Thursday, March 4, 2010

Equus : A Play On Life, Passion & Psychiatry

One of the fascinating things about living in Oshiwara, Andheri West, Mumbai, even if it entails a long 4 hour arduous travel on a daily basis to my place of work in South Mumbai is, being in the vicinity to Prithvi. It has been a gap of almost 2 months since i could get to see a play there. Otherwise, on an average i could watch atleast a couple of plays every month. This time i went with Ananthan, in his Harley Davidson bike legendary for its punctuality, to watch the play Equus written by Peter Shaffer. It was directed by Daniel D'Souza and performed by his experimental theatre group called Jester Productions which comprises of guys and gals in the age group of 20s. The protagonists of the play are a young boy named Alan Strang, performed by Daniel D'Souza himself and a child psychiatrist Dr.Martin Dysart, performed by Eamonn Ennis.

Alan is a post-adolescent boy who gets attracted to horses sexually and spiritually. During his growing up years, his devout mother who is a school teacher narrates him stories from the Bible. Alan gets obsessed with one particular horse story which his mother had read out to him and starts creating a personal theology in his mind with worshipful horses and its supreme god Equus. Alan's mother also teaches him that sexual act is dirty and that only through true devotion one can attain salvation. Alan's father is an atheist and he does not like Alan getting influenced by the Biblical stories of his wife. Getting upset with this, one day Alan's father destroys a picture of Crucifixion which Alan had hung in his bedroom. Alan replaces it with another picture of a horse with huge staring eyes. The conflicting views on life, religion and sex starts from his parents and Alan grows up to discover them in his own way. Alan was also influenced by his grandfather's interest in horses and riding. But Alan has a strange fear to ride the horses because of an experience of a fall from a horse back during childhood in the sea shore.

Alan gets acquainted with a young girl Jill who gets Alan a job in the stables. Here in the stables, the job of Alan is to clean and groom the horses. Using a currycomb, he grooms the horses from the ears, working towards the tail, right through the coat. The harder he does it the more the horse loves it! Out of the few horses, Alan becomes erotically fixated to a horse called Nugget. Alan starts visitng the stables secretly in the night and takes Nugget for an imaginary ride by sitting naked on the back of the horse. Nugget does not gallop but dances to his movements of an imaginary ride. Alan fantasises himself as a king sitting on the godhead Equus, both him and his horse waging a war against all the forces of evil in an imaginary battlefield. The fantasy game culminates in Alan reaching an orgasm and this becomes his secret routine in the nights of his adolescence.

As Alan grows close with that young girl Jill, on one evening, Jill convinces Alan to take him to a cinema hall where a pornographic film is being screened. In the theatre, Alan sees his father who had come stealthily to watch the same pornography. On seeing Alan, his father gets embarassed and tries to give some false excuse. But this incident makes Alan realise that sex is a natural thing for everyone, which includes his father as well. Alan refuses to go home with his father and goes to drop Jill in her home. While going home, Jill cajoles Alan to go to the stables with her. They reach the same stables where Alan frequents secretly in the nights and play out his fantasy.

In the stables, Jill undresses and seduces Alan to have sex with her. Alan asks her to close the door and windows tight as he does not want Nugget, the supreme godhead Equus, to watch them having sex. The very thought of Nugget staring at him with its large eyes, while having sex with Jill, unnerves him. Jill closes them tight and they start making love. Suddenly, Alan hears the tapping of the hooves of the horses from outside. He withdraws out from Jill and when Jill tries to reason out with Alan that such initial clumsiness in sex is just normal, Alan shouts at her and madly screams and drives her away. Then Alan asks for forgiveness from the horses, especially from Nugget and cries for mercy. There is silence pervading all around and the horses keep simply nodding their heads to his frenzied talk. In a fit of rage, he takes a hoofpick and blinds all the horses as he thinks they have stared inside his naked soul completely and there is no escape from his shame and guilt.

It seems a similar incident happened in real somewhere near London during the middle of the 20th Century. A 17-year old boy had blinded half-a-dozen horses and was treated in a psychiatry ward. That incident became the inspiration for Peter Shaffer to write this play. But the most interesting aspect of the play is the role of the psychiatrist Dr.Martin. It is the characterisation of Dr.Martin which turns the play upside down and makes the whole narrative so engrossing.

Dr.Martin, the psychiatrist, will be working in a psychiatric clinic and he is dissatisfied with his profession. Though he had taken up his profession by choice, he very often keeps wondering that the kind of work he does is not at all what he wanted out of life. He feels a deep sense of alienation with his vocation and his personal life. Many youths come to him as his patients. And Dr.Martin is not sure whether in the name of psychiatric cure, he is only pushing the troubled youth to get back to a normalised dull routine without any beauty or passion in their lives.

The play begins with the soliloquy of Dr.Martin thinking aloud about his personal and professional life and about the outlines of the case history of Alan who has been recently admitted in the hospital. And the narrative moves back and forth as both Dr.Martin and Alan interact with each other during various counselling sessions. Dr.Martin also hypnotises Alan to bring out the hidden aspects in the life of Alan when the whole story till the night of his first attempt of sexual intercourse with Jill and the subsequent blinding of the horses at the stables gets unfolded.

After narrating his story in a state of frenzied interrogation by Dr.Martin during hypnosis, Alan goes off to sleep falling on the floor of the psychiatric clinic. Dr.Martin looks at the sleeping Alan and asks himself whether what he is doing to Alan in the name of psychiatric treatment is fundamentally right, whether he is going to rob Alan off his intense passion for the horses, whether he is actually envious of Alan deep down inside as his own life has become shorn of any passion and whether he is standing in the dark with a blade in his hand striking at heads.

Dr.Martin says to the sleeping Alan as the play ends ~

Passion, you see,can be destroyed by a doctor.

It cannot be created.

You won't gallop anymore, Alan.

Horses will be quite safe.

You'll save your money every week...

change that scooter for a car...

and spend glorious weekends...

grooming that.

You'll pop round to the betting shop

and put the odd pence on the nags...

quite forgetting they ever meant

anything more to you than...

bearers of little profits and little losses.

At one point of time during the counselling sessions with Dr.Martin, Alan suddenly turns the table against his Doctor. That is one of the most poignant moments of the play. Let me reproduce the dialogue between Alan & Dr.Martin and the subsequent soliloquy of Dr.Martin ~

Alan : Now it's my turn. You tell me, answer me.

Dr.Martin : We're not playing that game now.

Alan : We're playing what l say.

Dr. Martin : All right. What do you want to know?
Alan : Do you have dates?
Dr.Martin : I told you, I’m married.
Alan : I know. Her name's Margaret, she's a dentist.
You see? l found out.
What made you go with her, then?
Did you use to bite her hands when she did you in the chair?
Dr.Martin : That's not very funny.
Alan : No.
Dr.Martin : Then what?
Alan : Do you fuck her?
Dr.Martin : All right.
Alan : Come on, tell me, tell me.
Dr.Martin : That's enough now.
Alan : I bet you don't.
I bet you never touch her.
Is that because you don't fuck?
Dr.Martin : Go to your room. Quick march. Alan.
Give me those cigarettes.
Give them to me!
Now go.

After this very disturbing converstaion, Dr.Martin thinks aloud to himself ~

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
The boy's on the run, so he turns defensive.What am I, then?
Wicked little bastard. He knew exactly what questions to try.
Not that there's anything awful about that.
Advanced neurotics can be dazzling at that.
They aim unswervingly at your area of maximum vulnerability...
which is, I suppose, as good a way as any of describing Margaret.

My wife doesn't understand me, Your Honor.
Do you understand her?
Obviously, l never did.
I’m sorry.
I never like to ask.
But l always imagined you weren't exactly compatible.
We were. It actually worked for a bit.
I mean, for both of us.
She, for me, through a kind of...
a clear, redheaded, inaccessible briskness that kept me keyed up for months.
Mind you, if you're kinky for northern hygiene which l am...
you can hardly find anything more compelling than a Scottish lady dentist.
it’s you who are wicked, you know.
Not at all.
She got exactly the same from me. Antiseptic proficiency.
I was like that in those days.
I see us in our wedding photograph...
Dr. and Dr. MacBrisk.
were brisk in our wooing, brisk in our wedding, brisk in our disappointment.
We turned from each other briskly into our separate surgeries.
And now, there's a nice, brisk nothing.

Mentally, we're in different parts of the world.
She's forever in some drizzly chapel of her own inheriting...
and I'm in some Doric temple, clouds tearing through the pillars...
eagles bearing prophesies out of the sky.

I wish...
there was somebody in this life I could show...
instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person
that I could take to Greece...
and stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say:
"life is only comprehensible through a thousand...
"local gods.
I'd say to them:
"all you can see...
"and more will appear."

The play is brilliantly staged and amazingly performed by actors in their early 20s. The entire cast, including the 4 actors playing as horses, the parents of Alan, the magistrate friend of Dr.Martin, the nurse, the owner of the stables are all seated on the sides along with the audience and they watch the entire play along with us. The lighting is done meticulously by Daniel D'Souza, who directs and acts as Alan. He has done remarkably well in his role as Alan and as director of the play. In the seduction and subsequent love making scene of Jill and Alan, both the actors get semi-naked which does not add much charm to the play except as a mildly titillating shocker. That apart, the play has been staged beautifully well and it deserves a thunderous applause.

The play Equus by Peter Shaffer raises the fundamental question of what Friedrich Nietzsche in his work The Birth Of Tragedy has philosophically posed : the complex interplay between the Appollonian and the Dionysian dichotomy of life. In the Greek mythology, both Appollo and Dionysus are the sons of the Zeus, the King of Gods. Appollo is the Sun God representing thinking, logic and rationality, while Dionysus is the God of Wine representing passion, feelings and intoxication. In Equus, the Dionysian Alan is fuelled by his passion for the horses and intoxicated in his personal theology of worship and love. But he fails to reign in his passion and is unable to come to terms with himself. And the Appollonian Dr.Martin is rational and logical in his approach towards life. But he miserably falters in his very purpose of existence and is becoming a shallow void. How can they both reconcile?

The play does not give any answers to this fundamental question of life. But it sinks the question deep inside you which makes it ever haunting. It is so hard to make a choice. The 'normal' which is the shining good in a child's eyes and the 'normal' which is also in the dead stare of a million adults. How 'normal' do you want to become?


  1. Great. Very surprised as it was performed in stage. Hats'off to director Daniel D'Souza and to U my dear for meticulous narration which gave visual experience of it. I want to become NORMAL by reconciling both.
    -Thiru -Thiru.

  2. I recommend you to see two important Marathi movies recently released:

    1. Natrang
    2. Harichandrachi Factory

    "Natrang" is what we are also going through in our professional life. What you like to do and what you are forced to do is always different.


  3. excellent, i am tagging this blog to my account.
    All the very best and hope tyo see many more such thought provoking wirteups