by Mitchell Hay
Mitchell Hay is pastor of United Methodist churches in North Creek and North River, New York.
This article appeared in the Christian Century May 18, 1977, p. 472. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
‘Equus’ prompts us to look again at the mystery of Christian faith through the analogy of parental, filial and professional conflicts. The play compels audiences to ask the ultimate meaning of life.
Peter Shaffer’s play Equus has been savagely attacked by drama critics and psychoanalysts alike. Said one analyst: “I felt I had been had.” Yet Equus has now held the stage for almost four years. Having survived even the vicissitudes of translation, it continues to fill houses in several European capitals. Its appeal must emanate from something other than superb acting and imaginative direction. What is the secret of its durability? The play compels audiences to ask the ultimate meaning of life.
Projections into the Ultimate
Mere entertainment leaves an insipid taste unless it surreptitiously leads us into questioning the purpose of existence. That, of course, is usually the business of religion. Whenever the conventional churches fail in their mission to communicate the holy and to respond to grace, the search for the ultimate meaning of life becomes the province of secular culture, especially of the theater. Playwrights know, deep within themselves, that modern audiences are starved for transcendence.
The plot of Equus was suggested to Shaffer by an actual fait-divers which occurred some years ago on the outskirts of a small English town. A 17-year-old lad who worked weekends as a stable groom seized a metal spike one night and blinded six horses. In the play, Shaffer has renamed the boy Alan Strang and has placed him most of the time on stage center, acting out his dreams and his memories.
Instead of sending the, delinquent youth to a reform school, a tough but compassionate magistrate, Hesther Salomon, commits him to the psychiatric ward of the local hospital and convinces her friend, Dr. Martin Dysart, to take the boy as a mental patient. The entire play takes place in Dr. Dysart’s consultation room. At the same time, the set simulates a boxing ring, which in turn becomes the boy’s home, a stable or even the local cinema. When they are not participating in the action, actors sit around the stage on tiers of benches, together with part of the audience, and form a Greek chorus.
Even the horses are brought on stage, in the guise of silent men. Surrealistically dressed in brown leotards, these actors wear the steel outlines of horses’ heads; their heavy hooves occasionally stress the action with arrhythmic thumping in the obscurity.
Because this format centers attention on the psychiatrist’s office, critics have generally assumed that the play is a satire on psychoanalysis, with Dr. Dysart as its hero or its victim. But the protagonist is not Dr. Dysart, not the adolescent youth, not the magistrate, not the boy’s parents, but -- as the title of the play indicates -- Equus. Equus is not really a horse, however -- neither the boy’s favorite mount called Nugget nor the horsiness of horsehood. Equus is the image of God.
More specifically, Equus is the image of the particular god whom everyone conceives in his or her own unconscious and unfulfilled fantasy. Equus is a polymorphic symbol of the projections into the ultimate which are respectively favored by Frank Strang, Dora Strang, the youth and of course the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. From the initial scene, we are alerted to a theological overtone. Alone in his consultation room, Dr. Dysart ponders the case:
I keep thinking about the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that he? . . . You see, I’m wearing that horse’s head myself. That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there.
As the action unfolds, it becomes clear that the playwright’s purpose is found in this last phrase: “straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being.” The language is that of equitation; but the thought is ontological, and the imagery echoes the Kierkegaardian leap of faith.
Three areas of human conflict are seen in interplay throughout the two acts of the drama, but they may be separated for analysis. First, the parental conflicts: Frank Strang, the boy’s father, is a 20th century English equivalent of Monsieur Homais in Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s 19th century French pharmacist views religion as the enemy of health, culture and civilization -- and so does Mr. Strang. The kind of religion against which they rebel, however, represents a caricature of Christianity that is common enough -- whether it be Roman Catholic or Protestant -- in the provincial towns of any country. Mr. Strang misses the biblical mystery of a God who suffers for Israel and for humankind. He does not mind admitting ponderously that he is an atheist and that the Bible is responsible for his son’s aberrant behavior. He says to the psychiatrist:
A boy spends night after night having this stuff read into him: an innocent man tortured to death -- thorns driven into his head -- nails into his hands -- a spear jammed through his ribs. . . . Bloody religion -- it’s our only real problem in this house.
A puritanical streak compensates for Mr. Strang’s loss of transcendence. But despite the high ideals he preaches, he goes out alone in the evening to watch pornographic movies. His god is a moralism he is unable to incarnate. Religion is for him a source of conflict -- within himself, between him and his wife, and between him and his son.
The mother’s god is likewise false, for her obsessive piety makes her judgmentally harsh and fails to produce harmony in her existence. When the crisis comes, Dora Strang is vindictive toward both her husband and her son. In a scene of unexpected violence, she slaps the youth in his hospital room because she cannot endure his silent stare, and the nurse expels her. Thereupon, she pours abuse upon the psychiatrist, maintaining that her little Alan was a good boy until “the Devil came.” She rebukes Dr. Dysart: “If you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil. . . .” Unable to share guilt with her husband, baffled by her son’s criminal behavior, she finds refuge in that old trick of religionists: accusing the devil.
A Metaphysical Search
Second, there are the adolescent conflicts. Alan is clearly suffering from a deep-seated neurosis which manifests itself in typical symptoms: divided self-hood, alienated selfhood and emasculated selfhood. Any adolescent, to be sure, may be the prey of the first two ailments. In modern times, when many doubt their sexual identity, the third is not uncommon. The demands of theatricality call for dramatic hyperbole and the exacerbation of each of these traits.
As a salesman in a small store, Alan is bored. At home he refuses to read books, in revolt against a paternal tyranny which forbids television in the house. Frank Strang is, as Dr. Dysart notes, “an old-type Socialist,” “relentlessly self-improving.” He sententiously declares that the little screen is “absolutely fatal mentally, if you receive my meaning.” He censures the youth for his refusal to read:
You are the son of a printer, and never opening a book! If all the world was like you, I’d be out of a job, if you receive my meaning!
To work weekends as a groom is for Alan more than an opportunity of escaping the conflicts of home. On the surface, it serves to satisfy his love of horses. In depth, it assuages his religious cravings. Since an adolescent love for horses is often related to the awakening of sexuality, it is possible as several critics have inferred -- that the midnight horseback rides, which the boy enjoys alone and naked on Saturday nights, produce in him a wild form of orgasmic satisfaction. To say merely this, however, is to hit only half the truth.
Yes, one might say that, at one level, the boy carries on a love affair with a horse. “With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces. The animal digs its sweaty brow into his cheek, and they stand in the dark for an hour -- like a necking couple.” But, as Dr. Dysart is quick to discern, this emotional involvement, with its sexual overtones, goes far beyond pubescent sensuality. The psychiatrist asks, “What desire could that be?” The bits of confessional introspection which he elicits from his patient show that the search is metaphysical. The boy is looking for a mystical union with infinity. When he was a child, his mother had him memorize from the Book of Job the poem about the horse:
Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed
his neck with thunder? . . .
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and
rage . . .
He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha [Job 39:19-
The boy’s mother had also read to him from the Apocalypse of St. John the vision of the white horse, “Faithful and True,” which gallops through the world with eyes “as a flame of fire” (Rev. 19:11-12). These and other images became associated in his infant psyche with the picture of Jesus -- not the healer who forgives sinners, but the divine judge, a relentless nemesis.
In his early years, Alan had briefly delighted in a wondrous horseback ride on a beach, but his father had abruptly curtailed that thrilling canter as too dangerous. At a later date, Mr. Strang had torn down from his son’s bedroom wall a lurid chromo representing Jesus on the way to Golgotha. Eventually, the empty spot was filled with the picture of a horse. All these images feed Alan’s resentment against his father’s despotic behavior and his mother’s pietism. Thus, he blurts out a series of non sequiturs in free association:
The White Horse in Revelations. ‘He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True. His eyes were as flames of fire.’. . . No one ever says to cowboys ‘Receive my meaning’! They wouldn’t dare. Or ‘God’ all the time. [mimicking his mother] ‘God sees you, Alan. God’s got eyes everywhere -- .’
The ambivalence of the youth toward the person of Jesus appears when he unwittingly identifies Equus with Christ. The stable is his “Temple,” his “Holy of Holies.” He calls Equus “a mean bugger” but adds, “Ride -- or fall. That’s Straw Law.” Dr. Dysart inquires, “Straw Law?” The boy explains: “He was born in the straw, and this is his law.” He recites a parody of the biblical “begats” which ends with the phrase “Behold -- I give you Equus, my only begotten son!” He keeps in reserve a lump of sugar to give his favorite horse “for his Last Supper.” The psychiatrist misses the reference and asks, “Last for what?” The boy’s only answer is the snort from the poem of Job, “Ha. Ha.” Thereupon he shrieks, “Take my sins. Eat them for my sake . . . He always does.” Unaware, Alan has emended the Agnus Dei into Equus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis!
Like a medieval mystic who tries to lose himself within Christ, the youth rides Equus at midnight. The scene which ends act one is the most dramatic and revealing of the play. On stage center, Alan rides on the shoulders of an actor who personifies the horse. The boxing ring of the consultation room begins to revolve upon itself, becoming a carousel which turns faster and faster on the darkened stage while a fierce spotlight falls vertically upon horse and rider galloping right on the axis mundi. The boy exclaims, soon out of breath:
The King rides out on Equus, mightiest of horses. . . .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.
[He whips Nugget]
And Equus the Mighty rose against all!
His enemies scatter, his enemies fall! . . .
My mane, stiff in the wind!
My flanks! My hooves!
Mane on my legs, on my flanks, like whips!
I’m raw! Raw!
Feel me on you! On you! On you! On you!
I want to be in you!
I want to BE you forever and ever! --
Equns, I love you!
Bear me away!
Make us One Person!
[He rides Equus frantically.]
One Person! One Person! One Person! One Person!
[He rises up on the horse’s back, and calls like a trumpet.]
Ha-Ha! .. . Ha-HA! ... Ha-HA!
[The trumpet turns to great cries.]
HA-HA! HA-HA! HA-HA! HA-HAH! HA!
HA. . . HAAAAA!
[He twists like a flame. Silence . . . Slowly, the boy drops off th
horse’s back . .]
The midnight ride is a sacramental means of identification with a Christ who tramples his enemies. Several fantasms which haunt the boy’s mind are blended in skillful gradation: hostilities, self-punishment, erotic desire and religious needs. The prepositional phrase “on you” becomes “in you” and leads to direct transference: “I want to BE you forever and ever . . . Amen.” The boy wants to transcend both himself and time. The repeated phrase “One Person” accentuates the search for ontological security. The play is a quest for being.
Alan’s transfiguration imitates the swoon of Teresa in Bernini’s statute of sublimated love. The. youth seeks to rediscover his alienated self. His girl friend, Jill, takes him to an X-rated film. In the theater, he sees his own father and is seen by him. The simultaneity of this double shame is unbearable. Caught by paternal authority, he discovers that this authority is pure sham. Jill tenderly seeks to comfort him. She leads him back to the stable where she hopes he will make love to her. As they both undress, they reveal only their helplessness and their destitution. The nude scene is not, as in some other plays of our decade, a gesture of conformity to current fad. It is intrinsic to the plot, for Alan and Jill expose themselves spiritually more than physically. Their innocence is poignantly made manifest.
The boy is impotent. His shame at having found out that his father is a “phony” now compounds itself with the still deeper shame of this psychological ‘emasculation.’ Indeed, the failure of his maleness is due not only to his filial trauma but also to the belief that he is being watched by Equus, the all-seeing Eye of a moralistic Deity. Alan throws the girl out. To relieve his guilt, he seizes a metal spike and blinds the horses. The sadomasochistic act covers his need to obliterate his judge and to crucify his Christ.
The Threshold of Faith
Third, there are the professional conflicts. Martin Dysart may be a well-known psychiatrist, but he suffers, like the youth he is trying to cure, from a divided selfhood, an alienated selfhood and an emasculated selfhood. He is rent asunder by his long-unfulfilled desire to be an archaeologist in Greece. His wife is a completely unromantic Scottish dentist, and he is both sterile and impotent.
The urge to work in Greece conceals a deeper longing. Dysart looks unconsciously for a mystical union with infinity. He dreams that he officiates at some barbarous rite of child sacrifice in the time of Homer. He admits aloud that he is “tops at being a chief priest” but that his life is empty. As he daily conducts his examination of the young patient, he becomes more and more introspective. He feels that Equus judges him also: “‘Account for me,’ says staring Equus. ‘First account for Me.’ . . .”
The successful practitioner in the art of therapy has heard the old advice, “Physician, heal thyself!” He is not far removed from the psalmist who cried, “Examine me, O Lord, and know my inner mind!” He stands close to the Apostle Paul’s awareness of “being known of God.” He knocks at the door of Hebraeo-Christian faith when he envies the boy’s ability “to worship, to know a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life.”
Dysart approaches the threshold of the Hebraeo-Christian faith when he discerns that in order “to go through life and call it yours -- your life -- you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you.” He does not cross that threshold, however, because his craving for liberation from himself is not empowered by an ability to distinguish between a quest for infinity and the surrender to human finitude in the serene and subtly mellowing company of an infinite God. He does not enter the Hebraeo-Christian mystery of sufficient grace, because he mistakenly thinks that psychological normality kills the faculty to worship. To that extent, some critics of Shaffer’s play have correctly charged that Dysart confuses normality with dullness. Shaffer’s psychiatrist errs abysmally when he justifies pathology for the sake of ecstasy.
The basic flaw of Equus results from the playwright’s flirtation with the intrinsic demands of Judaism and Christianity. The play is a study of the starvation for transcendence, but Shaffer does not wish to say how to cure this hunger. He has succeeded in exhibiting the vacuum or the perversity of human existence when it lacks a dynamic trust in God, but he has failed to show the kind of trust in the kind of God that can deliver us from the enslavement of self. Theological ambiguity, however, should be the privilege of an artist.
The merit of the play comes from its intellectual emotion. Though the psychoanalyst violates therapeutic rules, the play has apparently the power to catch us off-guard and to irritate all sorts of people -- including psychoanalysts. Professional religionists cannot claim immunity either. As we sit engrossed by the unraveling of self-awareness in both physician and patient, we discover that we, too, long for what Bergson called le dépassement de soi, “the going beyond oneself.” This is quite different from “the aggrandizing of the self.”
Narcissism appears to be the psychoanalytical ailment of our time. Tom Wolfe calls the ‘70s “the “Me decade.” Many theological students and not a few of their theological mentors, Jewish and Christian, Roman Catholic and Protestant, appear to reduce “theology” from the art of the knowledge of God to the pseudo-scientific evaluation of feeling. Some of us are wallowing in an orgy of neo-Romantic subjectivism. Equus, like Oedipus blinded, opens our eyes to the religious autoeroticism of our age.
Dramatic Masks of Divinity
Shaffer’s play may render another service. It alerts us to the danger of misunderstanding the doctrine of the Trinity. Such a misunderstanding is easy, for the language of the church fathers who formulated this doctrine was different from ours, and it defies simple interpretation. This is not the place for a disquisition on the Trinity. One might only suggest that Equus prompts us to look again at the mystery of Christian faith through the analogy of parental, filial and professional conflicts.
God the Father is not the symbol of paternal tyranny, as feminist theologians have sometimes claimed, or as post-Schleiermacher Protestant idealism -- paradoxically followed by Freud and Jung -- has maintained. These erroneous views of God abusively separate the New Testament from the Old Testament and misinterpret both. God the Father maternally provides and nurses, judges and forgives.
God the Son is not an androgynous youth, fuzzily playing at the extension of consciousness, or a Marxist rebel, compounding injustice in the name of justice.
God the Spirit does not overwhelm with emotional intoxication -- although visionary trance and speaking in tongues may have their place in situations of exceptional extremity. The Spirit is the Comforter -- that is to say, the Fortifier of communal bonds and the Authenticator of knowledge.
Trinitarian terminology may bewilder many, but the word persona originally meant “the mask” worn by actors in a Greek tragedy. The three dramatic masks of divinity stand for overlapping moments in the history of our faith. They do not refer to persons in the modern sense of the word, nor do they allude to specialized aspects of particular functions of the Godhead. All facets of divine activity are reflected in all three persons of the Trinity. They are dynamically intermingled. They may not be separated, as they are in the parental, adolescent and professional characters of Shaffer’s play.
God the Father is also the Mother, suffering in agony the compassions of the womb (in Hebrew, rechem), as the word mercy implies (in Hebrew, rachmim). Jesus is the human mirror of divinity, because he combines in his life weakness and strength, justice and love, self-denial and self-affirmation, for the sake of promoting a corporate and yet open form of society. God the Son represents the whole of humanity, for he explodes all forms of racial, legal and ritual exclusivism, whether it be Jewish or anti-Jewish racism, Roman or Anglo-Catholic sacramental smugness, or Protestant moralism and sectarian perfectionism. Jesus is the Son because he breaks barriers and reconciles conflicts. The Holy Spirit -- in Hebrew, a feminine word -- stands both for the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles of existence which balance one another and maintain an equilibrium of harmony and a tolerance of opposites. God the Spirit creates ecstasy reined in by order, heroism tempered by rationality, solitary raptures which are never far removed from the responsibility of communal living.
The parental, adolescent and professional conflicts exhibited by Peter Shaffer’s Equus need not be disruptive. They can be fed into a crucible of growth. Contradictions may not be eradicated from the human situation, but they can be put to constructive work.
Shaffer has placed the action of Equus within the frame of two soliloquies. Dimly aware of the divine pathos which moves at the core of trinitarian faith, Dysart asks in the prelude:
Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot image, a horse can add its sufferings together -- the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life -- and turn them into grief?
In the postlude, the same Dysart continues to think aloud:
And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave -- ‘Why Me? . . Why Me? . . .Account for Me! ... All right -- I surrender! I say it . . . In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place -- yet I do ultimate things.. . . There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.
Participation in divine freedom entails sharing in divine agony.
Perhaps the magistrate, Hesther Salomon, provides a genuine model of Hebraeo-Christian sanity. She is as tenacious as the law of thermodynamics, as crusty as barley bread, as thorny as a cactus of Canaan -- an inflexible English judge on the bench. But she radiates love, and she is in the play the only bearer of grace -- a grace that is efficient, and therefore suffices.