The place and value of passion in life is the most important issue raised by Shaffer’s play. The play portrays a world—and you could certainly argue that the world of the play accurately resembles our own—in which people’s deepest human desires are being squeezed out of their lives and replaced by banal and mass-produced pleasures. Alan Strang feels this pressure powerfully: his job at the appliance store emphasizes the profusion of new consumer goods that interfere with and distract from real human activity. An obsession with name brands, convenience, and machines overshadow individual needs and visceral feelings. Instead of doing what he loves, Alan “spend[s] every minute with electrical things.”
Alan finds an expression for his primal passions, however, through his creation of Equus, a god that takes the form of a horse. Though the people around him characterize his activities as perverse, and his religion eventually leads to the horrific blinding of six horses, Alan is able to feel a passion that no other person in the play has felt before. Psychiatrist Martin Dysart, in treating Alan, actually comes to feel jealous of the boy’s obsession. He recognizes the bizarre nature of Alan’s behavior, but when he compares Alan’s all-consuming passion to his own banal, passionless life, he cannot help but wonder which type of life is more worth living.
At the end of the play, Dysart agrees to cure Alan of his “madness,” but also understands that the treatment will come at an enormous cost to Alan. By taking away the boy’s passion, Dysart realizes that he will likely turn Alan into a kind of “ghost,” a mediocre man living within the strict bounds of societal norms. As he contemplates the treatment and its impact on Alan, Dysart comes to doubt whether his occupation actually helps people. He is at once restoring Alan to normalcy, but also taking away the thing that Alan lives for—the pain and ecstasy that make Alan’s life his own. Through Alan’s religion and Dysart’s questioning, Shaffer’s play weighs the benefits of living a healthy, normal life against the possibility of living an extraordinary life of passion, however painful. Dysart’s bewilderment and ambivalence in the final scene indicate that this conflict between societal pressure and individual expression may be impossible to resolve.
Passion Quotes in Equus
You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life—like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away.
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.
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!
I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could take to Greece, and stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones with names like Zeus—no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits off certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs—just as of certain frowns in people and slouches’ …I’d say to them—‘Worship as many as you can see—and more will appear!’ …If I had a son, I bet you he’d come out exactly like his mother. Utterly worshipless.
Alan [ritually]: Equus—son of Fleckwus—son of Neckwus—Walk.
Here we go. The King rides out on Equus, mightiest of horses. Only I can ride him. He lets me turn him this way and that. His neck comes out of my body. It lifts in the dark. Equus, my Godslave! …Now the King commands you. Tonight, we ride against them all.
Dysart: Who’s all?
Alan: My foes and His.
Dysart: Who are your foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe!
Dysart: Who are His foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!
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!
Bear me away!
Make us One Person!
Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?
Hesther: I mean he’s in pain, Martin. He’s been in pain for most of his life. That much, at least, you know.
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.
Hesther: Then that’s enough. That simply has to be enough for you, surely?
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.
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!