Peter Shaffer

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Equus Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Peter Shaffer's Equus. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Peter Shaffer

After attending Trinity College, Cambridge, Peter Shaffer worked several jobs before becoming successful as a playwright: he was a “Bevin Boy” coal miner during World War II, and later worked as an assistant at the New York Public Library. His first big break as a playwright was Five Finger Exercise, which debuted in 1958 in London. Equus, written in 1973, received the Tony Award for Best Play in 1975. He received the same award for the play Amadeus. Equus and Amadeus both hold the special distinction of having run for over 1000 performances on Broadway. In 1987 Shaffer was named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in recognition of his significant achievements in the realm of playwriting.
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Historical Context of Equus

During the 1970s, Britain enjoyed increasing economic prosperity among the working class. This influx of wealth, combined with the rise of consumer products, contributed to a general rise in what can be described as “consumerism” within society as a whole. The explosion of affordable, mass-produced technology hastened the homogenization of culture, ushering in what Shaffer calls a “worshipless” way of life. By the 1970s, for example, the vast majority of British citizens owned a television set; the power of mass media is manifested by Alan Strang, who sings advertising jingles in his psychotic state. In addition to the influence of consumer culture, Shaffer’s play depicts powerful tension between traditional British values on the wane, and countercultural values that had been gaining traction since the 1960s. The austerity and religiosity of Alan Strang’s parents are pitted against liberal values such as freedom of expression, a rejection of material culture, and the erasure of sexual taboos.

Other Books Related to Equus

Peter Shaffer’s work is influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s school of theater, which emphasizes the medium’s artificiality: in Brecht’s view, a play should distance itself from its audience so that viewers may reflect critically on what is happening onstage. Ancient Greek drama is another powerful presence in the play, as evidenced by Shaffer’s use of the Greek chorus. There are also important similarities between Equus and The Bacchae by Euripedes. The Bacchae deals with the central conflict of human nature—the struggle between the rational, civilized side of man and the irrational, sensual side.
Key Facts about Equus
  • Full Title: Equus
  • When Written: 1973
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1973
  • Literary Period: Modern
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: The present. Most of the action takes place in Rokesby Psychiatric Hospital in southern England.
  • Climax: Alan Strang is unable to have sex with Jill Mason, and blinds the horses in Harry Dalton’s stable
  • Point of View: Martin Dysart

Extra Credit for Equus

It runs in the family. Peter Shaffer had an identical twin brother, Anthony Shaffer, who also became a successful playwright and screenwriter. He was most famous for the 1970 play Sleuth, which he later adapted into a film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

Initial spark. Equus was inspired by a true story Shaffer heard from a friend about a stable boy in England who blinded twenty-six horses. Shaffer was fascinated by the event, and without knowing any other details about it, set about imagining, in his words, “a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible.”