▲ Dr. Dysart feels ambivalent about Alan Strang. Photograph provided by Corcordium.
God, Human, and Sex. The three have been the most influential and controversial themes throughout the whole of history. What is a god? What defines one as a normal human being? Why has sex become the taboo of society? Peter Shaffer, also the creator of the masterpieces, Amadeus and The Gift of the Gorgon, answers these philosophical and rather fundamental questions to the audience, giving them a chance to ponder about the theme through his great play, Equus.
Equus, the play winning Tony Awards for Best Play and also achieving worldwide success in English literature, depicts the story about Alan Strang from the monologue of the narrator Dr. Dysart, the psychiatrist specializing in child counseling. One day, Dysart took the case of stable boy, Alan, who blinded seven horses with a metal spike. After the night of the grotesque incident, Dysart met Alan. The doctor begins to consult him and gets to the root of the problem, unveiling why the boy committed such an appalling massacre.
The very beginning of the play, however, starts without disclosing anything about the boy and the doctor. The doctor slowly speculates about the details of a particular horse, Equus. Standing on the middle of the stage, the horse boasts its body and dignity beside the lean boy, only to maximize the colossal figure of it. All the lights focus on the Equus, appearing with halos on its body, which reminds audience of a holy god. At the time, Equus is described not as a mere horse but as a god, symbolizing the essence of passion and vigor.
Every child has a god, either in the form of attachment to parents and siblings, or in other forms of imaginary creatures, which intensely shape a child’s identity. In the play, for the seventeen-year-old boy, it is the Equus, the noble, magnificent creature. Raised by a hypocritical father who pulverized Alan’s dream and a Christian mother who constantly crammed religious notions into her son, the horse became the boy’s deity and more fundamentally, the outlet of his repressed desire and passion after first encountering the creature.
▲ Once, Alan took care of and worshipped seven horses in the stable. Photograph providedby Corcordium.
At the same time the plot also revolves around Dr. Dysart. Contrary to the wild, untamed boy, he is welleducated, gentle, and logical, living the admirable standard of life that everybody desires. Yet, he somewhat envies the boy’s internal ferocious passion. Even though living a life that is seemingly perfect, he is emasculated by the boy’s vigor. There comes an irony—normality covets abnormality. Throughout the performance, by juxtaposing the two characters, Equuscasts a profound question about forced normalcy and, further, the criteria of normality that the audience has to speculate on.
Overall, the atmosphere of the play is static and even dreadful. However, whenever the dynamic horses appear on stage, the lights turn into a bloody reddish color, and mysterious background music resonates. They stamp with vigor, snort violently, and fill the theater with energy. By a sudden change of atmosphere, the effects emphasize the horses’ flamboyant movements and at the same time illustrate their sexuality. Traditionally, both in Western and Eastern cultures, equus is a sexual icon. Likewise, in the performance, it is described as either a god of Alan or a sexually attractive creature. Yet, the sex appeal of the horses is not confined to impulse, but rather made relevant to the basic component of life, reproduction, and virility.
Combined with his distorted religious beliefs, sex becomes an obsession to Alan. Having learnt about it from his fanatic Christian mother, all Alan knows is that sex is willed by god. Consequently, he expresses his slanted view secretly; for instance, he does so by chanting Bible-like genealogy of horses, or showing agitation when he is on a date with his girlfriend, Jill. In these scenes, it seems that he is frantic but the audience knows that his irrationality was driven by his parents. Thus, the audience can genuinely feel sorry for him even in the most eccentric scenes.
▲ The pressure of seven horses fell heavy on Alan. Photograph Provided by Corcordium.
Not only the message of Equus, but its technique and direction are the icings of the play. In reality, people do not see a person as a horse. However, all the audience regards the seven actors as seven horses during the 120-minute performance, mesmerized by their sophisticated portrayal. Although the only tangible hint that indicates that the actors are delineated as horses is the equine figure helmets, they turn into horses by employing gesture, sound, and vehement acting on the stage. Along with their impeccable acting, the physical beauty of the actors also lets the audience associate with the horses’ wildness.
One factor that the audience has to be aware of before entering the theater is that the play includes one scene of nudity. Still, it is not the nudity, but rather the story and symbols of the play that provoke emotion in audience. When first encountering the play, the audience might be put in a state of shock as intense as a blow to their heads. The philosophical questions and the descriptions of a human being’s rudimental desire and need rush to the audience, who may be uncomfortable and even reluctant to face them. That is because people are so tamed to the orderly life and established normalcy. As Dysart said in his last line, Equus accuses that it is not the horse but human “who is restrained by the sharp chain in their mouths.”
Date: September 4 to November 1, 2015
Place: Chungmu Art Hall’s Middle Theater Black
Running Time: 120 minutes (including 10 minutes of intermission)
Ticket Price: 40,000 won (for those who are under 24 year old, 30,000 won)