So says Dr. Dysart in Act II of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. He is in the throes of an existential crisis that goes far beyond the routine ‘mid-life’ variety associated with successful professional men of a certain age who find themselves in loveless marriages and careers that no longer fulfill them. Throughout the course of the play he also comes to realize his doubts are more fundamental than the “professional menopause” diagnosis he has given himself at the beginning.
The story line of the play is deceptively simple. In a small regional community in 1970’s England, a 17 year-old boy has committed a shocking crime. He has blinded six horses in a local stable with a metal spike. The local magistrate brings him to the area’s mental hospital and asks one of the psychiatrists on staff to treat him. Over the course of the play we come to understand what led the young man to his crime and the prospects and true costs of his healing.
I love this play. I have a very well-worn copy I bought when I first became aware of it more than 30 years ago. I have seen the less-than-brilliant Richard Burton film version several times. Tonight’s production by Phoenix’s Nearly Naked Theatre was the third time I’d seen it on the stage. There are many reasons why this play resonates so strongly for me. Some of them are quite personal and center on the young man’s relationship with his parents. Some are more universal involving the meaning and value of religion and the way society deals with people who live outside what is defined, often arbitrarily, as “normal”. Still others are truly transcendent exploring the human need to worship and challenge to society by extreme passions. The play is also highly sexual and, at times, embarrassingly erotic.
The local production was very good. The director, who has a clear passion for the play, chose to present it as a period piece in its original 1970’s setting. His reason for doing so is that, in an age when news covers events like the recent tragedy in Newtown, the blinding of horses would not have the same shocking impact it had when the play was first produced in 1973. I am not sure I agree that the play would be less powerful with a contemporary setting but certainly nothing is lost by presenting it in its original context. The acting is wonderful. The set and staging are conceptual and effective. I thought the sexual elements of the play are more overstated than I have seen in previous productions which causes them to overshadow some of the more existential elements but there is nothing I recall from the previous visits to this material that was missing from this production.
The ending of the play is ambiguous. The doctor tells his young patient that his breakthrough will result in his recovery. To himself he acknowledges that this may or may not be true in the short term. In the long term he is confident he can return the young man to a life within the bounds of “normal” behavior but at the cost of much of what makes the man unique. “Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created. You will not gallop any more. Horses will be quite safe.”.
In the end he acknowledges that his patient will be “more or less completely without pain”. The way he says it tells us that is not entirely something to be wished.