Repressed Memory and Play

Equus is a play in which present and past collide and intertwine in spectacular and thematically significant ways. Psychoanalysis (a process of evaluating mental health that was developed by Sigmund Freud) drives the plot forward, as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart succeeds in drawing out of Alan Strang a series of repressed memories. His intention is to achieve abreaction, which is the discharge of the emotional energy attached to a repressed idea. Theatrically, the past events in the plot of Equus are strikingly represented, diverging from analytical and expository dialogue; rather than related verbally, these memories are acted out in flashback. By staging the past rather than revealing it through exposition (analysis usually being a process of verbalization), Shaffer takes great advantage of the visual power of the theatre. In the staging of Alan’s memories, he allows himself a more lyrical tone, a more ritualistic style than that employed in the realistic dialogues between Dysart and the other characters in the play. In his book Peter Shaffer, critic C. J. Gianakaris observed: ‘‘What will be best remembered about Equus is its brilliant dramatising of man’s attempt to reconcile the personal and the metaphysical aspects of his universe. ’’ As Gianakaris wrote, with the ‘‘immeasurable help’’ of director John Dexter, Shaffer ‘‘strikingly fused realism with mimetic ritual,’’ achieving a ‘‘daring stylisation’’ which is crucial to the success of the play. Ultimately, the abstract scenes in Equus powerfully reveal the relationship between sex and religion— the two most significant, and closely intertwined, themes in the play. Both sex and religion are crucial factors in Alan’s childhood development: in both arenas, Alan transfers ‘‘normal’’ social views of sex and worship onto his pagan, equine religion. The play hints at the sexual undertones in many events in Alan’s childhood. Frank Strang’s comment that Christianity ‘‘is just bad sex’’ implies connections between sexual desire and religious ecstasy which run through the play. Frank observes of Alan: 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. I’m not joking. The boy was absolutely fascinated by all that. He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning. Alan’s ride with the Horseman is also given sexual meaning; it is a pleasure he clearly attempts to duplicate on his naked, midnight rides with Equus. (Alan has essentially ritualized a masturbatory act into a religious practice. ) At the play’s climax, Alan is confused when he finds himself sexually aroused by Jill Mason. He feels great shame as a result both of his ‘‘infidelity’’ in the presence of Equus and his impotence with Jill. Sex is a major catalyst, both in Alan’s development and in the violent blinding of the horses. The thematic connection between sexual identity and religious practice is cemented in the details of the play’s staging. Equus is a play of thematic complexity and depth, and Shaffer’s writing of dialogue is, by and large, up to the task of expressing this complexity (although some critics have disagreed on this point). The true novelty and genius of Equus, however, may rest in the manner in which Shaffer utilizes theatrical techniques to enact powerfully the psychological and religious dimensions of the play. Past and present collide in theatrical spectacle, as the dialogue of Alan’s sessions with Dysart is given a larger, visual dimension, powerfully underscoring the play’s psychological themes. Gianakaris comments: The flexibility of the stage design permits striking variations in the way the action is presented. Straightforward realism alternates with imaginative stylised scenes of mime. Dysart’s is the cool, detached world of science where clinical evidence determines one’s actions. His dealings with others are consequently portrayed realistically, with narrated interjections. But Alan Strang’s ritual worship is especially well suited to abstract staging. The most stunning moments of reenactment (the abreaction) are the extended scenes which conclude each act of Equus. The first act ends with Alan riding horseback to the point of orgasm, with images culled from passages in the Book of Job from the Old Testament . The second act contains an equally dramatic nude scene of attempted interE course (between Alan and Jill), the blinding of the horses, and words from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. The themes of religion and sex are repeatedly linked In the first case, having hypnotized Alan through a game he calls ‘‘Blink,’’ Dysart encourages his patient not merely to talk about his ritualistic worship of Equus but to act out the process as well. Dysart’s prompts provide an important encouragement, but gradually the voice of the doctor fades out and the theatrical reenactment subsumes the dramatic action. With a hum from the chorus, the actors depicting horses slowly rotate a turntable, on which Alan and his mount are fixed in a bright spotlight. Alan’s ‘‘ride’’ becomes more and more frenzied, and as the choral humming increases in volume, Alan shouts powerfully: WEE!. . . WAA!. . . WONDERFUL!. . . I’m stiff! Stiff in the wind! My mane, stiff in the wind! My flanks! My hooves! Mane on my legs, on my flanks, like whips! Raw! Raw! I’m raw! Raw! Feel me on you! On you! On you! On you! I want to be in you! I want to BE you forever and ever! —Equus, I love you! Now! — Bear me away! Make us One Person! Alan rides ever more frantically, chanting ritualistically ‘‘One Person! ’’ and then, simply, ‘‘HA-HA! ’’ With Alan’s body twisting like a flame, the chorus gradually brings the turning square to a stop. Alan drops off the horse, kisses his hoof and cries up to him: ‘‘AMEN! ’’ The act concludes completely within the framework of this reenactment without returning to Dysart for commentary or further dialogue between doctor and patient. The conclusion of the play is given a similarly startling theatrical dimension. Dysart has prompted Alan through the process of reenactment, even taking on the voice of Equus himself as he says: ‘‘The Lord thy God is a Jealous God! He sees you. ’’ But as in the first act abreaction, Dysart gradually retreats to the background as the reenactment of Alan’s repressed memory takes over the stage: ALAN: Thou— God— Seest— NOTHING! (He stabs out Nugget’s eyes. The horse stamps in agony. A great screaming begins to fill the theater, growing ever louder. ALAN dashes at the other two horses and blinds them too, stabbing over the rails. Their metal hooves join in the stamping. Relentlessly, as this happens, three more horses appear in cones of light: not naturalistic animals like the first three but dreadful creatures out of nightmare. Their eyes flare—their nostrils flare—their mouths flare, they are archetypal images—judging, punishing, pitiless. They do not halt at the rail but invade the square. As they trample at him, the boy leaps desperately at them, jumping high and naked in the dark, slashing at their heads with arms upraised, and shouting ‘‘Nothing! ’ savagely with each blow. The screams increase. ) The scale of the reenactment—an exceptional bit of theatricality—suggests the monumental importance of the blinding, both as it originally occurred and in its retelling. Building upon the tremendous sense of release Alan will feel from this abreaction, Dysart hopes he will be able to cure the boy of his mental anguish. John Weightman wrote in Encounter that the stabbing out of the horses’ eyes ‘‘gives another fine frenzy when the scene is re-enacted as psychodrama. ’ Through such reenactments there is an important mirroring of revelation in the play; the audience makes important discoveries just as Dysart is making them. Past and present are folded into one another as theatrical representation takes the place of expository dialogue. During the flashback scenes, the lights turn warm in color and intensity, investing the remembered action with a great deal of theatricality. The staging of the events allows the audience a glimpse into Alan’s mind; he views the world with a passionate sense of wonder few people possess. The purposefully non-realistic depiction of the horses, for instance, allows the animals to ‘‘evoke the essence of horses as we recognize them in daily life’’ but also, crucially, gives them ‘‘the regal bearing of transcendent beings as Alan perceived them,’’ noted Gianakaris. Shaffer notes that in the depiction of the horses, ‘‘great care must also be taken that the masks are put on before the audience with very precise timing—the actors watching each other so that the masking has an exact and ceremonial effect. ’ While audiences marveled at the theatrical power of Equus, critics have differed in their assessments of Shaffer’s writing and his success at integrating a variety of complex themes and theatrical styles. Reviewing the play in the Manchester Guardian, Michael Billington judgedEquus superior to Shaffer’s earlier work because in this play, ‘‘the intellectual argument and the poetic imagery are virtually indivisible. ’’ While some critics have found considerable merit in the unity of the work, others argue that the real strength of Equus lies only in its theatricality. Henry Hewes commented in the Saturday Review that ‘‘the play’s statement is less impressive than is Shaffer’s skillful theatrical fabrication, which deftly finds layers of comic relief as he inexorably drills deeper into the hard rock of tragedy. ’’ America’s Catherine Hughes similarly focused on the staging, arguing that ‘‘on the level of theatricality . . . Equus is stunning. . . . Although Shaffer’s philosophizing is too shallow, sometimes to the point of glibness, to be entirely convincing, one in the end forgives it in the wake of the play’s brilliantly rendered imagery. ’ A few critics have argued against even the theatrical power of the concluding scene, although such harsh criticism is rare. J. W. Lambert, for one, commented in Drama that ‘‘Mr. Shaffer has not made [Alan’s] course of action seem inevitable. The act of gouging out the horses eyes, when it comes, seems if not arbitrary then hardly less perverse than it would have done had we been given no reasons for it at all. And after all the purpose of the play’s exposition is to offer us some reason for the irrational. ’’ Shaffer has observed that theatre ‘‘is, or has to be, an ecstatic and alarming experience. And a beautiful one. That doesn’t mean it’s one continuous shout-out; it also must have great spaces of tranquillity and lyricism in it. ’’ The powerful scenes of abreaction in Equus lend the play both lyricism and ecstasy. Further, they offer a glimpse into Alan’s mind, which is crucial given the philosophical importance lent to the passionate instinct with which the boy has led his life. While Equus is cleverly constructed from top to bottom, the enduring power of the play may still rest in the skill with which Shaffer and director John Dexter chose to depict the memories repressed deep within the subconscious of its primary character.

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