The original play (1973) was in many ways a return to the basics of ancient classical theatre. The Greek word for theatre, theatron , literally translates as ‘seeing-place’ and much of the plot unfolds in a clinic for patients placed under observation in a psychiatric ward. Related themes of insight, blindness and projection, are woven in with references to literal and metaphorical eyes. Ancient Greek Theatre is believed to have developed from a core of religious rituals centered on the God Dionysus, the God of fertility, passion and ‘divine madness’ which are central themes in Equus.
The writer, Peter Shaffer, also used the horses as a variation on the ancient role of the Chorus: making noises and producing a ominous humming to signal important moments in the drama. These horses were depicted by the use of wire frames on the heads of actors which caught the light on a largely dark stage where the characters are brought in and out of focus by a spotlight.
The translation to the naturalistic format of the film (1977) entailed a loss of the stark impact of the stage presentation but the dialogue is largely unaltered and along with Richard Burton’s anxious, stricken performance as Dysart the movie is still a powerful and thought-provoking work forty years on.
If you cut a thing up, of course it will smell. Hence, nothing raises such an infernal stink at last as human psychology (D.H. Lawrence – St Mawr)
Dysart is fascinated by the culture of Ancient Greece and this shapes both his narration of the events, and the progression toward the climatic conclusion. His uncovering of the chain of circumstances which led to the violent incident (the blinding of six horses) simultaneously strips away the assumptions he holds regarding his own function in society. There are thus two narratives occurring in the voice-over: the exposition for the audience and an interrogation of his own role. This serves to highlight the essentially dramatic or even theatrical nature of psychiatry and casts doubt on its claim to be a purely scientific process.
That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children: about five hundred boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos. I know its Argos because of the red soil. On either side of me stand two assistant priests, wearing masks as well: lumpy, pop-eyed masks, such as were also found at Mycenae. They are enormously strong, these other priests, and absolutely tireless. As each child steps forward, they grab it from behind and throw it over the stone. Then, with a surgical skill which amazes even me, I fit in the knife and slice elegantly down to the navel, just like a seamstress following a pattern. I part the flaps, sever the inner tubes, yank them out and throw them hot and steaming onto the floor. The other two then study the pattern they make, as if they are reading hieroglyphics. It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is, unknown to them, I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it’s getting worse. My face is going green behind the mask. Of course I redouble my efforts to look professional, cutting and snipping for all I’m worth: mainly because I know that if ever these two assistants so much as glimpse my distress, and the implied doubt that this repetitive and smelly work is doing any social good at all, I will be next across the stone. And then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip. The priests both turn and look at it, it slips some more, they see the green sweat running down my face, their gold pop-eyes suddenly fill up with blood, they tear the knife out of my hand… and I wake up.
This dream is essentially a mythic-poetic analogy of Dysart’s position. It is also an appropriate device to employ in an analysis of psychiatry. Freud used Sophocles’ drama of Oedipus Rex as validation for his theories concerning the origin of neurosis in repressed desires of incest and parricide. Whilst the blinding of the horses intentionally evokes the self-blinding of Oedipus, Shaffer also evokes the nature of destiny and fate in the inability of Dysart and, by extension, psychoanalysis, to account for the event.
A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes over the whole uncountable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all, just those particular moments of experience and no others, I don’t know. And nor does anybody else. Yet if I don’t know, if I can never know that, what am I doing here? I don’t mean clinically doing or socially doing. I mean fundamentally! These whys, these questions are fundamental, yet they have no place in a consulting room. So then do I?
Freud’s focus on one specific aspect of the play and then his projection of that aspect onto the culture at large is echoed by Dysart’s fascination with the contrast between the ‘vast intuitive culture’ of Greece and the ‘spiritless wasteland’ of the culture he sees around him. In both of these minds there is a disconnection from the tacit bonds of a shared cultural background and consequently a lack of communion with others. In Freud’s case it was simply alienation as a Jew from the European heritage, ‘the consequences of belonging to an alien race’ as he remarked in relation to his childhood identification with the Semitic warrior king Hannibal who sought revenge upon Roman oppressors. In Dysart’s case he is trapped in a loveless, childless marriage and a stagnant career. In both Freud and Dysart the interpretation and analysis of the subject proceeds from the position of a disgruntled outsider with misdirected and unsatisfied religious zeal, participants in what Francis Parker Yockey termed the Black Mass of Western Science:
Psychoanalysis, like Marxism, is a sect. It has auricular confession, dogmas, and symbols, esoteric and exoteric versions of the doctrine, converts and apostates, priests and scholastics, a whole ritual of exorcism, and a liturgy of mantic. Schisms appear, resulting in the foundation of new sects, each of which claim to be the bearer of the true doctrine. It is occult and pagan, with its dream-interpretation, demonological with its sex-worship. Its world-picture is that of a neurotic humanity, twisted and perverted in its strait jacket of Western Civilization, toward whom the new priest of psychoanalysis stretches out the hand of deliverance through the anti-Western Freudian Gospel.(Imperium)
Although Freud’s theories have very little validity in the medical field their impact on the artistic and cultural level has been extensive. Alan’s father reveals the influence of Freud when he dismisses religion with the words: ‘all that stuff is just bad sex’. The banal advertising jingles which Alan sings in defiance of the magistrates and Dysart are an example of psychological research exploited for commercial ends:
Double your pleasure/Double your fun/With double good, double good/Doublemint gum!
The deployment of hypnotic rhythm and repetition to stimulate the base materialistic impulses in human psychology is later counterpointed by Alan’s use of the rhythmic phrasing and repetitive genealogies of the King James Bible to articulate his reverence for Equus, the God/Horse:
And Prance begat Prankus. And Prankus begat Flankus. Flankus begat Spankus. And Spankus begat Spunkus the Great, who lived three score years. And Legwus begat Neckwus. And Neckwus begat Fleckwus, the King of Spit. And Fleckwus spoke out of his chinkle-chankle. And he said Behold! I give you Equus, my only begotten Son!
The distortion of cultural forms into the service of commercial or social propaganda is a consequence of the materialistic emphasis of the present age. In Alan’s inarticulate and idiosyncratic form of worship the experience of the sacred finds expression outside of and in opposition to the social realm. He builds a ramshackle scaffold of rituals, sacraments and liturgy around the object of his worship. His secret night-rides are an act of imaginary assault upon the forces of conformity. Under hypnosis he re-enacts the ceremony:
ALAN: He’s good. Equus the Godslave, faithful and true. Into my hands he commends himself, naked in his chinkle-chankle … Here we go. The King rides out on Equus, mightiest of horses. Only I can ride him. He lets me turn him this way and that. His neck comes out of my body. It lifts in the dark. Equus, my Godslave … Now the King commands you. Tonight we ride against them all.
DYSART: Who’s all?
ALAN: My foes and His.
DYSART: Who are your foes?
ALAN: The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The House of Remington and all its tribe!
DYSART: Who are His foes?
ALAN: The Hosts of Bowler. The Hosts of Jodhpur. All those who show Him off for their vanity! Tie rosettes on His head for their vanity! Come on, Equus. Let’s get them! … And Equus the Mighty rose against All! His enemies scatter, His enemies fall!
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. No friends. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make himself know himself more moderately. He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist. He lives one hour every three weeks, howling in a mist. And after the service he kneels to a slave who stands over him, obviously and unthrowably his master. With my body I thee worship! Many men have less vital lives with their wives.
Alan works in an electrical appliances store and his rides occur in a field partially filled with fly tipped fridges and cookers. The existence of this instinctual and passionate connection with the sacred amid the debris of modern conveniences rouses the envy of Dysart whose own dessicated existence is brought into the light. This double strand of revelation and exposure as the action proceeds touches on larger themes relating to life in the modern world. He begins to see his profession as being little more than an arm of the state, a technique of restoring normal service in faulty machines:
The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes; alright. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills, like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful: it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies, But also, beyond question, I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God, in both His aspects. Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods. And at what length! Sacrifices to Zeus took at the most, surely, sixty seconds each. Sacrifices to the Normal can take as long as sixty months.
The realization of his role as being in part to liberate the boy from his passion in order to conform with the demands of a world divested of the sacred and geared toward the utilitarian ends of finance, and in part to deliver him from a dangerous psychosis in which he blinded six horses, awakens Dysart to the dilemma of his position. Like the skilled butcher-priest in his dream he performs a therapeutic neutralization of the numinous, fulfilling his function as an esteemed guardian of the civic order. To doubt this role is, as he says, ‘subversive.
The modern age with its elevation of the scientific conception of reality over the theological or philosophical conceptions of earlier ages results in a redirection of energies away from the metaphysical and toward the physical:
Every science is a profane restatement of the preceding dogmas of the religious period. It is the same cultural soul which formed the great religions that in the next age reshapes the world, and this continuity is thus inevitable. Western science as a world-outlook is merely Western religion re-presented as profane, not sacred; natural, not supernatural; discoverable, not revealed. (Imperium)
We see this will to create a secular theology in the widespread dispersal of Freud’s doctrines of psychoanalysis which are imbued with the pedantic, hermeneutical tradition of rabbinical study, personality cults, and disciples. Overall Freud’s psychoanalysis pathologises the Western culture into a grotesque spectacle of oppressive institutions and warped existences. It fulfils its function as the esoteric, occult aspect of the exoteric application of the scientific tools of dissection and analysis to the nature of human life. This approach to the problems of existence can have only a reductive and disintegrating effect since the essence of life is qualitative not quantitative.
You can’t give a great symbol a ‘meaning,’ anymore than you can give a cat a ‘meaning.’ Symbols are organic units of consciousness with a life of their own, and you can never explain them away, because their value is dynamic, emotional, belonging to the sense-consciousness of the body and soul, and not simply mental. An allegorical image has a meaning. Mr Facing-both-ways has a meaning. But I defy you to lay your finger on the full meaning of Janus, who is a symbol. (D.H. Lawrence Apocalypse)
When Alan starts his weekend job at the stables we see him identifying with the horses. He locks himself into a stall and gazes through the window onto the world of humans. He paws the ground with his feet and bows his head, stares into the eyes of the other horses. He pays homage to their way of being:
The way they give themselves to us … They could stamp us into bits any time they wanted, and they don’t. They just trot on and let themselves be turned on a string all day, absolutely humble. They give us all their breath, and we just give them stripes for it.
In Alan’s mind the subjection of the horse merges with the scourging of Christ on the road to Calvary and with his own awakening sexuality. The picture of a horse replaces a picture of Christ which his staunch atheist father removes. The reverence for the sacred is transferred from religious imagery to the horse head bringing with it all the fragments of scripture and ceremony he recalls as a form of dressage. The sexual and spiritual energies become focused onto the animal realm of the horse with disastrous consequences.
But Equus preceded Christ. The language of the scriptures only enables him to articulate the awe he experiences before horses. Dysart learns that the fascination began from a riding experience on a beach when Alan was six years old.
The pagan religions attract Dysart and psychoanalysts such as Jung because they seem to contain a more holistic world-view centred upon the human and the earthly as opposed to an abstract conception, such as Christianity has become in the modern West. As Dysart confides to his friend Hesther :
Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local gods. And not just the old dead ones with names like Zeus, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain fish and chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs, just as of certain frowns in people and slouches. Worship as many as you can see and more will appear!
There is a strong echo here of Lawrence whose focus is on how the desacrilisation of the world consequent upon the scientific-industrial revolution had cut humans off from a relation with nature and the world of the senses and disrupted the delicate balance between the physical and the spiritual elements in human nature. In an essay from 1928 he writes:
The great disaster of our civilisation is the morbid hatred of sex. What, for example, could show a more poisoned hatred of sex than Freudian psychoanalysis? – which carries with it a morbid fear of beauty, ‘alive’ beauty, and which causes the atrophy of our intuitive faculty and our intuitive self…there is a hidden will to deny, to wipe out the mystery of beauty, because it doesn’t fit in the cause-and-effect chain … Science has a mysterious hatred of sex, because it perpetually interferes with the nice money-making schemes of social man. So the two hatreds combine, and sex and beauty are mere propagation appetite. (Sex versus Loveliness 1928)
While Dysart studies the culture of the Greeks and marvels at its intuitive depths he does so from a safe distance. The neo-pagans of the present are often urban intellectuals who are reacting against the havoc caused by modern life, the gradual disappearance from the culture of those great symbols able to resonate mysteriously across the ages. Dysart acknowledges his own disconnection from paganism by presenting a scathing self-portrait:
I go on about my wife. That smug woman by the fire. Have you ever thought of the fellow on the other side of it? The finicky, critical husband looking through his art books on mythical Greece. What worship has he ever known? Real worship! Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that. I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity. The old story of bluster and do bugger-all. I imply that we can’t have children, but actually it’s only me. I had myself tested behind her back. The lowest sperm-count you could find. And I never told her. That’s all I need – her sympathy mixed with resentment! I tell everyone Margaret’s the puritan, I’m the pagan. Some pagan! Such wild returns I make to the womb of civilisation. Three weeks a year in the Mediterranean, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers; cautious jaunts in hired Fiats, suitcase crammed with kaopectate! Such surrender to the primitive! And I use that word endlessly: ‘primitive.’ ‘Oh the primitive world’, I say. ‘What instinctive truths were lost with it!’ And while I sit there, baiting a poor unimaginative woman with the word that freaky boy tries to conjure the reality! I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field. I watch that woman knitting, night after night, a woman I haven’t kissed in six years, and he stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek!
The neo-pagans often accuse Christianity of being the precursor of this deadening process through its universalizing monotheism which absorbed or denigrated all the variety of Gods and customs. But this position seems to rely on an impossible divestment of one’s own cultural heritage. The Greek mythology still resonates because its symbols are ‘organic units of sense-consciousness’ to modify Lawrence’s formulation. But so too are the Christian symbols, and these are more profoundly interwoven into our consciousness and nearer to us in time. The self-loathing of Dysart reflects his own spiritual sterility and radical alienation from the surrounding culture, a detachment inherent to his chosen profession. What torments him is the awareness that he is disabled by his own tools of examination from ever accessing the ‘instinctive truths’ he glimpses in the Greek culture.
Shaffer deliberately chose the name Trojan for the horse on the beach which begins the unfolding drama of Alan’s obsession. The Trojan horse in Greek myth was a ploy used in the invasion of a city and has become a metaphor for subterfuge. The metaphor can be applied here to Alan’s entry into Dysart’s realm and introducing the ‘subversive’ doubts he has held at bay. It can equally be applied to psychoanalysis itself: welcomed as a means of liberation and wreaking havoc on the cultural institutions. (As Freud and Jung sailed into New York harbour to introduce their ideas to the American psychologists, Freud turned to his disciple and whispered ‘They don’t realise we’re bringing them the plague’). Another application of the Trojan horse metaphor might be that of modern theatre and film smuggling in ideological propaganda under the guise of entertainment.
The play and the movie were both produced in the mid-seventies when the cultural revolution of the sixties was dissipating and the negative social consequences were becoming evident to some, but there seems to be a vestige of the naiveté of the sixties ideals lingering in the work. There is full frontal nudity in both, which at the time was considered to have shock-value and artistic/social merit ( Hair, Romans in Britain ) but from today’s perspective renders it a rather dated and disingenuous technique to generate interest: witness the tabloid interest in Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) ‘getting his kit off ‘ in a recent production of Equus. This notion of shocking the audience into political consciousness derives from the ideological theatre of Brecht and others. The battle cry of Épater le Bourgoise has no effect when the establishment now embraces the outré and the shocking as credentials of its progressiveness.
The original staging at times mirrored that of a boxing ring when the characters were verbally sparring, to reinforce the oppositions it explored: instinct against reason, passion against self-control, the sacred and secular. All the actors remained on the stage at all times seated on benches to emphasise the social context within which the main characters exist as individuals. This latter technique was an innovation in line with the ideological purpose of art as set forth in socialist theory.
Nevertheless although it is situated amid the last gasp of Marxist ideological hopes, Equus is concerned ultimately with the spiritual core of human nature towards which all political theory reveals itself as either blind or hostile. Dysart understands the challenge and the danger that confronts him:
You see, I’m lost. What use, I should be asking, are questions like these to an overworked psychiatrist in a provincial hospital? They’re worse than useless: they are, in fact, subversive. The thing is, I’m desperate. You see, I’m wearing that horse’s head myself. That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumption, straining to jump clean-hoofed onto a whole new track of being I only suspect is there. I can’t see it because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle. I can’t jump because the bit forbids it, and my own basic force, my horsepower, if you like, is too little. The only thing I know for sure is this: a horse’s head is finally unknowable to me… I can hear the creature’s voice. It’s calling me out of the black cave of the psyche. I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands, waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth and says ‘Why? Why me? Why, ultimately, me? Do you really imagine you can account for me? Totally, infallibly, inevitably account for me? Poor Doctor Dysart!’
From the rags of a decaying culture Alan fashions the lineaments for his God and is ‘galloped into a nightmare’. For a brief period he knows, as Dysart says, ‘a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life’. The conclusion of the drama is the exorcism of the God Equus from Alan by Dysart, the priest of psychoanalysis. But the result is not a restoration of health; rather it is the patching up of an empty shell and its launch into the utilitarian life cycle:
It’s all over now, Alan. It’s all over. He’ll go away now. You’ll never see him again, I promise. … I’m lying to you Alan. He won’t really go that easily. Just clop away from you like a nice old cart-horse. No. When Equus leaves, if he leaves at all, it will be with your intestines in his teeth. And I don’t stock replacements. … My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband, a caring citizen, a worshiper of an abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost…. I’ll heal the rash on his body. I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that’s done, I’ll set him on a metal scooter and send him puttering off into the concrete world and he’ll never touch hide again. With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny! Bit-of-grunt funny! Trampled and furtive and entirely in control…. You won’t gallop anymore, Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You’ll save your money every week, until you can change that scooter for a car, and spend glorious weekends grooming that! You’ll slip off round to the betting shop and put the odd fifty pence on the nags, quite forgetting that they were ever anything more to you than bearers of little profits or little losses. You will, however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.
The unforeseen consequence is the entry of Equus into Dysart and the intolerable dilemma it forebodes. The crisis of the encounter of a secular mentality with the spiritual realities it has jettisoned from its conceptual frame is a theme not often met with in contemporary films. Dysart doesn’t truly believe in the existence of Gods but he can appreciate the remnants and aesthetics of a culture which did. Many people are in a similar position when faced with the Christian heritage of the West. The God has departed but the vessels remain. Ideologies attempt to fill the void and there are secular parodies and inversions of Christianity everywhere but the spiritual sense is atrophied in a large number of people. The dead hand of political theory on the arts is well known but the deadening effect of secular values on the spiritual life of a people is now becoming apparent. Dysart is conscious of the lack of worship in modern civilisation and what it means when materialism fills the void. The entry of Equus into that void entails the search for a lost way of knowing and seeing, a removal of the blinkers imposed by the behaviorist, mechanistic conception of the mind and the recognition of the pervasive cultural nihilism of which psychoanalysis is a part.
I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads! I need, more desperately than my children need me, a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? What dark is this? I cannot call it ordained of God. I cannot go that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.