Peter Shaffer

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Equus can help.

Equus, a play in two acts, is set in Rokesby Psychiatric Hospital in southern England. Most of the action takes place in this hospital—specifically in psychiatrist Martin Dysart’s office. However, as characters in Dysart’s office discuss and reconstruct past events in the life of Alan Strang, the play’s central character, they play out these events as full scenes, oscillating between the past and present. The play’s form and staging is that of a Greek drama: when actors are not assuming their individual roles, they sit onstage and comprise a chorus. This allows the action of the play to unfold in fluid fashion. Scenes in Dysart’s office quickly transition into events that have been drawn from the characters’ memories.

Martin Dysart is first introduced to Alan Strang through Hesther Salomon, a magistrate who believes Dysart is the only psychiatrist who might be able to help the boy. Alan, age 17, has blinded six horses in the stable where he worked. Hesther swears that there is something “special” about Alan, which Dysart does not believe until he meets Alan for the first time and is amazed by his stare. During their first conversation, Alan responds to Dysart’s questions by singing advertising jingles. But he begins to open up after a series of terrible nightmares. Dysart learns about Alan’s atheist father, Frank Strang, whose strict and stubborn attitude create a strained atmosphere at home, and his devoutly Christian mother, Dora Strang, who told him Bible stories when he was a child. During conversations with the Strang parents, the psychiatrist also learns that Alan has always been obsessed with images of Christ’s torture, and has always loved horses, though they claim he has also always refused to ride them. However, Harry Dalton, the owner of the stable where Alan worked, tells Dysart that Alan may have been taking horses out on secret midnight rides.

Dysart’s investigation of Alan’s past reaches its first breakthrough when the doctor hypnotizes his patient and gets him to admit that he has been riding Dalton’s horses in secret. Dysart instructs Alan to act out one of these rides, which turns out to be a ritual Alan has created in honor of the god Equus, a deity that he believes speaks from and lives in horses. During the ritual, Alan leads a horse into a field and rides it bareback and naked, shouting in praise of Equus until he reaches a spiritual and sexual climax. Dysart is both bewildered and excited by this revelation, and encourages Alan to reveal more about his crime of blinding the horses by giving him a fake “truth drug,” a pill that Alan believes will “force” him to speak the truth. After taking the pill, Alan finally feels that he has been given full permission to speak freely. He confesses that on the night of his crime, he was seduced by Jill Mason, a girl who also worked at Dalton’s stable. He and Jill attended a pornographic movie before going to Dalton’s stable to have sex. Alan, however, cannot consummate the act because his mind is consumed by thoughts of Equus. Ashamed and embarrassed, he chases Jill out of the stable and then blinds the horses with a hoof-pick in an attempt to silence the mocking and judgmental voice of Equus.

Dysart comforts the hysterical and convulsing Alan, assuring the patient that he will be eventually cured of his mental illness. But after Alan falls asleep, Dysart voices his doubts about the effect and purpose of his profession. On the one hand, treating Alan will restore the boy back to normal society and relieve him of his immense pain. But on the other, taking away Alan’s unique form of worship will reduce the boy to a mere husk. Caught between the dullness of modern society and the horror of human passion, Dysart stares out into the darkness, utterly ambivalent.