Alan's genuine and passionate devotion to Equus and the sense that other characters, in contrast, are living unfulfilled and unfulfilling lives.


Throughout the play, most characters are depicted as having a belief in something; Dora in Christianity, Frank in socialism, Dysart in the classically romantic world of Ancient Greece, and Alan in Equus. However, Alan’s devotion to Equus is obviously the most passionate, to the degree that he is characterized as insane by the society in which he lives. This theme is significant because it makes the audience think about passion and devotion and faith. Although Alan is worshipping a different deity he is doing it with a fervour and intensity that makes our devotions seem pale and insipid in comparison. This juxtaposition provokes reflection amongst the audience as they are forced to reconsider their own beliefs and the value of what Dysart is assigned to take away.


Ultimately, Shaffer appears to be implying that people may have to give up the chance of living a fulfilling life in order to conform to the expectations created by the society around them. An example that highlights this is seen when Hesther visits Dysart and recalls up how “[his] wife doesn’t understand [him].” and that she is, “mentally, always in some drizzly kirk of her own inheriting,” suggesting that she is in her own separate bubble of normality. This depressing description of the ‘drizzly kirk’ (and even Dysart’s feeble patting of his statue of Dionysus before he goes to work) contrasts sharply with Alan’s more powerfully expressed faith in Equus, for example where he is seen ‘sucking the sweat off of his god’s cheek.’







DYSART: ‘All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump… I can’t see it, because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle. I can’t ump because the bit forbids it… my horsepower, if you like – is too little… The doubts have been there for years, piling up steadily in this dreary place.’

The words ‘reined up’ and ‘ straining’ suggest that Dysart is controlled and limited, as if on a leash. Unlike Alan, he is not free, but is “controlled” by his educated average head which conforms to society’s conception of the “normal” so that there is no longer real passion


This is accentuated by the idea of his inadequate horsepower, suggests a lack of fire, devotion, drive and the contrast with ‘dreary place’ suggests that there is a lack of substance to Dysart’s life which is dry, shallow and as seems to be devoice of interest and emotion.



DYSART: ‘I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice… the implied doubt that this repetitive and smelly work is doing any social good at all…’

There is a an irony here in that this supposedly immensely important ritual is described as occurring at “some” place, which creates the impression that there is a lack of interest or true commitment on Dysart’s part.


In addition, repetitive and smelly suggests that Dysart finds the work repugnant and this contrasts to Alan’s midnight rituals where there is evident and genuine personal investment.



DYSART: I feel the job is unworthy to fill me

Once again, this reinforces the sense that he finds his work unfulfilling and that he lacks interest and passion which creates the sense that Dysart is just doing a job rather than genuinely believing in the good of the work that he does as a psychiatrist.


In particular the world ‘fill’ suggests he is not filled by his job creating an image of emptiness which further emphasizes the theme of unfulfilling lives of the other characters



ALAN: ‘Bear me away! [Alan begins to laugh]… it’s lovely, dad!’

This is one of the first times that the audience sees Alan’s passion and interest in anything. The word ‘lovely’ creates the impression of youth, innocence and purity suggesting Alan’s genuine passion and devotion.



ALAN (to Dysart): I bet you never touch her. Come on, tell me. You’ve got no kids, have you? Is that because you don’t “F”? …


DYSART: Instead, she sits beside… and knits things for orphans in a home she helps with. And I sit opposite, turning the pages of art books on Ancient Greece. Occasionally, I still trail a faint scent of my enthusiasm across her path… the familiar domestic monster… Do you know what it’s like for two people to live in the same house as if they were in different parts of the world?... I wish there was one person in my life I could show…’


Dysart is a middle aged man who has no children and the fact that he hasn’t kissed his wife for six years shows how empty, passionless and dull his life is. Having sex with your husband / wife is perceived as being one of the biggest symbols of passion, and the fact that it is missing in Dysart’s marriage and his life, emphasizes that he is living a very unfulfilling life, especially given the fact that Alan’s worship of Equus provides him with sexual as well as spiritual fulfillment.


This is accentuated by the term ‘faint scent of enthusiasm’ which suggests that there is barely anything left of this passion and that this action is more of a routine than anything else, the complete opposite of what passion is supposed to be


Dysart’s longing for company and someone that he can share his passion with further reinforces the idea that he is trapped in his own world and that there is no one to share his excitement.



DYSART: “They aim unswervingly at your area of maximum vulnerability... Which I suppose is a good a way as any of describing Margaret.”

This quotation not only suggests Alan’s insight and manipulative skills (in some ways he is more like Dysart than he may have originally seemed) but Dysart’s reference to his wife as his ‘area of maximum vulnerability’ reinforces the degree to which Dysart’s marriage is a frail shadow of the rewarding and enjoyable relationship that it should be.



DYSART: “No, we didn’t go in for [children]. Instead, she sits beside our salmon-pink, glazed brick fireplace, and knits things for orphans in a home she helps with. And I sit opposite, turning the pages of art books on Ancient Greece.”

An impression of Dysart’s own distaste for his relationship with his wife is conveyed by this quotation. The implied sexual dullness suggested by the fact that they did not have children is reinforced by Dysart’s depiction of what seems to be their daily life, during which – despite being husband and wife – they spend their time together sitting apart, each immersed in their own hobbies, which are unimportant to the other.


This sense of distance between the two is accentuated through Dysart’s perspective of his wife’s lifestyle. The depiction of the fireplace as salmon-pink and glazed brick conveys the impression of a life that is solidly middle class and the dull passivity implied is further emphasized by her knitting “things” as knitting is, in itself, an unexciting, sedentary task and the sense of distance between the two is accentuated by the fact that he has no interest in the “things” which she is knitting, and therefore in what she does.


In addition, this normalcy contrasts with Dysart’s work, further implying the disconnection in their relationship, as the only times when the audience witness Dysart’s excitement are when he is confronted with the unusual. An idea further emphasized by an intimacy with Hesther that is made obvious in lines like ‘You’re really quite splendid’ and the self-parodying ‘My wife doesn’t understand me, Your Honour’, a classic divorce-court line.


However, this ability to parody himself suggests a certain level of self-awareness in Dysart’s description of his own passion as he sits opposite Margaret. It is short and simplistic, indicating that despite his grand dreams, he still realizes that to some extent, there is a lack of life in his passion, and that he is not accomplishing anything through reading books on Ancient Greek and gazing at artifacts – he is, in fact, just as unfulfilled as his wife.



DYSART: “I wish there was one person in my life I could show.”

This parallels Alan’s predicament, perhaps even the reason that he is in the mental hospital to start with. At points Shaffer implies that Alan’s wants to be ‘fixed’ so that he can accepted by society. Like everybody else, he craves social acceptance and this quotation suggests that Dysart feels the same and wants at least one person to agree with his passion, yet his wife puts it aside and calls it nonsense.


Less sympathetically, this line can be read as Dysart using the fact that his wife does not share his passion as an excuse for not living fully. However, as we learn from Alan, true passion does not have to be shared or even understood by others. In this way Alan’s ability to celebrate his faith even in the absence of support from anyone else further reveals Dysart’s passiveness.



DYSART: “Mentally, she’s always in some drizzly kirk of her own inheriting: and I’m some Doric Temple - clouds tearing through pillars - eagles bearing prophecies out of the sky. She finds all that repulsive.”

In this description Dysart seems to be comparing his own fascination with the world of Ancient Greece to Alan’s belief in Equus. The use of powerful diction such as ‘tearing’ and epic imagery such as the eagles bearing prophecies are used to imply that he is world is as passionate and vital as Alan’s, especially in contrast to the mundanity of ‘drizzly kirk’.


There is a particularly interesting use of the word ‘inheriting’ which perhaps echoes the way in which Alan (and all of us) have inherited our beliefs from the world around us in some way or another.



“exactly like his mother. Utterly worshipless.”

The lifelessness of Dysart’s marriage is accentuated here. Ironically, Dysart is accusing his wife of being “the familiar domestic monster” (61), while he himself is equally as passive about his own passion for the life of Ancient Greece.



DYSART “Parts sacred to rarer and more wonderful Gods. And at what length..”

Here again we see Dysart debating over whether or not it is right to ‘cure’ Alan of his faith in Equus. “And at what length...” implies that Alan will have to lose something that is of vital importance to him during this process of normalization. This statement suggests not only that Alan has to give up his God in order to fit, but also that all of us have to face a similar choice between passion or belonging … no one can have both.



DYSART: “Normal is… the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills… Sacrifices to the Normal can take as long as sixty months.”

The obvious claim that normality is lays out his conflict In the barest of forms: normal (the rest of society) is dead because there is no passion, devotion, faith or belief and so therefore, in contrast to Alan, all of the other ‘normal’ characters are not truly living life. The use of ‘a million adults’ implies commonality and a loss of individuality … as if we are just like everyone else and, having lost our passion, we have lost the key thing that distinguishes us from other people and marks us out as special. The idea that ‘the Normal’ is a destructive force is reinforced by the image of making ‘sacrifices’ which implies that something has to be lost / offered up to this god in order to become accepted.



ALAN: “I want to BE you forever and ever! – Equus, I love you! … [He lowers his head and kisses Nugget’s hoof. Finally he flings back his head and cries up to him.] AMEN!”

Shaffer creates a stark contrast between Alan and the other relationships in the play, most notably Dora and Frank’s and Dysart and Margaret’s. The relationships that are most fulfilling are Dysart’s with Hesther and Alan’s with Jill and none of these have the passion, the unfettered power and are as free from restriction as Alan’s relationship with Equus. Diction such as ‘love’, ‘cries’ and ‘amen’ suggest an intensity of emotion and devotion … conveying the way in which riding Nugget takes on the form of an ecstatic religious experience for Alan.



“DORA: … Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan … If you added up everything we ever did to him … you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all of our things added up … I only know he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came.”

Dora is a contrast to Alan in the way that she is mostly portrayed as a fairly passive character. While her husband takes control and Alan rides in the mist, she is a softer presence behind the two men.


Her approach to religion itself is a contrast to Alan as she timidly prays to God and hopes for the best while Alan engages in night-time rides and ritualistic self-harm because of his complete devotion to his religion.


Dora seems to be leading an unfulfilling life in comparison because she displays a sort of helplessness in the way she refuses to bear responsibility for Alan’s actions and blames what he has become on the Devil, seemingly indicating that despite her devotion to her own religion, events are out of her control.



DYSART: “But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life… I envy it.”

Shaffer’s use of ‘ferocious’ here emphasizes the twinned nature of Alan’s desire: it is both powerful and dangerous at the same time. In contrast, the simplicity of Dysart’s statement ‘I envy it’ suggests that this is an undeniable truth to him.



“DYSART: That’s the Accusation! … ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’ . . . [Simply.] I’m jealous, Hesther. Jealous of Alan Strang.”

As above, this quotation depicts a moment of realization for Dysart, to which all of the doubts triggered by his interactions with Alan have been leading. Despite his professed love of Ancient Greece, Dysart is aware that in comparison to Alan, his ‘passion’ is not worthy of the name. Alan only lives one night every three weeks … but that is better than Dysart who doesn’t appear to have lived once in at least six years.


In this way Alan can even be considered inspiring – and Dysart acknowledges this. By admitting that he is jealous of Alan Strang.



“DYSART: 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! [Pause.] 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?”

This quotation is a reflection of Dysart’s internal conflict which appears to be reaching a crisis point as the extremes to which Alan goes for his religion evoke a kind of envy in him. He wonders whether the sort of passion that can make a young man more alive than Dysart himself has ever been is something which he should be taking away, especially when most of society remains docile and lives what, in comparison, seems to be a dull and unfulfilled life.


The contrast between his own actions and Alan’s actions best illustrate this. For example, Dysart describes himself as simply sitting, and looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – a fairly passive activity that requires imagination and appreciation from the mind, but which, for all of the mind’s vividness, remains a dream that will slip away once the book is closed and reality calls again.


Those are spikes of momentary passion limited by societal perceptions as centaurs are confined to roam in only dreams. However Alan shatters this convention by trying to “become one” in a Hampshire field. The contrast between the dreams never fulfilled, and Alan’s complete devotion to his religion emphasizes the idea that in comparison to Alan, other characters’ lives seem unfulfilled. The contrast between “the soil of Argos” and “a Hampshire field” also accentuates how Alan’s passion is the one making his ideals a reality as the location seems to be unimportant to him. This also contrasts with Dysart’s more pallid dreams of Ancient Greece and the fact that Dysart has to be in the actual place in order to fill alive implies his lack of imagination.


Furthermore, Dysart’s comparison of his sexual life (or lack of thereof) with Alan’s intimate contact with his God further emphasizes how Alan displays much greater passion than ‘most men’. Dysart’s description of his own morning ritual where he ‘touch[es]’ his statue for luck simultaneously conveys to the reader the sense that Dysart’s devotions are much less exciting and much less involved than Alan’s. Once again this suggests that Alan’s greater passion makes Dysart’s own life (and the lives of the audience members) seem unfulfilled as our rituals seem tame and less vital in comparison.



“JILL: Girls [find horses sexy]. I mean, they go through a period when they pat them and kiss them a lot. I know I did. I suppose it’s just a substitute, really.”

This line may be read as suggesting that even children appear to be living unfulfilled lives as Jill asserts young girls often go through a period of pseudo-sexual intimacy with horses presumably before transferring these urges to other more ‘normal’ objects of affection. This clearly mirrors the way in which Alan’s sexual urges and desire for intimacy has become conflated with the riding of horses and the line actually suggests that this ‘abnormal’ behaviour may be just an extension of ideas and behaviours that we see in the world around us all the time.


Jill is an interesting character because it is unclear how fulfilling her life is. On the one hand she seems to be the only character who is comfortable and confident in her sexuality. The fact that she seems to regularly visit “skin flicks”– judging them all (not just this one) as “silly” – and the fact that she seems quite sexually experienced, seducing Alan and then noting that his temporary impotence is not uncommon, suggests that she has a normal and happy sexual life.


However, we assume that this is not the first time that Jill has seduced a boy and perhaps the implied repetition suggests an emptiness to her actions. In addition the sex, although it may be enjoyable seems not to be particularly meaningful, and so perhaps we can see her as just mechanically embracing the sexual permissiveness of the 1970s and so therefore just as much a product of her inheritance as Margaret is of hers.



“ALAN [to DYSART]: Sorry. I mean for him. Poor old sod, that’s what I felt – he’s just like me! He hates ladies and gents just like me! Posh things – and la-di-da. He goes off by himself at night, and does his own secret thing which no one’ll know about, just like me! There’s no difference – he’s just the same as me – just the same! –”

In this quotation following Alan’s discovery that his father regularly visits the cinema to watch pornography we realize that Frank too lives an unfulfilling life and Alan’s sympathy for him is one of the things that helps us to sympathise with both Frank and Alan. Ultimately, the play does not seem to point the finger of blame at Alan’s parents for being overly repressive … instead it simply charts the development of a personality, the ways in which it can go ‘awry’ and the ways in which abnormal personalities are so close to normal ones that perhaps the line separating them isn’t as significant as we think it is.


The episode with Frank has obvious parallels with Alan’s own ‘unacceptable’ way of achieving sexual gratification although Alan’s method is fully committed, and despite being also secret, there is more reverence than shame. As a result his ‘deviant sexuality’ may seem quite grand while in contrast, Frank’s visits to the cinema seem more tawdry and pathetic, as suggested by his nervous glances around. Thus in comparison to Alan’s full devotion to his nightly excursions, Frank’s form of compensation seems unfulfilling.



“Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”

This line reinforces the doubts Dysart has about his profession and suggests the value of the passion that it is his task to destroy.



“DYSART: … There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.

     [A long pause.

     DYSART sits staring.]”

This quotation encapsulates the fact that in comparison to the freedom Alan enjoys in his complete worship of Equus the other characters, and especially Dysart who has experienced increased self-awareness throughout the play, are living unfulfilled and unfulfilling lives. This is can be clearly seen in the imposition of the “Normal” which, along with common conceptions of what counts as acceptable behaviour, are the chains controlling Dysart and holding his head at the wrong angle. There is a sense of resignation and defeat in the way it never comes out and in his final stare before the black out and this ends the play on a somber note, as Dysart concludes that he cannot change society’s expectations and finally paints a picture of himself as just another horse controlled by the world in which he lives.


One final point worth considering, however, is the question of whether or not Alan is really free. His worship of Equus seems grand and powerful, but to what degree is it just reining him in using a different set of rules?