Equus

(by Peter Shaffer) Equus is one of those famous plays that I never read but could probably fake knowledge of it. It’s the story of a young man, Alan Strang, who is put in a psychiatric hospital after blinding six horses. The play centers around the doctor, Martin Dysart, and his attempt to unravel the cause of Alan’s actions. Dysart has his own neuroses — a distant wife, a recurring dream about carving up children, and he constantly questions the morality of his job. Alan, for his part, is deeply suspicious of Dysart’s objectives, but eventually opens up. Dysart interviews Alan’s parents — a very religious mother and an atheist and overbearing father. He elicits from Alan flashbacks and dreams and eventually pieces together a psychosis in whose logic the blinding of the horses is inevitable.

The original stage directions are given in the version I have, so you get a real sense for the theatricality of Shaffer’s writing. That is, I think, the strongest point in the whole piece. What bothered me was the cleanliness of the psychoanalysis. It’s appealing to think that even the most horrific events have rational antecedents, that we can make acts of cruelty into acts of passion, and while this story may exemplify that approach, I got the sense at the end of the play that I had witnessed a particularly clever sleight of hand. It’s a very neat case study. However, apart from that, we have the effect of the process on Dysart himself, which Shaffer teases out in a really beautiful and true way.

It’s definitely a play worth reading and I’m sure worth seeing as well. I’ve heard there’s a movie version, but I think the play is too theatrical to be suited to a realistic film, so I think I’ll give it a miss. I’m sure it would only accentuate the things I didn’t like about the script and eliminate the theatricality by using real horses or something.