‘”Passion…can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created'” (Shaffer 109). Alan Strang is alone. He lives in a world of his own creation, born of mental illness and isolation, untouched and not understood by the rest of society. The only solace Peter Shaffer has given Alan is his equine god, the titular Equus. Alan is devoted to Equus, intense in his affection, and it is this passion that needs to be extinguished by Martin Dysart in order for Alan to be a healthy, normal, functioning member of society. However, Dysart knows that to take Alan’s passion from him is to take everything he has. Dysart, who is an accepted member of society, knows that a person without passion is hollow, does not really exist in any sense other than the physical, for he himself is passionless. This is the message Shaffer’s Equus attempts to impress, through the foils of Alan Strang and Martin Dysart; that it is necessary to find a balance between passion and normalcy because each is integral to the other, and to happiness and peace of the individual as a whole.
Alan comes from a home of religious contention, with his Christian mother ingraining in him her beliefs of God, and his atheist father viewing everything she says and believes with contempt. Alan absorbs what his mother teaches him and learns to worship with fervor. However, his lessons in spirituality, especially the one about the correlation between God and sex, lead to the creation of Equus, a perversion of God. This perversion stems from the understanding Alan develops of the intertwining of religion and sexuality. Through this entanglement, Shaffer attempts to show that when religion denies that it and sexuality are linked by ecstasy, it fails to encompass one’s full sense of self. Alan’s religion, specific to him alone, does more than just acknowledge or embrace this link, it is built and entirely centered upon it. Alan treats Equus as both God and lover, calling to him as he rides him ‘”feel me on you! On you! On you! On you! I want to be in you! I want to BE you forever and ever-Equus I love you… make us one person!”‘ (72). Alan creates a world defined by passion that further alienates him from society, because his passion for Equus, both reverential and sexual, is all consuming. On the night Alan stabs out the eyes of the six horses, prior to the incident itself, he is trying to behave like a normal seventeen year-old boy. He goes on a date with Jill, and by the end of it he very much wants to have sex with her. He is incapable of performing, however, because they go to the stable to do it, Alan’s place of worship, and all Alan can think of and see and hear is Equus. Alan’s passion, however destructive it becomes on that night, is unrelenting.
Martin Dysart witnesses this overwhelming emotion and feels conflicted; he recognizes that Alan’s worship of Equus is proving itself detrimental and dangerous, but to cure him of the mental illness that causes it would be to abandon him to the indifference of the rest of the world. When agonizing over his two options, to leave Alan in the mire of his own passionate, schizophrenic mind or to rob him of it and leave him vacant, he says that ‘”[his] desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband-a caring citizen-a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. [His] achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!'” (108). Alan, however flawed and ill he is, is more human than Dysart because of his passion. Martin Dysart is widely regarded as a man with a firm grasp on his sanity. He is rooted to this world, to its perceived logic and rationale, and for that reason he is believed to be capable of helping Alan, of curing him. Dysart knows, though, that he himself is sick and suffering in a way Alan is not, for Dysart leads an existence, not a life, that is entirely devoid of passion. He has not even kissed his wife in six years, much less felt that his career is worthwhile to anyone, him or his patients. Dysart is a hollow being, and he knows it.
Still, he considers himself normal, not in spite of this, but because of it. He says “the Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes… it is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills- like a God” (62). In his treatment of mentally ill children, Dysart too is like a God. He makes them normal, socially acceptable, but to do so he has to kill a part of them. Normalcy, then, necessitates murder of the soul, or at least the most potent parts of it. Alan demonstrates that normal people do not sneak away to stables to ride horses in the nude at night, regardless of whatever joy it brings them. Dysart illustrates that normal people do not have recurring dreams that they are high priests repeatedly and methodically ripping out the intestines of children. Ultimately, even with the extreme contrast between their two dispositions, neither Alan nor Dysart qualify as normal. They are both unhealthy, both suffering, Alan from too much and Dysart from too little, and as a result, neither one is happy or at peace. Normalcy is not the cure, but excess passion like Alan’s, that is unrelentingly all consuming, is not a refuge.
Normalcy, true normalcy, requires an equal balance between passion and passivity, between the two defining characteristics of Alan and Dysart. However, both are stuck, unable to reach the compromise normalcy depends on, and subsequently doomed to live in perpetual illness. “‘I [will] take it away! He [will] be delivered from madness. What then? He [will] feel himself acceptable! What then?'” (108). When Dysart exclaims this, he captures the fact that Alan Strang has no where to go. With his passionate worship of the god Equus intact, Alan is condemned to a lonely existence, fated to be a misunderstood slave of his own mind. However, if Dysart takes his passion, he leaves him with nothing. In this state, too, Alan is cursed to an existence rather than a life, in the exact same way as Martin Dysart is. Dysart himself says that a doctor, such as he is, never creates passion but only destroys it, that he does not know how to do the other. This applies not only to his patients but also, and especially, to himself. Dysart does not know how to heal Alan because he does not know how to heal himself. As a result, both are sentenced to existences of insanity, no matter what they do.