The play begins with seventeen-year-old Alan Strang standing in a spotlight, tenderly hugging a horse called Nugget. A light comes up on Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist, who narrates the situation: he describes Alan and Nugget embracing like a couple, and wonders what goes on during the horse's head throughout this: is he grieving? Does he not wish to be a horse any longer? When Alan leads Nugget offstage, Dysart begins to address both the wide audience in the theatre (or readers, for that matter) as well as a small audience seated on a set of tiered seats on the stage.
He says that he himself feels like this horse: reined up, his head held at the wrong angle so he cannot see anything but the path in front of him. He acknowledges once again that he can never understand what is inside a horse's mind—why, then, does he deal with children, whose minds must surely be more complicated? He says that one particular case has brought doubts about his profession to the surface, and then backs up to where the case began.
Beginning with scene 2, Dysart acts as both the narrator telling the story in retrospect, as well as himself at the time when the story was happening. Occasionally he inserts asides, which reveal his feelings when looking back on the moments of the story.
One day, Mrs. Hesther Salomon, a court magistrate, comes to Dysart's office and begins to tell him about the most shocking case she has ever tried. A seventeen-year-old boy has blinded six horses with a spike, and Hesther had to argue to get him sent to Dysart for treatment rather than to prison. According to Hesther, rather than defend himself in court, he simply sang whenever someone asked him a question. It takes a lot of persuading, but eventually Hesther convinces Dysart to take him.
Scenes 3 & 4
Dysart begins his first appointment with Alan. Whenever he asks the boy a question, Alan simply sings an advertising jingle back to him for a particular product. Dysart tries and fails to engage with Alan's singing, so he calls for the nurse to take Alan to the private bedroom where he will be staying. He insists that Alan come see him again tomorrow, and watches, fascinated, as the nurse takes him away. Alan continues to sing as the nurse gets him settled into his room.
Dysart stands alone onstage and narrates to the audience a dream he had. In it, he was a chief priest in Homeric Greece. He wore a mask and held a sharp knife in front of a round stone, officiating at the sacrifice of a herd of 500 children. He describes making the sacrifice of each child and how eventually he begins to feel nauseous, though he tries to look professional for the other priests gathered around. But his mask slowly begins to slip off his face and once they see how he looks, their eyes fill with blood and they tear the knife out of his hand just before Dysart wakes up.
The scene opens with Dysart telling Hesther about this dream; Hesther thinks it is ridiculous, and that he does excellent work with children. He says he is going through "professional menopause," feeling less and less like his job is worthy to fill him. He says he would rather spend the next ten years wandering around the real Greece. Dysart also clarifies that it was Alan's face on the face of every child he sacrificed in his dream.
Dysart tells Hesther that after a few days, Alan finally stopped singing and began to talk. He mentions Alan's nightmares, in which he wakes up screaming something that sounds like "Ek." As he goes on to discuss Alan's father forbidding him from watching television, the scene shifts to an interaction between Alan and his parents, Dora Strang and Frank Strang. Frank is yelling about how the television will destroy Alan mentally, even though Dora thinks he is being extreme, and he tells Alan to read instead, since he is the son of a printer. He insists that the family get rid of their television set.
The scene returns to Hesther and Dysart's discussion; Hesther makes a comment about Alan's mother being a schoolteacher, and the scene shifts once again to a session between Alan and Dysart talking about his mother. Dora Strang is also extremely religious; Dysart reveals to Hesther that he invited himself over to their house on Sabbath evening to see if there is any tension over religion in their home.
The first few scenes of Equus serve as an adequate introduction into the lives and conflicts of the characters. From the get-go, the audience learns that Dysart is dissatisfied with his job as a psychiatrist, believing that the work he does is not truly good enough for the children he treats. He reveals in his monologue at the beginning that his experience treating Alan has brought these doubts even more painfully to the forefront. Dysart's dream of sacrificing children in Homeric Greece is clear symbolism for these doubts; is he truly helping his clients, or simply "sacrificing" them in order to increase his aura of professionalism? Even though Alan is the one being treated, it is evident from the start that Dysart will undergo some sort of transformation throughout the play, whether for better or for worse.
As of right now, Alan is little more than an enigma to the audience. His crime is extreme enough to hold everyone's curiosity, but by scene 6 his story has only just begun to unravel. When his parents get introduced, small pieces of the puzzle are uncovered; perhaps the lack of television in his life had something to do with it, or maybe his mother's devout piety shifted something in his mind. The audience is made to feel just like Dysart the psychiatrist throughout this process, unraveling the mystery little by little.
Hesther is established as a firm yet compassionate woman who was empathetic enough to recognize that Alan needed help that time in prison was not going to give him. She seems to be a voice of reason for Dysart throughout this experience, keeping him rooted in reality and reassuring him that he is doing the right thing.
Just like with an analysis of any play, it is important to examine the playwright's choices in regards to structure. Firstly, though Alan is the subject of the play, Shaffer chose to have Dysart be the narrator, rather than the boy himself. This serves two purposes: firstly, it heightens the suspense of the story, since the audience must wait along with Dysart to know the reason behind Alan's crime. Alan is at first an utter mystery, but slowly the truth is revealed, as the audience grows more and more attached.
Second, for the audience to become engaged in the story, it is important that they are able to connect with the narrator; Dysart is arguably a lot more similar to the majority of audience members than Alan, and it would be difficult to connect at first with a boy who has committed a heinous crime. It is essential that the audience experience this story from the perspective of someone they can easily relate to, since this makes the story of this troubled mind all the more real.
Shaffer also chose to tell this story in retrospect; instead of following a typical linear path, the story first exposes the audience to Dysart after he has treated Alan, discussing what this experience has done to him. Further, when Dysart rewinds to tell the story from the beginning, his retrospective self does not disappear entirely; he continues to be the narrator as well as himself in the past, occasionally making asides containing his feelings about what was happening. This play has many narrative levels that can be confusing for the audience at times, but that serve a distinct purpose in carrying the story.
The duality of Dysart—as our retrospective narrator and as himself while treating Alan—is a powerful juxtaposition that shows the audience right from the start how much he has changed as a result of treating Alan. The typical transformation story is much more subtle, with the protagonist changing slowly over time until he has evolved into something different. Here, though, the audience is provided with the before-Dysart and the now-Dysart at the same time, allowing them to get the full effect of how Alan has changed him.