The first thing you notice about Equus--sometime between the first garbled summary of its plot and the first couple of minutes of its spellbinding action--is how incredibly well Peter Shaffer has turned his dismal raw material (which he insists is a true story) into a play that works so well it hurts. A teenage boy is "possessed" by the spirit of Equus, the horse-god he creates, worships and fastens his sexual energies to. This possession is not altogether a bad thing; the boy is so absorbed in his world that he reaches a level of emotional intensity unavailable to more ordinary men and women. So long as the psychosis remains benign, it is not discovered and poses no problem for anyone; one night, though, the boy, Alan Strang, blinds six of the horses he has been working with at a stable in rural England. The local magistrate, a woman of uncommon compassion but complacent confidence in official definitions of sanity, places him in the hands of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. The boy's "cure" is the center of the play--seeing it happen creates enormous dramatical excitement, and second thoughts about whether it is a cure worse than the disease are the legacy the author intends to leave his audience.
All Strang's creative energies are lodged part and parcel with his strange psychosis, and its exorcism leaves him an empty shell, incapable of anything one-hundredth as passionate as before. This is the play's point, and it's not a new one and this isn't its most profound presentation. That madness may be better than sanity--who are we, who have never known true madness, to judge--goes back as far as you want to take it into Western thought. What Equus does is make it into good theater. Shaffer's play is propaganda for the Dionysiac element in human nature, with a rhetorical impact that outweighs its criticism of psychiatric assumptions. Shaffer doesn't take the extreme position of many modern playwrights, that madness is better than sanity; he only goes so far as to say that madness might be better than sanity, in some cases. In the end we feel sorrier for Dysart than the boy he has spiritually emasculated; Strang comes to love Big Brother and utterly forget that hating him is a much more intense and ennobling experience. Dysart must see himself as spitefully smothering flames in others that he longs for but can never ignite himself.
The best thing about Equus, though, isn't these kind of reflections. It's an actor's play, a classic confrontation that sometimes seems to come close to genres like the medical drama and the detective mystery. The case history becomes a sort of whodunit in which the psychiatrist discovers the origins of the crime in the boy's upbringing, in which new psychiatric clues, like the picture of a horse that replaced a print of a suffering Christ, enjoy the same status as, say, the murder weapon in a Perry Mason. Peter Firth (Strang) and Anthony Hopkins (Dysart) put more passion and energy into their roles than you can find in half a dozen revivals of "Where's Charley?" Hopkins (who played Pierre Bezoukhov in the BBC War and Peace) spits his words into the air with tortured eloquence. Firth bounds from the catatonic to the hyperactive with incredible energy, as convincing as an insouciant teenager humming Doublemint jingles or a demented superman on a frenzied ride to masturbatory heaven. Like a wild animal who can be tamed according to a set of tricks he is helpless to resist, but who can disfigure the Great White Hunter in the process, Firth never becomes really threatening. His madness is not the agony of a Charles Whitman on an Austin tower, but a private horror and a private satisfaction.
Part of the drama lies in watching Dysart wield his liontamer's chair, part in watching what happens to him as he is forced to compare his own barren life with the daily ecstasies of his patient. But the most powerful part of the drama is Shaffer's use of the psychiatric technique of abreaction--the literal replaying of key events--on stage. This allows him to get anything he wants on stage without any question of its being out of place. The choreographed ritual of the blinding, over in an instant, is much less like melodrama when it comes at the end of the play, the logical last step of the psychiatric treatment, rather than, for example, the opening scene. Complaints by practicing psychiatrists that Shaffer fails their test of "psychiatric realism" and oversimplifies their techniques are justified, but only in a narrow, technical sense. But other criticism raised by the psychiatrists (out of motives of self-interest, since the play affects one's confidence in psychiatrists in nearly the same way as, say, Z affected one's confidence in the Greek judicial system) go deeper. Psychiatry isn't only a soul-crimping technique for the repression of man's purest, strongest experiences. Shaffer sets up the Apollonian and Dionysiac sides of man in bald opposition. He weighs the comparison by opposing a hygienic professional without strong sexual drives (whose chief pleasure is paging through coffee-table books about ancient Greece) to a barely literate whirlwind of adolescent lust. Strang worships his horse-god every night and knows that his worship is accepted; he whips himself with a horse's whip, sets a bridle in his mouth, kisses the hooves of his god and licks the sweat off his face.
John Simon has had a lot of fun with the speech Dysart makes in which he points all this out. It's the one speech in the play the audience breaks out into spontaneous applause for, and Simon remarks that this is a bizarre reaction from a group of people most of whom would unhesitatingly call you crazy if, one day, you wore two socks that didn't match to work. But when Hopkins proves to the audience that incomprehensibly different from our own as the boy's state of mind may be, he may be happier than we are, he's not calling forth a hypocritical reaction. What's happening is the most that ever happens in a theater, something that happens so infrequently in Broadway hits that it is always to be encouraged: Carried away by the eloquence of a speech, the virtuosity of an actor and the logic of a situation, the audience not only suspends its disbelief but the whole set of daily values it lives by and, for the moment, accepts alien ones. Equus isn't meant as an incitement to madness, but as a reminder that things are more complicated than our habits would seem to show we think them. After all, we don't really want people around blinding horses by the half dozen.
Shaffer is guilty only of creating a middle ground, somewhere between the simplistic views of his audience and the kind of complexity that never works on stage except in Shakespeare. Shaffer's portrayal of Strang's parents reveal him at his weakest. The father is a self-proclaimed atheist and Marxist, but a sternly Puritan advocate of the work ethic, who, it turns out, is also a patron of dirty movies. The mother is an indulgent Christian who takes the first opportunity to renounce any responsibility she may bear for her son's condition: Alan was a fine boy until the Devil came along, she says. It is enough to personify Dionysus and Apollo; the stage buckles under the added weight of Marx and Christ.
These old and new gods meet in something like a boxing ring that represents Dysart's office; Dysart recalls the progress of the case and the characters he talks of come in on cue, sometimes getting up out of seats they occupy in the student-section-grandstand that faces the regular seating from the back of the stage. The horses are played by lithe men in brown corduroy, with soldered skeletons of horse's hooves and pullover horse's heads. Everything works, except for the use of loudspeakers to amplify the horse's cries; but these aren't used often enough to damage much of the action. Equus is far more adventurous theatrically than intellectually, and that shouldn't be held against it. In many ways, Equus is simply a good old-fashioned play; Dysart is not too unlike the detective who solves a crime because that's his job but wonders whether he was right to turn the man in; not too unlike the lawyer who gets a client acquitted who might really have committed the crime; not too unlike the doctor who saves the life of a patient who might be better off dead.
In the end, the only thing Equus lacks is a sense of what it is like to be mad. Firth shows us energetically enough what it looks like to be mad, but Shaffer doesn't give him a chance to tell what he feels. The boy's passion may be more intense than anything Dysart has ever known, but such a passion, attractive from the outside, may be a burden to those who have to live with it, a source of more pain than exaltation. Maybe there are some kinds of creativity that are not self-destructive and cruel. Shaffer's play, with its mixture of bedrock sanity and a thoroughly sensible appreciation of the virtues of madness, is itself a heartening example, among the best two or three plays of the last few years.
[Equus is currently playing at New York's Plymouth Theater.]