Saturday, April 20, 2013


A child is born into a world of phenomena, all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes over the whole, uncountable range. Suddenly, one strikes. Then another. Then another. Why? Moments snap together, like magnets forging a chain of shackles. Why?” -- Equus (1977) United Artists

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.

Self-flagellation.  Equus (1977)  United Artists  Peter Firth as Alan Strang

One of the reasons Equus works is that it grounds itself in antiquity and refers to fundamentally important things like the struggle between reason and emotion, the Appollonian versus the Dyonesian in culture. The role of psychiatry in Shaffer's Equus is to civilize the child, to bend the individual's will, even his grasp of reality, to the demands of society, even if the unique and creative individual is destroyed in the process.

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.


Tom Manoff said...

There's a lot of interesting and frankly brilliant-put ideas here. I'm not sure where to begin. Did you post this at Open Salon also ?

I'll peck away at it, I guess. First off, I saw Equus in New York, not sure of the year. 70's though. What I remembered from the play wasn't the plot, strangely enough, but the actual imagery on the stage. I think that is quite remarkable though, to "see" a theater production in ones memory.

Lumet. Now there's another topic of great moment for me. Later, then.

Billy Glad said...

I'm giving the editor at myfiredoglake a chance to put it up before I publish it elsewhere. The play would be better to talk about than the Lumet film, probably, but I don't think the play has worked its way into even the fringe of pop culture, though having the Harry Potter kid play the Strang role in a revival may have helped in England at least. The problem with American pop culture is it is so mindless. I still remember Eyes For Consuela, which I saw off broadway 20 years ago, vividly. I thought you might have thoughts about Lumet. I wonder that someone hasn't "filmed" -- or maybe recorded is a better word -- Equus as a continuous shot from a single camera in the audience -- something similar to the way The Brig was done. If I were still doing films, I'd make a proposal to the NEA to do something like that. As you note, the production cost is negligible now. A dress rehearsal maybe. Be fun to do. Want to go along?

Tom Manoff said...

The "problem" is Lumet. A central director in my father's most famous and important writing for television and the blacklist. The very name Lumet is blidning to me, attraction, respect, affection--though I never met him.

Antepilani said...

Does this pass for pop culture? If so, I really like this guy's commentary:

I watched the documentary, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" about him (mostly, partially)last night while streaming my Netflix through my Xbox360 while reclining in my Herman Miller chair whilst sipping my nice glass of Drencrom.

It was early yet.

Decidere said...

Looked at the FDR bit on FDL - how much further can we get from original intent?