Character Tracking ¡V Alan Strang


Character Description:

Alan Strang is a 17-year-old who has been sent to be treated by Dr. Martin Dysart in a mental asylum for blinding six horses in a stable with a horse pick. Over the course of the play it becomes clear that he has developed his own belief system centered around his faith in a horse-god that he calls Equus. This faith seems to be a conflation of various competing influences on Alan, most noticeably his mother¡¦s Christianity and his father¡¦s atheism and  belief in socialism. Other influences on Alan appear to be the television shows (hence the references to adverts and cowboys) that he was allowed to watch when his mother sent him over to the neighbour¡¦s house and the stories, myths and legends he was told by his mother (e.g. about Prince and the horses in the Crusades) as a child. Furthermore, Alan¡¦s burgeoning sexuality as an adolescent boy has also become interwoven with his belief system and this seems to lead to his sexualisation of horses, particularly of Nugget.


Although is being treated by a psychiatric institution, Alan displays a considerable degree of insight and understanding, particularly of Dysart and the unfulfilling relationship he has with his wife. Alan also seems to display an understanding that he is not ¡¥normal¡¦ and at times seems to want to find ways or excuses that will allow Dysart to ¡¥cure¡¦ him.


However, as the therapy continues, the audience and Dysart realize that Alan¡¦s passion and faith, although directed towards an abnormal object, may actually be admirable qualities as they enable him to commit fully to his ideals and live a fulfilling life in a way that most other characters in the play do not.



Quotations & Analysis:





Dysart: ¡§What is he but a last straw? a last symbol? If it hadn¡¦t been him, it would have been the next patient, or the next. At least I suppose so¡¨

Although Alan in many ways is the central character of the play as it is his story that we see unfold before us, one of Alan¡¦s most significant roles is to reveal the nature of Dysart¡¦s crisis of faith in his career and the value of ¡¥the normal¡¦. The fact that Dysart says that it wasn¡¦t Alan in particular that caused these doubts suggests that this awakening of the consciousness was somehow inevitable. The fact that it was bound to happen to him eventually, suggests the idea of a gradually dawning truth, as if his increasing awareness of how relative and absurd the human constructs of faith and religion are is more than just the ¡¥professional menopause¡¦ that Dysart self-deprecatingly refers to himself as having later.


Nonetheless, this is undermined by the line ¡¥At least, I suppose so ¡K¡¦ which helps to establish the general sense of uncertainty that runs through the play and in particular dogs the character of Dysart. Although it is clear that he has lost some of his faith in the God of ¡¥The Normal¡¦, Dysart is still able to acknowledge on p.65 that, as a psychiatrist, he has ¡¥honestly assisted children in this room¡¦ but ¡¥talk[ing] away terrors and reliev[ing] many agonies¡¦. Thus Shaffer raises questions about the value of normality that he does not answer and thus his play discomforts the audience into questioning values and assumptions that may previously have been held dear and gone unchallenged.



All I know is, he needs you badly.  Because there really is nobody within a hundred miles of your desk who can handle him.  And perhaps understand what this is about.

Once again this earlier mention of Alan actually serves to tell us more about Dysart than it does Alan, in particular it reveals Dysart¡¦s high status in his profession and it suggests that he is an expert with an unusual insight and open-mind. It also perhaps foreshadows the later intimacy that will develop between the two as Dysart ¡¥cures¡¦ Alan and Alan causes Dysart to explore increasingly personal questions about his role as a psychiatrist and the value of the normal.


In addition this line also suggests the extremity of Alan¡¦s case and begins to build suspense and intrigue. At the same time it evokes sympathy for Alan as a child in need of help and this may help to offset the outrage that may have otherwise been created when we learn of the brutality of his crimes.



Reluctantly Alan rises and goes to Nurse, passing dangerously closely to Dysart.

Initially this suggest a danger and a belligerence to Alan, but it is clear that Dysart has managed to achieve some level of control in this relationship, mostly as a result of his insight that Alan¡¦s father did not let him watch TV.


However, the reluctance may also suggest (even at this stage) that Alan is intrigued by Dysart who seems to so quickly have come to an understanding of him and this in turn may foreshadow his partial and never-clearly- articulated desire to be cured. This contrast between belligerence and a desire to be cured may also reveal the inner conflict that we see at points in Alan¡¦s character.



¡§Fuck off¡¨

Alan¡¦s use of profanity quickly helps to establish him as a character who behaves unconventionally and the abruptness of the vulgarity here underlines the idea that, despite being only 17 years of age, Alan is no innocent child. In addition, the contrast between his aggressive treatment of the nurse and his more civil treatment of Dysart in their preceding interaction perhaps foreshadows the fact that his relationship with Dysart will be different to his other relationships with authority figures.


More significantly perhaps this moment helps to cement the impression we have of Alan as an intelligent and self-aware character who understands the impact that his words have on others. In his conversation with Dysart, he spoke erratically and sang advertising jingles in an attempt to deflect the questions aimed at him. Initially this may indeed have suggested that Alan was a patient in need of psychiatric treatment, however this impression is undermined by the fact that Alan is able to deftly read the condescending attitude of the nurse and dismiss her peremptorily. As such we can reinterpret Alan¡¦s earlier bizarre behaviour as stemming not so much from insanity but more from a conscious awareness of and attempt to disrupt or reject normal conventions and modes of speech. This is important in establishing Alan as self-aware and conscious outsider (rather than just another ¡¥dented little face¡¦) who therefore offers us an alternative definition of ¡¥normal¡¦ which in turn forces the audience to question our own understanding of what normality is.



Dysart: ¡§It¡¦s exactly like being accused. Violently accused. But what of?...¡¨

Dysart seems to have from the very beginning understood that there is something that Alan accuses him of, but initially does not understand what it is. This question that Dysart poses for himself therefore also becomes a question posed for the audience, and as the play unravels, Dysart and the audience together realize the fact that Alan is a tool that is being used to criticize Dysart¡¦s (and our own) blind conformity to social norms. This emphasizes the idea that although Alan is ostracized and removed from society, he at least has found something to be passionate about, something that contrasts with Dysart, the voice of reason or representative of what is ¡§right¡¨.



¡§Who said ¡¥Religion is the opium of the people¡¨?¡¨


There are at least two potential readings of this line. The dominant reading is that Alan is testing Dysart¡¦s knowledge and trying to demonstrate his superiority (or that of his family) in the battle of wills that we see at the start of the play between the two characters. In this case the fact that Alan actually gets it wrong (he seems to think that his own father said it rather than Marx, although this is never explicitly stated) reveals how he has absorbed his father¡¦s teachings and attributes to him these insights into human nature. This would also imply a disingenuity on the part of his father as he doesn¡¦t correct Alan in his mistake.


An alternative, more tentative, reading would be that Alan is actually questioning this statement himself, in the sense of ¡¥who says that¡¦s true?¡¦ In this case he may be seen as asserting that, actually, religion isn¡¦t an opium at all but that, in fact, it is what gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, as his faith in Equus has done for him.



¡§Mind your own beeswax!¡¨

Alan¡¦s response to Dysart, which echoes a frequently used phrase of his Frank¡¦s, reveals the influence that his father has had on him. Coming from Frank, this phrase sounds pompous and stuffy but Alan¡¦s relatively easy and natural use of it could be used by Shaffer to suggest how easily and unconsciously we incorporate influences from the outside world into our speech and (presumably therefore) patterns of thought.


An alternative reading is that Alan is using this line, which has been previously used to with annoying effect to silence him, as a way to bring an end to Dysart¡¦s questioning similarly annoying questioning.


Finally, the fact that this is Alan¡¦s response when Dysart asks him who originally coined the phrase ¡¥Religion is the opium of the people¡¦ suggests that Alan attributes this saying to his father.



¡§ALAN and the Doctor stare at each other. Then abruptly DYSART leaves the area and re-enters the square¡¨

This stage direction shows that the two characters share a brief moment of understanding, and for each of them this instant seems to represent a moment of vulnerability as if things have been revealed which neither wanted the other to see. We presume that Alan, who has been calling out the name Equus in his sleep, does not want the secret of his faith to be revealed while Dysart may be afraid of the way in which watching Alan while he sleeps suggests the fascination he feels for Alan, his passion and his the strength of his faith. That it is Dysart who abruptly leaves suggests that it is he who is the most intimidated or uncomfortable at this moment as if he has seen, realized or revealed something that he would rather had remained hidden. In contrast the fact that Alan remains is perhaps suggestive of the partial desire that Alan seems to have to be ¡¥cured¡¦ ¡K as if part of him is perhaps glad to have been caught after all.



¡§But I¡¦ve only had ten minutes¡¨

Alan¡¦s response to Dysart when he says that their session is finished shows a shift in the struggle for control over the situation between Dysart and Alan and is further evidence that, on some level at least, Alan actually wants to be cured.


Moments like this, especially when he says in the next line ¡¥That¡¦s not fair¡¦, also serve to reinforce Alan¡¦s childishness. The fact that Alan is a 17 year old poised on the cusp between childhood and manhood is perhaps significant. The fact that Alan is caught between these two states of being (no longer a child / not yet an adult) perhaps reflects the general sense of tension that runs through the play and echoes the way that Alan (and indeed so many of the other characters) are torn in some way.


Shaffer¡¦s decision to position Alan as a 17 year old can perhaps also be seen as a technique to further complicate the reaction of the audience to the play as we are able to sympathise with the child in him while being repulsed by the violently sexual adult that we see before us.



Where I saw a horse. Swizzy.

Lazily he kicks at the sand, and throws stones at the sea.

The confidence and clarity evident here in conjunction with Alan¡¦s ability to continue a previous conversation where it was left off hint at his intelligence and perhaps also the powerful nature of this memory for him.


The mocking tone of ¡¥Swizzy¡¦ further suggests his confidence and there is an air of teenage swagger here, but once again this word also reveals the degree to which he has internalized at least some of the language and attitudes of his father.



Alan: ¡§I told you a secret; now you tell me one¡¨

It¡¦s interesting to see Alan display a sense of justice. Despite the fact that he seems to be so abnormal in so many ways Alan still displays concern for something we all believe is important: fairness. Therefore despite the fact that he seems to be operating under a different value system he still upholds certain principles that are universally accepted as being important parts to our integrity. This perhaps suggests that Alan is no monster and that his value system maybe similar to ours in some fundamental (and disturbing) way. This concern for a certain ¡¥Tit-for-Tat¡¦ fairness also reveals once again a childishness to Alan that helps to win our sympathy.



...tore it off the boy¡¦s wall and threw it in the dustbin.  Alan went quite hysterical. He cried for days without stopping - he was not a crier, you know.

Not only do the tears suggest the depth of Alan¡¦s initial devotion to Christianity but the replacement of this poster with the picture of a horse also offers a psychologically plausible account for how many of Alan¡¦s attitudes to Equus subsequently take on overtly religious overtones. In addition, this also shows how seemingly accidental actions on the part of his parents have a deeply influential effect on shaping Alan¡¦s world view, a realization that may in turn cause us to question where our beliefs and attitudes come from and the degree to which we have been shaped by unintended influences from the outside world.



Alan: ¡§It was sexy¡¨

Shaffer uses this line once again to shock the audience with hints of Alan¡¦s deviant sexuality. Not only is this captivating in its strangeness but it also used to reveal the way in which Shaffer uses Alan to explore the human psyche. Riding the horse is portrayed as a sexualised experience because of the power Alan felt at being able to command the horse and bend it to his will and this in turn suggests a dark and troubling relationship between sexuality, power and control. In this way, although Alan¡¦s conflation of sex and power seems initially to set him apart from ¡¥the normal¡¦ it may actually be a way of revealing how our own ¡¥normal¡¦ attitudes to sex are often tied up with ideas of power and that in many ways sex is a form of control. We can clearly see this today in cases of rape, the most brutal example of one person exerting power over another, but we also see it figuratively and literally in post-colonial theory where we talk about ¡¥rape¡¦ of continents like Africa and also in the sexual inequality and attitudes to women that would still have been prevalent in the 1970s.



¡§I was pushed forward on the horse. There was sweat on my legs from his neck.¡¨


The connection between Alan and horses is most vividly described in this monologue by Alan where he talks of the sweat of the horse on his legs. In addition to the implied sexuality of the scene as Alan sits astride the horse, the close contact between the two helps convey the degree to which Alan is connected to the horse, almost as if they are assimilated into one.



¡§No one understands! ¡K Except cowboys. They do. I wish I was a cowboy. They¡¦re free.¡¨


In addition to a life of close contact with horses, the symbol of the cowboys is suggestive of freedom and a life lived without restraints, creates the impression that Alan hungers for a similar freedom. The fact that he likens the cowboys to orphans in the next line accentuates this idea and implies that it is his parents in particular that Alan wants to be free from. The cowboys are also the symbol of a life lived authentically ¡V with commitment and according to rules that you determine for yourself, which is exactly what Dysart is lacking.



¡§No one ever says to cowboys ¡¥Receive my meaning¡¦! they wouldn¡¦t dare. Or ¡¥God¡¦ all the time. [Mimicking his mother.] ¡¥God sees you, Alan. God¡¦s got eyes everywhere-¡¦


This line effectively encapsulates the way in which Alan found himself torn between opposing value systems as a child as we can clearly see both the influence of his father in the phrase ¡¥Receive my meaning¡¦ and his mother in ¡¥God sees you, Alan.¡¦


Once again cowboys are used as symbols of a kind of idealized freedom (particularly freedom from parental control) and the accidental nature of this symbol (horses and freedom just happen to be combined in Westerns, the only shows that Alan was able to watch when he sneaked around to his neighbour¡¦s house to watch TV) reinforces the way in which Alan¡¦s value system, which conflates his desire for freedom with horses, is aleatory (dependent on chance) in nature. It is a patchwork of ideas cobbled together from a series of unpredictable influences that have no inherent meaning in themselves. Nonetheless, despite the stochastic (random, unpredictable) nature of his belief system, this system holds great meaning for Alan and the fact that he can be so deeply committed to something which we can so clearly see is arbitrary in turn makes us question our own belief systems and so we wonder whether our beliefs are any less arbitrary than his. Seen from the outside, with a dispassionate gaze rather than through the eyes of a believer, are our value systems any more meaningful?




Alan¡¦s Role in the Play

One of the main roles that Alan plays in Equus is to make the audience question the validity of their own norms and beliefs. This is primarily achieved by the close parallels between Alan¡¦s faith in Equus, where he chants for and worships a horse, and the Christian faith where hymns serve as the chants and they worship a God. These parallels between Christianity and Alan¡¦s obviously absurd religion call into question belief systems like Christianity and make us wonder exactly how well-founded they are. Furthermore, the way in which his religion developed as a result of the accidental influences of his mother¡¦s faith, the bed time stories she told him about Prince and his exposure to horses through Westerns, make us reflect on where our beliefs and value systems, which seem so well-founded ¡¥from the inside¡¦, have come from. Many of Alan¡¦s mannerisms, especially the expressions that he uses when he talks, reveal the influence of his father and this further suggests that we are being unconsciously and unavoidably influenced by everything around us.


Alan also acts as a dramatic device to create tension and it is through the recollection of his ¡¥case¡¦ that the plot of the play is driven forwards. Alan is also used as a foil to help characterize Dysart and reveal his inner turmoil as he comes to increasingly question his role as a psychiatrist and the value of the normal. In some ways, for Dysart at least, Alan serves as a role model who lives a full and passionate live to which he is deeply committed. This contrasts with the routine and unfulfilling life of Dysart and potentially many of the audience.


Finally, Alan is a tool used by Shaffer to leave the audience with questions. Although Dysart is clearly uncertain about the value of what he does as a psychiatrist, we also have to remember that Alan can be dangerous and only ended up in Dysart¡¦s care because he violently blinded six horses with a horse-pick. As such it is not entirely easy to condemn the normal and celebrate the value of individuality and we leave the play not only with our faith in normality shaken but also a heightened awareness of the dangers that deviation from that normality can bring.