the passion and worship of his daily patients, who according to the society need mental help. This is his fundamental crisis, to see patient after patient returned to the world bleaker and paler than they originally were. Alan’s case somewhat brings out Dysart’s agony as it relates to his own low-life i.e. his job and his home life.
Surprisingly, he sees life as something in which people should be able to perceive beyond the surface and materialism of the modern society which has caused the downfall of passion and worship. Dysart through Alan’s case clearly identifies what his own major problems are. He himself feels the need for going beyond the usual human knowledge and experience, into something perhaps more abstract and mystical. Dysart during the play finds his own admiration in Gods and spirits, something that he can turn to and follow in peace, rather than just being controlled by the ‘normalism’ of society which lacks spirituality, although he cannot reach it.
Equus definitely expresses his conflict and need for the metaphysical and transcendence.
Equus was a play that clearly questioned the old fashioned, traditional values of drama. The society of the 1960s was a more conservative one; it was polite and respected many social issues that were banned such as sex and religion. Basic conventions in society were upheld; many people went about their own business without questioning much.
The plays themselves were written in what seemed to be ‘conventional theatrical styles.’ Theatrical sets were made to be more realistic; the plots carefully organised and planned out. The audience maintained well-bred drawing room language and concentrated well on the plays – no disrespect was shown. It was an era of ‘well made play’ as opposed to the one that followed.
Traditional audiences tended to go and see drama at the theatres. Newer ones now watch it on television; the theatre plays little part in drama today. The styles and context of the plays are more iconoclastic and revolutionary; long established social mores were turned against. Theatres now had no shame in introducing explicit sexual content and obscene language. Equus as a post 1967 drama displays this quite often: Alan’s sexual fantasies with Equus and Dysart’s sad analysis of his personal life.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Dysart feels that his job as a psychiatrist is damaging the individuality of so many. Right from the start of the play we can see his lifelessness for his work, ‘you see I’m lost….They’re worse than useless: they are in fact, subversive.’ He seems to question his job at a deep level, even though he is experienced and professional. Nothing seems to drive him any longer; his doubts have caused his boring and lifeless attitude towards what he does: ‘I can’t jump because the bit forbids it, and my own basic force – my horsepower, if you like – is too little,’ and ‘The doubts have been there for years, piling up steadily in this dreary place.’ Removing people from their own world seems to be the centre point at which Dysart bases his radical doubts and cynicism around, he is in some ways disillusioned and demotivated at what he does. The ‘extremity’ of Alan’s case has brought out Dysart’s agony – this is what shows his turmoil, he even surprises Hester in Act 1 scene 18: ‘You know what I mean by s normal smile in a child’s eyes, and that one isn’t -even if I can’t exactly define it. Don’t you.’
Dysart is desperate to escape from his role in society: a destroyer of passion. His desire to leave his job is strong in the play and this is understandable, why does he want to see people living almost as robots in a ‘plastic’ world where no one is unable to go beyond the ‘normal.’ During his discourses with Hester, he makes a number of references to where he would rather be, ‘turning the pages of art books on Ancient Greece’ and ‘absolutely unbrisk person I could take to Greece, and stand in front of certain shrines and sacred screams…’ Dysart himself wishes for a more spiritual life rather than being locked up in what he sees as a primitive civilisation. It seems that he cannot escape from society because his compliance and education has made him unable to see a ‘whole new track of being (he) only suspect(s) is there.’ He feels ‘All reined up in old language and old assumptions’ and this is what stops him seeing what is beyond the society he is so used to. Dysart can see the defects of society; he believes there’s something else beyond it. He has his own passion but the intensity of it does not match Alan’s. He says ‘straining to jump clean – hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there,’ showing his urge and enthusiasm to move away from this limited, encased world, but he cannot.
For sure Dysart is reaching the point of existential crisis in his profession. He seems to fundamentally question his work, he feels let down he cannot answer them. His self confidence plummets, for example, ‘if I can never know that – then what am I doing here?’ This desire to leave this materialistic life is portrayed strongly in his dream about the children’s sacrifice. The idea of Dysart wearing a golden mask shows his high status and authority in society. In a way ‘officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops’ brings back the important concept of Dysart maintaining the balance of normality in society. The vision of Dysart opening up the child and ‘part(ing) the flaps, sever(ing) the inner tubes, yank(ing) them out and throw(ing) them hot and steaming on to the floor,’ clearly represents the thought of Dysart taking away worship, passion and spirit from his patients. The outcome of these sacrifices makes Dysart begin to feel ‘distinctly nauseous’ with it getting worse after each patient. As Dysart realises what he has fundamentally extracted, his mask begins to slip. The mask slipping clearly symbolises his fraudulence, it shows his cloak of authority slowly disappearing revealing his true emotion, ‘Of course I redouble my efforts to look professional – cutting and snipping for all I’m worth, mainly because I know that if those two assistants so much as glimpse my distress…I will be the next across the stone.’ This in a way is ironic, to see that a professional psychiatrist who would be expected to enjoy his work, is hiding his doubts behind a “mask”, which is supposed to show his true expertise.
Alan is perceived as a purposeful individual in Dysart’s mind in terms of passion and worship. During the first stages of Alan’s treatment, Dysart is patient and willing to be respectful, for example he tolerates Alan’s singing of the TV ads. He doesn’t discriminate Alan in any way, he sees and admires the spirituality in Alan (something Dysart feels the need for too) even though according to the society he is supposed to be mentally ‘ill.’ Alan has created this fantasy world of elated devotion towards Equus by whatever he can associate with horses. (The poster, the horse ride with the stranger .etc) Alan in some sense can communicate with Equus; he treats Equus as a God. For example he hears Equus say ‘I see you.’ ‘I will save you.’ The sexual experience he had in the barn with Jill had in Alan’s mind enraged Equus. He hears Equus mock and frighten him, ‘Mine! . . .You’re mind!’ ‘I see you. I see you. Always! Everywhere! Forever!’ Alan desperately pleads for forgiveness and in the process violently commits the crime of blinding the horses, because he didn’t want to be tormented by what Equus could “see” him do. Dysart admires this quality of worship Alan has, he envies the intensity of it in Alan’s life, ‘and let me tell you something: I envy it.’ The fact that Dysart has little of it in his own plain life makes him guilty of removing it from Alan, ‘Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?’
His speech to Hester in Act 2 scene 2 5 shows his self pitying of his own down – hearted life, and in some ways explains why he doesn’t want to treat Alan. ‘The finicky critical husband…What worship has he every known?’ ‘I shrank my own pallid life…I settled for being pallid and provincial.’ We can see from this how much Dysart lacks vigour in his life – Alan’s passion and worship seems to be the thing Dysart wants a lot more of in his life. Dysart’s wife doesn’t seem one which wants to pursue Martin’s wishes, he tells Hester of how different in character they are and that what he wants isn’t want his wife wants, ‘Och, Martin, what an absurred thing to be doing! ‘Mentally she’s always in some drizzly kirk of the own inheriting: and I’m some Doric temple…’ Then back in scene 25 he says, ‘baiting a poor unimaginative woman.’ Dysart’s tries to get across the fact that while he spends his life with a woman who goes about life in a basic, uncoloured way not willing to pursue the needs of her husband, Alan seems to enjoy himself by worshipping happily, ‘sucking the sweat off God’s hairy cheek.’ Dysart feels the need for this immaterial state that can perhaps bring him to live a better life. This is why he feels envious of Alan’s fantasy world, the fact that Alan has something that he can turn to, whereas Dysart just endlessly has to work without enjoyment.
Alan and Dysart in some ways share similarities. The fact that each of them experiences a sort of pain in the physical world is shown strongly throughout the play. Alan working at the electrical appliance store that he dislikes, and Dysart almost burnt out with his psychiatry work and his personal life. Alan has a poor, worthless life, ‘He can hardly read. He knows no physics or engineering to make the world real for him. No paintings to show him how others have enjoyed it. No music except television jingles. No history except tales from a desperate mother,’ shows how separate and unusual he is from the modern society. For Dysart, as we have seen, it his personal life. Alan’s spirituality is what keeps him going, society doesn’t exist for him. It is the ‘core of his life’ – this is what fascinates Dysart and makes him affinite for Alan’s case. Scene 27 is an example where he displays how close he is to Alan. Dysart admits: ‘I’d like to leave this room and never see it again in my life.’ Alan observes his unhappiness, he understands that Dysart does not like what he does, and ‘I don’t actually enjoy being a Nosey Parker.’ Dysart sees some sort of “light” in Alan because of his passion, even though the society would typically see him as a reject due to his crimes; it doesn’t want to understand why people like Alan do what they do.
Scene 35 is a critical scene in which Dysart explains sadly how he will cure Alan, ‘I’ll set him puttering off into the Normal world where animals are treated properly,’ and ‘I’ll take away his field of Ha Ha, and give him normal places for his ecstasy.’ Dysart finds Alan’s case an unusual one. During his investigation and analysis of Alan, he cannot explain the motives behind Alan’s crime – it is only the hypnosis that enables him to understand what has gone on properly. In a sense he acts like a film noir-ish detective who is drawn further into this entanglement of Alan’s. There are certain points in the play that show this, for example at the end of scene 11 he says to the audience: ‘It was then – that moment – I felt real alarm. What was it? At any rate, the feeling got worse with the stable owner’s visit.’ The fact that Dysart reviews what he does to the audience tells them that he is sort of a crime solver. At the beginning of Act 2, he mentions: ‘It’s calling me out of the black cave of the Psyche. I shove in my dim little torch…Totally, infallibly, inevitably account for me? Poor Doctor Dysart!’ Again Dysart displays elements of mystery and uncertainty. He shows the pathetic nature of psychiatry as the ‘psyche’ seems to be beyond him. His ‘dim little torch’ is a metaphor that we do not expect from an experienced psychiatrist. Dysart is unable to explain Equus, the idea of his ‘dim’ torch shows he cannot make a full report of Alan.
Dysart, surprisingly views Alan completely opposite to what the outside world would. In Alan, he sees transcendence; something which goes beyond what this ‘Normal,’ boring, physical world. Dysart disagrees with his ‘adjusting’ work strongly; in healing Alan, he would take away his individuality as well as destroying his passion, worship, and spirituality. The idea of Normality ‘sustain(ing) and kill(ing)’ is correct. In one sense, it allows one to follow and live a civilised life, in another, it would result in a soulless individual who basically does not challenge society in any way. In reality, it is Alan’s worship that has caused his separation from society and his own pain. Dysart’s job is to virtually numb this pain and return Alan as a ‘normal’ to the outside world. Hester plainly sees Alan as a ‘cut off little figure’ from society who deserves a chance in society again. Dysart goes further with this point; he sees pain as something which comes together with worship and passion, ‘that ‘to go through life and call it yours – your life – you first have to get your own pain.’ Dysart describes the normal as: ‘The indispensable murderous God of health.’ This in some ways is true; Dysart sees health as individuality and transcendence. To remove this spiritual essence would only enforce strict accordance with the law; Dysart believes treating him would somewhat create a living ‘ghost’ in society – he would take away what has kept Alan virtually “alive”.
The phrase ‘Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created,’ illustrates what a psychiatrist does; passion is a natural essence, once gone only the bare ‘normal’ remains. Scenes 19 and 35 are important in explaining what Dysart feels the outcome may be in normalising Alan. Dysart thinks of the ‘normal’ world as a sterile and anonymous one. Everything to him seems ‘plastic’; the society in a way has been ripped of its unworldly -ness (passion, worship .etc) through materialism. Normality has been set in such a way, that no one can read into the superficial and the ‘un-normal.’ Dysart uses ‘plastic’ to describe how the world is so used to its dystopian, man-made, manufactured world, ‘he’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening,’ and ‘his private parts will come to feel plastic to him…’ Dysart loathes plainness and the syntheticism of life; he cannot escape from this society; he seems embroiled in it, unable to budge. ‘Three weeks a year in the Peloponnese, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers, cautious jaunts in hired Fiats, suitcase crammed with Kao-Pactate!’ tell us how he wishes to get away from these revulsions of the modern civilisation. This dream is second mediated; he cannot leave his ennui behind with the cold mechanical work he has long suffered.
Dysart’s language powerfully and effectively reflects his tragic conflict. At various points in the play, we can analyse Dysart’s speech patterns and his choice of words in explaining his frustration. At times his speech can be paradoxical, for example, ‘The usual unusual,’ ‘He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist,’ and ‘The normal is the murderous God of health.’ These contradictions each relate to the ‘adjustment’ process. What Dysart tries to convey via these discrepancies, is that the ‘normal’ is in some ways an eraser of the spiritual; the treatment of patients is wrong due to the idea of living as a ‘ghost’ in society. Shaffer tries to emphasise this idea by using these contradictions; it in some ways helps readers to think and examine beyond the lines of what Dysart says. His poetic and figurative language also dramatises the atypical aspect of Dysart’s profession and his bitterness into recreating the ‘normal’ in people’s hearts. ‘Like a frozen Tango dancer, inhaling its cold sweet breath,’ ‘black cave of psyche’ and ‘dim little torch’ all display elements of ineffability and inexperience. This is one of the ironic points of the play; to see Dysart who is experienced at his profession (we can tell this by his talk with Hester in Act 1 scene 2, ‘you’re this boy’s only chance) has so suddenly lost his verve and energy for his work. Dysart sees Equus as a symbol of the transcendental; he personifies him as a sort of God, ‘He raises his matted head.
He opens his great square teeth…account for me!’ which gives the impression of an awesome, terrifying aspect of Equus (Act 2 scene 22) He asks rhetorical questions such as, ‘what am I doing here,’ and ‘So then, do I…’ to emphasise his need for the metaphysical side of life. At times such as in scene 25, he expresses his guilt and pain at taking away the worship, ‘He lives one hour every three weeks – howling in a mist.’ The verb ‘howling’ gives an impression of the darkness (wolfish) Alan is in. Another example Dysart wants to justify why Alan need his worship is where he says, ‘No history…No friends… No music.’ The repetition of ‘no’ as well as the short sentences in the context intensifies this. Another technique Dysart uses to highlight the need for passion is the alliteration he uses in the same scene. ‘Finicky, critical’ and ‘pallid and provincial’ enables Dysart to stress his sad, dried out life. ‘Sucking the sweat off God’s hairy cheek,’ is another striking use of figurative language.
The sibilance of ‘sucking’ and ‘sweat’ gives the idea of something sexual and infantile (again accentuating Dysart’s misery) and the ‘God’s hairy cheek’ giving a mixture of the physical and abstract. He tends to deify the ‘normal,’ showing that he sees life in a spiritual manner. This again dramatises the idea of what the ‘normal’ actually is; it gives the reader a better perception of how Dysart views the ‘normal.’ ‘The indispensable murderous God of health’ and ‘sacrifices to the normal,’ show the crux of what Dysart is trying to avoid and these phrases definitely outline and intensify their “destructive purposes.” During the last scene, Dysart cleverly metaphorises what Alan will experience in the ‘normal’ world. ‘Puttering off into the Normal world…’ ‘Blinking our nights away in a non stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads!’ ‘Multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether,’ ‘metal pony,’ and ‘concrete, plastic’ all express the flaws of the ‘normal’ world. The idea of ‘shrivelling’ and ‘plastic’ gives an unpleasant image of the society. He uses colloquialism: ‘gee-gees’ again showing his bitterness towards the experience without spirit and passion. This is how Dysart’s tries to express his dilemma – he tries to convey the flaws of society and the ‘normal’ by using these language techniques, allowing the reader to carefully analyse and think about what he means by surrealism and the demolishing ‘normalism.’
Peter Shaffer also uses clever staging to adapt Dysart’s torture and angst. He uses lighting, movement and sound to do this. The stage directions and the lighting normally correlate with the themes of the play as well as Dysart’s emotions. For example, at Act one scene 1, it mentions: ‘The flame of a cigarette jump(ing) in the dark.’ This again gives us the immediate impression of a detective film-noirish motif. (Dysart’s role as an investigator) As he explains his tragic status, the light ‘grows brighter’ to give the impact of sadness. His conversations with Hester also imply these lighting effects. Where he describes the ‘Normal’ as a murderous God, the lights turn ‘cold’ creating the sense of something obscure, again dramatising Dysart’s mood. The directions before a scene starts can also at times show the feelings of the characters before they speak.
Prior to Dysart’s description of the dream, ‘agitated’ immediately arousing the curiosity of the audience, creating suspense and tension for what happens. He look can also give the audience ominous feelings, ‘He looks truculent.’ Dysart’s movement on stage can also create a striking effect as well as portray his true feelings. In the last scene for example, it describes him as moving ‘swiftly’ which shows a sudden emergency towards Alan (who by now is in complete pain after telling his story) again stimulating the audience’s attention. The idea of Dysart ‘steps(ing) out of the square and walks(ing) round the upstage end of it, storming’ at the audience is almost metaphoric of him leaving his role. Although he ‘storms,’ (showing his frustration) he speaks passionately to the audience and maintains the calmness of the scene. The staging definitely adds more liveliness to the characters actions and emotions.
In conclusion to Dysart’s predicament, I feel spirituality and worship can definitely have a damaging consequence, hence Alan’s crime. In some ways, ‘normality’ can remove this unworldliness creating a sort of dullness in ones life, but at the same time can make society more secure and peaceful in those cases like Alan’s. It would be unfair to say the metaphysical always causes destruction, Dysart’s view of Greece seems tranquil and relaxed, however, those like Alan need to be treated to preserve morality within the world. I don’t agree with Dysart’s view of the plain world, simply because it allows the freedom for those who keep to the laws – there is no ban on religion and peaceful worship. Pain is another aspect of Alan Dysart wishes to retain; even though he himself suffers through his work and home life. If as a psychiatrist he understands what it is like to experience this, why isn’t he happy to ‘numb’ Alan’s grief, regardless of the good he sees in worship? Overall, I feel spirituality should be in no way damaging or painful because it results in the suffering of the individual and others around, and this is why I disagree with Dysart’s grudge against treating Alan, although I do not oppose the need for the abstract as this can provide happiness in ones life.
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