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Divine, Darling! Personal reflections on Peter Shaffer and Equus

Posted on: February 28th, 2019 by ettEditor

Dan Rebellato Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London  

Peter Shaffer is often described as a spiritual dramatist, someone who digs under the surface of the modern world to retrieve our lost pagan impulses, our neglected connection with divinity. And maybe that’s true, but isn’t it time to acknowledge him as our great lost queer playwright? 

The image of heterosexual marriage in the play is uniformly bleak and unerotic, from Strang’s uncommunicative parents, through Dysart’s briskly hygienic marriage, to Jill’s man-hating mother, and Strang’s erectile dysfunction. Meanwhile, the central axis of the play is between Dysart and Strang and what a queer pairing they make: the former is, by his own account, a ‘finicky, critical husband’, who hasn’t kissed his wife in years, prefers to spend his evenings looking at pictures of athletes, and longs for someone with whom he can share his Greek passions. Strang meanwhile, after a decisive encounter with a man on the sea front, has developed an imagined sexual ritual where he takes a ‘manbit’ in his mouth, and becomes stiff as he yells for his divine lover to ‘take me’. Equus is a play of fetishized masculinity: of cowboys, harnesses, straps, chains, leather, muscle and sweat. 

Strang notes approvingly of his father that ‘he hates ladies and gents like me’, which flutters semantically and queerly between three thoughts: that he is rejecting his mother’s preference for a prim vision of sexlessly noble courtship; that he is rejecting heterosexuality altogether; and that Strang himself is, in some way, both lady and gent. Prior to his brutal mutilation of the horses, he has a revelation of a world of phallic, priapic men:  ‘I kept looking at all the people in the street. They were mostly men coming out of pubs. I suddenly thought – they all do it! All of them! … They’re not just Dads – they’re people with pricks!’ The words sound as aroused as they do horrified 

Dysart admits to being jealous of the boy’s passion and is not the only Shaffer protagonist to feel this. There’s also Pizarro in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Salieri in Amadeus, the eponymous Yonadab, Philip in The Gift of the Gorgon – all of them in erotic thrall to some divine alpha male (almost literally alpha: Alan, Atahuallpah, Amadeus…). 

Shaffer’s theatricality is part of his dance with forbidden sexuality: although the story sets up a world of hidden feelings and erotic secrecy, the fluidity of the play opens everything up to scrutiny: his narrators (Old Martin, Dysart, Salieri, Yonadab) both conjure worlds magically before us and seem oddly detached from them. Emotionally, it is never quite clear to me if Shaffer’s narrators are inside their plays looking out, or outside their plays looking in. 

In 1988, theatre scholar Vera Gottlieb wrote a ferocious denunciation of ‘Thatcher’s Theatre’ with the accusing subtitle ‘– After Equus’, arguing that Shaffer’s play marks a capitulation to the forces of mysticism and irrationality. Of course, that’s what Dysart says he believes but methinks the doctor doth protest too much. We’re not obliged to accept his reading of events. Gottlieb’s criticism rests on the suggestion that a play like Equus turns away from social reality towards spiritual mystery; but we can read the play differently as presenting that mystical retreat to us and allowing us to understand it. 

The play is built around an intricate series of substitutions: a painting of Christ replaced by a picture of a horse which becomes overlaid with a real horse which is substituted for another horse, just as some key words virally transform in the boy’s imagination (PRINCE becoming PRANCE becoming PRANCUS then FLANKUS then SPANKUS then SPUNKUS, LEGWUS, NECKWUS, FLECKWUS, EQUUS and EK). These substitutions only partly interweave sexuality and worship, but they also draw more broadly on the culture: in that EK, we hear not just the horse-God but brand names from now-forgotten television advertisements in the published, original text: ROBEX, CROYDEX, VOLEX. Consumer society swirls through the play in television jingles and the father’s socialistic prohibitions; his repeated motif is ‘if you receive my meaning’, cleverly amended here to ‘if you take my meaning’ – the phrase equivocating uncertainly between receiving and stealing, as if understanding is a kind of theft. Strang(e) meanings circulate in the black market of this play, like the flows of desire or commodity-production. Equus does not turn away from society towards the irrational but shows us the irrational as the wreckage in a world in transition between the worship of  God and the worship of money. 

Further substitutions takes us from God, to the Father, to the Doctor. Transference of this kind is a familiar enough trope in psychoanalysis, but there’s more to this than meets the eye. Dysart has a recurring dream in which he’s killing children in a sacrificial ritual. Later, he connects this with his role as a therapist and the way he describes his work makes it sound uncannily like gay conversion therapy, insisting that in his work he has taken young people and ‘cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God’ to make them ‘Normal’, explaining: ‘The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest’. Dysart is claiming something bigger: that the practice of psychiatry is itself a technology of social control. And given Dysart’s own struggles, we might plausibly conclude that ultimately what he has sacrificed is his own homosexuality.  

In this, Equus was bang on trend. It came after a decade of anti-psychiatry debates that argued exactly this. Gay rights activists interrupted the 1970 APA (American Psychiatric Association) in San Francisco, in protest at the Association’s stigmatisation of lesbians and gay men as ‘ill’. While the play continued at the National, French social theorist Michel Foucault was beginning a lecture course at the Collège de France on ‘Psychiatric Power’ which would inform two of his most famous books: in Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the early nineteenth century invented a new method of social control in the Panopticon, which created docile citizens by opening them up perpetually to the gaze of power (‘I see you! I see you!’ Equus tells Strang. ‘Always! Everywhere! Forever!). In the first volume of the History of Sexuality, Foucault suggests that power does not control sexuality by silencing it but by forcing it to speak (‘you have to speak the truth at all costs,’ Dysart tells Strang. ‘And all of it’). In December 1973, six months after Strang blinded those Panoptical horses, the American Psychiatric Association famously removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorder. 

Equus is a much misunderstood play and this production, with its taut eroticism and sleek linguistic power, is a chance to see it for what it is: a profoundly queer play about the political complexities of forbidden desire. 


An Act of Violence: A Psychiatrist’s Perspective on Equus

Posted on: February 28th, 2019 by ettEditor

Dr Peter Misch 
Consultant Adolescent Forensic Psychiatrist 

One of the central themes of Equus is that it examines and questions the mental health of children and young people who act out horrific, sadistic or seemingly twisted violent behaviour. This theme is central to the professional role of child and adolescent forensic psychiatrists such as ourselves and within a few lines of the play starting I found myself intrigued. 

Equus was written and informed at a time when the boundaries of mental health and ill-health were being challenged by writers such as RD Laing, shifting from a medical deterministic view of human behaviour to a systemic psycho-social approach and Equus remains as relevant now as when it was first written. 

The role of the adolescent forensic psychiatrist in these cases is not to determine guilt or innocence; this is the role of the Court. It is to ascertain an understanding of the motivations underpinning the behaviour and advise about both treatment strategies for the young person and about future risks to others and how best to manage these risks. 

Engaging a young person in this type of forensic psychiatric assessment is a two-way process that inevitably requires give-and-take between doctor and patient. It requires respect by the psychiatrist for the young person and an interest in that individual that extends beyond the violent act, combined with compassion tempered by honesty about the non-acceptability of the violence. 

In order to build up a level of trust and engagement so that the patient’s feelings and thoughts can be fully shared, some young people need some control in the relationship. As is reflected in the play, this may require some personal disclosure from the psychiatrist. 

In order to gain an understanding of the young person’s relationships with their parents, teachers, their peers and any intimate partners, an assessment inevitably extends to interviewing other informants. A young person’s interests, their hobbies and increasingly their online relationships also inform an assessment. 

The play illustrates some of the multiple dilemmas that can arise for both the ‘patient’ and the forensic psychiatrist of engaging in the assessment process.  

Whilst a sadistic act of violence by a young person evokes both horror and revulsion in others and sympathy for the victim, the violent act may well have a very different ‘meaning’ for the patient. In some cases the violent act may have been experienced as being empowering by the young person. Removing this sense of power by providing insight for a young person in this situation can result in a depressive reaction and if this is not understood and the patient supported, this can result in suicide.  

Extreme cases involving violence inevitably have some degree of emotional impact on the assessing psychiatrist and other professionals, especially where relationships between the patient or victims have been established. 

Compared to men, children (and women) who commit sadistic crimes tend to be demonised by English society, both the press and the Judicial system. England and Wales has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and for children, the age of criminal responsibility set at 10 years of age, one of the lowest. 

Equus highlights that there is no simple answer in these cases, but in effect, multiple victims, including the guilty perpetrator. English society has a great compassion for domesticated animals such as horses, which makes the wish for revenge and punishment seem a logical response.  

Hesther Salmon, the female magistrate, in the play takes a different approach to her bench and seeks understanding and care for the offender, Alan Strang. Not all forensic psychiatrists take this approach and some use their skills to ensure long custodial sentences. Whilst it is my professional duty to protect society from violence and recognise the central importance of addressing the impact on victims of crime, including the need for punishment, I am behind the magistrate, Hesther, and psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, in Equus.

Othello and the Orient Isle

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by ettAdmin

Exile and migration. Toxic masculinity. Xenophobia and racism. Islamophobia. All played out in a geopolitical arena that pits West against an East defined by the Muslim lands of North Africa and the Middle East. We are only too aware that these are just some of the issues driving our current global predicament. But they equally describe much of the dramatic action of Othello, a play written over 400 years ago, but speaking to us today as urgently and viscerally as ever before. At its heart is a character that we still do not understand. Who is this Othello, the Moor of Venice? At the end of Act 4, Iago suggests that Othello is about to go ‘into Mauretania and taketh away with him the fair Desdemona’. Iago is playing on the fear that Othello, ‘the Moor’, will take his wife to Mauretania, beyond the reach of the Christian communities of Venice and Cyprus. Near the beginning of the play Roderigo calls him ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger | Of here and everywhere’ who has traversed North Africa and the Mediterranean from Morocco to Venice, Cyprus and Aleppo. It is fears about this enigmatic figure, a convert from Islam to Christianity, of questionable faith and cosmopolitan ease, that drive the play’s action, not his race. It is these fears that have once again resurfaced so tragically as central to our contemporary situation.

Iago’s suggestions that Othello will take Desdemona into Mauretania allows us one way into understanding the character as Shakespeare imagined him. However, there is no straightforward connection between Othello’s ethnic identity as a ‘Moor’ and his geographical homeland of Mauretania. In classical times and Shakespeare’s day Mauretania referred to the Mediterranean coast of Morocco (distinct from the modern-day Islamic Republic of Mauritania, today situated to the south of Morocco). For an Elizabethan audience, the term ‘Moor’ evoked a whole series of complicated, and often contradictory assumptions and prejudices, which Shakespeare was clearly aiming to exploit in his decision to put Othello on the stage around 1601, just before Queen Elizabeth I’s death.

For Shakespeare, the term ‘Moor’ carried both religious and what we would today call ‘racial’ associations, although ‘race’ and certainly ‘racism’ was not a term used as we understand it in Tudor times. ‘Moor’ derived from the Greek, and referred to an inhabitant of Mauretania, but was also associated with ‘dark’ or ‘dim’, and became ‘Maurus’ in Latin, which throughout the Middle Ages took on the more ethnographic sense of black. The presence of Muslims believed to originate from Mauretania that entered Portugal and Spain also led to the term being used as a synonym for Muslim. The confusion over what Shakespeare meant when he referred to Moors emerges from a conflation of the term referring to black people and Muslims. John Pory, in his translation of Leo Africanus’ History and Description of Africa (1600), often believed to be one of the sources for Othello, claims that Moors ‘are of two kinds, namely white or tawny Moors, and Negroes or black Moors’. Significantly, whilst both Othello and Aaron (in Titus Andronicus) refer to their dark skin colour, the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice is labelled as ‘a tawny Moor’.
As a result, although a Moor was invariably a Muslim, he was not necessarily black. It is this ambiguity that Shakespeare exploits in his portrayal of both Othello’s ethnic and religious origins. Othello tells Iago ‘I am black’ and Roderigo denigrates Othello’s skin colour in the play’s early scenes, but these slurs quickly fall away, and in the second half of the play it is Desdemona who takes on the burden of her reputation being ‘blackened’. Similarly, when Othello recounts how he entertained Brabantio with tales of his past life, he speaks:

Of hair-breadth scapes i’th’ imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history.

This speech is crucial to how we understand Othello’s origins. He claims to have been captured ‘by the insolent foe’, to have been sold into slavery and then to have experienced some form of ‘redemption’. Intriguingly for the Elizabethans ‘redemption’ meant both ‘delivered from sin’ and ‘freed from slavery’: Othello is bought, set free and offered salvation through the sacrament of baptism to become the first Christian Moor on the Elizabethan stage. This would suggest that the ‘insolent foe’ is the Turk who captured and sold Othello as a galley slave before Christians rescued and converted him. What he does not say is if he was born a Muslim, or a pagan, like many other Berbers in sixteenth-century Mauretania, sworn enemies of that other complex ethnic group that haunts the play from beginning to end, ‘the general enemy Ottoman’, or Turkish Empire. The audience is presented with a character who moves with suspicious ease from one religion to another. What is the probability, Shakespeare seems to ask, that having turned away from one religion, Othello might just as easily ‘turn Turk’ and embrace another?

The reasons for such ambiguity surrounding Othello’s origins can be partly explained by the extensive and amicable relations that were established between Elizabethan England and the kingdom of Morocco. By the late 1580s, Protestant England regarded Spanish Catholicism, rather than Ottoman or North African Islam, as its biggest religious and political threat. Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Queen Elizabeth established diplomatic relations with the Moroccan ruler Mulay Ahmad-al Mansur. In January 1589 the Moroccan ambassador Marshok Reiz [real name Ahmad Bilqasim] arrived in London and was greeted by merchants of the Barbary Company. He proposed ‘a sound and perfect league of amity’, a military commercial alliance with Elizabeth, whereby Morocco received English military support in exchange for Moroccan goods. Both countries were eager to resist the power of Philip II’s Spain. The English also established close commercial and diplomatic alliances with the Ottoman Empire of Sultan Murad III, leading to the creation of the Turkey Company in 1581 which, over time, would become known as the Levant Company. Some of its members even converted to Islam (many under duress, but others willingly) in a process of ‘turning Turk’ that resonates so powerfully throughout Othello. They included Samson Rowlie, an English merchant from Great Yarmouth who in 1577 was captured by Turkish pirates off Algiers, castrated and given the name ‘Hassan Aga’. He rose to become chief eunuch and treasurer of Algiers as well as one of the most trusted advisers to its Ottoman governor, an Englishman that had successfully ‘turned Turk’, much to the consternation of the English authorities, but the fascination of London’s theatre audience: of more than sixty plays featuring Turks, Moors and Persians performed in London’s public theatres between 1576 and 1603, at least forty were staged between 1588 and 1599. Moors and Turks were all the rage, and Shakespeare quickly followed fashion.

Within months of Marshok Reiz’s visit Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, with its depiction of Aaron the Moor, the villainous but charismatic agent of most of the play’s tragic action. Just five years later, another Moroccan delegation to England was proposed, and again Shakespeare responded; the Prince of Morocco in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a remarkably sympathetic figure, who vies for Portia’s hand in marriage. That Portia dismisses him with the line ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ is further testimony towards the studied ambivalence with which the Moor was perceived in Elizabethan drama.

Anglo-Moroccan relations came to a head in the summer of 1600, when Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri arrived in London and presented his diplomatic credentials to Queen Elizabeth. Al-Annuri proposed a military alliance between the two countries that would attack both Spanish and Ottoman positions in North Africa. Although such proposals foundered (primarily because Elizabeth did not want to compromise her alliance with the Moroccans’ adversaries, the Ottomans), al-Annuri’s highly visible presence in London appears to have influenced Shakespeare when writing Othello within just months of the ambassador’s departure. Both are charismatic, sophisticated but also troubling figures, employed to fight the Ottoman Turks, potential allies, but who might at any moment ‘turn Turk’, reconvert, or simply disappear, cosmopolitan and ‘extravagant’ strangers of here and everywhere.

We can no longer see Othello as simply the barbaric, jealous black man of so many 20th-century stage productions. These interpretations were important in supporting American Civil Rights and anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, and many great productions came out of that moment, but as with so many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Othello now responds to a set of different issues: of how to cross borders and remain cosmopolitan in an age of globalisation that manipulates populist xenophobia; and how to appreciate that Islam, in all its various Turkish, North African and Arabic manifestations, is and has always been a part of Europe, since the time of Shakespeare.

A Moor for Our Time

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by ettAdmin

How would our view of Othello change if we knew he were a Muslim? Not merely the Moor of Venice – the slave-convert to Christianity – but an actual believer. What if, to protect his life and true faith, Othello learns to adapt and navigate the foreign ways of his Venetian masters so convincingly that he becomes the general of their armies – armies that bear the cross and seek conquest over their Turkish (read “Muslim”) enemies? In contemporary lingo, Othello is English literature’s first code-switcher.

To assert Othello’s Islam is far more subversive than it may seem at first. In Othello’s time, like our own, faith is not merely a religious confession – it is a communal and political identity. It is tied up with power and conquest. It is the basis for social acceptance and rejection. It carries with it culture and practice.

This production isn’t the first time that Othello has been portrayed as a Muslim, but it hasn’t happened often. His religious and cultural past are certainly referred to in Shakespeare’s text, but most interpretations have been crass, equating – whether they intend to or not – Othello’s “Moorishness” with a proclivity to violence and anger.

I’m certain that Othello has never been portrayed as a Muslim in a time quite like this. We watch this Othello in a period of profound unease. Brexit. Trump. Populism. Refugees. Terror. The very desirability of an inclusive, pluralistic, global society is under scrutiny. Our diversity is no longer considered a strength. We turn over in our heads (and hearts, if we’re honest) the possibility that there are some people who are just too different to be “us”.

And what about those of “us” who are immigrants and – like me – are children of immigrants and – like me – are the grandchildren of immigrants? We, who like Othello, carry many nations, languages, identities, homes and ethnicities in us? We, who like Othello, have had their lives shaped by conquest and shifting borders, even before we were born? Is pledging fealty before God to the Queen and her heirs not enough to prove our belonging?

After all, in the end it wasn’t enough for Othello to have pledged his allegiance to the most potent, grave and reverend signiors of Venice to avoid the accusation of having wielded his Moorish magic or seduced Venice’s most desirable debutante. How quickly does Brabantio’s love for Othello collapse when he is informed an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe? It is enough for him to revert to the demonic mythology that European Christendom created about the heathen “Mahometans” who were in league with the devil and practitioners of black magic. Othello becomes an abuser of the world, a practicer/ Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.

Othello as a resident of Venice would have known that, in 1516, the city established the (first ever) Jewish ghetto whose inhabitants had to wear special identification, were restricted to a few professions and were locked into the neighbourhood at night under armed guard. He might also have known that while Jews eventually built synagogues and were allowed some form of community, Muslim traders to the city were sequestered in buildings away from the local population and denied a proper place to congregate for prayer. In fact, no mosque has ever been built in Venice. Attempts by an Icelandic artist to establish a mosque as an artistic installation during the 2015 Venice Biennale was shut down within two weeks of its opening. Another #MuslimBan of sorts.

Othello understands what all marginalised people do in varying degrees: to survive, you have to assimilate, you have to mask your true self. To act Venetian, to act white, to act Christian is the only way to make yourself consequential. It is the only way for your life to matter. He knows how to self-deprecate. He knows how to appear an insider, whilst knowing he can never be one. He makes sure the cross around his neck is clearly seen in public, his Muslim prayer beads hidden in his pocket . He knows not to appear the Moor.

The image of Victor Oshin’s Othello, hands raised in prayer is arresting. It is Muslim custom to raise the palms of the hand upwards as a symbol of penitence and humility. It is the physical embodiment of the anticipation that God’s mercy and compassion will soon be received. One imagines being cleansed and blessed by divine mercy.

There is something urgent in this picture. Othello is in this private moment is expressing an aspect of his truest self. He has dropped the artifice of the Venetian general and warrior. Here he is with his God. Other than his love and marriage to Desdemona, we can imagine that this is Othello at his most authentic.

It must be exhausting to maintain the high-wire act of hiding one’s true identity. We can only imagine the cognitive discord that Othello has to endure. Just as he strikes down his brother Turk on the battlefields of Aleppo and Cyprus, he has to strike down his true self to survive.

Imagining that Othello is a Muslim also gives his speech the possibility of double meanings. When he speaks of being taken by the insolent foe, who is he speaking of, the Arab slave traders – or the Venetian ones?

Yet, Othello is compelling because he appears to us as upright, honourable and straightforward. Perhaps it is because of the Muslim society he was born into, the noble birth of which he speaks and the education he acquired from his travels in the Maghreb and beyond. He is not too quick to violence. He’s not impulsive. He is not a little Venetian islander, but a cosmopolitan Moor.

So it’s all the more distressing that the person with whom he shares the greatest confidence undoes him. In poisoning others against him, Iago is not only the most devious nemesis to Othello, but also a representation of the rot at the heart of Venetian society itself.

Venice might be the city of art, learning and martial power, but it is a city forged by conquest and colonialism, a city of ghettos and exclusion, a place of superstition and xenophobia. “Honest” Iago is the product of Venice’s wars, its politics and its morality (speaking about the pranks of Venetian women, he declares their best conscience/ Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown). He is the voice of, what we might call in our time, “white supremacy”.

Iago is the master of “alternative facts”. The manufacturer of false scenario and story. His tactics are at once familiar to us. They are today used in the highest political offices in the world.

In corrupting Othello’s morality and poisoning his heart against Desdemona, Iago is not unleashing some buried savage temperament in Othello. He is wearing down Othello’s moral compass, which we can imagine – knowing his hidden devotion – is grounded in his faith. Othello becomes the murderer not because he has proclivity to murder, but that his ethics are undermined by the compelling jealousy and hate Iago cultivates in him. It is Iago who carefully, methodically unleashes the worst aspects of men in him.

Iago is the one who calls to honour violence, not Othello. It is a misogyny that exists under the surface of Venetian society’s graces and order (in all societies truthfully). Othello initially rejects it, but Iago excites the worst of his human natures. Even Desdemona’s murder, carried out in fits and starts, reveals the internal conflict that remains in Othello. Yet, he falls prey to the toxic patriarchy that Iago peddles and that lurks deep in men’s veins.

When he takes his own life, Othello isn’t just punishing himself for his grievous act, but for not living up to his true love, his true faith and his God. He has laid waste to his own morality. He has become malignant. He is a circumcised dog because others’ hatreds have become his own. He has become bestial. He has been deceived.

It is a sign of the depth of his faith. His breaking the divine moral code demands the ultimate atonement. It could also be an indication that he has also abandoned faith. Maybe, he no longer believes in God’s mercy – the most emblematic attribute of the divine in Islam. He is now convinced that human hands alone must carry out justice. Iago’s scheme has borne its intended bitter fruit.

It is sobering reminder of the impact of psychological violence on the spirit. Hiding, assimilating and adapting exhausts our spiritual and moral capital, which has deadly consequences.

Othello is a play for our time. To imagine him a Muslim is to affix a fresh lens to our understanding of this story, allowing us to see the drama anew. Today, we debate the spectre of the Muslim other, we question whether black lives matter and the long poisonous legacy of colonisation and conquest. Othello confronts all these whilst laying bare how these political and social arguments impact on our humanity.

Shakespeare could not have imagined the power and prescience that Othello holds for us today. The greatest works of art are not only a reflection of their times, but they speak to the timeless – human strengths, human weaknesses, human struggles. That oft-cited “human condition” doesn’t seem to waver much over time. It is driven by the same passions and lusts, aspirations and desires, wants and needs that drive all human stories. Perhaps it is because of this sense of timelessness that Othello is able to offer us an even greater gift: a rich narrative canvas on which to draw the contemporary faultlines of identity, power, privilege, religion and race.