Staging. The stage is comprised of a wooden square set on top of a wooden circle. On the square, where the main action will take place, there are three small, wooden benches; there are more benches to the left and right of the circle. The bench to the left of the circle is used by Martin Dysart as a listening station when he is not in the square; it also functions as Alan Strang’s hospital bed. Alan’s parents sit on the bench to the right of the circle. There are more benches upstage, where the other actors sit. The entire cast sits onstage throughout the play. Actors will rise to perform their scenes, and return to their benches when they have finished. Even further upstage there are audience seats resembling the sorts of “dissecting theatre(s)” that are sometimes seen surrounding operating rooms. At times, Dysart will address both the main body of the audience and the upstage audience, serving as both a character and a narrator. At certain moments the actors on the benches upstage will also form a chorus. The chorus will create the “Equus Noise,” a mixture of “humming, thumping, and stamping” that “illustrates the presence of Equus the God.”
The stage’s minimalist design allows for seamless transitions between locations and times; this supports the structure of the play, which frequently shifts between Dysart’s office, the Strang family’s home, and Dalton’s stable. The entire cast’s presence onstage throughout Equus emphasizes the play’s artificial nature: the audience can witness actors step in and out of characters and scenes in a way that is usually hidden during performances. Shaffer’s hope may be that the transparency of the “mechanics” of theater in his play will encourage us to think critically about the play’s construction—why and how these characters have come to be the way they are. Shaffer’s note that the theater itself should resemble an operating room reinforces the sense that audience members are active participants, diagnosing and dissecting a problem.
Scene 1. The play begins with a dim light on the central square. In the spotlight, Alan Strang caresses a horse named Nugget. Lights come up on the outer circle, and we see Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist in his mid-forties, on the left bench, smoking. Dysart describes Alan and Nugget as “a necking couple.” But he confesses that his mind is filled not with thoughts of the boy, but of the horse: he can’t stop thinking about “what it may be trying to do.”
Dysart is established from the outset as a character that simultaneously participates in and reflects on the play’s events. His description of Alan and Nugget raises questions about the nature of their relationship, but his musings on the horse are even more mysterious—he implies that the horse, rather than just being an animal, may have some kind of conscious purpose.
Dysart rises and, addressing the audience, expresses confusion about his purpose in life. In fact, he himself feels like a horse, trapped by his own bit, “[a]ll reined up in old language and old assumptions.” He senses that there is a better way to live—“a whole new track of being”—but he cannot make the leap because “the bit forbids it.” The doctor also describes his doubts about the field of psychiatry, commenting that he is fundamentally unable to understand the mind of a horse. If he cannot understand a horse’s desires and passions, how can he hope to understand a human being’s? Dysart says that his doubts about his profession have been growing over the years, but that the “extremity” of Alan Strang’s case has brought them to light. He then introduces the next scene as the beginning of his involvement with Alan.
The phrase “reined up in old language and old assumptions” is a direct critique of Dysart’s society, which the psychiatrist thinks does not have an adequate vocabulary and value system to fully understand the meaning of existence. As an individual within this society, Dysart compares himself to a bridled horse – his thoughts and actions are dictated by the language and assumptions of society. As a psychiatrist, then, Dysart is in an impossible position: his task is to try to objectively understand his patients using a set of values he does not believe in. At the same time, the play suggests that it is the events of the play that push Dysart to this place of unbelief, raising both the stakes and anticipation for the play about to be performed.
Scene 2. Dysart sits down on a bench in the square—we are presumably in his office—and a Nurse enters to alert him that Hesther Salomon, a magistrate and friend of Dysart’s, has arrived. Hesther enters the square and tells the doctor that she has encountered the “most shocking case” of her career. The boy in question, Alan Strang, was going to be sent to prison until Hesther convinced her bench to send him to a hospital instead. Now she wants Dysart to take on Alan’s case. The psychiatrist argues that he is too overworked to take on yet another patient, but Hesther insists, saying that no other doctor would be able to treat the boy; they would all be “revolted.”
The idea that modern societal values have a powerful effect on how mental illness is perceived and treated is evident in Hesther’s claim that Dysart is the only psychiatrist who can treat Alan Strang. Hesther knows that other psychiatrists would be “revolted” by Alan’s crime: that is, they would allow their own value judgments about Alan’s behavior to influence their diagnoses and treatments.
Hesther proceeds to tell Dysart that Alan Strang, age 17, blinded six horses with a hoof-pick one night in a stable where he worked on weekends. Hesther remarks that the boy didn’t say anything in court— “He just sang.” She also says that there is something “special” about Alan: “vibrations” that are “quite startling.” Dysart agrees to take the case. As Hesther leaves and returns to her bench onstage, Dysart turns to the audience and remembers that at the time, he didn’t expect that this case would be different from his typical cases. He reflects: “One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.” The Nurse enters the square with Alan. Dysart greets him and offers to shake Alan’s hand, but the boy “does not respond in any way.”
Dysart’s comment that he is “in the adjustment business” implies that psychiatry is less a medical than a commercial practice—subject to the whims of consumer beliefs and demands. Society will always deem something and someone “inappropriate” or “imbalanced,” so psychiatrists will always have customers. But the “vibrations” that Hesther detects in Alan Strang signal that Alan won’t be one of these simple adjustment cases.
Scene 3. Dysart begins to go through Alan’s file, and asks the boy questions as he reads. We learn from the file that Alan works at an appliance shop and lives with his parents, but Alan answers Dysart’s questions only by singing jingles for brands like Doublemint, Martini, and Typhoo. Dysart, unfazed, pretends to enjoy the jingles, which makes Alan glare at him. Satisfied with their first meeting, Dysart asks the Nurse to take Alan to a private bedroom in the hospital. Before Nurse escorts Alan away, the boy and the psychiatrist exchange a long stare. As Alan departs, Dysart “looks after him, fascinated.”
At this point, neither Dysart nor the audience knows the cause of Alan’s crime. The boy’s singing, therefore, appears to be a defense mechanism, a way to distract both him and Dysart from the heart of the matter—why Alan blinded the horses in Dalton’s stable. But the fact that he sings advertising jingles introduces television and consumer culture as powerful forces that pervade society and hide deeper feeling, from both others and ourselves.
Scene 4. The Nurse and Alan walk to the bench on the left side of the circle, which serves as Alan’s hospital room. The Nurse tells Alan to behave himself, but the boy swears at her. She leaves, and Alan lies down.
This short scene underscores the volatility of Alan’s behavior and the difficulty of engaging with him as a patient.
Scene 5. Dysart stands at center stage and addresses the audience: he relates the dream he had the night after he met Alan Strang. In the dream, he is a priest in ancient Greece. He wears a mask and holds a knife, ready to sacrifice a group of hundreds of children. As two assistant priests hold each child down, Dysart cuts the child down the middle and dissects it with great skill. It is clear that Dysart has a “unique talent for carving” that has made him the chief priest. But he suddenly begins to feel ill. He tries to hide his discomfort because if his assistants saw, they would realize that Dysart is having doubts about the “social good” of this work. Dysart’s mask starts to fall off, and Dysart’s assistant priests see the sweat on his face. As they snatch the knife from his grasp, Dysart wakes up.
The juxtaposition between Dysart’s doubts about psychiatry and this dream about ancient Greek sacrifice throws into question the notion that the modern era is more rational and humane than past eras. Psychiatry is supposed to be based on scientific principles, but Dysart’s dream of ancient Greece suggests that the modern psychiatrist could in fact be a cog who operates to maintain the social rules of an equally irrational and brutal modern religion. This fear persists throughout the play.
Scene 6. Hesther enters and tells Dysart not to be “ridiculous.” Apparently, it is a few days later, and the doctor has just explained his dream to her. She reassures Dysart that he has done great work treating children’s mental illnesses. But Dysart confesses that he doesn’t feel that his job is right for him anymore—that “the job is unworthy to fill [him].” He also tells Hesther that in his dream, it was Alan Strang’s face that he saw on every child he sacrificed. Alan’s stare, he says, is very strange: “It’s exactly like being accused.” Dysart reveals that Alan has actually begun talking to him in the past couple of sessions. The breakthrough occurred after Alan had a series of bad nightmares that the Nurse witnessed. During these nightmares, Alan repeatedly screamed the word “Ek.” The distressing nightmares, Dysart hypothesizes, caused Alan to rush into his office one day and speak.
Dysart’s confession that he saw Alan Strang’s face on every child in his dream reinforces the connection between the irrationality and savagery of ancient Greek sacrifice and Dysart’s own psychiatric practice. His acknowledgement to Hesther that his job is unfulfilling signals that Dysart is aware of, though cannot articulate, possibilities for life that go beyond the roles that modern society dictates. The psychiatrist’s doubts are punctuated by Alan’s stare, which reverses the accusatory judgment which Alan has had to suffer: here it is Alan accusing Dysart. Shaffer asks his audience to focus less on why Alan himself is to blame for his crime, and to concentrate instead on the societal pressures that have led to this tragedy.
Dysart’s description of his encounter with Alan is itself interrupted by the boy, who leaps to his feet and reenacts the moment he barged into the doctor’s office. Alan reveals that his father, Frank Strang, hates television, and doesn’t allow Alan to watch it. The scene segues into a scene between Frank, Alan’s mother Dora Strang, and Alan. Frank claims that TV is like a drug; television “seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away.” He demands that Dora get rid of the TV set the next day; both Alan and Dora cry out in protest. Dora contends that “everyone watches television these days,” but Frank argues that this is all the more reason not to own a television set. He returns to his bench on the right side of the circle.
Frank’s description of television—that it seems like a positive force, but in reality strips away one’s independence and individuality—is yet another criticism of modernity’s homogenizing force. Dora’s argument that Alan should be allowed to watch television because everyone else does exemplifies this force perfectly. Yet, ironically, Frank’s stubborn rejection of his son’s desire to engage with this modern medium alienates Alan from his society and establishes a deeply resentful relationship between father and son.
Back in Dysart’s office, the psychiatrist describes Frank as a “[r]elentlessly self-improving” socialist. Dysart goes on to discuss Alan’s relationship with Dora; the boy is proud of his mother, and has a close relationship with her. A brief scene plays out onstage in which Alan, trying to prove that Dora is smarter than Dysart, challenges the doctor’s knowledge of history. He asks Dysart to identify the author of the quote, “Religion is the opium of the people,” and giggles. Dysart observes the “guilty snigger” in Alan’s voice, and realizes that religion may be a key to diagnosing Alan’s condition. He tells Hesther that he will uncover any “tension over religion” by visiting the Strang family’s home over the weekend. They both leave the square. Hesther returns to her bench, while Dysart walks around the stage, transitioning into the next scene.
“Religion is the opium of the people,” written by Karl Marx, resonates with Frank’s description of television as a drug. In this light, television and consumer culture can be seen as religions to which modern society subscribes. Simultaneously, Dysart’s description of Frank as “relentlessly self-improving” suggests that Frank may be preaching a religion of his own—a socialist ethos of self-will and personal improvement that oppresses his son. And both of these “religions” have similarities, in that they oppress the unique individual and separate the individual from the natural world.
Scene 7. Martin Dysart visits the Strang home on a Sunday evening. He meets Dora there, but Frank is still at the printing press—he “doesn’t set much store by Sundays,” according to his wife. Dysart and Dora begin to talk about Alan’s crime. Dora is still incredulous that Alan could do such a thing, especially since he loves horses. Dora tells Dysart that Alan has a photograph of a horse hung up in his bedroom, and that when he was a child, Dora would read him a story about a horse named Prince. The horse in the story was so faithful that no one except his master could ride him. Dora also told Alan that when pagans in the New World first saw Europeans on horseback, they believed that the horse and its rider were one person, a strange deity. She mentions that Alan loved to watch Westerns on TV—Dora would let him secretly watch them at a friend’s house.
The fact that Frank works on Sundays emphasizes Frank’s socialist mentality and strict atheism (which we soon learn about). Meanwhile, Dora’s stories about Prince and the pagans’ first encounter with horses in the New World give us the first clues as to how Alan came to invent his horse-based religion. Alan’s love of Westerns—a genre that celebrates man’s freedom and the special bond between a man and his horse—is yet another important influence. The fact that he had to hide this love from his father and watch Westerns in secret parallels the private rituals he develops in his own room.
Frank returns home, and Dora resumes talking. She says that the Strangs have always been a “horsey” family. Her grandfather would ride every morning “all dressed up in bowler hat and jodhpurs.” She mentions Alan’s fascination with the word equus, Latin for “horse.” She also states that Alan never learned to ride horses, and explicitly refused to—both Dora and Frank found this fact strange. Frank says that Dora has indulged Alan too much—this is why he isn’t particularly bright. Furthermore, he says, Dora is “excessively” religious. He tells Dysart that he is an atheist, and that in his opinion, “it’s the Bible that’s responsible for all this.” Alan was always fascinated by “kinky” religious images, pictures of Christ being tortured. Dysart asks the Strang parents how much Alan knows about sex. Dora replies that she told Alan that sex is not only a biological experience, but also a spiritual one. She begins to cry. Frank puts his arms around Dora and leads her back to their bench. The scene ends.
The equine attire that Dora describes—“bowler hat and jodhpurs”—is generally associated with high culture and class. This elitist attitude toward horses directly contrasts the raw and rugged cowboy culture depicted in the Westerns that Alan so loves. In this scene, Frank draws the first explicit connection between religion and Alan Strang’s violent crime when he mentions Dora’s religiosity and what Frank sees as the “kinky” images of Christ that obsessed his son. At this point, the only detail about Alan’s crime we know is that he blinded the horses with a hoof-pick, an act that seems to echo Christ being nailed to the cross.
Scene 8. Alan, in the middle of a nightmare, writhes in bed “as if frantically straining to tug something back.” He repeatedly cries out the word “Ek,” and as he does, recorded cries of “Ek!” fill the entire theater. Dysart enters the boy’s room and witnesses Alan crying “Ek!” one final time before abruptly waking up. There is silence as Alan and Dysart stare at each other. The doctor then leaves and enters the square.
We now know for certain that Alan’s cries of “Ek” have something to do with a horse. At the level of staging the play, the recordings of “Ek” that fill the theater give the word an added spiritual power, making the audience feel the power the word has for Alan himself.
Scene 9. The next day, Alan visits Dysart’s office for his session. He is evasive, and insists that he will answer the doctor’s questions only if Dysart answers some of his in return. Dysart consents, but only if they both tell the truth. Alan agrees to these terms, but it is clear during the doctor’s questioning that he is not being honest. Meanwhile, Alan asks the doctor questions about his own dreams and his wife, which makes Dysart visibly uncomfortable. Dysart finally asks Alan what “Ek” is, and Alan responds by singing advertising jingles once again. Dysart abruptly ends the session, which upsets Alan—he wants more time with the psychiatrist. Dysart, though, says that he will not engage with Alan until the boy begins to speak openly about his first memory of a horse. At first Alan throws a tantrum, but as he realizes that Dysart will continue to ignore him, he calms down. The actors sitting upstage, forming a chorus, begin to hum the Equus Noise faintly as Alan begins to describe his memory.
Alan is clearly embarrassed by the fact that Dysart witnessed his nightmare the previous night. The doctor’s invasion of his privacy prompts Alan to probe into the Dysart’s own life, which makes the psychiatrist grow defensive as well. Everyone has private lives they wish to keep to themselves. Alan’s singing of jingles to avoid revealing anything about “Ek” again suggests that such jingles and the consumer world they represent create a kind of barrier to the spiritual or religious feeling Alan has within him. But Alan eventually yields to Dysart’s demands, which suggests that Alan respects the psychiatrist to a certain degree and is responding to the treatment. The presence of the Equus Noise hints that we are being introduced to a crucial element of Alan’s illness.
Scene 10. As Alan describes this memory for Dysart, he walks around the circle and acts it out onstage. He tells Dysart that he was six years old, and on a beach. A Horseman emerges onstage and gallops across the imaginary beach. The Horseman charges toward Alan, who cries out. The rider swerves at the last second and apologizes for not noticing the boy. The man then offers to give Alan a ride. He lifts the boy onto the horse—the actor simulates this by lifting Alan onto his shoulders—and they ride together along the beach, faster and faster, until Frank and Dora realize what their son is doing. They yell at the Horseman to stop.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, this crucial element has to do with a horse. Alan’s performance of his own memories throughout the play is an important aspect of psychoanalysis, which encourages patients to release their repressed emotions by “reliving” their traumatic experiences. Dysart will explain later on that acting out these experiences is thought to help patients express themselves and deal with their trauma.
The Horseman stops and Frank confronts him, angry that the man picked Alan up without permission. The Horseman coolly responds that Alan was perfectly safe. Frank tells his son to get off the horse, but Alan refuses. Furious, Frank pulls Alan from the Horseman’s shoulders and the boy falls off. Frank ignores the fact that his son is now bleeding and continues to argue with the Horseman for putting his son on a “dangerous” animal. After an exchange of insults, the Horseman rides off, splashing the Strangs with water. As Frank yells after the Horseman, still incensed, Dora begins to laugh, “amused” by the fact that they are covered in water and sand. Alan’s memory ends here.
Frank’s violent action, which forces Alan off of the horse, is traumatic to the six-year-old boy and powerfully shapes his relationship with horses from that moment on. In this moment, the adults are distracted by other things: Frank is more concerned with protecting his own dignity, and Dora is more amused than worried about their situation. Neither parent seems to give much thought to the fact that Alan was physically injured in the confrontation, and certainly they don’t recognize the profound impact that the incident and Alan’s experience with the horse has had on him.
Dysart thanks Alan for sharing the memory and comments that he has never been on a horse before, and Alan says that after his experience with the Horseman, he never rode again. Dysart says that he must have ridden a horse while working in the stables, but Alan denies this, saying that he never particularly cared about it. Dysart gives Alan a tape recorder, and says that if Alan is embarrassed to tell him anything to his face, he can talk into the tape recorder and give it to the Nurse. Alan calls the tape recorder “stupid,” but takes the machine anyway and goes to his room.
At this point, we are led to believe that Alan’s experience with the horse on the beach was so painful that he was afraid to ride a horse again. But we also suspect that Alan may still be hiding the truth. Dysart suspects this as well, which is why he encourages Alan to reveal his secrets to the tape recorder, which may be more comfortable than confessing them directly to the psychiatrist.
Scene 11. Later that evening, Dora visits Dysart’s office; she wants to tell the doctor something important about the horse photograph Alan has in his room. She reveals that this photograph actually took the place of a different image, a picture of Christ being tortured by Roman centurions—Our Lord on his Way to Cavalry. Frank allowed the first picture to be hung in Alan’s room, but one day, after an argument with Dora about religion, he ripped it off the wall and threw it away. Alan was “hysterical” for several days, but felt better after Frank gave him the photograph of the horse. She leaves, and Dysart turns to the audience. He confesses that at after Dora’s visit, he felt a sense of “real alarm.”
The substitution of the image of Christ’s torture for the photograph of the horse is perhaps the most powerful instance of foreshadowing in the play. The horse literally takes the place of Christianity for Alan, and this substitution is powerful enough to cure Alan’s “hysterical” reaction to the removal of the Christ image in the first place. It is important that Frank once again plays the role of the aggressor and agitator: just as he forbade Alan from watching television and dragged him off of the horse on the beach, in removing the picture he separates his son from yet another object of passion.
Scene 12. Harry Dalton, the owner of the stable where Alan worked, visits Dysart’s office. He says that in his opinion, Alan should be in prison, and tells Dysart that Jill Mason, a girl who also worked at the stable, has had a nervous breakdown. Jill feels partially responsible for Alan’s crime. She was the one who first introduced Alan to Dalton’s stable. Dalton remarks that Alan was an extremely diligent worker, but reveals his suspicions about Alan’s claim that he never rode the horses. Dalton discloses that he noticed some strange things about the horses after Alan began working for him. Sometimes a horse would be sweaty in the morning, or sick. Dysart asks why someone would want to ride by himself at night, when he could ride with friends in the daytime. “He’s a loony, isn’t he?” Dalton replies. Alan’s voice interrupts the scene. “It was sexy,” Alan says. Dysart tells the audience that Alan’s tape recording arrived later that evening.
Through Harry Dalton, we get a brief glimpse into the public opinion of Alan Strang: people would rather see him in prison than in treatment, a sign of the extremely negative and unforgiving response to his crime, and that society sees Alan primarily as crazy and a criminal, as abnormal. Dalton and Dysart’s hypothesis that Alan was riding horses in secret gives us an important clue to his secret religious rituals. Alan’s secrecy about horseback riding makes sense, considering Frank’s oppressive attitude toward Alan’s other interests. The interjection of Alan’s voice describing his horseback riding as “sexy” is not yet explained, but certainly does connect these rituals to a kind of passionate and even sexual connection.
Scene 13. Alan, sitting on his bed, gives the tape recorder to the Nurse, who in turn gives it to Dysart. Dysart turns on the machine and begins to listen. Onstage, Alan recites as Dysart “plays” the recorded message. In the message, Alan resumes talking about his experience with the horse on the beach. Alan describes the sweat on his legs from the horse’s neck and the power of the animal “going any way you wanted.” He also recalls that one of the first things he noticed about the horse was its bit. He remembers asking the horse if the bit hurt. Alan tells Dysart that the horse said something back, but stops short of revealing its response.
Alan’s recorded message reveals the sexual dimension of Alan’s relationship to horses. His description of the animal “going any way you wanted” suggests his desire to control and possess the horse physically and sexually. Alan’s control over the horse gives him a sense of freedom he does not feel at home. And yet, Alan’s relationship to the horse goes beyond the sexual; his concern for the horse’s pain suggests his emotional investment in the animal, and his treatment of the horse as a sentient being, an equal. It also suggests his recognition that people, too, are held back by bits, though those “bits” are metaphorical and spiritual rather than actual.
Alan continues to describe the erotic feel of horses, claiming that his mother would never understand. Dora likes the showiness of horseback riding, Alan says—the bowler hats and jodhpurs—but Alan feels that to treat riding as a straight-laced, upper-class sport is despicable. “To put a bowler on it is filthy,” he exclaims. He expresses the desire to be as free as a cowboy. “I bet all cowboys are orphans!” he says. The Nurse interrupts Dysart to tell him that Frank Strang has arrived to see him. The doctor, surprised, tells the Nurse to show him into the office. Alan, in the middle of rhapsodizing about cowboys, stops suddenly and turns angry. “I’ve had it!” he shouts, and returns to bed. Dysart shuts off the tape recorder.
Alan uses quasi-religious language to criticize his mother’s love of horseback riding. When he calls the bowler hats and jodhpurs “filthy,” he doesn’t mean that they are dirty; rather, he means that using the horses for upper-class sport is immoral or sinful, in that it is disrespectful because it obscures or damages the essence of the animal. His desire to be like a cowboy is also telling. The equine sport that Alan hates, bound by rules and traditions of high society, is the opposite of the freewheeling, rebellious life of the cowboy, who lives outside of society’s laws. Alan’s comparison of cowboys to orphans also implies his wish to be free of his parents.
Scene 14. Frank Strang enters the square. Dora doesn’t know he is here—he tells Dysart that he must inform him of an event he witnessed eighteen months ago. Late one night, Frank says, he saw Alan performing a sort of ritual in his bedroom. As he describes the ritual, Alan rises and acts it out onstage. First, Frank heard the sound of chanting—Alan reciting a fictitious genealogy of horses, including Prince, the horse Dora told him stories about. Then Frank saw Alan standing in front of the photograph of the horse. Alan kneels down in front of the photograph and exclaims: “And he said ‘Behold—I give you Equus, my only begotten son!’” Dysart realizes that the word Alan screams in his nightmares—“Ek”—is half of the name of the horse-god Equus.
With Frank’s visit, Alan’s invented religion finally comes to the surface. The fictitious genealogy that he comes up with is a combination of the children’s tales and Biblical stories Dora told him when he was little; it highlights the extent to which his mother and Christianity have influenced him. There is an aspect of this combination that is childish and sort of silly. And yet, Alan also deeply believes in it—his chanting ritual reveals the passion of this belief. It offers a true vision of Alan in a kind of religious ecstasy, in contrast to the kind of hiding that was implied by the way Alan earlier sang advertising jingles.
As Frank continues to describe Alan’s ritual, we see Alan put an invisible piece of string in his mouth to simulate a bit, and beat himself with an invisible coat hanger. Frank repeats his belief that religion is the cause of Alan’s bizarre behavior, and adds that there is one more thing Dysart should know: on the night that Alan blinded the horses in the stable, he had been out with a girl. Dysart asks Frank how he knows, but Frank refuses to say more, and leaves quickly.
Alan’s ritual is a direct echo of Christianity’s mortification of the flesh, an act in which atoners practice self-whipping to cleanse themselves of sin. It is also, of course, a simulation of riding a horse. Both Alan and the horse, therefore, are transformed into Christ-like figures who inflict pain upon themselves for a greater purpose—a purpose which we have not yet discovered.
Scene 15. Dysart questions Alan about Jill, the girl who introduced Alan to the stable. Alan tells him that they first met at Bryson’s, the appliance store where Alan worked. The scene of their meeting is recreated onstage: in Bryson’s, aggressive customers call out various brands and appliances that they want, while Alan is clearly overwhelmed by the chaos. Jill enters, and asks Alan for a clipping machine to shear horses. Alan recognizes her as the girl who works at Dalton’s stable, while Jill also recognizes Alan as “the boy who’s always staring into the yard around lunch-time.” She offers to introduce Alan to Dalton in case there is a job opening—they always need help on the weekends, Jill says. Alan accepts her offer.
In this scene, Shaffer briefly illustrates the society he criticizes in the play. The customers’ clamoring for brand names drowns out any sense of individuality they might have, and cuts off the possibility of meaningful human interaction. The electronic appliances surround Alan in his workplace contrast starkly with his desire for the virility and nakedness of horses.
Scene 16. We hear the “exultant humming” of the Equus Noise, and the sound of horses’ hooves. Alan stands in the middle of the square, which is now Dalton’s stable. Immersed in this “glowing world of horses,” Alan is completely mesmerized. He is about to kneel down when Dalton arrives with Jill, interrupting Alan’s reverie. Dalton cheerfully shows Alan how to use a hoof-pick to take a stone out of a horse’s hoof. He then entrusts Alan’s training to Jill, who begins to teach Alan how to groom a horse. She introduces him to Nugget and demonstrates how to brush a horse’s coat. Alan “watches in fascination.” Jill then allows Alan to groom Nugget. The boy begins to brush the horse’s coat, responding to Jill’s feedback. Satisfied with Alan’s work, Jill tells him to finish grooming Nugget and move onto the next horse. She exits the square, leaving Alan alone in the stable.
The humming of the Equus Noise establishes Dalton’s stable as a kind of temple for Alan’s religion. Indeed, the stable is “glowing,” and he almost kneels down in awe. That he does not kneel down at the arrival of Dalton and Jill shows that Alan does recognize the way that others would see his religious feeling about horses as odd or abnormal, how the only way to be near horses is to hide his truest feelings about them. The introduction of the hoof-pick in this scene is an important moment of foreshadowing. Note how for Dalton and Jill the horses are animals to be cared for, but for Alan they are more than that, they are beings to be worshipped.
Alan touches Nugget’s shoulder, then slowly feels the horse’s neck and back. He smells his palm, drinking in Nugget’s scent. Dysart begins to interrogate Alan about the experience. He asks Alan if it felt good to stroke the horses, and Alan moans in agreement. Dysart then asks how Alan felt about Jill. “Did you like her?” he says. “All right,” Alan responds. The doctor presses on, trying to get his patient to describe Jill more vividly. Dysart asks Alan if he took Jill out on a date, and keeps pressuring the boy to answer until he can’t stand it any longer. Alan flies into a rage and storms around the office, calling Dysart a “Bloody Nosey Parker.”
Alan’s sexual arousal in the presence of horses, which we have learned about already, is now complicated by Jill’s presence in his life. His furious response to Dysart’s questioning shows that he is repressing strong feelings related to the girl. Though Alan clearly has a complex relationship to horses and women, his infantile name-calling at the end of the scene also demonstrates that he his incapable of dealing maturely with these emotions.
Scene 17. Dysart apologizes for his persistence, but Alan is still fuming. He demands that the doctor answer some of Alan’s own questions. Dysart agrees, and Alan begins to ask sexually explicit questions about Dysart’s relationship with his wife, Margaret, a dentist. Alan aggressively provokes Dysart, mocking him for not having sex with Margaret, until the psychiatrist snaps and sends Alan to his room. Dysart turns to the audience and calls Alan “brilliant” for identifying Dysart’s “area of maximum vulnerability.” Apparently, Alan had walked around the hospital gathering information about Dysart’s personal life, which is how he knew which questions would most upset him. Dysart sits down and Hesther enters the square, ushering in the next scene.
Just as Dysart is beginning to probe the most vulnerable areas of his patient’s past, Alan does the same to him. The patient and his doctor are revealed as opposites: the intensity and physicality of Alan’s love for horses is juxtaposed with Dysart’s loveless and sexless relationship with his wife. Alan’s passion is contrasted with Dysart’s lack of it. And this contrast will make Dysart wonder why his passionless “normality” is seen as better than Alan’s ecstatic lack of normality.
Scene 18. Hesther and Dysart discuss the psychiatrist’s relationship with his wife. Dysart explains that he and his wife used to get along. “We worked for each other,” he says. Their marriage was characterized by “briskness,” a sharpness and efficiency that allowed their relationship to develop quickly but also later to decline promptly. Now their lives are dull and passionless. Margaret spends her time knitting clothes for orphans, and Dysart reads books about ancient Greece. Dysart pauses, and then confides his desire to take someone to Greece, a country that fascinates him. He wishes for an “instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person” he could bring to Greece, the land of “a thousand local Gods.” He wants someone with whom he can share the spirituality of a place: “Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops….” Dysart comments bitterly that if he had a son, he would turn out like Margaret, “Utterly worshipless.”
The “briskness” of Dysart and Margaret’s relationship implies that they were going through the motions, getting married not because they were in love, but because it was socially appropriate. Perhaps, even, they thought they were in love because it is socially appropriate. Dysart’s desire to bring someone to Greece indicates his desire to live a more spontaneous and passionate life. His celebration of “local Gods” and the spirituality of “certain trees” and “certain chip shops” provides an important contrast to the global, homogenizing forces of television and commercialism, which destroy the individuality of people, places, and cultures. Put another way: it is precisely that individuality which is critical, and which is being lost. Dysart’s comment that his son would be “worshipless” betrays his belief that in order to live a fulfilling life, one must believe in a higher power, not simply have material goods.
Dysart changes the subject and begins talking about Alan. He asks Hesther what he should be trying to achieve by treating Alan. Hesther replies that he is returning Alan to a “normal life.” But Dysart is no longer sure what “normal” means, and presses his friend to clarify what it means to her. “You know what I mean by a normal smile in a child’s eyes, and one that isn’t—even if I can’t exactly define it,” she says. Hesther thanks Dysart for all of his work, and takes her leave. Alone, Dysart repeats the word “normal” to himself, clearly still bewildered by its meaning.
Dysart’s doubts about the meaning of normality are closely related to his thoughts about Greece. In a place with “a thousand local Gods,” it would be impossible to choose which worshippers were “normal” and which were not—they would all simply be unique. Hesther, for her part, does not seem too concerned about the meaning of “normal.” To her, normality is a vague combination of health and happiness, and she believes this should be the goal of Dysart’s work. While she is sympathetic to the doctor’s anxieties, she feels that his job is relatively clear-cut.
Scene 19. Alan and Dysart meet for a session. They have both calmed down since their fight the previous day, and apologize to each other. Dysart introduces the boy to a game called Blink, in which Alan fixes his eyes on the wall, and every time Dysart taps his pen, Alan closes or opens his eyes. They begin the game, and Alan relaxes, slowly becoming hypnotized. As this is happening, Dysart talks to the audience about what the “Normal” is. He admits that it can be “the good smile in a child’s eyes,” but also argues that it is “the dead stare in a million adults.” He describes it as a deity that “both sustains and kills,” an “indispensable, murderous God of Health.” Dysart accuses himself of being a priest in service of this god. As a priest of the “Normal,” Dysart has helped many children, but he has also excised aspects of their individuality. He notes that sacrifices to Zeus would take just a minute, but sacrifices to the “Normal” might “take as long as sixty months.”
Dysart agrees with Hesther that normality can be a good thing. But since what is “normal” is determined by society, it can also be a crippling phenomenon; it can force people to stop thinking, to become people they are not. Being normal allows you to be part of a society, but you may have to destroy who you truly are in order to do it. The fact that Dysart—the priest of the Normal—hypnotizes Alan as he delivers this monologue emphasizes the power that normality can have over an individual. Dysart compares the sacrifice of individuality to ancient Greek sacrifice, which should remind us of his dream of cutting up children. Dysart casts his own psychiatric practice is cast in a very ominous light.
Once Alan’s hypnosis is complete, Dysart instructs the boy to answer all of his questions. He tells Alan to remember his experience with the horse on the beach, particularly the moment when he asked the horse if his bit hurt. Alan replies that he offered to take the bit out, and that the horse responded: “It never comes out. They have me in chains.” Dysart compares the horse to Jesus, and Alan agrees. “Only his name isn’t Jesus, is it?” the doctor asks. Alan admits that the name of his horse-god is Equus, and that Equus lives in and speaks to Alan through all horses. Dysart asks the boy to tell him about his rituals. Alan reveals that Equus is in chains for “the sins of the world,” and that he will save Alan by allowing him to ride away. “Two shall be one,” Alan says, describing the union of horse and rider.
Equus embodies a paradox: he is at once in chains, yet also has the capacity to be free. Like Christ, Equus must first suffer in order to bring salvation. Alan will be saved, he says, by riding away on Equus—the horse can thus be interpreted as Alan’s escape from the pressures of his family life and modern society. “Two shall be one” evokes the transcendent, spiritual union of Equus and Alan, but also a sexual union.
Dysart asks Alan to remember Dalton’s stable. He asks Alan if the stable is Equus’s temple, and Alan says yes. Dysart asks the boy if Equus told him to ride him at night, and Alan confirms Dysart’s suspicion. He tells the psychiatrist that he would ride the horses in secret every three weeks. Dysart now tells Alan to imagine that he is actually in front of the stable, and to open the door.
The suspicions and hypotheses Dysart and the audience have been developing throughout Act One continue to be confirmed, as Alan reveals his nighttime rides with the horses of Dalton’s stable.
Scene 20. Alan opens the door of the stable and the chorus begins humming the Equus Noise. As Dysart prompts him to explain the midnight ritual, Alan performs it onstage. The audience sees him select the horse Nugget and put a bit in his mouth. He slips the bridle onto the horse and leads him out of the stable. He brings Nugget to a field of nettle, which he calls the “place of Ha Ha.” Nugget is reluctant to enter, but Alan forces the horse into the square, which is now the field.
The phrase “Ha Ha” is a reference to a Bible story about a horse that Dora told Alan in his childhood. In the Bible, “Ha Ha” is a triumphant call. In Alan’s created religion, the field gets that name because it is the site of Alan’s religious and sexual rituals with the horses.
Scene 21. Alan undresses and puts a stick, which he calls a “Manbit,” in his mouth. He feeds Nugget a lump of sugar, his “Last Supper,” then mounts the horse, shouting, “Take me!” He cries out as the horse’s coat rubs painfully against his naked skin. He then commands Equus to walk. Alan praises “Equus the Godslave” and denounces his foes, the “hosts” of Hoover, Philco, Jodhpur, and Gymkhana. Alan rides faster and faster. He describes himself as “stiff” and “raw”; he tells Equus that he wants to be in him, and that he wants to be him. Alan rides the horse-god harder and harder, screaming with pleasure and pain, “One Person!" This continues until, in a final fit of sexual and spiritual ecstasy, Alan “twists like a flame” and drops to the ground. He kisses Nugget’s hoof and then “flings back his head,” crying, “AMEN!”
By putting the “Manbit” in his mouth, Alan acknowledges that he, like Equus, is in chains. Together, he and Equus ride against those “chains” – the homogenizing and repressive forces of commercial culture represented by the name brands of Hoover, etc. and the high society of “jodhpurs” that Alan sees as trivializing horses. The raw sexual energy that Alan displays in the ritual is combined with immense pain that the boy inflicts upon himself, as if Alan can only grant himself pleasure when it is combined with a cleansing force. Shaffer’s comparison of Alan to a “flame” suggests that Alan is simultaneously killing himself and living more passionately than any other human being.