Equus: Nurturing Nature
An essay by Yitta Reich
The play Equus by Peter Shaffar, examines the mind of a young stable boy who is sent to a psychiatrist for careful mental evaluation after blinding six horses. As part of a plea bargain to avoid incarceration for the crime, seventeen year old Alan Strang is brought to a psychiatric clinic, where his sexual and religious fascination of horses is revealed. From his sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, it can be seen that both nature and nurture shape his mental development and influence his personality. Both heredity and environment influence Alan’s mind, but his environment plays a bigger role in shaping his behavior. The young boy is predisposed by nature to develop a sexual deviation, but it his parents’ nurture shaped by religion and sexual repression that triggers it inside of him. Throughout the play Shaffer emphasizes that the importance of the values and morals parents’ instill upon their children in shaping their behavior.
Alan Strang’s behavior is in part influenced by a mental illness that is later triggered by his parents’ nurture. His behavior and actions leading up to the blinding of the horses strongly suggest that he suffers from delusions. Alan experiences a pathological fascination with horses, the reason for the attack being strongly tied into his belief that horses are godly creatures. He replaces traditional religion and belief in god with an abnormal belief in the divinity of horses. In the scene where Alan “throws out his arms and shows himself fully to his God, bowing himself before Nugget” (Shaffer 41), it is seen that he has replaced Jesus with the belief in Equus. Also many of the passages he uses when referring to Equus, such as: “he is in chains for the sins of the world” (Shaffer 58), “a lump of sugar for his Last Supper” (Shaffer 63), “takes my sins. Eats them for my sake” (Shaffer 63), make reference to the beliefs and biblical stories of Jesus. He also confuses his adoration of religion with sexual attraction and begins to develop sexual interest in horses. In a key scene where Alan admits his ability to achieve an orgasm by riding horses naked, it is strongly suggested that his sexual deviance is in part due to a mental disorder. In the last scene Alan describes his sexual experience riding a horse, “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” (Shaffer 65). Based on the evidence provided through his sessions with Dysart it can be seen that his behavior is partly affected by a mental illness. Alan was born with psychological characteristics that predisposed him to develop certain abnormal traits and behavior. It is how he was brought up that governed and triggered him to act upon these psychological traits.
Part of Alan’s worship for horses stems from his parents’ clashing religious beliefs that blur his perspective of religion and divinity. His mother, Dora, a devout Christian, seeks to propagate her religious beliefs to him, while is father, an atheist, disapproves of her indoctrination of their son. Flooded by Bible stories and practices by his mother, Alan exhibits interest in the divinity when he “insists on buying […] a reproduction of our Lord on his way to Cavalry […] with his own money” (Shaffer 35). His father, who doesn’t appreciate his son’s interest in religion, becomes so enraged by this that he destroys the picture of Jesus and replaces it by that of a horse. Alan’s choice to hang the new picture in exactly the same position as the old one reflects the shift of his belief in Jesus to a belief in horses’ divinity. In the same way the picture was replaced by the horse, Alan replaced conventional religion with an unconventional belief in Equus, a horse. This shift is illustrated when Frank discovers Alan praying and chanting to the new horse picture in similar practices mentioned in the bible. He talks about the horse’s genealogy and beats himself saying “Behold-I give you Equus, my only begotten son” evoking the passage from the bible referring to Jesus as God’s “only begotten son” (Shaffer 42). Frank then proceeds to tell Dysart that “religion’s at the bottom of all this” (Shaffer 43). It also emerges that when Alan was younger his mother told him a story of when the Christian cavalry first appeared in the world and pagans who believed the horse and rider to be one person, saw him as a God. Later on, when Alan rides Nugget he experiences a similar feeling of becoming one with the horse and consequently sees him as a god. In another key scene, where Dysart hypnotizes Alan, Alan reveals that he wants to help the horses by removing the bit that enslaves and tortures them. When Dysart asks him if the chain hurts the horses, Alan replies that “[…] it never comes out. They have [him] in chains [like Jesus] only his name isn’t Jesus [it’s] Equus”. Under hypnosis, Alan compares Equus to Jesus making it clear that he has been influenced by his mother’s teachings of the bible.
Sexual repression features as a cause that nurtured Alan Strang’s sexual deviation; both his mother and father are partly to blame for his unconventional sexual development. This is illustrated when Dysart asks Alan’s parents if they have ever discussed sex with their son; Frank responds negatively saying “No, not in so many words” and Dora responds by saying that she “told him the biological facts” (Shaffer 26). His mother’s religious propaganda along with his father’s authoritarian treatment leads him to affiliate sex with guilt. As part of her deeply religious views, Dora associates sex with spirituality and sin, and instills the idea in his head that “God sees [him]. God’s got eyes everywhere” (Shaffer 40). Later, when he encounters his father secretly attending a screening of a sexual film, insisting that he’s for “business purposes”, it only further enhances his idea of the link between sex and guilt (Shaffer 85). The blinding of the horses emanates from Alan’s increased desire to perform sexually with a girl and the associated guilt that comes along. Following his co-worker, Jill’s, attempt to seduce him at the barn, Alan is incapable of sexual performance saying that though he wanted to very much he “couldn’t see her. Only Him. Every time [he] kissed her-He was in the way” (Shaffer 94), the He being Equus. He tells Dysart that during the night with Jill at the barn Equus “was there through the door […] Mocking!” (Shaffer 95) In a frantic state of panic he pleads to the horse to forgive him: “Friend, Equus the Kind…The Merciful…Forgive me! It wasn’t me! Not really me […] Take me back again. Please! Please! I’ll never do it again. I swear…I swear” (Shaffer 96). In the final scene of the play, Alan proceeds to blind the horses believing they condemn him for his sexual activity.
In Equus, Peter Shaffer examines the influences that shaped the mind of seventeen year old stable boy Alan Strang leading up to the blinding of six horses. While Alan’s genetic component is a leading factor in shaping his personality and behaviour, his parents assumed an important role in triggering his abnormal development. Dora and Frank expose Alan to contradictions that interfere with his maturation and development. Dora is too overprotective of Alan and imposes religion onto him while is father, an atheist, rejects religion. This causes him to replace the conventional practice of religion, with the unconventional belief in Equus as god. Sexual repression is another contributory factor that shapes his behaviour as his parents’ adversity to sex denies him a typical sexual experience and instead causes him to associate sex with sin and guilt. The two contrasting forces within his life shape him and trigger his abnormal behaviour and the crime that follows. Children are born with their unique psychological make-up that is shaped by events and influences in their lives. Although, Alan was predisposed to develop a mental illness, his parents’ nurture plays an important role in shaping his behaviour.
Shaffer, Paul. Equus: A Play in Two Acts. New York: Samuel French, Inc, 1973. Print