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Theatre / Equus

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"At least I galloped. When did you?"

"Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created."
Martin Dysart

A 1973 play by Peter Shaffer, Equus was adapted by its author into a 1977 film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth.

In the play and film, psychiatrist Martin Dysart is called to investigate the case of a stableboy named Alan Strang. Alan, out of a religious and sexual fascination with horses, savagely blinded six horses with a metal spike. As he examines the boy, and his fascination, Dysart starts to have doubts about whether he can really help him, or whether turning people to a "normal" way of thinking is always the right thing to do.

Other notable actors who played Dr. Dysart on stage include Anthony Hopkins, Leonard Nimoy, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Griffiths (who played Dysart opposite Daniel Radcliffe as Alan).

The film features examples of:

  • Audience Monologue: Dysart is the only character who speaks directly to the audience, and he does so at some length several times throughout.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: Alan can't distinguish between affection for horses and sexual attraction.
  • Catchphrase: Frank has something of a Verbal Tic — ending sentences with the phrase "...if you receive my meaning." Alan picks up on it and grouses about it to Dysart, suggesting that for him it sums up his father's narrow-mindedness.
  • Critical Psychoanalysis Failure: Alan's Equus hallucinations are passed to Dysart.
  • Crisis of Faith: Word of God says Dysart's increasingly sour and skeptical attitude toward his own job is a secular version of this; early in the play he lightly dismisses it as "professional menopause", but it becomes clearer — especially toward the end — how deep his doubts really go.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Dr. Dysart has his moments, for instance:
    Hesther: Underneath [the polite facade] they'll be disgusted [with Alan] and immovably English.
    Dysart: What am I, Polynesian?
  • Dead Sparks: Dysart's marriage. He and his wife have almost nothing in common anymore except for a certain professional pride in their work, and Dysart is beginning to lose even that.
    Dysart: I see us in our wedding photo: Doctor and Doctor MacBrisk. We were brisk in our wooing, brisk in our wedding, brisk in our disappointment. We turned from each other briskly into our separate surgeries; and now there's damn all. [...] Do you know what it's like for two people to live in the same house as if they were in different parts of the world?
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The scene when Alan cannot "perform" for his girlfriend is the most obvious example of the story being a metaphor for homosexuality, as it plays exactly like a scene of a teenage boy attempting to convince himself as well as his girlfriend that he is straight.
  • Downer Ending: Dysart "cures" Alan, but suspects that all he's done is to take something vital and irreplaceable away from him. It doesn't help that he's hallucinating Equus now.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Strangs seem to be in a loveless, sexless marriage. Frank and Dora are of wildly differing personalities and perspectives — he an atheist and a socialist, she a devout Christian with no particular political leanings — and their strongly conflicting views of how to treat their son only contribute to his psychosis.
  • Eye Scream: The blinding of the horses.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: Alan's mother Dora suspects Dysart is hunting for a Freudian Excuse in Alan's past, and angrily denies that such an excuse would be relevant. In context it's pretty obvious she's just trying to deny her part in shaping Alan's unhealthy views of religion and sexuality, however.
    Dora: No, doctor. 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.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Alan's attack on the horses is done in the nude.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Mr. Dalton, the owner of the stables, is a friendly man behind his gruff exterior. Obviously, Dalton's initial good will towards Alan comes to a quick end when he discovers what Alan did to the horses (he punches out Alan and says that he should have just killed him on the spot).
  • History Repeats: As Doctor Dysart prepares to 'cure' Alan, he reveals that he himself has now become plagued by visions of Equus.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: The play is a metaphor for homosexuality, with Alan's attraction to horses (which he fights to suppress and seek a "cure" for) meant to represent an attraction to the same sex. (Shaffer, the playwright, was openly gay.)
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Alan can't get it up when he tries to sleep with a woman, because the wires in his brain between sexual attraction and admiration of horses have become crossed. This boils over and directly leads to the blinding incident.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: The script calls for the actor playing Alan to appear naked on stage. Predictably, the production starring Daniel Radcliffe spawned countless jokes about Harry Potter showing his "wand." Curiously, the script only calls for the actor playing Alan to mime stripping, never actually requiring any nudity, and indeed Peter Firth, who originated the role on stage, did so there before playing the scene naked and full-frontal — rather more impressively as well — in the film version. Radcliffe decided to follow Firth's lead.
  • Minimalism: The original play features, among other aspects, only one setting and actors or dancers in lieu of horses; very much averted in the film version, naturally.
  • Never My Fault: Dora, who says the reason her son's blinding the horses is because he's possessed by the devil.
    Dora: ...the Devil isn't made by what mummy says and what daddy says. The Devil's there. It's an old-fashioned word, but a true thing...
  • New Media Are Evil:
    • Frank Strang is something of a throwback. Being a printer by trade, he's distressed that his son doesn't like to read, but he won't permit a television in the house — especially since his socialist heart is immensely irritated by the escapist, consumerist dream television offers.
      Frank: The thing is, it's a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it's taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. That's a true swiz, do you see? [...] Mindless violence! Mindless jokes! Every five minutes some laughing idiot selling you something you don't want, just to bolster up the economic system.
    • Even Dr. Dysart is pessimistic about the influence of television.
      Dysart: I'll give him the good Normal world where we're tethered beside [our animals] — blinking our nights away in a nonstop drench of cathode ray over our shrivelling heads!
  • Placebo Effect: Near the climax of the play, Alan brings up the subject of truth-telling drugs. Dysart, sensing that Alan wants to tell him everything but needs an excuse to do so, gives him a "truth pill" which is really aspirin; sure enough, Alan finally opens up enough to recall the events of the fatal night.
  • A Rare Sentence:
    Alan: What's your dream about, the special one?
    Dysart: Carving up children.
  • '70s Hair: Alan has a curly, shaggy hairstyle which manages to date the film adaptation even in the scenes when the character is completely naked and thus has no other available "fashion" choices that could possibly do so.
  • Shout-Out: There's a reference to "standing in the darkness, stabbing at heads" which seems to refer to the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus.
  • Significant Double Casting: Traditionally the actor who plays the rider who gives Alan his first horseback ride also plays his favourite horse Nugget, which highlights Alan's confusion over his sexuality.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Peter Shaffer claimed to have based the story on a true story in which a local youth blinded 26 horses in a single night. Unfortunately Shaffer only heard the story as an anecdote, and in the years since it was published, neither he nor anyone else has been able to link it to a real incident. In any case, everything in the play except the detail of blinding the horses is completely invented.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Or rather, the horses — we're not told their fate after Alan blinds them.