Shafer’s play, Equus, was written in 1973 as a response to a news story in which a young boy was prosecuted for blinding horses. Shafer wrote the play as an imaginary explanation for the boy’s action.
The central character in the play is a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who is treating Alan Strang, a boy who has been found guilty of blinding horses and been placed in a psychiatric hospital as a result. The play opens with Dysart describing the case, but we also learn that he is, himself, dissatisfied and unfulfilled in his job. Throughout Dysart’s work with Strang, he makes his own part confessions about dreams that he has of ritual murder involving children, highlighting his frustration and doubts over his work.
Progress for Dysart treating Strang is slow, but as the young man slowly opens up to his psychiatrist, the audience learns more about Strang, beginning with some information about his family background. His mother is a devout Christian, while his father is an atheist. This religious conflict appears to have resulted in Strang’s obsession with the violence of his religious instruction. A pivotal point in his life occurred when his father destroyed a graphic crucifix, only for Strang to replace it with a picture of a horse.
Alan Strang’s religious and sexual obsession with horses emerges through the therapy sessions and through hypnosis. He admits that his obsession has been ongoing since childhood and it is revealed that, while working with horses, he takes one particular horse out in the night, riding it naked and imagining himself a king. Under the influence of a placebo ‘truth pill’, Stang also admits having a sexual encounter with a woman that is interrupted by the noise of the horses in the stables. He believes the horses to be mocking him, watching him and ‘knowing all’. This is why he blinded the horses with a hoofing tool. Stang’s confession of his crime is accompanied by impassioned pleas to kill him.
Dysart is torn between knowing that he can help Strang and ‘normalise’ him, and feeling a sense of jealousy over the passion he is experiencing. Both sexual excitement and religious fervour are missing from Dysart’s life, so ridding Stang of these feelings does not sit easily with the psychiatrist. Despite the fact that what Strang did was immoral and unacceptable, we are faced with the very real fact that he did so as a result of genuinely felt passions and genuinely held beliefs.
The play raises the issues of morality, freedom of expression, religion and sexuality, and the idea of living in the real world, versus a world that has been created in the imagination.
Equus Character List