The concepts of passion and worship are intimately related in Equus, and over the course of the play, Shaffer complicates our idea of what religion is and should be. The main characters in Equus display a wide range of relationships to religion. By exploring these relationships, Shaffer shows us that we all “worship” something in life, whether or not we belong to an “actual” religion. Frank Strang, for instance, is an atheist, but his “worship” takes the form of constant work. Martin Dysart calls him “[r]elentlessly self-improving,” and Frank’s wife, Dora Strang, calls his beliefs and actions “very extreme.” In contrast, Frank does not approve of Dora’s devout Christianity. He hates the fact that Dora tells Bible stories to Alan and sees her as indulging Alan’s fascination with religious images of pain and suffering. Martin Dysart comes to see himself as a “priest” of modern society: as a psychiatrist, his job is to worship the religion of the “Normal”—to restore his patients to normalcy and turn them into average citizens who fit society’s mold. His view of himself as a priest comes from a dream he recounts in Act One, in which he slices open the bodies of children as a sacrifice to the ancient Greek gods.
Given his close relationship with Dora, it’s no surprise that Christianity powerfully influences Alan Strang’s imagined religion. Alan is obsessed with Bible stories and “religious pictures,” especially by images of the torture of Christ. In fact, Alan creates Equus and his horse religion, which echoes many aspects of Christianity, after Frank throws out Alan’s picture of Christ being beaten by Roman centurions, and then replaces it with a picture of a horse. Most important in Alan’s new religion is the combination of spiritual transcendence with physical pain: Christ’s martyrdom is mimicked in Alan’s worship of Equus. In one scene, Alan whips his back with a wire hanger while praying to Equus. In another, Alan achieves a sexual and spiritual euphoria while riding Nugget naked, an experience that simultaneously leaves his legs and feet raw and bleeding. Another major theme of Christianity that pervades the play is the idea of original sin, the notion that the moment we are born, we are guilty of sin that we can never escape. Alan and Dysart embody this idea when they imagine themselves as bridled horses. As Dysart says, there is a “sharp chain” in each of our mouths. This means that there are elements of our humanity that we cannot control: our social standing, the society we are born into, and our innate, animal desires. As human beings, we are at once capable of achieving transcendence, but are also slave to our own physical and societal situations. The horse’s bit represents our paradoxical desire to master ourselves, and our inability to truly be free.
While Christianity is perhaps the most overt religious influence in the play, the religion of ancient Greece also plays an important role. Greece first emerges as a subject of Dysart’s fascination. To him, Greece is a place with “a thousand local Gods.” It’s a place where people worship everything around them, where a passion still exists for the “living Geniuses of Place and Person.” For the Greeks, nothing was merely “normal.” Rather, everything was full of spiritual value and no form of worship is more or less important than another. With a thousand gods, individuals were free to worship in their own unique ways. While Dysart recognizes that certain aspects of Greek religion are horrific—for example, the sacrifice of children to Zeus—he still prefers a society in which the expression of human passion takes many different forms, instead of conforming to the average, dull life that modern society demands.
Though Dysart would characterize himself, Frank, and Dora as “worshippers” of the religion of the “Normal,” he distinguishes this blind and lifeless conformation to modern society from “[r]eal worship.” In Dysart’s view, Alan’s worship of Equus is true worship, and he sees the boy as lucky to be able to experience moments of absolute rapture, moments that Dysart has never and will never know. In ancient Greece, Alan’s passion for Equus might be seen as one of many ways to interact spiritually with the world. In modern society, however, this type of worship is considered bizarre and inappropriate, and must be eradicated. Dysart realizes that while it would be healthy for Alan to be able to live a normal life, he cannot “think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship.” To Dysart—and, one assumes, to Shaffer—the death of passion and “real worship” in modernity spells the death of humanity itself.
Religion and Worship ThemeTracker
Religion and Worship 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!
Frank: He took a piece of string out of his pocket. Made up into a noose. And put it in his mouth. And then with his other hand he picked up a coat hanger. A wooden coat hanger, and—and—
Dysart: Began to beat himself?
Frank: You see why I couldn’t tell his mother…Religion. Religion’s at the bottom of all this!
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.
The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes—all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also—beyond question—I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to his God, in both his aspects. Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods. And at what length…Sacrifices to Zeus took at the most, surely, sixty seconds each. Sacrifices to the Normal can take as long as sixty months.
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!
Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing—because that’s him; not just all of our things added up. Do you understand what I’m saying? I want you to understand, because I lie awake and awake thinking it out, and I want you to know that I deny it absolutely what he’s doing now, staring at me, attacking me for what he’s done, for what he is! [Pause: calmer.] You’ve got your words, and I’ve got mine. You call it a complex, I suppose. But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil. You’d know the Devil isn’t made by what mummy says and daddy says. The Devil’s there.
Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?
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!
And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave—‘Why me? …Why me? …Account for me!’ …All right—I surrender! I say it! …In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place—yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!
I need—more desperately than my children need me—a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? …What dark is this? …I cannot call it ordained of God: I can’t get that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.