The exploration of dark (and therefore normally taboo) human drives - such as our confused, conflated and interwoven desires for sex, power, dominance and submission at the same time and a partially masochistic attitude to pain ¡V as if bringing these attitudes and drives out into the open will force us to confront the darker sides of our own nature and question how ¡¥normal¡¦ we are


In the play, Shaffer first shocks us with Alan¡¦s unorthodox and disturbing religion, which conflates notions of sexuality with pain, and submission as well as power. However, as the play unfolds he slowly exposes the various influences that have created/informed Alan¡¦s beliefs. In a way, Shaffer justifies Alan¡¦s ¡§extremity¡¨ by drawing parallels between his conflated notions of sex and religion with the way we approach similar established forms of religion and sex. Ultimately, in Equus, through portraying Alan¡¦s religion as complex and convoluted but at the same time as a religion that works and has echoes of our own, Shaffer highlights the purely circumstantial ways in which we as a society arrive at established conventions through putting our values under scrutiny in the ¡§dissecting theatre¡¨ of the play.







¡§FRANK: A boy spends night after night having this stuff read into him; an innocent man tortured to death - thorns driven into his head - nails into his hands - a spear jammed through his ribs. It can mark anyone for life, that kind of thing. ... He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning. ... All that stuff to me is just bad sex.¡¨

Frank describes the poster of Christ that hung over Alan¡¦s bed to Dysart. Here, Frank very explicitly but at the same time quite offhandedly conflates taboo notions of sex (¡§kinky¡¨, ¡§bad sex¡¨) with religious fervour and violence. This use of dialogue and informal speech serves as a means of exposing the subtle, subliminal influences that fed into Alan¡¦s confused and distorted perceptions of sex, religion and violence where images of pain and self-flagellation are associated with devotion. We can see both of these features reappear later when Frank catches Alan whipping himself while he prays to Equus.



¡§DORA: Frank, he¡¦s bleeding!¡¨

This is the occasion when Alan first came in contact with real horses and his first experience riding one of them. Though he was hurt after being dragged down by his father, Alan insisted that he was not hurt and that riding on the horse was absolutely wonderful. Alan¡¦s desire to ride on horses seems to have over-ridden the pain he may have suffered and this is perhaps one of the points at which Alan begins to combine feelings of exhilaration with feelings of pain.


It is also clear that part of the enjoyment that came from horse riding derived from the feeling of being able to control another living creature. Not only does this reveal the way in which the enjoyment of power seems to be an almost natural human instinct but the fact that this control is achieved through the infliction of pain (the ¡¥chinkle-chankle¡¦ never comes out) paints this in an even darker light.



¡§Words like reins. Stirrups. Flanks... Mum wouldn¡¦t understand. She likes ¡¥Equitation¡¦. Bowler hats and jodhpurs! ... The horse isn¡¦t dressed. It¡¦s the most naked think you ever saw! ... Even the most broke down nag has its life! To put a bowler on it is filthy!¡¨


Not only does Alan become fascinated with the raw physicality and thus in a sense the sexuality of a horse, he also associates this nakedness with sacredness and regards it as something that shouldn¡¦t be compromised.


ALAN: Flankus begat Spankus, And Spankus begat Spunkus the Great, who lived three score years! ... And Legwus begat Neckwus. And Neckwus begat Fleckwus, the King of Spit.¡¨

Here Shaffer makes an allusion to the genealogical lists in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. During this ritual, Alan replaces the names of biblical figures with names that reflect his fascination with the raw physicality and thus the implied sexuality of a horse (Flankus, Spankus, Legwus, Neckwus), indeed this sexuality becomes explict in the name ¡¥Spunkus¡¦.


A psychoanalytical reading of this quotation may suggest that Alan seems to sublimate his sexual feelings towards horses, as seen in the names used, into a more familiar and perhaps acceptable means of expression - religion, as seen in the allusion to the Bible. In a sense it could be argued that Alan tries to legitimize his sexual feelings by placing them in a familiar religious structure or foundation. Again, this shows the conflated nature of his perceptions of sex and religion, and perhaps evokes audience introspection as to whether or not there are parallels in the way we approach religion (as maybe exemplified by the violent depiction of Christ being physically replaced with a picture of a horse).



¡§DYSART: Worship as many as you can see - and more will appear!¡¨

In this quotation Shaffer explores the meaning and importance of ¡§Worship¡¨. Dysart talks about the ¡§living Geniuses of Place and Person¡¨, and subverts the notion that God, or Worship, is outside of our control, or is contingent on a higher power that we are invariably subject to.


While one reading of this may be humanistic, as Shaffer seems to place place the ¡¥higher powers¡¦ under the control of human beings, it also serves to reveal how our attitudes to submission and dominance are closely (even bizarrely) interrelated as we create gods before which we subsequently prostrate ourselves. This idea is echoed in the phrase ¡¥Godslave¡¦ that Alan uses to refer to Equus when he rides Nugget at the end of the act. This is an explicit revelation of how the subject of worship is both reliant upon and superior to humans, at the same time.



¡§DYSART: But you managed? You mastered him?

ALAN: Had to!¡¨

Even though this doesn¡¦t seem like a really significant line or moment in the play, Alan¡¦s assertion that he ¡§had to¡¨ master Equus is worth noting as it nicely encapsulates the way the idea of the ¡¥Godslave¡¦ and the way in which Alan is both master over the horse while at the same time being subject to its higher power. Alan¡¦s conviction and certainty here is also the feature of which Dysart is jealous.



¡§DYSART: ... He¡¦s a modern citizen for whom society doesn¡¦t exist. He lives one hour every three weeks - howling in the mist. And after the service kneels to a slave who stands over him obviously and unthrowably his master. With my body I thee worship! .... Many men have less vital with their wives.¡¨


¡§DYSART: ... That¡¦s the Accusation! ... ¡¥At least I galloped! When did you?¡¦¡¨


In this quotation Shaffer clearly outlines the complexities and contradictions of Alan¡¦s religion, while also making it clear that Alan¡¦s unorthodox living is more exciting and vital than conventional relationships. The fact that he says ¡§Men have less vital with their wives¡¨ suggests a parallel between Alan¡¦s act of worship and the act of sex, an idea which is perhaps accentuated by the orgasmic connotations of ¡¥howling in a mist¡¦. Finally, Dysart seems to conclude that Alan¡¦s way of life, though unorthodox, ¡§extreme¡¨ and even detrimental to his own well-being, posseses a vitality (¡§At least I galloped¡¨) that doesn¡¦t exist in conventional aspects of life, sex, work and religion.


¡§DYSART: His pain. His own. He made it. Look¡K to go through life and call it yours ¡V your life ¡V you first have to get your own pain.¡¨

Dysart argues that to live a meaningful life, one must first experience a pain that is entirely unique to oneself clearly conflating the idea of being truly alive with the idea of suffering.



¡§ALAN: All the men - staring up like they were in church. Like they were a sort of congregation.¡¨

Alan¡¦s description of the male cinema audience when he goes to see the ¡¥skinflick¡¦ with Jill suggests an obvious connection between sex and religion - but here it¡¦s more that notions of religion have been superimposed on sex, rather than the other way around as in other instances. Here, Shaffer¡¦s comparison of watching a dirty movie to a religious act of worship suggests how both sex and religion can become objects of devotion in similar ways implying that the desire for spiritual comfort that we find in church has little to distinguish itself from our fascination with the sex and the naked body. This connection between religion and sex / sexuality becomes more convincing when we consider that most of the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) often stress ideas such as reproductive control, sexual purity before marriage and disapproval of ¡¥abnormal¡¦ sexual acts such as homosexuality or masturbation.