Equus is art that manages to be about violence without adding to the culture of violence. Neither the Peter Shaffer play nor the 1977 film adaptation by Sidney Lumet are likely to provoke copycats to act out the violence that is the subject of their art. Alan Strang, the boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike, doesn't inspire admiration or contempt, only pity. His cruel attack on demigods of his own creation is a desperate act, performed in the midst of despair and excruciating mental pain.
Alan Strang's parents are unable to explain their son's madness and they're not willing to shoulder any responsibility for Strang. While Shaffer hints at the roles Strang's mother's religiosity and repressed sexuality and his father's hypocrisy may have played in Alan's descent into a secret world, ruled by improbable gods, ultimately, Shaffer lets the parents and society off the hook. The connections are just too complex.
Equus distances us from the violence it portrays by beginning and ending with: "Why?"
As a play, Equus naturally involves the viewer as spectator more than participant. And, being a British play by a British playwright, it lacks the cultural references to the Westward Expansion that are so readily available to American artists. But even the film version by American director Sidney Lumet, though it occasionally adopts a subjective point of view and graphically depicts the blinding of the horses, manages balance. It doesn't just dramatize the struggle between nature and civilization -- between what Levi-Strauss called the raw and the cooked -- it honestly wrestles with the dilemma and achieves, if not a solution, at least a resolution to the conflict between freedom and conformity. It wraps the action of the film up in literate and reasonable discourse about a difficult subject. For better or for worse, it is a cerebral film. And it's an honest one, because the author doesn't pretend to answer the unanswerable. He -- and we -- must settle for stasis -- as painful as that may be.
Richard Burton as Martin Dysart Equus (1977) United Artists
Ultimately, of course, it is not Alan Strang but Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist appointed by a British court to ease Alan's pain -- and the one person in the film who has a moral dilemma -- who ends up in chains.
Account for me, Equus demands.
Dysart can no more account for Equus than I can rule out the possibility that some word of mine, some thought, floating loose in the blogosphere where everything is connected to everything else, will forge the last link in a lethal chain some sad day.