Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, is arguably the most pagan work of art created in the 20th century. Ostensibly an extended dialogue between a mentally ill boy and his psychiatrist, Shaffer’s play goes far beyond the realms of psychoanalysis and begins to stir the surface of an incipient numinous awakening. That the numinous is dialectically equated with mental illness is, interestingly enough, not problematic because the context of the play insists on the essential mystery of the condition and certainly allows for a reading whereby the illness is itself a symptom of a far deeper malaise.
The inspiration for Equus came from a friend of Shaffer’s who told him about an incident involving the blinding of some horses. There were no specific details, and the friend died shortly afterwards and so was unable to expand on the story, but it made enough of an impression for Shaffer to use it as the basis for the play.
Equus begins with an overworked child psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, being visited by a magistrate friend. She explains that she has recently tried the case of a boy who blinded six horses with a metal spike. Her fellow magistrates wanted to send him to prison but she has managed to persuade them to allow Dysart to see the boy instead. She seems to intuit that the extremity of the crime – the very thing that repels others – would exert a fascination for Dysart. He agrees to see the boy and the play unfolds with a mixture of counselling sessions and flashbacks, skilfully integrated into a powerful theatrical experience resonant with ritualistic touches.
The boy, Alan Strang, is initially uncommunicative and belligerent, but as the play progresses we learn something of the background to his savage act, and of the strange, idiosyncratic forms of religious worship he has created for himself.
Alan has developed a complex and rich mythos around the god of horses, Equus. His first memory of a horse was from the age of six when he saw one at the beach and believed that it spoke to him. The horse tells Alan that he is the God Equus who lives in all horses. This seems to have made such a deep impression on him that throughout his childhood he developed a continuing obsession with horses. His mother tells Dysart that as a young boy Alan insisted on being read the same book about a talking horse again and again. She also recalls telling Alan that when the Christian cavalry arrived in the New World on horseback the American Indians (the “pagans” as she puts it) thought that horse and rider were one being, “a God.” Later on Alan’s father, who disapproves of Mrs. Strang’s religious sensibility and the influence it has on Alan, tears down a picture from Alan’s bedroom of Christ on his way to Calvary. Significantly, it is replaced with a picture of a horse.
This accumulation of personal mythos results in Alan’s peculiar religious activities centred around worship of Equus, and ultimately culminates in the blinding of the horses. As Dysart puts it:
A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs – it sucks – it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why?
Alan’s father tells Dysart that he once inadvertently saw Alan in his bedroom kneeling before the picture of the horse and reciting a made-up pseudo-Biblical genealogy which culminates with, “Behold – I give you Equus, my only begotten son!” Alan then places string reins in his mouth and beats himself with a wooden coat hanger. This appears to be part of the strange ritual worship that he has constructed for Equus. Ultimately, he finds work at a stable where he can be with his God in his temple. When a girl, Jill, who works there takes him back to the stable one night for sex, he is unable to perform. Seemingly from frustration at his own impotence, he stabs six horses in the eyes so as to blind Equus.
On the face of it, all of this is interesting as a portrait in psychological breakdown, and that is certainly the means by which the narrative progresses. Dysart describes Alan as an “advanced neurotic” and treats him as such. Such a diagnosis has since fallen out of favour; Alan would now probably be diagnosed as belonging to the autistic spectrum. But what elevates Equus above a mere psychological study is Dysart’s suspicion that Alan has in some obscure way achieved a direct confrontation with his God. And for this Dysart envies him.
Dysart is a deeply troubled character. Middle-aged, sliding through life in affluence and a sterile marriage, he comes to see Alan’s illness as a perverse form of health. That is, he recognises that Alan has departed entirely from conventional notions of religion and has discovered a radically authentic form of worship. Dysart, a cultured classicist, considers himself a pagan with his statue of Dionysus and his love of the Peloponnese. But when he encounters Alan he suffers the shock of discovering his own shallowness when measured against the extremity of Alan’s disturbed metaphysics.
I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field! . . . I watch that woman knitting, night after night – a woman I haven’t kissed in six years – and he stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek! Then in the morning, I put away my books on the cultural shelf, close up the Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus, touch my reproduction statue of Dionysus for luck – and go off to hospital to treat him for insanity. Do you see?
In the conflict between Alan’s instinctual and wild sense of religious worship and Dysart’s intellectual, classical paganism, many critics have seen Nietzsche’s dialectic of the Dionysian and Apollonian. On this reading, Dysart’s growing sense of disillusion comes from the realisation that he is not, as he had previously believed himself to be, a Dionysian rebel but instead a highly polished Apollonian failure. Alan’s shocking ritualistic behaviour shatters Dysart’s conceits to the contrary. This Apollonian/Dionysian reading is supported by Shaffer’s own notes to the play where he comments that, “all the cast of Equus sits on stage the entire evening. They get up to perform their scenes, and return when they are done to their places around the set. They are witnesses, assistants – and especially a Chorus.” The Chorus is expected at certain points in the play to make noises to suggest horses: “humming, thumping, and stamping . . . This Noise heralds or illustrates the presence of Equus the God.” Of course, it is no coincidence that Nietzsche conceived of the Greek chorus as satyrs who dream their God into being.
A different, and perhaps more provocative, reading of the clash between Dysart and Alan could see it in terms of Spengler’s idea of the second religiousness and the numinous. In Decline of the West Spengler observes that the innermost impulses of any particular culture will eventually reach a point of fulfilment. This point is achieved when the ultimate potential of the culture has been articulated in the highest artistic forms it is capable of achieving. For Spengler, this cultural high watermark was achieved in the west with the development of the sonata form in music. Once that point has been passed there is no possibility for further development of those inner impulses, so the culture will turn to outward expansion as a means of furthering its necessary imperatives. This phase is referred to by Spengler as the Caesarist age and is a time of outward expansion as a substitute for inward development. The culture itself has succumbed entirely to money values and in the absence of a higher sensibility there is instead the emergence of party politics and democracy.
Now, as this Caesarist age progresses, there is an increasing sense of spiritual aridity and boredom as people become fed up with the limitations of money values. Everywhere, there arises a longing for older and nobler values, a nostalgia for a time when values actually meant something. This is what Spengler calls the Second Religiousness. It is a period of spiritual longing emerging in a spiritual wasteland. The only place to find anything capable of evoking authenticity is in the past, and so more and more people turn to spent religions and cults.
By contrast, Spengler asserts that the beginning phase of a culture is characterised by an ahistorical peasantry starting to become aware of the numen:
He feels about him an almost indescribable alien life of unknown powers, and traces the origin of these effects to ‘numina’, to the Other, inasmuch as this Other also possesses Life . . . Now it is important to observe how the consciousness of each Culture intellectually condenses its primary ‘numina’. It imposes significant words — names — on them and thereby conjures (seizes or bounds) them.
In this context we can see that Dysart is clearly a man in whom the sense of the Second Religiousness exerts powerful longings. He has come to a point where he is disgruntled with his way of life and, even more importantly, he has realised that psychiatry can only provide part of the answer to the problem of human existence. His classical leanings are worn with a self-conscious pride as an emblem of his desire for something other than mundane life. But crucially, he is unable to immerse himself fully in this “pagan” mind-set; it remains distant and foreign to him. His encounter with Alan merely stirs up feelings of frustration and discontent that he had already been dimly aware of.
What Dysart begins to intuit is that neither psychiatry nor classical paganism is capable of shining a light into the darkness resting at the heart of human life. And the voice of Alan’s newly discovered/created God begins to taunt Dysart with the idea that there is something entirely inexplicable, wholly other, from which all metaphysical speculations emerge:
I can hear the creature’s voice. It’s calling me out of the black cave of the Psyche. I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands – waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says – ‘Why? . . . Why Me? . . . Why – ultimately – Me? . . . Do you really imagine you can account for Me? Totally, infallibly, inevitably account for Me? . . . Poor Doctor Dysart!’
Dysart continues, “Of course I’ve stared at such images before. Or been stared at by them, whichever way you look at it. And weirdly often now with me the feeling is that they are staring at us – that in some quite palpable way they precede us. Meaningless, but unsettling . . .”
Here, Dysart confronts a particularly disturbing idea, at least for the modern, secular mind: that the Gods are not just cultural tokens symbolising particular states of mind, but instead prior entities, at once wholly other and yet integral to human life. The dark shadow of the Gods prefigures our emergence into comprehension and circumscribes the bounds of our understanding. And this would seem to be a structural necessity of the human soul.
Alan’s tragedy is that he encounters one such prior entity at a young age, directly and without any social guidance as to its character. The only way that his Christian mother can begin to understand what has happened to Alan is to attribute it to the Devil, which is not far off the mark. At least she senses a prior force working through Alan; she just locates it in a spent Manichean scheme. Perhaps due to Alan’s autistic character he is compelled to interpret his numinous encounters with Equus literally. And due to the unique nature of these encounters he has no possibility of articulating them save through falling back to a pseudo-Biblical structure which is entirely incommensurate to the force being dealt with. When he is on the verge of losing his virginity, he sees the face of Equus in the place of Jill’s face and he is rendered impotent. He has a literal understanding of his God’s omniscience and he responds by stabbing the horses in their eyes. A very literal solution to the guilt engendered by divine omniscience. No wonder Alan is unable to cope with what is happening to him.
But the numinous presence of Equus itself is a prior force that is but one incipient stirring of a numinous consciousness. The important point to realise is that Alan’s encounters with Equus are direct and forceful. This is partly what jolts Dysart into an unsettling understanding of Alan’s condition. After all, Alan “stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek,” in a Hampshire field. Dysart’s own longings towards the numinous take him away on thoughts of foreign vacations and to times in the distant past. Alan is presencing something of the numinous here and now, regardless of consequences. He is incomprehensible. Even the characters’ names indicate something of this distance between them. Alan Strang is caught somewhere between “strange” and “strong,” a perfect description of the power and otherness of the numinous. Dysart is literally “bad art,” conveying something of the sterility of his cultural preoccupations.
The reason that Equus is a particularly pagan work of art is due to its extremity. Dysart’s worldview is specifically designated as pagan only for it to be immediately undermined by contrasting it with Alan’s peculiar religious activities and their violent apotheosis in the blinding of Equus. The religion that Alan presences is not merely radical it is incomprehensible, wholly other.
The encounter between Dysart and Alan takes place at a particular time of civilizational development. Religion has ceased to operate as a positive force in society and individuals will either abandon it altogether or attempt to seek some outer form or other that operates in place of authentic religious observance. Dysart has chosen classical Greece and he succeeds in making a fetish out of it. Alan is unsophisticated and instinctual. He appears to have autistic tendencies and so takes things literally, without a sense of social nuance. He is like Spengler’s ahistorical peasant, seeking to name that which he cannot fully comprehend. But he nonetheless perceives it as a prior being. This apprehension of a prior God-form gives Equus its disturbing power and reveals it to be one of Albion’s many hidden numina.
1. Peter Shaffer, Three Plays (Middlesex: Penguin, 1976), 223.
2. Ibid., 268.
3. Ibid., 243.
4. Ibid., 252.
5. Ibid., 275.
6. Ibid., 204.
7. Ibid., 207.
8. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: The Modern Library, 1962), 200.
9. “Wholly other” is used repeatedly to describe the numinous in Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.
10. Shaffer, op. cit., 267–68.