Motif Tracking: A Streetcar Named Desire - Light & Darkness



The motif of light and darkness is used throughout the play to stimulate the audience・s questioning of normality and conventional belief systems.


Light shines in many forms throughout the play such as dim, rich, warm or cold. The nature of the lights control the mood created, dictating the audience・s perception of the scene. The majority of the play is performed in dim light, creating dramatic tension and an air of mystery throughout the play, reflecting Dysart・s struggles in understanding Alan, as well as himself, as he comes to renounce normality. The contrast between warm or cold light and the scenes they illuminate also causes the audience to reflect on their feelings towards what is accepted as normal. Lights can also create dramatic effects, especially with the lighting of the horses, as the :gleam; of the masks reinforce the depiction of them as divine beings, as well as highlighting Alan and Equus・ intimate relationship.


Darkness is primarily used to create tension, as well as to explore the dark side of the human psyche. As things are best hidden in the darkness, Shaffer often uses it to create suspense. This is especially seen when Alan hides his weapon :in the growing darkness; just before he blinds the horses. References to darkness also reveal the state of mind of characters. With Dysart・s desperate need of :a way of seeing in the dark;, Shaffer shows Dysart・s misery in the state of normality, having seen the passion and excitement of Alan・s individuality.


Quotations & Analysis:







From the opening lines of the play, Shaffer clearly indicates that "darkness" is a significant concept. The absence of light or sound creates dramatic tension from the very beginning as a sense of mystery and uncertainty is evoked amongst the audience. Also, the darkness of Alan and Dysart's psyche, as revealed in latter parts of the play, may be suggested, as darkness is the atmosphere in which both Alan and Dysart are first introduced.


:[The light gets warmer.];

All scenes that involve Hesther are preceded by the stage instruction of "lights get[ting] warmer". Hesther is the ultimate figure of normality in the play, as she is the person who implores Dysart to cure Alan. Shaffer further clarifies her role as the representative of the value of normality when she tells Dysart that he has " a duty" to protect things like the "normal smile in a child's eyes" (63). The brightness and warmth of the lights suggests the warmth of Dysart・s feelings towards Hester and the way in which he does see some sense in what she is saying despite his reticence to rob Alan of the richness of his worship.


:[...making the steel gleam in the light.];

The :sporadic; tossing of the horses・ heads to make the steel :gleam; in the light creates the impression of the horses as deities. As this action is performed :throughout all horse scenes;, the audience is constantly reminded of the horses・ divine status. The audience is able to see the horses in the same way Alan reveres them, contributing to Shaffer・s attempt to make them question conventional belief systems.


Although this does contrast with the final presentation of the horses when they are described as .dreadful creatures out of nightmare・, which perhaps reflects the ultimate uncertainty that we are left with at the end of the play. Yes, horses (or the individually crafted, compelling belief systems they represent) are beautiful, divine, majestic, .sexy・ K but they also hold a horrific power over Alan and demand a total devotion which is ultimately what prevents him from having a normal relationship with Jill. Ironically, then, Dysart can・t have sex with his wife because there is not enough passion, and Alan can・t have sex with Jill because there is too much.


:[...the light changes to cold-...];

The change of the light to :cold; is a direct contrast to when the light :gets warmer;. The audience has been accustomed to warmth in the presence of Hesther, the figure of normality, and associates it with feelings of comfort and warmth. However, the subject of normality is now being addressed in :cold; light, and this deviation creates tension. The change in lights occur before Dysart・s monologue about the Normal as :the indispensable, murderous God of Health; (65). A cold, distant and unfeeling impression of Normality and its ruthless destruction of individuality is emphasized, challenging the audience・s feelings towards conforming to the Normal.


:[During the ride however the speed increases, and the light decreases until it is only a fierce spotlight on horse and ride, with the overspill glinting on the other masks leaning in towards them.]

Lights are powerfully used in the illustration of Alan・s sexual encounters with Equus to accentuate their intimate and sacred nature. :Light decreases; on the stage as an elimination of all distractions. :Only a fierce spotlight on horse and ride; remains, and this show of Alan and Equus in complete isolation heightens their intimacy and merging into :one person; (74). The :overspill [of lights] glinting on the other masks; reminds the audience of the horses・ divine nature, emphasizing that this is a religious practice, rather than sexual. The ferocity of the light is also significant as it suggests not only sexual intensity but the power and strength of this act of devotion.


Dysart: :Now he・s gone off to rest, leaving me alone with Equus. 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 V waiting for me;

The dark light is indicative of the distress caused to Dysart by the presence of Equus. At the beginning of Act 2, Dysart・s isolation and the image conjured of him alone in the :black cave of the Psyche; establishes a sense of helplessness and desperation that is not evident when Dysart is in the presence of other people. In this instance, :the Psyche; seems to imply that Dysart is not talking just about Alan・s mind but the human psyche in general V as if this is a darkness that we all share. The dim lighting and the vastness of the :black cave; contribute to create the impression that Equus is a dark, mysterious and foreboding entity, which could illustrate the dangers of branching away from socially accepted norms. However, the emotion that Dysart exudes in this quotation is not just straightforwardly fear, but also one of awe directed towards the focus of Alan・s worship, who is :waiting for [him];.


:[A rich light falls. Furtively Alan enters the square from the top end, and Jill follows. The horses on the circle retire out of sight on either side. Nugget retreats up the tunnel and stands where he can just be glimpsed in the dimness.];

The :Rich light; (also page 55), is associated with the stables and is used by Shaffer to signify not only the divine nature of Alan・s place of worship, but also the extent of his religious zeal. Here, Alan enters :furtively; because he does not want the horses, and subsequently Equus, to witness him having sex with Jill inside the stables, his :Holy of Holies;. Despite this, Equus is cognizant of Alan・s actions as indicated with Nugget・s presence, albeit out of Alan・s line of sight.


Alan [in terror]: :Eyes!...White eyes V never closed! Eyes like flames V coming V coming!...God seest! God seest!...NO!... [Pause. He steadies himself himself. The stage begins to blacken.]

[Quiter.] No more. No more, Equus.

[He gets up. He goes to the bench. He takes up the invisible pick. He moves slowly upstage towards Nugget, concealing the weapon behind his naked back, in the growing darkness. He stretches out his hand and fondles Nugget・s mask.]

Dark light is suggestive of Alan・s Psyche and the world of Equus. The contrast between the darkening stage and the light colour of Equus・ eyes should be noted because they are described by Alan to resemble :flames;, which creates the impression of danger. Although this reflects the mental anguish Alan is experiencing, the contrast also emphasizes Equus・s all seeing nature because his :white eyes; penetrate the blackening stage to reflect Equus・s menacing and ruthless nature.


The :growing darkness; not only sheds light onto Alan・s distressed mental state but also creates tension as Alan hides the pick while tenderly :[fondling]; Nugget before he blinds him and the other horses in order to escape Equus・s condemnation. The contrast between the tender fondling and the brutality of the blinding also suggest the ambivalence that Dysart feels towards the abnormal V is the abnormal something rich and personal to be warmly embraced K or is it a terrible, threatening presence that demands too much and from which we need to flee?


:[Three more horses appear in cones of light: not naturalistic animals like the first three, but dreadful creatures out of  nightmare. They are archetypal images V judging, punishing, pitiless...As they trample him, the boy leaps desperately at them, jumping high and naked in the dark...Finally they plunge off into darkness and away out of sight];

The three cones of light engulfing the horses create dramatic tension as it not only distorts their appearance into one that is :not naturalistic;, but also emphasises the three horses who are :[archetypes for] judging, punishing, [and] pitiless[ness];. This is interesting because the number three is significant in Christianity, relating to the Holy Trinity which further exemplifies the potentially destructive nature of worship.


Shaffer utilizes darkness to create visual chaos onstage  as Alan :leaps desperately at [the horses]; to blind them. This mirrors the disorder that Alan also feels as he :desperately; attempts to prevent Equus, the deity, from viewing Alan・s sins. Nonetheless, darkness also provides temporary relief for the audience (and Alan) as the horses are now :out of sight;.


Dysart: :...the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it!;

The :dim light; contrasts with the :rich light; the horses receive when in the stables when Alan is present. Hence, this quotation shows the mundanity of :the Normal world;.


Dysart: :In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place V yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do V yet i do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads! [He moves away from Alan, back to the downstage bench, and finally sits.] I need V more desperately than my children need me V a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this?...What dark is this?

Shaffer ends the play in conflict. Dysart questions his role as psychiatrist, his life, and the efficacy of Alan・s psychiatric treatment. Dysart :cannot know; if the course he is taking to treat Alan will do more harm than good because should he cure Alan, he will :irrevisib[ly and] terminal[ly]; take away his passion, which Dysart envies. However, Dysart would be able to relieve Alan of his :pain;. Thus, the image of Dysart :in the dark with a pick in [his] hand, striking at heads; is a fitting one because it depicts Dysart as being conflicted and unsure of his practice. Additionally, psychiatry is suggested to be an invasive practice that bears similarities to Alan・s action of using a pick to blind the horses. Dysart is plagued by the voice of Equus and desperately desires for :a way of seeing in the dark; cave from which the voice calls. Shaffer utilizes Dysart・s despair with the state of normal life to emphasise the appeal of Alan・s non-conventional form of worship but Dysart・s lingering belief in the value of .the good smile in the child・s eye・ and the brutal extremes to which Alan is driven by his devotion to Equus ultimately leave us uncertain about whether it is better to .settle for half.・



Key Moment:

The paralinguistic feature of stage lighting is significant in Equus. Although there are many notable moments of the play where lighting is used to enhance the exploration of the value of normality and belief structures, the key moment of the play that shows the intensity of .light and dark・ would be Dysart・s closing speech in the final scene where Dysart questions the principles of his psychiatric practice, his lacklustre life of normalcy in comparison to Alan・s unconventional, but more exciting life, and the effects of Alan・s treatment.


The use of light and darkness is key in this moment as the image of Dysart :in the dark with a pick in [his] hand, striking at heads; reveals his views on his profession as being intrusive and destructive. Interestingly, Dysart・s use of a :pick; is similar to Alan・s actions, where he uses a pick to blind six horses, however Alan does this to prevent Equus from seeing further into his soul whereas Dysart .fixes・ the children so that they can effectively assimilate into the .Normal・ world. Although, as a psychiatrist, Dysart is seen as the .high priest・ of normality, he remains unsure of whether his decision to remove Alan・s :pain;, and consequently his :passion;, was the right course of action. This is most evident in the torment Dysart experiences in the presence of Equus and his wish to find :a way of seeing in the dark; which suggests he is unable to decide which is the best course of action and is desperately in need of some for of guidance. His cries of :What way is this?...What dark is this?; are exemplary of Dysart・s desperation to justify his actions, however he is unable to.


Ultimately, Shaffer leaves the play, Dysart and the audience in a state of uncertainty V :in the dark;.