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Theatre / Equus

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"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.

Famous interpreters of Dysart on stage include Anthony Hopkins, Leonard Nimoy and Anthony Perkins.


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.
  • 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.
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Strangs. 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.
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  • 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.
    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.
  • History Repeats: As Doctor Dysart prepares to 'cure' Alan, he reveals that he himself has now become plagued by visions of Equus.
  • 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!
  • Not So Different: Alan and Dysart appear separated in a multitude of ways, yet it eventually becomes clear that the staid, predictable Dysart is himself obsessed with the kind of raw passion that Alan experiences, as evidenced by his monologues and bizarre dreams about ancient Greece — but is shown as too afraid to grasp it until his final lines.
  • 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.
  • 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: The play was inspired by the story of an actual horse blinding, recounted to Peter Shaffer with few concrete details by a friend; Shaffer then devised the story of his play from the ground up.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Or rather, the horses — we're not told their fate after Alan blinds them.


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