Equus (play)

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This article is about the play. For the 1977 film, see Equus (film).
the 1993 Longman edition
Written by Peter Shaffer
  • Martin Dysart
  • Alan Strang
  • Frank Strang
  • Jill Mason
  • Hesther Soloman
  • Dora Strang
  • Nurse
  • Harry Dalton
  • Horseman
  • Nugget
Date premiered 1973
Place premiered Royal National Theatre
Original language English
Subject 17-year-old boy blinds six horses with spike, case becomes a catalyst for his psychiatrist's own doubts
Genre Drama
Setting The Present; Rokeby Psychiatric Hospital, Southern England
Official site

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 fascination with horses.[1]

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 Suffolk.[2] 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.[3] The stage show ran in London between 1973 and 1975: later came the Broadway productions that starred Anthony Hopkins as Dysart (later played by Richard Burton, Leonard Nimoy, and Anthony Perkins), and from the London production, Peter Firth as Alan. Tom Hulce replaced Firth during the Broadway run. The Broadway production ran for 1,209 performances. Marian Seldes appeared in every single performance of the Broadway run, first in the role of Hesther and then as Dora.

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 characterisation, Shaffer has discussed the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian values and systems in human life.

Plot summary[edit]

Act 1[edit]

Martin Dysart is a psychiatrist in a mental hospital. He begins with a monologue in which he outlines the case of 17-year-old Alan Strang. 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.

A court magistrate, Hesther Saloman, visits Dysart, believing that he has the skills to help Alan come to terms with his violent acts involving six horses. At the hospital, Dysart has a great deal of difficulty making any kind of headway with Alan, who at first responds to questioning by singing TV advertising jingles.

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.

Dysart interviews Alan's parents. 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.

Slowly, Dysart makes contact with Alan by playing a game where each of them asks a question, which must be answered honestly.

Dysart learns that Frank, 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.

Alan reveals to Dysart that during his youth, he 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. Alan's sexual training began with his mother who told him he could find true love and contentment by way of religious devotion and marriage. During this time Alan 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. Dysart begins to jog Alan's memory by filling in blanks, and asking questions. Alan reveals that he wants to help the horses by removing the bit, which enslaves them.

After turning 17, Alan took a job working in a shop selling electrical goods, where he met Jill Mason, an outgoing and free-spirited young woman. She visits the shop wanting to purchase blades for horse-clippers. Alan was instantly interested when he discovered that Jill has such close contact with horses after she tells him that she works for a local stable owner. Jill suggested that Alan work for the owner of the stables, Harry Dalton, and Alan agrees.

Dysart meets with Dalton who tells him that he first held Alan to be a model worker, since he kept 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.

Act 2[edit]

Dysart gives Alan a placebo "truth pill". Revealing a tryst with Jill, he begins to re-enact the event. Jill, who had taken an interest in Alan, had asked him to take her to a porno theater. While there, they both 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.

Once there, Jill seduces Alan and the two undress and attempt to have sex. However, Alan breaks this off when he hears the horses making noises in the stables beneath, which he decides is the reason for his inability to get an erection. Jill tries to ask Alan what the problem is, but he shouts at her to leave. After Jill dresses and walks out of the stables, the still nude Alan 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's voice, 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 sees!" and then he says "No more. No more, Equus!" Alan then blinds the six horses in the stable with a steel spike, whose eyes have "seen" his very soul.

The final scene has another monologue by 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 humanity which includes his intense sexual and religious commitment, and his worship of the horses as well.

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: Equus (film)

Shaffer adapted the play for a 1977 film starring Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Eileen Atkins, Colin Blakely, Joan Plowright, and Jenny Agutter, directed by Sidney Lumet.


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.[4][5][6]

Equus was revived in 2007 in the West End by producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, starring 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 series (as Harry Potter and Vernon Dursley). In particular the casting of then 17-year-old Radcliffe caused some controversy, since the role of Alan Strang required him to appear nude on stage.[7] 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. 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 was then transferred to Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theatre, running through 8 February 2009. Radcliffe and Griffiths reprised their roles, and Thea Sharrock returned as director. The cast also included Kate Mulgrew, Anna Camp, Carolyn McCormick, Lorenzo Pisoni, T. Ryder Smith, Graeme Malcolm, Sandra Shipley, with Collin Baja, Tyrone Jackson, Spencer Liff, Adesola Osakalumi and Marc Spaulding.[8] Radcliffe eventually received a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play.

The first illustrated edition of the play text was produced as a large-format artist's book by the Old Stile Press, with images and an afterword by the British artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, in 2009.[9]

Equus was revived in Houston, Texas for a limited run in July 2014 at Frenetic Theater. The production was largely funded by donations on Kickstarter and was well received by critics and audiences alike. Broadway World called the production 'dark, daunting and sensual' and commending its 'stellar cast'.[10] Houston Press said it was 'astonishingly good... a must see'[11] while Culturemap listed the show as one of the hottest shows of the year.[12]

Awards and nominations[edit]


  1. ^ "Equus". Discussion Guides for Penguin Classics. The Great Books Foundation. Archived from the original on 17 June 2008. Retrieved 20 October 2008. 
  2. ^ Pearce, Ian (18 March 2008). "Review: EQUUS". Theater and Dance Reviews. www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  3. ^ "EQUUS: About The Show". EQUUS on Broadway. The Shubert Organization. Archived from the original on 15 April 2008. Retrieved 18 June 2008. 
  4. ^ Lord, Sarah (4 May 1979). "Jolted to the Roots (Review)". The Columbia Times. 
  5. ^ Strausbaugh, John (10 May 1979). "Carefully Crafted 'Equus' at Lovegrove Theatre (Review)". Baltimore City Paper. 
  6. ^ Giuliano, Mike (21 May 1979). "Lovegrove's 'Equus' Powerful First Production (Review)". Baltimore News American. 
  7. ^ Staff writers (28 July 2006). "Naked stage role for Potter star". BBC News. Retrieved 18 June 2008. 
  8. ^ "Horse Power: Equus Revival Opens on Broadway Sept. 25". Playbill. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  9. ^ Campbell, Nancy, Frances McDowall, Nicolas McDowall, The Old Stile Press... the Next Ten Years: A Bibliography 2000–2010 (2010: Old Stile Press) ISBN 978-0-907664-85-7
  10. ^ Nyderah Williams. "BWW Reviews: Matthew C. Logan's Production of EQUUS is Intense and Beautifully Poignant". BroadwayWorld.com. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  11. ^ Jim Tommaney. "A Kickstarter-Funded Revival of Equus: Well-Handled With a Strong Lead Performance". Houston Press. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  12. ^ Eric Sandler. "Houston's hottest summer theater: Full frontal nudity & Falstaff party - CultureMap Houston". CultureMap Houston. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  13. ^ "The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards". TonyAwards.com. Retrieved 23 May 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]