Equus (New Longman Literature)
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by Peter Shaffer

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Plot summary

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.

A court magistrate, Hesther Salomon, 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 antagonised 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 hypnotises 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 dialogue, 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 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.

After being given a placebo "truth pill" by Dysart, Alan reveals a tryst with Jill and begins re-enacting the event. Jill, who had taken an interest in Alan, had asked him to take her to an adult cinema. While there, they ran into Frank. Alan was traumatised, particularly when he realised that his father was lying when he tried to justify his presence in the theatre. However, this occurrence allows Alan to realise 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, 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!" Then he says, "No more. No more, Equus." With that he blinds the horses, whose eyes have "seen" his very soul, with a hoof pick.

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 Hesther Salomon 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.

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