There are quite a few themes that have been developed in the play Equus, most importantly the theme of religion and worship. Peter Shaffer continuous to increase this theme from the beginning to the end of the play. Moreover, he uses distinct elements to build the theme starting from the characters, the plot, and settings as nicely as other styles. The play mostly focuses on a seventeen-year-old boy who is religiously obsessed with horses.
To begin with, exclusive characters have been used to bring out the issue of religion and worship. Alan is considered to be obsessed with horses since he was of a tender age. He grows to worship the Spirit of Equus believing it to be a source of freedom. His obsession is also illustrated through his obsession with a picture of horse which remains hanged on the wall of his room. The obsession develops from being just religious to being sexual. In Act 1, he is seen to burst out words of love and ecstasy to the spirit of Equus which shows how far his obsession had developed. His exact words were, “Feel me on you! On you! I want to be in you! Equus, I love you! One person! One person! One person! One person!” (Shaffer).
Another character who is used to bring out the theme is Alan’s mother. She is portrayed as a Christian extremist. She even reads the bible to Alan for hours. She passes her knowledge in the Bible to his son. Moreover, she tells tales of horses from the Bible that contribute to his obsession with horses. She is also seen to attempt to give sexual guidance to Alan and also tells him that he could get contentment from religion. According to her, religion is a source of fulfillment. On the other hand, Alan’s father is an atheist. He does not believe in the Bible, especially in the suffering of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible. He also believes that watching television is not good for anyone and prohibits it his house. He is also seen to be obsessed with his work too. According to his wife, he works even on Sabbath.
More to that, there are others styles used to illustrate the theme of worship. Dysart, who is Alan’s doctor has a dream. In the dream, he is conducting a religious sacrifice on kids all who have Alan’s face. He is dressed as a chief priest on a high stone. Although he is feeling nauseous, he cannot stop as he does not want his assistants to discover that he is also weak. He confesses this dream to Alan during one his sessions. Confession is viewed as a religious practice. During this confession, Alan confesses that his actions were aimed at saving the horses. He compares their torture as one which was endured by Jesus. Therefore, his action of taking out the horses’ eyes was religious (Shaffer)
The dream is also a foreshadowing of what will happen between him and Alan. Although he strives to save Alan, he is not sure whether he will save him or he will drive him away from his religious commitment. Moreover, Dysart is also seen to be envious of the commitment that Alan has. Upon reflecting on his life, he starts imagining what it could feel like if he had such a passion. The setting in the dream is also a religion setting. The figures in the dream are religious figures. The chief priest, as well as the assisting priests, are figures found in most religious practices.
Shaffer portrays region and worship as an extreme practice. To begin with, Frank is described as an “old type socialist who is restlessly improving.” Although he is an atheist, he is an extremist religious person, who is obsessed with his work. Alan also is seen to compare religion to opium. Its effects can be seen to drive people to do extreme things. For instance, Alan’s extreme religious beliefs drive him to take horses’ eyes out. Dora, on the other hand, believes that Frank’s actions are extreme. In the same manner, Frank does not agree with her when it comes to Christianity as she believes that they are too much. He also does not approve her to teach their son these beliefs. He even blames Christianity for his son’s obsession with kinky torture images (Shaffer).
Imagery is also used to portray some aspects of worship in the play. Alan uses Christ martyrdom to represent his worship to Equus. He even uses a wire hanger to whip the back as he worships. Moreover, he even rides Nugget when naked to represent a form of worship to Equus. The picture of the horse is used to represent a supreme religious being of worship. The picture of Jesus too represents a supreme being. Also in the Dysart’s dream, his sacrifice of the children to the gods represents a form of worship.
Although most acts of religion in this play are extreme. Dysart does consider it to be normal to the people practicing it. Moreover, he views Alan’s worship as true worship and commitment and acknowledges that his religion of taking care of people will never allow him to experience what Alan experiences. He believes that taking away worship and religion from Alan would be taking away life itself. Religion is therefore portrayed as giving purpose to those who practice it.
Shaffer, Peter. Equus, New York, Scribner, 2005.