Equus

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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.
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon

Alan Strang’s religion and the rituals he develops around it are highly erotic. His description of riding Nugget in the field highlights the physicality and sensuality of the event, and his desire to be “One Person” with Equus suggests how religion and sex can be transcendent, spiritual activities. As Dora Strang says, sex can be “the most important happening of [one’s] life.” But Alan’s worship of Equus also indicates Alan’s wish to be like a horse—that is, to express his animal instincts. The ritual of becoming “One Person” with Equus is simultaneously an act of purification and a surrender to bestial desire. In this way, Alan’s religious ritual is also a kind of sex act, in its combination of perfect love and animal lust.

It is perhaps because Alan’s sexuality is repressed throughout the play that his erotic and religious activity is intertwined, also, with acts of self-harm. While Equus grants Alan a sense of sexual and spiritual freedom, the shame that Alan feels regarding his sexuality forces him to submit himself to immense physical pain. The intensity of Alan’s shame is revealed at the end of the play when, after his embarrassing sexual experience with Jill Mason, he blinds the horses in the stable, then begs for his own death. Alan’s attempt to have sex with Jill may be read as an attempt to “normalize” his sexuality—that is, to make his sexuality conform to society’s expectations. In his failure to become aroused by Jill, he feels at once embarrassed that he is unable to perform what a man “should” be able to perform, and ashamed that he has betrayed his true passion, the horse-god Equus. The shame becomes too much to bear: hearing Equus’s accusatory and judgmental voice in his head, Alan blinds the horses in the stable, wanting to silence the force that has ruled his life and made him a societal outcast.

Alan’s sexuality is not the only sexuality that is being repressed in Shaffer’s play, however. Toward the end of Act Two, when Jill and Alan attend a pornographic movie, the play makes it apparent that society as a whole has repressed the sexual desires of human beings. It is only in the dark that humans are allowed to express their carnal desires. Alan finally realizes that sex is a natural thing for all men when he runs into his father, Frank, in the pornography theater. In that moment he understands that all men have their own secrets, and enact their own fantasies in private. Alan’s own passion, however, is too intense to be kept in the darkness of a pornography theater. The collision between his “normal” sexual encounter with Jill and the site of his erotic and spiritual rituals proves too much for Alan, and results in his heinous crime and psychological breakdown.

Alan Strang powerfully embodies the conflict between modern society and human nature. In the beginning of the play, he communicates only by singing advertising jingles; this expression of commercial culture in Alan’s psychopathic state stresses the repetitive and dehumanizing nature of modern life. His hatred of modern society emerges in his religion as well: the brands that Alan sells at the appliance store—Hoover, Remington, etc.—become the “foes” that he rides against during his midnight adventure with his horse, Nugget. Alan’s desire to live outside the bounds of modern society also manifests itself in his admiration for cowboys. In his mind, cowboys are lawless orphans, nomadic individuals who are completely free and uninhibited, untethered from the repression of family and society.

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Sex and Sexuality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Equus related to the theme of Sex and Sexuality.
Act 1 Quotes

A boy spends night after night having this stuff read to him; an innocent man tortured to death—thorns driven into his head—nails into his hands—a spear jammed through his ribs. It can mark anyone for life, that kind of thing. I’m not joking. The boy was absolutely fascinated by all that. He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning…. Bloody religion—it’s our only real problem in this house, but it’s insuperable; I don’t mind admitting it.

Related Characters: Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang, Frank Strang
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart is speaking with Alan's parents to try to untangle the things in Alan's past that might have led him to mutilate the horses. This passage, spoken by Frank, weaves together religion, violence, and sexuality in a way that will be crucial to the remainder of the play. Frank establishes that Alan is somebody naturally drawn to religion, and particularly to the parts of religion that have to do with punishment. Frank's use of the word "kinky" to describe imagery of the crucifixion is unusual and noteworthy; one would not likely jump to the conclusion that someone obsessed with the violence of religion is getting sexual thrill from it. So, while this passage is ostensibly Frank's condemnation of Alan's religiosity, the passage also raises questions about how Frank's parenting has affected Alan. Frank's rejection and sexualization of Alan's religion, for example, may have made Alan feel ashamed, or put ideas into his head about the relationship between sex and violence that he didn't have before. Regardless, Frank's rejection of Alan's passion for religion has made Alan practice in secret, which certainly contributes to the ways in which Alan's religion has diverged from "normal" worship.

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I was pushed forward on the horse. There was sweat on my legs from his neck. The fellow held me tight, and let me turn the horse which way I wanted. All that power going any way you wanted…. It was always the same, after that. Every time I heard one clop by, I had to run and see…. I can’t remember when it started. Mum reading to me about Prince who no one could ride, except one boy. Or the white horse in Revelations. ‘He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True. His eyes were as flames of fire, and he had a name written that no man knew but himself’…. No one understands! …Except cowboys. They do. I wish I was a cowboy. They’re free. They just swing up and then it’s miles of grass…I bet all cowboys are orphans! …I bet they are!

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker), Dora Strang, Young Horseman
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alan describes to Dysart his first experience of riding a horse as a child. Alan's narration shows his powerful association of horses with freedom. In light of his controlling father, it makes sense that riding the horse would have given him a feeling of freedom and control for the first time in his life. The description is also evocative of a sexual experience, as Alan describes the physical feeling of being on the horse, particularly the sweat from the horse rubbing off on his legs. In addition to associating this experience with freedom and sex, Alan brings up imagery from the Book of Revelations, which ties horses in with Alan's interest in religion. Clearly, the experience of being on a horse evoked in Alan all of the things about which he cares the most, and also the things which he is denied forcefully by his father--no wonder the experience was powerful. Dysart senses, rightfully, that this experience was formative in Alan's development.

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! –
Equus, I love you!
Now! –
Bear me away!
Make us One Person!

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, part of Alan's re-enactment of his religious rituals under hypnosis, shows the ways in which violence, sexuality, and religion remain intertwined for Alan, and lie at the heart of his troubles and passion. Alan's ride on the horse is shown to be both painful and pleasurable, and his seeming need to be in pain in order to experience pleasure gestures towards a shame that Alan feels surrounding his sexuality. This also shows Alan's intertwining of religion and sexuality, as his way of worshipping Equus is to avow his love for Equus and his desire to be both in and one with Equus, which is physically manifested as sexual arousal. The ritual leaves little doubt that Alan has created a religion for himself that combines the passions and curiosities from which Alan was most forcefully dissuaded at home: religion, violence, and sexuality. This is further evidence that, as Dysart suspects, diverting somebody from their true self through social pressure or psychiatry might just intensify their need for an outlet and take them further from what is socially acceptable. 

Act 2 Quotes

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.