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Divine, Darling! Personal reflections on Peter Shaffer and Equus

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.