Equus

Today’s post is about Peter Shaffer’s Equus! There be horse abuse, quasi-sacrilege themes for Christians, and sexual themes. If you’re into questioning the Christian religion or philosophical debates about faith, then you’ll probably enjoy this play.

Plot: A psychiatrist named Dysart treats Alan, a new patient, who has abused horses despite his religious identification with them.

Initial thoughts: Having only know Shaffer wrote Amadeus, this play totally defied my expectation. While there is a serious and maddened tone reminiscent of the play and movie I knew, Equus is a darker, more sinister exploration of religious and philosophical themes. To be blunt, I was so confused by the time that I put the play down that I know I’ll need to reread some bits. Despite the confusing parts, it’s a fun ride, and it was wonderful to watch the story unfold to reveal the connection between faith and suffering.

Itty Bitty Research: I want to focus on horses and technology. There’s a wonderful mix of natural and technological life in this play. On one hand, the horses can represent the connection to nature, a natural kind of spirituality. On the other, Alan’s world is filled with commercials, electric technology from his old job, and his invention of a spirituality around horses is almost mechanical. Since horses, spirituality, and Greek themes seem most obvious in the play, I want to focus on technology.

When we first encounter Alan in scene three, he only speaks in commercials, which we may guess he saw on TV he secretly watches: Doublemint, Martini, Typhoo, and Texaco.

One of the first commercial tunes Alan sings is for Wrigley Doublemint gum: “Double your pleasure, / Double your fun / With Doublemint, Doublemint / Doublemint gum” (14). While I wasn’t able to track down the commercial in question, I did learn that twins have been featured in Doublemint gum commercials since the 1950s. There’s a sexual component to the commercials (obviously) in using young, twin women to sell their product, and in the 1970s, Doublemint twins Patricia and Cybil had a Western style that might have appealed to Alan.

Next is the Martini commercial, which I was able to find. Martini is short for Martini & Rossi, an alcohol of vermouth and sparkling wine. In the play Alan sings, “Try the taste of Martini / The most beautiful drink in the world/ It’s the right one- / The bright one- That’s Martini!” (15). While this isn’t the most memorable part of the jingle, in my opinion, it does shed light on the parts that Alan focuses on. Other Martini & Rossi commercials focus on a “yes” jingle quite different from the one Alan sings. Equus was first published in 1973, meaning Alan could not have seen this 1978 commercial, though it’s interesting Martini & Rossi feature a horse in that commercial.

The third commercial is for Typhoo Tea, a popular brand of tea in England. Like the Doublemint commercial, I wasn’t able to find it. Alan sings, “There’s only one ‘T’ in Typhoo! / In packets and in teabags, too. / Any way you make it, you’ll find it’s true: / There’s only one ‘T’ in Typhoo!” (15). According to modern commercials, Typhoo’s marketing is more about the oo in Typhoo.

I wasn’t able to find the Texaco jingle, which Alan sings as “Let’s go where you wanna go- Texaco!” (16). Instead, I found that most Texaco commercials of the 1960s and 1970s pushed for marketing about “more and more people trust their car / with the man who wears the Texaco star” and “we’re working to keep your trust.” It’s interesting that the commercials that haven’t survived are the ones that Alan remembered most vividly.

What’s interesting about all these commercials is that although they seem to promote harmless products (gum, a drink, tea, and gas), what I was able to find the commercials share is that they promote these products in ways that might be considered inappropriate for children. For example, the Doublemint twins carry a sexual connotation even though they only sell gum. An inversion of this is Martini & Rossi, which uses the excitement of race cars to promote alcohol. Alan’s father certainly objects to TV because it promotes indecency, which these commercials would seem to promote. However, it is Alan’s corruption of spirituality and sex that changes him for the worst. If anything,

In addition to the sayings, we learn that before Jill invited Alan to work in the stables, he worked at Bryson’s, a fictional electric shop. Customers ask for a “Philco [. . .] hot plate” (49), “Remington ladies’ shavers” (49), “Robex tableware” (49), “Croydex” (49), “Volex” (49), “Pifco automatic toothbrushes” (50), “Beautifor” (50), “Windowlene” (50), “a Pifco transistor radio” (50), and “Hoover” (50). This is a world filled with technology and artifacts at ends with the naturalistic escape Equus offers, even though both are a form of slavery. Equus has been enslaved by mankind instead of electing to choose a rider like the fabled Prince. Similarly, people are enslaved by the products they create, including medicine and social conventions.

For both the commercials and the technology, it is clearly outdated. Perhaps it is a cultural difference, as I can’t relate to British commercials after growing up in the USA, but the internet wasn’t very helpful with looking up the commercials either. In producing this play, it definitely needs to be updated in order to have the same effect with audiences today as it did in 1973. Especially performed at the National Theatre, the audiences would be familiar with the commercials Alan references. Today the battle between nature and technology remains true, and I think this play could be performed with such a perspective with great success.

Rating: 3.7/5

Works cited: Shaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Equus

  1. Your blog appeared my Google Alerts queue for Equus. I enjoyed reading your comments, especially about the commercials. In December I will start rehearsals for a black-box theater production of Equus, one that I will be producing/directing. Thanks for the post which gave me some new insights into this classic play.

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    • Thanks for the comment! When I update this blog, I like to think about it as a blank canvas I’m hurling blotches of neon paint at, so it’s cool to see those rorschach blotches conveyed some meaning. Especially with a play as dense and difficult to process as Equus, I can imagine several sticky interpretations.

      One thing I didn’t note about the commercials is the country differences. Sometimes English and USA commercials of the same product will be different, so that’s a barrier. The Martini & Rossi commercial I linked to is actually Dutch! Depending on how historical you get with the production, I imagine it could be difficult to track down those sources.

      I don’t know if it’s included in all versions of the play, but my version had “A note on the text” written by Shaffer where he mentions that the particular incident he based the play off doesn’t have any record of actually happening. It’s kind of a stand alone incident he fleshed out on stage, so it’s fairly easy – I think – to make the play feel more modern instead of sticking strictly to the historical references.

      Good luck with the production! I hope you don’t mind that I looked you up. If you’re with the company in Cincinnati, I might head up there to see the show once it’s up and running.

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