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Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Equus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon

According to psychoanalytic theory, the abnormal repression of desires and impulses in an individual can result in mental illness. In Alan Strang’s case, it would appear that the repression of his sexuality, combined with the anxiety induced by society and his parents, lead to his self-destructive and antisocial behavior. As a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart’s job is to cure Alan’s abnormalities. He does this by relieving Alan’s repression—that is, by bringing repressed memories and feelings into Alan’s consciousness so that he might accept them and move on. We see Dysart trying to bring thoughts and experiences that Alan has repressed to the surface when he hypnotizes Alan and gives him the “truth pill.” These techniques allow Alan to discuss his issues with less anxiety, thus allowing him to come to terms with himself.

Peter Shaffer was strongly influenced by the theories of R. D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist whose radical ideas were popular at the time Shaffer was writing Equus. Laing believed that mental illnesses were not purely biological; rather, what was psychologically normal or abnormal was determined by society and conventional family values. In Laing’s view, “insane” individuals may not actually have psychological issues; rather, they may simply be reacting to the world in a way that society deemed wrong. Whereas society saw madness as a horrible illness, Laing saw madness as a unique and potentially transformative experience. In Equus, Martin Dysart expresses very similar views. His doubts about curing Alan at the expense of his individuality echo Laing’s belief in the creative possibilities of madness. And Dysart’s ambivalence goes beyond Alan’s individual case. In Act One, Dysart’s dream about sacrificing children in ancient Greece comes to represent the idea that he and his profession are sacrificing children’s individuality in order to assimilate them into the social norms of the modern world. This tension – between “curing” and “sacrificing” – is one that the play raises but suggests may not be possible to bridge or eliminate.

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Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness appears in each act of Equus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Quotes in Equus

Below you will find the important quotes in Equus related to the theme of Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness.
Act 1 Quotes

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. I can’t see it, because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle. I can’t jump because the bit forbids it, and my own basic force—my horsepower, if you like—is too little. The only thing I know for sure is this: a horse’s head is finally unknowable to me.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening passage, the psychiatrist Martin Dysart is musing about his dissatisfaction with his life. Dysart believes that there is a "whole new track of being" somewhere, but he cannot live that way because he is shackled by the language and assumptions of his culture that dictate the way he lives. Dysart compares himself to a horse in that he believes he is naturally free, but bound (metaphorically) by a bit and reins, which represent the ways in which social expectations and assumptions limit the possibilities available to him. This is a surprising opening monologue from a psychiatrist, as it indicates his fundamental mistrust of the forces that define whether someone is normal or abnormal. Typically, a psychiatrist's job is to hew to a socially agreed-upon definition of normal and treat patients' abnormalities until they can be considered normal. This passage indicates that Dysart sees himself as potentially "abnormal" (clinically speaking), in that he lives a normal life but it's not the life he wants.


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Frank: He took a piece of string out of his pocket. Made up into a noose. And put it in his mouth. And then with his other hand he picked up a coat hanger. A wooden coat hanger, and—and—
Dysart: Began to beat himself?
Frank: You see why I couldn’t tell his mother…Religion. Religion’s at the bottom of all this!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang, Dora Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Frank comes to Dysart in secret to inform him of a few things he knows about Alan that he does not wish his wife to know. One of these things is that Frank witnessed Alan performing a secret ritual in his room, with Alan imitating a horse being ridden. Alan's imitation of a horse, though, also has clear parallels to the violent religious imagery Alan was so drawn to. The whip a rider uses on a horse, for instance, is evocative of the extreme Christian practice of self-flagellation, in which a believer tries to physically understand the pain of Christ. Frank believes, then, that religion is to blame for his son's bizarre behavior. By this point in the play, though, it is beginning to become clear that it is Frank's strict insistence that Alan not pursue his passion for religion that causes Alan to worship in secret and develop more and more bizarre practices. We also get the sense here that Frank has something to hide, too, since he is coming to Dysart in secret. This passage begins to get at the dangers of living in the kind of society in which natural interests and passions cannot be expressed.

The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes—all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. 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. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also—beyond question—I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to his God, in both his aspects. Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods. And at what length…Sacrifices to Zeus took at the most, surely, sixty seconds each. Sacrifices to the Normal can take as long as sixty months.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 64-65
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a continuation of Dysart's explanation to Hesther of his troubles with his life and profession and his doubts about the incompatibility of contemporary morality with individuality. Dysart here positions himself as doing evil work, despite his good intentions. He says that by serving the "God of Health" he sometimes helps people, but he just as often takes from people their individuality and joy in the service of making them normal and acceptable in the eyes of their society. Dysart recognizes that the societal definition of normalcy that his profession serves is arbitrary; it is not a universal standard of health, but rather a confining standard that is particular to a place and time. By using his profession to manipulate people to be more like a socially agreed-upon definition of normal and less like themselves, Dysart fears that he is taking away the most precious parts of a person. He compares himself to someone carrying out human sacrifices, a practice that was once considered essential to society, and is now considered cruel and taboo.

Act 2 Quotes

A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs—it sucks—it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all—just those particular moments of experience and no others—I don’t know. And nor does anyone else. Yet if I don’t know—if I can never know that—then what I am doing here? I don’t mean clinically doing or socially doing—I mean fundamentally! These questions, these Whys, are fundamental—yet they have no place in a consulting room.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening to the second act, Dysart tries to account (to himself and Equus) for how a person comes to be who they are, and, specifically, for how Alan might have come to develop such a strange religion. Dysart's beginning with a child using its basic senses to comb through the world shows the influence of psychoanalysis on his understanding of the world, but the fundamental question at which he arrives feels distinctly non-psychiatric. Dysart knows that experiences "snap together...forging a chain of shackles" and he knows that he sometime can, through his practice, "pull [the shackles/moments] apart again," but the real question he puzzles over is what gives those moments their power in the first place. For Dysart, this is the question that most bothers him, and he is distressed that he has found himself in a profession in which this question has no place. Dysart feels himself to be an agent of societal norms, but he doesn't believe that those norms are necessarily good or just. This passage shows how deeply Dysart is doubting his life and profession.

Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing—because that’s him; not just all of our things added up. Do you understand what I’m saying? I want you to understand, because I lie awake and awake thinking it out, and I want you to know that I deny it absolutely what he’s doing now, staring at me, attacking me for what he’s done, for what he is! [Pause: calmer.] You’ve got your words, and I’ve got mine. You call it a complex, I suppose. But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil. You’d know the Devil isn’t made by what mummy says and daddy says. The Devil’s there.

Related Characters: Dora Strang (speaker), Martin Dysart, Alan Strang, Frank Strang
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

This monologue, in which Dora tries to convince Dysart that she and Frank are not to blame for Alan's behavior, echoes the monologue of Dysart's that we've just heard, in which he puzzles over how someone becomes the person he or she is. Dora and Dysart share the acknowledgement that a person's development is mysterious, and it is hard to account for which factors matter and which don't. Dora and Dysart also share, in a sense, a commitment to the idea that each person is an individual who is not wholly accountable to a set of experiences or a culture. But Dora believes that what accounts for Alan's behavior is the Devil. Because of this, Dora doubts the power of psychiatry to address Alan's problems. It's ironic that she and Dysart share this doubt about the power of psychiatry, but for very different reasons. Dysart's doubts about psychiatry are wrapped up in his uncertainty about whether Alan's behavior is evil at all, while Dora doubts the practice because it doesn't address the main issue (as she sees it), that of spiritual warfare.

Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Martin Dysart, Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote represents the moral crux of the play. It comes during an exchange between Hesther and Dysart, in which Dysart feels that Alan is almost ready to have a breakthrough that might "cure" him of his worship of Equus. Despite the fact that this would be a professional success for Dysart as a psychiatrist, he expresses his doubts to Hesther about whether "curing" Alan would actually be the right thing to do. To Dysart, relieving Alan of his need to worship Equus would be tantamount to robbing him of what makes him an individual, and, perhaps more severe, robbing him of his passion and joy. As he is, Alan is considered "abnormal"--and clearly has some serious issues with shame and violence--but Dysart can see that his harmful behavior relates more to the ways in which he has been repressed by his family and his culture than his affinity for Equus. Dysart wonders here to what extent Alan should really be seen as insane, since Alan is living a passionate life that is true to himself, and he wonders whether to take that passion away from Alan in service of social norms would actually be to his benefit.

Hesther: I mean he’s in pain, Martin. He’s been in pain for most of his life. That much, at least, you know.
Dysart: Possibly.
Hesther: Possibly?! …That cut-off little figure you just described must have been in pain for years.
Dysart [doggedly]: Possibly.
Hesther: And you can take it away.
Dysart: Still—possibly.

Hesther: Then that’s enough. That simply has to be enough for you, surely?
Dysart: No!
Hesther: Why not?
Dysart: Because it’s his.
Hesther: I don’t understand.
Dysart: His pain. His own. He made it.
[Earnestly.] Look…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’s done that. All right, he’s sick. He’s full of misery and fear…. But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have ƒelt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it.
Hesther: You can’t.
Dysart [vehemently]: Don’t you see? That’s the Accusation! That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time. ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’ …[Simply.] I’m jealous, Hesther. Jealous of Alan Strang.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Hesther Salomon (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 81-82
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange between Hesther and Dysart is one of the most morally complex of the book, because it delineates two opposed moral positions that both have compelling ideas to support them. Hesther, who represents the prevailing ideas of psychiatry and social norms, believes that it is morally imperative to treat Alan until he no longer worships Equus, because that is the only way to relieve his pain. Obviously, Alan has tremendous pain that has become, for him, wrapped up in his worship, so Hesther's position is reasonable. On the other hand, Dysart's position is that Alan's pain is what makes him an individual, and a way to take control over one's life is to claim pain that is uniquely yours and grapple with it yourself instead of being told what kinds of pain are acceptable. Dysart explains that Alan's pain enables him to have a passion unlike anything Dysart has seen before, and that it would be cruel to take that away under any circumstances. Here, we see the interweaving of pain and pleasure again, and this time Dysart posits that it is pain and pleasure that make a person who he or she truly is, so it's often unwise to untangle them at all. Society then becomes equated with the flattening of pain and pleasure, which certainly reduces suffering, but also reduces joy.

Poor old sod, that’s what I felt—he’s just like me! He hates ladies and gents just like me! Posh things—and la-di-da. He goes off by himself at night, and does his own secret thing which no one’ll know about, just like me! There’s no difference—he’s just the same as me—just the same—

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker), Martin Dysart, Frank Strang
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes after Dysart has given Alan a "truth pill" that enables him to talk about the experience with Jill that led up to him mutilating the horses. Alan and Jill went on a date to a pornographic film and Alan saw his father there, which ushered in a new understanding of and sympathy for Frank. It's significant that Alan's prevailing reaction is more relief than shame. Alan's father, who was the single most controlling and repressive force in Alan's life, is revealed to be someone with secrets of his own and with desires and rituals that he feels the need to hide. Instead of resenting his father's hypocrisy, Alan instead finds sympathy for Frank. This shows an incredible generosity and maturity in Alan, qualities that seem at odds with his subsequent behavior towards the horses. This passage shows, more than anything, that social norms cause everybody to repress and keep secrets. Social norms do not tell us much about who people are, but rather they represent an arbitrary standard of behavior that some are able to approximate better than others.

All right! I’ll take it away! He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable! What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? Look at him! …My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband—a caring citizen—a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang, Hesther Salomon
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is part of Dysart's concluding monolgue, in which he surrenders to Hester's voice telling him to cure Alan instead of allowing Alan to continue to worship Equus, as Dysart had wanted. Even while Dysart acquiesces, his bitterness and uncertainty bubble over. He rants here that to take away the object of Alan's passion might be to take away that passion altogether. In other words, Dysart fears that Alan's passion won't necessarily find another outlet, let alone a "proper" outlet like marriage or good citizenship. More than likely, Dysart suggests, Alan will be made "a ghost," by which he means someone void of passion, which is what made him most alive. This is a tragic and ambivalent ending to the story, in which Dysart is in despair over Alan's future and the implications of his own actions in Alan's treatment. In addition, the fact that Dysart gives into social pressure despite his awareness of its problems shows that social pressure has an overwhelming power, which is itself a tragic message on which to end the play.

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. 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!

I need—more desperately than my children need me—a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? …What dark is this? …I cannot call it ordained of God: I can’t get that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses, Hoof-pick
Page Number: 108-109
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the last one of the play, and it is one of doubt, despair, and hopelessness. Dysart is confessing his greatest uncertainties, and even his fear that he is doing evil. Dysart acknowledges his inability to know the meaning of his life or the morality of what he does, and he feels deeply that it is wrong, in light of his own unknowing, to tell anyone else (particularly in a way that is irreversible) who or what they should be. In this sense, he compares his own work to the crime for which he treated Alan: standing in the dark, blinding people violently (with a horse "pick," no less), irreversibly mutilating them by estranging them from themselves. Dysart ends the play by hoping for "a way to see in the dark" but acknowledging that, instead, he is guided through the dark by the bit in his mouth, which represents the social norms and pressures that dictate his life. It's an ending that leaves little hope for Dysart, or anyone else, to find their way to the "whole new track of being" that Dysart described at the outset.