Review: Equus Displays Horse Sense in Exploring the Meaning of Madness

Peter Shaffer’s Equus was written in 1973, when many cultural assumptions were being upended and some influential thinkers questioned the most basic premises of psychiatry. Their essential point — and I may be oversimplifying — was that the culture was insane, and to remain sane in an insane world is in itself a form of madness. I knew of R. D. Laing’s theory about this decades ago (in The Politics of Experience, from 1967, he wrote: “Madness...may also be breakthrough”), and at the Avenue Theater, which just revived the play, I found myself seated next to a helpful neurologist who provided another key reference: Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness.

Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist practicing in a mental hospital, takes on a new patient, Alan Strang, a teenager who blinded six horses with a hoof pick (the plot is based on a news story that Shaffer had read). During their first meeting, a sullen Alan refuses to communicate except in television commercial jingles. Dysart, wise and reasonable, comfortably in control, uses various techniques to enter the kid’s murky psyche. We discover that Alan has a love for horses so passionate that it’s become a form of worship, and this passion is intensely sexual, possibly homoerotic. He’s been working weekends at a stable, grooming the animals and mucking out their stalls, and at night he takes wild and secret rides on his favorite horse, Nugget. The symbolism isn’t subtle. Boy and horse together become a mythic creature, a centaur.
And the horse is a kind of godhead, a representation of Christ. Dysart, too, has a passion of sorts: a love of Greek mythology, and his annual trips to Greece compensate for a loveless, sexless marriage with a down-to earth Scottish dentist.

Exactly why Alan is so disturbed remains mysterious. His mother, Dora, is religious and mildly hysterical; his father, Frank, a socialist printer who dislikes his son’s interest in television — specifically cowboy movies, because cowboys, too, are at one with their horses — and turns out to have an interest in porn. Neither parent seems monstrous enough to drive a son this crazy, and Dora’s belief that Alan’s crime is the work of the devil is just as convincing as Dysart’s musings about Greek gods or the belief of the judge who hears Alan’s case — and represents the voice of normalcy — that what he needs is understanding.

Eventually, the boy’s madness infects Dysart, bringing him to a realization of just how cramped and conventional his own life is. And here’s where the script weakens. The first act of Equus aroused all kinds of interesting associations for me, but only a little way into the second act (and the play runs almost three hours), the entire thing began to seem absurdly overblown. Having led Alan through a charged re-creation of his crime, at the end of which the boy collapses, Dysart laments that he can cure Alan and make his terrible pain go away, but if he does, he will condemn the boy to a shallow and inauthentic life.

It was once believed that reliving a trauma was a step toward cure, but we now know that isn’t true. We also know that a psychiatrist, no matter how talented, can’t simply remove pain and psychosis. Nor, to be honest, do we feel a great deal of sympathy for Alan. These days a kid like that, driven by fantasy, would be as likely to shoot up a school as to torment an animal. The subsidiary characters never feel quite real, either. Why, for example, does pretty stable girl Jill want to make love with someone as clearly disturbed as Alan, and why does she hang around, their lovemaking having failed, to utter soothing platitudes about how “it happens to everyone” when he’s actually coming at her with that deadly hoof pick? And the great waves of purple prose toward the play’s end don’t help much.

Still, the scope and ambition of this production, directed by Warren Sherrill, are admirable, the ideas are worth exploring, and much of the acting is terrific. Paul Borrillo is as good a Dysart as I can imagine, transforming convincingly from the competent, humorous analyst of the early scenes to a man drowning in his own patient’s madness. His performance needs to be experienced, and so does the sheer emotional guts of Spencer Althoff’s Alan Strang — and there’s only one weekend left to experience both.

Equus, presented by the Avenue Theater through November 21, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925,
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman