The True Story and the Creation of Equus

Notes from Shafferˇ¦s Introduction to his Collected Works



It seemed to me, on reflection, that there was a danger in my work of theme dictating event, and that a strong impulse to compose rhetorical dialectic was beginning to freeze my characters into theoretical attitudes. All the more powerfully, therefore, did I feel the shock of excitement when I first heard from a friend the bare and certainly inaccurate details of a dreadful story and an appalling crime. I recall to this minute that quickening inside, which is the harbinger of authentic creative activity.


The tale told to me by my friend James Mossman of the BBC (now, alas, dead) was not remotely the one I told the audience. In the version which he briefly referred to as we drove through a bleak English landscape composed of stables, the boy was the son of very repressive and religious eccentrics; he had been seduced by a girl on the floor of the stable; he had blinded the animals in a panic to erase the memory of his sin and to prevent them from bearing witness to it before his parents. This climax, allegedly told to Mossman by a magistrate, I found absolutely impossible to write. There was no way in which a boy's first satisfactory sexual encounter could lead on stage to such horrific violence-unless it had not been satisfactory at all.


Unless, that is, the presence of the horses had directly prevented that satisfaction. And why would that be-unless the horses themselves were the focus of some deep attachment which consummation with the girl would betray? This disturbing thought vitalized the story for me and took hold of my mind. I set about writing a play of obsession, possibly unshareable in its nature by very many people and probably shocking to them as well. The immense surprise which awaited me was that such a private piece could achieve so public a success, evoking an enormous and passionate response from audiences all over the world. I think I had not sufficiently realized when I began Equus how deeply the leveling and limiting of the human psyche by the cult of a narrowly defined Normality is a common preoccupation of our time.


Once again, John Dexter directed, and he was of indispensable help. In my first version, Doctor Dysart was a somewhat shadowy figure, too much the simple questioner. Dexter persuaded me to etch the character with deeper lines of professional self-doubt. This gave the play an even more disturbing dimension. He also pointed out that at the very heart of my treatment of this terrible story lay a rejection of environment as a too exclusive explanation for psychic disturbance, and that this point was badly obscured if the boy's parents appeared as blatantly weird. Dysart's perception is that Equus finally arises unprovoked by family tensions, even though they are partially instrumental in forming him. I immediately redrew Mr. and Mrs. Strang to more unassertive proportions, and their very averageness then threw the passion of their son into the highest relief.


The preparation of Equus was a deeply involving and exciting time for me. During the entire period of its creation I sat in the rehearsal room at the top of the Old Vic Theatre, hearing the sound of traffic rising from a warm Waterloo Road and watching the stylization of the story gradually acquire confidence. First came the masks: striated horse-heads in light silver wire, through which the actors' own snorting and glaring faces could be seen. These created a double image in one shape, effortlessly fulfilling the central idea of the play. Next, after a period when the essence of horse was still eluding us, came hooves - metal cothurni, relentlessly scraping and stamping on the wooden floor. More than anything else, this dangerous sound scared up for audiences the presence of Alan's sweaty and minatory god.


Throughout this time of rehearsal, I felt a good and sustaining tension but, curiously, no anxiety. The power of the play seemed to be constantly inside me, telling me where to go with it. I think the director would agree that it largely told him also. The excellence of Dexter's achievement lay in controlling that power, avoiding from beginning to end the slightest sense of absurdity, which can easily arise when actors perform as animals, and allowing giant specters to appear on stage. Equus was his barest production and yet his most unnerving. It contained, toward its close, the most explicit and prolonged scene of nudity the British theater had so far witnessed; yet because it was entirely suitable and appropriate, this scene caused no affront at all. Its intention was clinical and antierotic and the juxtaposition of bare flesh with the sharp metal hooves of careening horses greatly increased the horror of the catastrophe. Also, it was indisputable that the final image of an unconscious boy thrown on a wooden bench naked under a blanket, immeasurably lost power if he was clothed. The image of a human sacrifice, which was intended although only lightly stressed, vanished entirely with the assumption of a sweater and jeans.