by Peter Shaffer
Equus is a play by Peter Shaffer written in 1973, telling the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses. Shaffer was inspired to write Equus when he heard of a crime involving a 17-year-old who blinded six horses in a small town near London. 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, 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 values and systems in human life.
The play was originally staged at the Royal National Theatre at the Old Vic in London in 1973. It was directed by John Dexter and starred Alec McCowen as psychiatrist Martin Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan Strang, the young patient. In 1976 it transferred to the Albery Theatre with Colin Blakely playing Dysart. It was also presented on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre with Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth.
Later on, Tom Hulce played the role of Alan Strang, and Anthony Perkins replaced Hopkins as Martin Dysart. Perkins was briefly replaced by Richard Burton for the star’s return to Broadway for a limited run. Perkins resumed the part when Burton’s run ended. Other actors to play Dysart in the Broadway production were Leonard Nimoy and McCowen.
The play received a Tony Award for Best Play in 1975 and for John Dexter’s direction. Firth was nominated for Best Actor but lost the award to John Kani and Winston Ntshona for the double bill of Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island.
Equus was acclaimed not only for its dramatic craftmanship and the performances by the stars, but also for its brilliantly original staging. The horses were portrayed by actors in brown track suits, wearing a wire abstraction of a horse’s head. The entire cast, including the actors playing the horses, remained seated on stage for the play’s duration, watching the action along with the audience. Part of the audience was seated on the stage as well, in bleachers that looked out into the auditorium, creating the effect that the spectators surrounded the action. The play also offers a startling visual when the actors playing Alan and Jill get completely naked in the attempted seduction scene.
Equus was presented in Baltimore, in 1979 by the Lovegrove Alley Theatre. The production starred a pre-Broadway Charles S. Dutton in the role of Dysart. Director Brad Mays 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.
Massachusetts’ Berkshire Theatre Festival revived Equus in the Summer of 2005, staged by Scott Schwartz, with Victor Slezak as Dysart and Randy Harrison as Strang. Roberta Maxwell, who originated the role of Jill in the original 1970s Broadway production, played Hesther Saloman in this revival.
George Takei played Dysart in a 2006 revival, featuring an Asian Pacific cast, done at East West Players in Los Angeles, California. His Star Trek co-star, Leonard Nimoy, had played Dysart late in the play’s 1970s Broadway run.
Equus was revived in 2007 in London’s West End, with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe in the leading roles. The production was directed by Thea Sharrock, and opened in February 2007 at the Gielgud Theatre. The production attracted a lot of press attention, as both Radcliffe and Griffiths appear in the Harry Potter film franchise (as Harry Potter 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 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 has since been transferred to Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theatre, running through 8 February 2009. Radcliffe and Griffiths reprised their roles, and Thea Sharrock returned as director. Radcliffe eventually received a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play.
In 2008 the production toured the UK with Simon Callow as Dysart and Alfie Owen-Allen as Strang.
In February 2010 “Equus” will be performed at Theatre Downtown in Birmingham, Alabama, featuring Brad Riegel as Dysart and Tim Childers as Alan Strang; directed by J.J. Marrs.
In March 2010 “Equus” was performed at New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, featuring James Samuel Randolph as Martin Dysart and David Hemphill as Alan Strang; directed by Ricky J. Martinez, Set Design by Nicole Quintana, Costume Design by K. Blair Brown, Sound Design by Osvaldo Quintana, Light Design by Jesus Casimiro, and Stage Managed by Dana Hesch.
In 8th – 15th MAY “Equus” is being performed at the Rugby Theatre, Rugby Warwickshire, UK.
In June 2010, “Equus” is being performed at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY featuring Alec Baldwin as Martin Dysart and Sam Underwood as Alan Strang.
In June 2010, “Equus” is being performed at the Lexington Downtown Arts center in Lexington, Kentucky featuring Paul Thomas as Martin Dysart and Jimmy Betts as Alan Strang.
In July 2010, “Equus” is being performed at OnStage in Greenbelt 1, Makati City, Philippines and is presented by Repertory Philippines featuring Miguel Faustmann as Dr. Dysart, and Marco Mañalac as Alan Strang with Red Concepcion as understudy. Veteran stage actor Audie Gemora directed the play and has since received rave reviews all over. Media, Broadway and West End veterans and critics like Lea Salonga of Miss Saigon fame, has generally applauded the outstanding portrayal of Marco Mañalac as Alan Strang.
June 26 through September 5, 2010, Chicago’s Redtwist Theatre presented a critically acclaimed production of the play, with Brian Parry as Dysart, and Andrew Jessop as Alan. Directed by Michael Colucci, it was the second time the company had presented the piece, the first being in their 2006-07 season.
In August 2010, “Equus” is being performed at the Hard Bargain Players in Accokeek, Maryland featuring David James as Martin Dysart and Rob White as Alan Strang.
Also, in September 2010, “Equus” is being performed in Market Harborough, Leicester, featuring Tom Clements as Alan Strang.
In October 2010, “Equus” is being performed at the Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco, California, directed by Erin Gilley.
Also in October 2010, a production of “Equus” is being performed at Sydney, Australia’s New Theatre. The production is directed by Helen Tonkin with original music scored by Brendan Maclean and Rhys D. Webb.
Also starting October 6, 2010, a production of “Equus” is being performed at the Park Playhouse in West Hartford, CT.
Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe 2007
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.
Charles S. Dutton as Dysart in Brad Mays’ 1979 Baltimore production of Equus.A court magistrate, Hesther Saloman, 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 from his parents. Alan’s mother, Dora Strang, is a devout Christian who has read to him daily from the Bible. 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 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/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 dialog, 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 on Nugget (or Equus) and secretly takes him for midnight rides, bareback and naked. Alan also envisions himself as a king, on the godhead Equus, both destroying their enemies.
Dysart gives Alan a placebo “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. 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.
Lauren Raher and Brad Mays in Brad Mays’ 1979 Baltimore production of Equus.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!” and then he says “No more. No more, Equus,” and blinds the horses with a hoof pick , whose eyes have “seen” his very soul.
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 Saloman 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 in his mouth.
Shaffer adapted the play for a 1977 film starring Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Eileen Atkins, Colin Blakely as Frank Strang, Joan Plowright, and Jenny Agutter, directed by Sidney Lumet. 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).
Awards and Nominations
1975 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Foreign Play
1975 Tony Award for Best Play
1975 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play
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)
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