Conclusion | Works Cited

Seneca for the Modern Age

I began this dissertation with a jump of a millennium and a half, from Seneca to Shakespeare. I want to end it with a half-millennial jump, from Shakespeare to Shaffer. Shaffer's play Equus does not have literal ghosts. It does, however, use formal and aesthetic elements of Senecanism, and it deals, in literal but only ambiguously ghostly terms, with haunting.

Equus, first performed in 1973, is a play that one has no difficulty imagining Seneca writing himself. Its main characters are Alan Strang, a seventeen-year-old boy who has blinded six horses with a hoof pick, and Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist who works with him. As the stage directions, taken from the 1973 performance, make clear, the violence and horror of the play's central event are distanced by the extreme formality and ritualization of the action. Most of the horror, as in Seneca, as in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, is conveyed through language.

Also as with Seneca and his successors in early modern London, Shaffer's play was initially dismissed by critics. Plunka describes Shaffer's reputation as it stood in 1980: "[Shaffer] has been accused of writing 'well-made plays' which lack any serious content value" (Plunka 87). This resonates immediately with the label of "decadence" so frequently slapped on Seneca and the Jacobean playwrights: all form, no substance. Una Chaudhuri, in 1984, offers a more specific and better nuanced view of the reaction to Equus itself:

Frequently charged with intellectual superficiality, staleness, and even dishonesty, the play nevertheless compels critics--in the light of its huge theatrical success--to remark upon what is termed either its "packaging" or its "brilliant staging" (depending on how the critic feels about the dichotomy).
(Chaudhuri 287)

Remembering Pentzell's discussion of mannerism, we can see that the problem lies in the schism between form and content. Critics admitted the beauty of the form, but considered the content entirely unworthy. As Chaudhuri goes on to prove, both form and content are considerably more complicated than those early critics--or many later critics--realized.

Shaffer uses certain conventions of the classical theater, adapting them to the needs of the modern stage and the needs of this play; it is no accident that Dysart is obsessed with ancient Greece. Modern dramatic dialogue tends to the stichomythic anyway, but Shaffer makes full use of that tendency in the scenes between Alan and Dysart. All of the actors remain on stage throughout the play; when not performing their individual parts, they make up the Chorus, whose predominant function is to make what Shaffer describes as the Equus Noise: "a choric effect, made by all the actors sitting round upstage, and composed of humming, thumping, and stamping--though never of neighing or whinnying" (Shaffer 16). The Chorus, being avatars of horses, does not speak as classical Greek and Roman choruses did, but it fulfills the same function of watching and witnessing.

Like the Greek and Roman dramatists, Shaffer composes his play as a series of monologues and dialogues, with only occasional moments when three characters are interacting. He also plays with this convention, by having different tiers of theatricality, represented literally in the construction of the stage, so that while there may be three or more characters on stage at the same time, they will not all be in the same temporal frame of reference, nor all aware of each other.

Another notable adaptation of classical convention is the deployment of a messenger. Hesther Salomon, the magistrate who tried Alan's case, fulfills many of the same functions as the messenger in Thyestes, including the use of delay to generate suspense. From the moment Hesther enters, and Dysart tells us "Some days I blame Hesther. She brought him to me" (Shaffer 18), it takes eleven interchanges before Hesther reveals Alan's crime: "He blinded six horses with a metal spike" (Shaffer 20). The intervening speeches, by telling us first that there is something shocking and horrible, and then delaying and delaying the moment of revelation, cause in the audience the same agony of anticipation that the Messenger in Thyestes is designed to provoke. Where that Messenger is lavish with description, Hesther is terse, but the impact of her information is in no way lessened. Just as much as any of Seneca's plays, or as the plays of the Greek tragedists, Equus is constructed around a horrible crime. Moreover, as Michael D. Miner points out in "Grotesque Drama in the '70s," Dysart's progress through the play is easily aligned with the progress of Greek tragedy (Miner 105). For a play which feels as modern as it does, Equus is freighted with the techniques and tones of Greek tragedy.

I would argue ultimately, however, that Equus is more Senecan than Greek, because Shaffer's play is concerned, as Seneca's were, with the limitations of the numinous. Russell Vandenbroucke, in a review/analysis of the play in 1975, identifies the gods that have replaced the Greek and Roman pantheons: "Christ, Marx, and Freud stand over their [Alan and Dysart's] shoulders ... They are the trinity of contemporary myth-makers, confident in their ability to describe causes, predict results, and provide solutions" (Vandenbroucke 132). But, as Vandenbroucke points out, these "gods" are fallible. Dysart ends the play looking past them into, as he says bleakly, darkness: "I need--more desperately than my children need me--a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? ... What dark is this?" (Shaffer 109). The twentieth-century gods cannot help him; the horrific, the numinous, the sublime are no longer located in the figureheads of his culture's religious and metaphysical thought.

Over the course of the play, it is gradually revealed that Alan's terrible act springs out of a private religion he has made for himself, caught between the pincers of his mother's devoutness and his father's evangelical atheism. He has conflated the horse, an animal literally enchained (via the bit and bridle) in man's service, with Jesus Christ, creating a god-figure he calls Equus. Mustazza points out that "[Alan] himself becomes the Christ figure in this participatory mythic scheme" (Mustazza 178). Category violation, while subterranean in this play, is nonetheless still operating; god, horse, and man are collapsed into the figure of Equus, and the definitional category of the Father remains (as we will see) elusive. In true Senecan fashion, Alan's worship is at once ludicrous, pathetic, and terrifying. And this religion and its sole practitioner have an earth-shattering effect on Dysart.

Dysart's name is a multivalenced pun. Hassell Simpson points out that Dysart is itself a place-name: "one of those places of anchorite seclusion (called deserta in Latin) takes its name, Dysart, from a corruption of that word; it lies in the Scottish county of Fife" (Simpson 184). The word evokes both "dys-art"--a neologism along the lines of "dystopia" and "dysfunctional"--and "desert," a barren wasteland being a particularly apt description of Dysart's own assessment of his spiritual state. Dysart is the epitome of the alienated bourgeois, cut off from nature, from any sense of spirituality, even from basic human connections, demonstrated in the desert of his marriage (Shaffer 60-62, 82-83--incidentally, Dysart's wife Margaret is not a character in the play). Even before Alan becomes his patient, he has started to question the value and validity of his work.

Over the course of the play, we see the locus of horror shift; initially we, like Hesther and Dysart, are horrified by what Alan has done. But the deeper Dysart probes into Alan's psyche, the more we descend into shades of gray, a shifting fog in which there is no single, stable place to assign blame. Critics resist this strenuously, trying to make either Dysart or Alan somehow "correct," or arguing that Dysart "learns" from Alan: "The spectator of Equus must accept the paradox that a repulsive, horrific crime committed against innocent horses ignites a positive, poetic, spiritual fire within the deadened, timid soul of Dysart" (Walls 317-18). Walls wants there to be some kind of uplift in the play and reads in such a way that he finds it. Thomas Akstens insists on reading the play with completely unnuanced realism: "the disposition of the audience must ultimately be that a boy who blinds six horses with a spike should unquestionably be treated by psychotherapy" (Akstens 94). Akstens creates a straw-man from the question of whether or not Dysart will treat Alan, and by focusing his reading of the play through that lens, he reduces Alan to a simple psychiatric case, thereby making the play almost meaningless (Akstens 94). Reading from this stance of aggressive sanity flattens the play into a case-study. It is no wonder that Akstens finds Dysart unappealing and alienated from the audience; he has chosen a reductive view that makes it impossible for him to see what Shaffer intended.

Other critics go too far in the other direction, and none farther than Gene Plunka. Plunka sees Alan as a kind of updated version of the Noble Savage, asserting that: "Alan never conforms to his environment; he is a unique personality surrounded by role-players and phonies. Alan turns inward to find his identity, and because he shapes his own life, he has a strong sense of self-awareness" (Plunka 96). This is a misreading so complete as to be ludicrous. Plunka does not at any moment admit that there is any horror in Alan's actions (a stance made all the more perplexing and indefensible when one finds that he categorizes Alan's failed sexual encounter with Jill as "attempted rape" [Plunka 94]), and he sees the play's purpose as a didactic one: "Much of the drama deals with the education that Dr. Dysart receives from his patient. Dysart learns that Alan is a person who knows who he is, while the psychiatrist is still searching for his own identity" (Plunka 92). Plunka seems to be reading a play that is not there.

Plunka's is, of course, an extreme case, and I cite it only to show the lengths to which critics will go to make the play resolve cleanly. But, to quote Stephen Greenblatt about Hamlet again, "the point surely is not to settle issues that Shakespeare has clearly gone out of his way to unsettle" (Greenblatt 244), and the same is just as true for Shaffer. Dysart comes to believe--and the audience is free to agree with him or not--that the true horror lies in his own actions, in "curing" Alan:

All right! I'll take it away! He'll be delivered from madness. What then? He'll feel himself acceptable. What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply re-attached, like plasters? Stuck onto other objects we select? Look at him! ... My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband--a caring citizen--a worshipper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost!
(Shaffer 107)

The use of the word "ghost" in this context emphasizes Dysart's belief that the world of normal, material reality is the world of death. Dysart sees, or imagines he sees, that Alan has found the numinous, something he himself strives for but cannot reach. The primitive brutality of Alan's crime is contrasted with the "Normal" world, where "with any luck, his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent" (Shaffer 108). The tragedy of Equus is that neither Alan nor Dysart is entirely "right" or entirely "wrong"; both of them are trapped. As in Seneca, the source of horror is located equally in the actions of man and in those actions' ultimate meaninglessness.

Applying Turner's concepts of the liminal and the liminoid to Equus, as I have done with early modern plays, is one way to begin to articulate the source of horror in Shaffer's work. The play itself is liminoid, definitionally, being as it is a piece of theater, but the action of the play begins to construct an argument about whether the liminoid can be an adequate substitute for the true liminal. It is clear that Dysart comes to believe it cannot be; less clear is whether Shaffer himself would subscribe to that theory. Chaudhuri argues that "Equus has two response-structures, layered one above the other and corresponding to the two kinds of reality Artaud mentions ('direct, everyday' and 'archetypal ... dangerous')" (Chaudhuri 295). Chaudhuri's argument indicates both liminoid and liminal processes at work in Equus. What she describes as the "surface structure" is liminoid (Chaudhuri 292), while the "hidden response-structure" is liminal (Chaudhuri 292). This dual response-structure is available only to the audience. Dysart and Alan are each trapped in one structure or the other, neither of them capable, either metatheatrically or psychologically, of stepping outside their own subject-positions in order to see the wider pattern.

Dysart believes that Alan has experienced true liminality, a state which is beyond his own reach:

And I use that word endlessly: 'primitive.' 'Oh, the primitive world,' I say. 'What instinctual truths were lost with it!' And while I sit there, baiting a poor unimaginative woman with that word, that freaky boy tries to conjure the reality! I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos--and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field! ... I watch that woman knitting, night after night--a woman I haven't kissed in six years--and he stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God's hairy cheek!
(Shaffer 82-83)

And despite Dysart's obvious attraction to it, Equus argues that the liminal, the numinous, is a state of incredible danger and pain. Dysart speaks directly to the audience, the only character to do so, and thus is a fitting representative for the liminoid and its limitations. The action is polarized sharply between Alan and Dysart, one representing the dark and terrible transcendent power of what the play categorizes as "worship," the other representing civilized man, with all his self-awareness and post-modern fragmentation, what Dysart ironically describes as "The Normal [...] the indispensable, murderous God of Health [...] I am his Priest" (Shaffer 65). Dysart sees the Normal as a god as terrible as Equus, but the most terrible thing about Normal is that it is not a god, that it is the antithesis of the holy and the wondrous.

Turner distinguishes an important quality of ritual, though he does not relate it to the difference between the liminal and the liminoid:

Ritual, in other words, is not only complex and many-layered; it has an abyss in it, and indeed, is an effort to make meaningful the dialectical relation of what the Silesian mystic Jakob Boehme, following Meister Eckhard called "Ground" and Underground," "Byss and Abyss" (= the Greek a-bussos, [abussos]... from a- "without," and the Ionic variant of the Attic buthos ... meaning "bottom," or, better, [finite] "depth," especially "of the sea." So "byss" is deep but "abyss" is beyond all depth.
(Turner 82)

Dysart is definitely in a "byss," standing in Eliot's Waste Land, but Alan has found the true abyss, and learned what Nietzsche also learned: "Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein" [And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you] (Nietzsche 105). Dysart expresses the same idea when he says bitterly at the end of the play, having promised to "make [Alan] well": "When Equus leaves--if he leaves at all--it will be with your intestines in his teeth" (Shaffer 107).

The horror of Equus is two-fold. On one side is the simple, primal horror of what Alan Strang has done, and which the intensely stylized production distances but does not mitigate. On the other side is the horror of the world which has driven Alan Strang to commit this atrocity, a world revealed to us through Alan's parents and through Dysart himself. The two horrors merge in the figure of Equus, Alan's invented god, a conflation initially between Jesus Christ and the horse named Trojan--a name evocative both of the mythology Dysart loves so passionately and the adult sexuality which destroys Alan--which Alan encountered on the beach as a child (Shaffer, Scene 10, pp.38-43); as Alan moves through puberty, trapped between his parents' conflicting values and morality, Equus becomes an increasingly Old Testament god, another version of the Panoptical Father, and angry, until the crisis is precipitated by Alan's first unsuccessful attempt at sex (which, with unhappy irony, takes place in the stable where he works):

ALAN. Then I see his eyes. They are rolling! 'I see you. I see you. Always! Everywhere! Forever!'
DYSART. Kiss anyone and I will see?
ALAN. Yes!
DYSART. Lie with anyone and I will see?
ALAN. Yes!
DYSART. And you will fail! Forever and ever you will fail! You will see ME--and you will FAIL! The Lord thy God is a Jealous God. He sees you. He sees you forever and ever, Alan. He sees you! ... He sees you!
(Shaffer 105)

Dysart, in voicing Equus in this scene, reveals perhaps more than he intends about both Alan and himself. Most devastatingly, though, the merging of Dysart and Equus reveals the way in which any god molded in the shape of a father will inevitably betray his children.

As in Hamlet, the Father in Equus is a source of agony and conflict. From the moment we meet Alan, we know that his father is a large component in his mental illness. Alan sings commercial jingles as a defense mechanism; Hesther tells us he did so at his trial (Shaffer 20), and Alan does so in his first interview with Dysart, which ends with Dysart's playing the Omniscient Psychiatrist card: "By the way, which parent is it who won't allow you to watch television? Mother or father? Or is it both?" (Shaffer 23). Alan's first moment of communication with Dysart is an answer to the question:

DYSART. And then he bursts in--just like that--without knocking or anything. Fortunately, I didn't have a patient with me.
ALAN. Dad!
DYSART. The answer to a question I'd asked him to days before. Spat out with the same anger as he sang the commercials.
HESTHER. Dad what?
ALAN. Who hates telly.
(Shaffer 26-27)
[N.B., Alan and Hesther are not speaking to each other; both are speaking to Dysart.]

Before the clarification, Alan's accusatory outburst can also be read as labeling Dysart as his father, itself a move of considerable Freudian significance within the play, in which the category of the Father is so embattled.

Alan's father Frank rejects the numinous entirely; aside from forbidding television, he is an atheist of the sort which cannot allow anyone else to be religious, insisting that "Religion's at the bottom of all this!" (Shaffer 31). Alan's mother Dora tells Dysart about a picture of Christ which Alan "fell absolutely in love with":

DORA. In all fairness I must admit it was a little extreme. The Christ was loaded down with chains, and the centurions were really laying on the stripes. It certainly would not have been my choice, but I don't believe in interfering too much with children, so I said nothing.
DYSART. But Mr Strang did?
DORA. He stood it for a while, but one day we had one of our tiffs about religion, and he went upstairs, tore it off the boy's wall and threw it in the dustbin. Alan was quite hysterical.
(Shaffer 44-45)

In hindsight, the fact that this morbid sadomasochistic Christ was replaced with a picture of a horse becomes chillingly ominous. Reading forward through the play, it is merely another example of the ways in which Frank enacts the forbidding, disciplinary Father.

Frank also forbids Alan to ride, physically dragging him off Trojan, and in general is a force of disapproval in Alan's life. The psychosexual crisis that results in the blinding of the horses is, like an avalanche, the result of one shock piled on another, but the first pebble is Alan's discovery of the Father's feet of clay. Alan and the girl, Jill, go to a "skinflick" (Shaffer 91), where they encounter Frank. Frank tells a transparent lie to excuse his presence, and it may be fairly said the scales fall from Alan's eyes:

I kept seeing him, just as he drove off. Scared of me ... And me scared of him ... I kept thinking--all those airs he put on! ... 'Receive my meaning. Improve your mind!' ... All those nights he said he'd be in late. 'Keep my supper hot, Dora!' 'Your poor father: he works so hard!' ... Bugger! Old bugger! ... Filthy old bugger!
(Shaffer 95)

But I would argue the real upheaval is not in the discovery of Frank's duplicity; that is merely one more reason added to the legion of reasons Alan has to resent his father. The real upheaval comes from an offhand comment of Jill's:

ALAN. And suddenly she began to laugh.
JILL. I'm sorry. But it's pretty funny, when you think of it.
ALAN. What?
JILL. Catching him like that! I mean, it's terrible--but it's very funny.
(Shaffer 95)

Jill articulates the creepy Senecan quality of Equus: terrible, funny, pathetic. And her ability to laugh at Frank--her ability to see Frank as just another human being, rather than as the almighty Father--enables Alan not merely to see Frank as a human being, but to pity him:

DYSART. How did you feel?
ALAN. Sorry. I mean for him. Poor old sod, that's what I felt.
(Shaffer 97)

And it is this revelation, and the tremendous sense of release it brings Alan, that drops him into the trap where Equus has been waiting all along.

The trap is the trap that Hamlet fell into, the trap of the All-Seeing Father. By blinding the horses, Alan seeks to free himself from the Father's panoptical gaze--but of course, he only succeeds in revealing himself to the apparatus of the patriarchal institutions of society, represented by Dysart and Hester. Escaping his biological father (Frank) pushes Alan into the nightmare of his created father (Equus), and the attempt to defeat the created father merely brings Alan inescapably under the control of the ideological Father, Dysart's "Normal":

The Normal is the good smile in a child's eyes--all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills--like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest.
(Shaffer 65)

In Dysart's imaginings, the Normal is explicitly a male god, compared to Zeus in this passage, as both the Normal and Equus are more-or-less subtextually compared to the Judeo-Christian god throughout. God the Father is inescapable.

Alan, like the revengers in early modern plays, is trapped; he cannot act any other way than how he does, boxed in tighter and tighter by the society in which he lives and the people with whom he interacts. And as it was for the early modern playwrights, this evil which springs out of the fundamental cruelties of humans and their society, is for Shaffer the true source of horror.


1. Shaffer uses a great many ellipses in conveying his dialogue. In order to distinguish between authorial pauses and editorial ellipses, I shall place brackets around those which indicate missing text.

Conclusion | Works Cited

© Sarah Monette 2004     Feel free to link to this academic trial-by-ordeal, but please do not reproduce it without permission.