“Equus:” A Theatrical and Cinematic Comparison
“The normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes. It is also the dead stare in a million adults.”
– Peter Schaffer
As the deeply conflicted psychiatrist Dysart, Richard Griffiths delivers this line with wonderful restraint to an audience in the new Broadway revival of Peter Schaffer’s 1973 play, “Equus,” directed by Thea Sharrock. Essentially a psychosexual mystery, the play introduces the case of Alan Strang (Danielle Radcliffe) within the first few minutes—a disturbed 17-year-old who violently blinds six horses one night with a metal spike. A sympathetic magistrate (Kate Mulgrew) places Alan under the treatment of Dysart, who, for the entirety of the play, seeks to discover the dark motives behind the boy’s apparently senseless crime. As the boy and doctor play cat and mouse in their sessions to discover more about each other, the sexual and religious confusion that led up to that chilling night is deconstructed into a twisted mix of incidents, puritanical and authoritarian upbringing, and profoundly passionate worship.
Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film adaptation of “Equus,” starring Richard Burton as Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan, stays true to this narrative structure—neither production is a “whodunit,” but rather, a “why did he do it” Freudian inquiry. Both movie and play showcase impassioned performances from seasoned and young actors alike, and both adaptations are steeped in Christian mythology and surreal metaphors. The difference, then—and it is a world of difference—lies in the medium’s inherent suitability to the nature of the play. For a storyline that relies so heavily on memories, psychological links, and mental imagery, the realism of Lumet’s film fails to capture the poetic mystery of the play, an essential quality captured in the stage production’s theatrical symbolism. John Napier’s minimalist stage design requires greater work on the audience’s part filling in visual and emotional storyline gaps, further fostering the surreal mood so crucial to this play. The stage resembles a boxing ring in which Alan and Dysart spar out their sessions, as well as a Greek temple replete with an audience chorus situated high above the action. This temple connotation is drawn upon when the stage functions as a sanctified stable, Equus’ Holy of Holies in which Alan and Jill attempt to make sacrilegious love, triggering Alan’s breakdown. One might say that the stylized, totemic horse masks donned by the male dancers on hoof-like platform footwear achieve a more majestic, eerie presence than the actual equines used in the film.
While the film is undoubtedly well-acted and intelligently directed, the audience is not allowed to use their imagination, whether through the redundant images of the sterile Dysart with his passionless wife, or the gratuitous violence in the ultimate reenactment of Alan’s crime. The cathartic finale in the play is choreographed to achieve an effect that is more stunning than sadistic, while the film’s unsparingly literal version is so sensational and repulsive, it distracts the viewer from properly analyzing the scene’s symbolic importance. The father’s retelling of Alan’s flagellation below the unearthly horse image is similarly dramatized to voice-over, further stripping Alan’s worship of its original, more perversely disturbing, mystique. Alan’s midnight horse rides, written by Schaffer as clandestine communion rites, are also played out for all to see, and the sacred posters above his bed are recreated and exposed as literal, limited visuals. Lumet is surprisingly heavy-handed at certain points as well, e.g. when the camera pauses with great intent on Richard Burton holding up the poster of Christ next to the poster of the horse as he looks meaningfully between the two, as if to further spell out to the audience the obvious psychological connection. The literal nature of the film does provide gateway to some of the more painterly images—when Alan runs across the cabbages in the moonlight with Jill, he describes the entire countryside as steel-plated grey in voice-over—the image could not be more apt. However, the images are more often than not excessive, and the film seems to have little faith in the audience’s imaginative ability or intelligence.
That being said, the film version does offer some advantages, i.e. angles, which cannot be achieved through theatre. There are many moments of cinematic beauty that are quite effective, such as Alan’s first ride on the horse at the beach. Lumet gives this scene a heightened passion and dreamy quality that captures the magic of Alan’s moment more personably than the stage version, namely, because the camera can show the beach ride from Alan’s point of view. The audience more easily relates to Alan’s awe as the camera gazes up at the impossibly tall, grand horseman from the small character’s viewpoint as a six-year-old. When the camera mounts the screen atop this great black beauty, the audience experiences Alan’s reverie as well; the music and view create a rhythm and floating sensation to this visual gallop along the beach. The audience can connect to Alan more intimately from these shared experiences, or memories; we can better understand the beauty and magic he felt in this moment, and the resultant infatuation he develops for horses. Similarly, the close-ups of Firth in full writhing agony bring unsparing immediacy to Alan’s inner turmoil, as the audience is not spared the intensity of his eyes (the accusing stare, of which much to-do is made throughout the play). This dangerous gleam draws the audience closer to Alan’s psyche throughout the film, marking him more vividly as someone “who sees and feels more deeply than ordinary folk.” An enviable depth, the play suggests, “even if it prohibits its possessors from fully belonging to human society” (Brantley).
Both performances by Firth and Radcliffe portray Alan with comparable degrees of agitation and anguish, while humanizing him enough for the audience to sympathize with his situation. Firth’s characterization, however, is viewed much more close-up by camera, with every twice of his face and shudder of his body more immediately palpable, making his performance feel that much more unstable and disturbing. In fact, one feels a little too close for comfort with Firth’s nakedly, brutally honest Alan. One can more easily focus on Radcliffe’s skillful stage presence from the palatable distance in a theatre, also making the experience easier to “otherize” as a jarring psychological case-study, and less so as a painfully intimate, personal journey.
Finally, perhaps the most noticeable interpretational differences lie in the senior actors. At the center of “Equus” is a story about an older man experiencing extraordinary, internal doubts at a late stage in his life—a professional and ethical crisis. For the burnt-out Dysart, played by Griffiths with precise banality, professional detachment, and understated self-deprecation, Alan’s raging fantasies and devotion have “the mythic grandeur of Homer’s Olympus” (Brantley). Not only does Dysart envy Alan for his wild Dionysian passions, he questions the legitimacy of his own line of work. In excising all that is abnormal in Alan, Dysart fears he is also removing Alan’s individuality and ability to worship. He likens a return to the Normal to an emotional lobotomy, saying, “It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest” (Schaffer). Early on in the play, Dysart is distraught by a nightmare in which he presides over the ritual sacrifices of young children, noting that despite clearly being “tops…as chief priest,” he is disgusted by his actions and profoundly empty. In the face of his increasing stress in the dream, however, he recalls experiencing a disproportionate terror at being discovered by the other priest doctors. This aptly foreshadows Dysart’s increasing introspection and discontent throughout his sessions with Alan, as he, too, comes to feel a similarly unbearable judgment by Equus, Alan’s image of God: “‘Account for me,’ says staring Equus. ‘First account for Me.’. . .” (Schaffer) Of this deistic spirit that resides in all horses, Dysart confesses,
“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 be? . . . 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” (Schaffer).
His musings, despite the language of equitation, refers to an ontological desire that forms a core theme in the play. “Straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there” is one of the more visual images describing the Kierkegaardian leap of faith. It is Alan’s unquestioning devotion to this leap, his passion and courage that enable him to leap, which Dysart most painfully lacks.
As this unprepossessing Dysart, then, Griffiths is convincingly ordinary and reasonable, speaking in a practiced, habituated, flattened tone, seasoned with occasionally witty utterances. Griffiths is not too quick to dispose with the unflappable, and less dramatic, characteristics of Dysart, and admirably refrains from over-acting every opportunity in Schaffer’s play into loud, tortured monologues. As Ben Brantley from the New York Times observes, “He builds Dysart’s character with care, so when the eruptions of naked doubt, self-contempt and sorrow finally break out, he’s earned them.”
Ironically, Burton’s grand portrayal of Dysart has all of the intelligence but less of the sensitivity of Griffith’s realism. While Lumet’s film can be criticized for its realism, its actors are still, quite obviously, movie stars. Burton suffers too loudly, too majestically for the professional, Apollonian Dysart, and while the intensity of his performance is captivating to watch, it seems less truthful to the character and his grievances. For a sterile psychiatrist who laments his lack of passion in life, Burton certainly imbues enough machismo into Dysart’s monologues to remind viewers of his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. His performance in the film is powerful, but by not toning down his interpretation for accuracy, his off-screen persona comes dangerously close to overshadowing his on-screen character.
As if to balance out the Dysarts, the Hesthers in both film and stage adaptations are quite opposite in demeanor as well. Eileen Atkins plays an understated, rational magistrate to Burton’s impassioned megastar psychiatrist—she presents a thoughtful, though less memorable, performance. On Broadway, Kate Mulgrew offsets Griffith’s sensibility with a rather misdirected fire engine-style of acting, approaching her supporting role “like a headlining grande dame” (Grode). Then again, she was the only cast member awarded exit applause before the final curtain, suggesting a desire in modernized audiences for a bit of campy grandeur from at least one of the actors.
Ultimately, taking into account the various styles and nuances in acting and directorial interpretation, the greatest difference between the cinematic and stage version is very basic. Schaffer’s play, replete with mysticism and metaphors, is a work best served with theatrical symbolism, not filmic realism. Lumet’s adaptation likely achieves the best a film can offer, but some things in “Equus” are better left to the imagination.
1. Brantley, Ben. “In the Darkness of the Stable.” The New York Times. September 26, 2008.
2. Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. “Film Review: Equus.” Spirituality and Practice. 1970.
3. Canby, Vincent. “’Equus’: Film of a Different Color.” The New York Times. October 17, 1977.
4. Gardner, Elysa. “Radcliffe puts the spurs to his role in ‘Equus.’” USA Today. September 25, 2008.
5. Grode, Eric. “A Wizard Casts His Spell in the Stable: ‘Equus’.” The New York Sun. September 26, 2008.
6. Hay, Mitchell. “Equus: Human Conflicts and the Trinity.” Christian Century. May 18, 1977: 472.
7. Schaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Scribner, 1973.
8. Sommers, Michael. “The agony and the ‘Equus’-ty.” The Star-Ledger. September 25, 2008.
9. Teachout, Terry. “A Child Star Earns His Spurs.” The Wall Street Journal. September 26, 2008.
10. Christine. “‘Equus’: An analysis of normality.” Hereford Cathedral School. 2003.
Equus: Existential Authenticity in Character, Setting, and Dialogue
In Equus, by Peter Shaffer, authenticity is a main topic throughout the play and production in all setting, character and between dialogues. In existentialism; for one to live an authentic life, the individual has to choose the distinction between the right and the wrong and must not make excuses in the outcome of their actions. Not only this, but in relation to John Fowles’s interview, an existential hero is considered one of “the Few” who are described to be “the good, the intelligent, the independent”, unlike “the Many” who are considered to be “the ignorant, stupid, and the easily molded”.
In Equus, it is described to be a memory play held in the mind of Martin Dysart, after the incident with a boy named Alan Strang. Due to this, authenticity is shown in the aspect of setting. In the book, Peter Shaffer describes that, “A square of wood set on a circle of wood. The square resembles a railed boxing ring.” By stating this, it lets the audience perceive that the boxing ring is a place of conflict— specifically Dysart’s personal and internal conflict. This also shows how the setting of the play is considered the world of metaphor and symbol. As many of the props and setting are considered as something that shows intentional meaning, such as Dysart’s location of conflict, the setting relates to the character and the conflicts of making a choice; whether if it is right or wrong.
Not only props and physical settings, the lights and the general mood of the theater shows the different viewpoint of the inauthentic versus the authentic aspect of individuals. For instance, in the second scene of Act One, it shows how the lights turned “warmer.” This generally brings back the perception that the color of the stage or the lights were once a colder and bolder shade. Colors, are also shown as motifs throughout the play and the dimness or the brightness creates the mood and develops an impact to the setting of the play. Specifically for this scene it represent clearly and makes the audience realize that they were now in a different setting, in Dysart’s memories and mind— a place of direct conflict.
Similar to that of the setting, the characters, including animals such as horses are shown to be prominent in the area of authenticity and inauthenticity. In the book, Shaffer shows that the horses are living in an authentic life; or simply in good faith. The horses throughout the book are shown to be fighting for their own foes and enemies; “The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity” alongside with Alan Strang in the first Act and Scene 21. Not only this but the horse, Nugget does not resist in a sense where it does not make excuses when battling its enemies away.
Unlike Nugget and the other Equus, Alan throughout the book is also shown clearly as an inauthentic character. Other than that of the scene when the two characters battle their enemies, which shows the idea that they are both facing their own fears, dread, and anxiety, it shows how different they are from an existential coward. An existential coward, or the Many as stated by John Fowles, from the book The Collector, they are shown to be those who are the “stupid, the ignorant, and the easily molded.” This aspect relates to the fact that Alan was not easily molded and different from the society’s hands when he had arrived to the “torture chamber” or Dysart’s office. Although the author, Peter Shaffer portrays Alan in such a matter where he is unsympathetic in the eyes of the audience, as he does not listen to Dysart nor anyone, as shown in Act one, scene four. However, he is developed to become sympathetic or pitiful to the audience in the middle of Act Two, when people get to understand more of Alan Strang’s past, where he was ostracized by his own parents and were blamed for such misfortunes. The feeling of sympathy and the idea that the audience is obligated to feel sympathy does not regain the fact that he is a full authentic character, as pity does not show any authenticity, nor it is such a positive definition to portray such a character.
Unlike Nugget, and other Equus in which are living in an authentic life, it is shown clearly that Dysart is living an inauthentic life; a life of “The Many” and existential cowardice. This is clearly shown in his character and dialogue to the audience, specifically in Act 2 Scene 35, when he states, “Essentially I cannot know what I do— yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads.” This characterization of Dysart’s opinion and personal thoughts are shown that he was damaging young children to become a plastic. A plastic, overall in the play is defined and described as someone who returns to normalcy with no passion through Dysart’s treatment; similar to the dream that Dysart had when he sacrificed young children. Despite the fact that Dysart had a respected occupation as a psychiatrist in a provincial town, Dysart’s character is shown to be living in an inauthentic life, as he is continuing to live in such state— curing children and adjusting them to “normalcy”. Similar to the aspect of the Many, Dysarts is presented as such a person who had a profession related to the Many. As a psychiatrist in a provincial area, his main job was to change children to become fit and adjusted perfectly to the ideals of the society.
Similar to the description that the Many were people who were “the easily molded,” it shows how his job easily molded people and was the main source of the molding. Due to the fact that his profession and occupation had related to such ideals, it shows clearly how Dysart was one of the many characters described to be an existential coward, who managed to live life in an inauthentic way. By turning people into a state of normalcy and originality, shows the loss of individualism that people had started with.
By using such creating such opposing descriptions for an occupation, it shows how the place of conflict becomes fully developed. For instance, Dysart’s occupation was respected in the town, and it was highly respected, as it had brought individuals and troubled children back to what the society thought was acceptable. However, in existential terms, his positions are shown to be something that destroys the own, personal ideals and shapes the children and any other different people to plastic and someone with no passion. From this, Dysart is able to think about what he does and decides to live in such a life, thus becoming an full existential coward.
Overall, the general aspect of pain and the general modernization was one of a greater way of depicting an authentic and inauthentic life. By showing the modern world such as adding details with the idea of psychiatry— Dysart’s occupation, the specific characterizations, settings, and using lights as different motifs as warranting that authenticity plays a higher role in the book, it shows and allows the audience to pay close attention to deeper meaning in dialogues made by individual character, and notice the place and reason for conflict in the setting; Dysart’s mind and memories.
The role of the gaze in the play Equus
The play Equus was written in 1973 by Peter Schaffer. In the play, Alan, a 17-year-old boy with a horse fetish, blinds six horses in a stable, and it is down to Dysart, a psychologist, to understand why he did it. A major theme of the play is “looking”, and the play features the word “stare” 39 times (including variations such as “staring” and “stared”, and the stages notes). Equus, Dysart, the horses all stare – but the character who stares the most is Alan. Dysart calls him “this boy, with his stare” (84) and that “[Alan] has the strangest stare I ever met” (44). When characters stare in Equus, they are often being stared back at, as though in silent conversation. Characters in Equus “stare” and “gaze” to convey and explore a wide spectrum of emotions, including sexual attraction, accusation, hate, reverence, guilt, and shame. In this essay, the meaning of Alan’s stare will be investigated, followed by Alan’s poster of a staring horse, then Equus staring at Alan, and finally Equus and Dysart’s mutual staring at one another.
Alan often gazes at horses. Alan is “always staring into the yard around lunch-time” (76) and “keeps staring in at the door” of the stables (76). Alan says, “[horses] sort of pulled me. I couldn’t take my eyes off them”(69). Horses transfix Alan because he finds them erotic and “sexy” (68). Jill remarks to Alan that “I saw you staring into Nugget’s eyes yesterday for ages” (113). Perhaps he is staring into the horse’s eyes to see and communicate with Equus, his imaginary god. The stare Alan gives to horses is very different to the one he gives to people. These stares are almost like physical attacks, at least for his mother: “[Alan’s] “staring at me, attacking me” (101). Dysart describes Alan’s stare as like being “violently accused” (44). His aggressive stare is to show his contempt for people he doesn’t like. Dysart believes Alan’s stare is accusatory:
DYSART: “That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time. ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’…” (105).
In other words, Alan accuses Dysart of not being living life passionately enough. However, the nurse wonders if the stare might actually be because Alan secretly deeply respects Dysart:
HESTHER: That stare of his. Have you thought it might not be accusing you at all?
DYSART: What then?
HESTHER: Claiming you.
DYSART: For what?
HESTHER: (mischievously) A new God. (106)
When Alan stares at Dysart, Dysart silently “returns the stare” (42). Perhaps the reason Dysart does this is that he is trying to establish seniority and become worthy of Alan’s respect so that Alan won’t undermine him in future sessions. Or perhaps Dysart is trying to show that he’s unafraid of him so that Alan will feel less ashamed of himself and will open up to Dysart. Or maybe Dysart is simply too “fascinated” (42) with Alan to stop looking at him. Alan’s hateful glare at people and his loving gaze at horses are very different.
Meanwhile, Alan is stared at by a picture next to his bed of a “horse with […] huge eyes” (71). The picture “comes out all eyes” (66). Although the poster is inanimate, the eyes seem to be “staring straight at you” (66). For Alan, the horse is a representation of Equus, since Equus “lives in all horses” (88). When Alan kneels In front of the picture to worship Equus, Equus tells him “I see you” (89). Alan sees Equus as god-like and feels fear and reverence. It is similar to what the 20th-century psychologist Jacque Lacan called “gaze”. For Lacan, gaze is when an observer realises that he is being looked at, which causes the observer anxiety, shame and pleasure (Krips, 93). The observed object can be inanimate, such as a sardine can (Krips, 92). Here the observed object is the horse poster, and Alan is the observer. Alan indeed finds “pleasure” in the gaze because the picture consoles him after crying “for days without stopping” (65). He chants and performs self-flagellation in front of it, believing that Equus is watching him. By being stared back at, Alan feels he is having two-way communication with his god. After all, the eyes are amongst the most expressive body parts, and it is said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul”. The fact that the horse in the picture is staring at the observer makes the picture more intense. Through the mutual gaze, Alan is able to explore his relationship with horses.
At the end of the play though, the stare Equus gives to Alan is far from pleasurable for him. When Alan is unable to have sex with Jill because his horse fetish distracts him, he can’t help but visualise Equus staring at him: “When I shut my eyes, I saw [Equus] at once” (127). Meanwhile, Equus stares back at him, and says, “Lie with anyone and […] you will see ME – and you will FAIL!” (130). Alan is deeply afraid of what Equus sees in him. In other words, Alan is ashamed of his horse fetish. His unconscious creates the image of Equus, which is the personification of his tormented guilt and anguish. He blinds the horses to stop Equus from staring at him – in other words, to try to assuage his guilt. Alan also stabs “at his own eyes” (131) with an imaginary pick, so that he will no longer be able to see Equus judging and mocking him for his fetish. Alan’s image of Equus as “staring” may have come from the horse picture hanging above his bed. Furthermore, Equus’ eyes are “never closed”. He says, “I see you. I see you. Always! Everywhere! Forever! (130)'”. Equus’ omnipotence is identical to the powers of Jehovah, whom Alan was fascinated with as a child. Alan was told, “God sees you, Alan. God’s got eyes everywhere” (70). For Alan, Equus is God. Evidently, Alan bases Equus from descriptions from the Bible. Equus has “white eyes” that are “like flames”, which is an image that may come from a horse in Revelations which has “eyes […] as flames of fire” (69). It is always Equus’ eyes that are emphasised: they can see the part of a person that they are most ashamed about and that they try to keep hidden.
Equus’ stare judges not only Alan but Dysart too.
DYSART: “Of course I’ve stared at such images [as Equus] before. Or been stared at by them, whichever way you look at it. And weirdly often now with me the feeling is that they are staring at us…” (98)
Dysart “staring” at images such as Equus is a metaphor for his contemplation of psychological problems and his attempts to solve them. However, Equus also stares back at him. For Dysart, Equus’ accusatory stare represents his many frustrations in his job. Throughout the play, we see that Dysart seems to be having a midlife crisis because he can’t see the purpose of his job anymore. Equus asks Dysart to “account for me” (98), which pains Dysart because he knows it is something he cannot do. For Dysart and Alan, Equus’ glare represents the part of their psyche that tortures them for their shortcomings and their inner turmoil.
Looking, staring and gazing serve several purposes in the play. Alan gazes lovingly at horses, but with hatred at the adults who patronise him or whom he judges to be unworthy. Also, Alan’s staring horse poster had a profound psychological effect on Alan and was perhaps even the prompt for him to start his own religion. Finally, Alan and Dysart imagine Equus staring at them, mocking them both for their faults – a personification of their own torment and anguish. Alan stares into his troubled psyche and finds himself guilty and ashamed of what he finds there. Dysart stares into human psychology and finds himself troubled by fundamental philosophical problems, and questions the usefulness of the job. Evidently, staring can be dangerous: as Nietzsche said, “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”.
Krips, Henry: ”The Politics of the Gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek”, Culture Unbound, Volume
2, 2010: 91–102. Hosted by Linköping University Electronic Press:
Nietzsche, Friedrich: “Beyond Good and Evil”, 1886. Section 146
Schaffer, Peter “Equus”. 1993, Longman Literature, UK