Monday, August 24, 2009

Equus as a Modern Tragedy

Title:Equus as a Modern Tragedy
Author(s):Neil Timm
Publication Details:West Virginia Philological Papers 25 (1979): p128-134.
Source:Drama Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. p128-134. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type:Critical essay

[In the essay below, Timm compares Equus to the classical Greek dramas Oedipus and Antigone and to Racine's Phèdre in an attempt to define a modern version of tragedy.]

Whether our age is capable of producing real tragedy is a question that has preoccupied critics and philosophers. I would like to pose that question as a basis for discussing Peter Shaffer's Equus. I will proceed by comparing the play to several tragedies, Antigone, Oedipus, and Phedre, in order to evolve a working definition of tragedy. This essay will raise two questions: Is it necessary to have a hero of elevated stature, and can post-Freudian writers find a uniquely “modern” way of approaching tragedy?

Antigone's pattern of oppositions provides a formal paradigm for many of Shaffer's plays: Shrivings and The Royal Hunt of the Sun in addition in Equus. In these plays a person who holds religious or quasi-religious beliefs is violated by a more cynical, more rationalistic outsider. Antigone's religious devotion to the sacred rite of burial brings her into fatal conflict with Creon, who represents (as Hegel suggested) the interests of society, despite his own blindness. In Equus Alan Strang has evolved a personal religion based on the god he sees in all horses. While Creon can literally bury Antigone alive to perpetuate his limited view of the state, Martin Dysart relies on the more subtle instrument of torture, modern psychiatry. There are, of course, important differences between these two young victims. Antigone's act is one of great piety, even socially accepted, while Alan's act of blinding the horses is deviant and repugnant to the audience. In Equus what is socially acceptable is opposed to Alan's personal religion. There is also a difference between the tyrant Creon, who himself betrays the public conscience, and Dysart, who serves as the guardian of the Normal. Both Antigone and Alan Strang are pitted against authority figures. Both are consumed by a personal vision that precludes love and marriage. Haimon stabs himself, superfluous next to Antigone's suicide; the girl who tries to seduce Alan, however warm and compassionate, is worse than superfluous. She precipitates Alan's violent attempt at self-punishment and worship: the blinding.

If we assume that a hero must recognize his guilt in order to be tragic, then in both Antigone and Equus the hero is the persecutor, not the victim. Creon recognizes his tragic error; so too does Martin Dysart. In some ways Dysart is more “tragic” than Creon, for, having realized his error, Dysart will, nonetheless, continue to dispatch his patients to the living death of the Normal through psychiatric cure. Something final has been reached for Creon, who longs for death. There will be no more Antigones. Neither victim is tragic: Antigone has committed no crime, at least against the gods, and Alan will have re-enacted his crime and moved on, not through recognition, but through catharsis.

Oedipus, too, has illuminating similarities to Equus. If both Dysart and Oedipus are detectives, they are searching in some sense for different things in bringing the hidden crime to light: Oedipus wants facts and truth; Dysart searches for motives, the why. Yet each becomes the object of his own search through a pattern of reversal. Oedipus is, of course, literally the criminal, while Dysart's guilt is, in some ways, more complex. Dysart is implicated in the murder of the god through Alan's abreaction, but not in the literal murder of a person. Nonetheless, Dysart's guilt is so intense that he becomes the victim, in his own eyes like the boy, with a “sharp chain” in his mouth.

Philosophical questions about the nature of man and his place in the universe are common to all tragedy. InEquus the sphinx's riddle appears in terms of the horses. Where does the animal become the man? What is it that makes us uniquely human? As Dysart puts it: “Is it possible ... a horse can add its sufferings together—the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life—and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse?” Paradoxically, the horse is both god and animal. There is a strange equation here of the distinction between man and the divine and the distinction between man and the animal. Such is the richness of the horse as a symbol in the play. Grief, or the ability to perceive tragedy, is affirmed as the special realm of the human. As a sex fantasy of an adolescent, the horse god Equus can seem jealous, but only Dysart can experience grief at the loss of a god. As Dysart tells Hesther: “... to go through life and call it yours—your life—you first have to get your own pain.”

In the Oedipus Cycle there is ultimate redemption for suffering, and in most tragedy there is a sense of renewed life after the tragic calamity—a concept which has been associated with fertility myths by such thinkers as Gilbert Murray. The idea of sacrifice is represented in Dysart's dream. He finds himself sacrificing children to an obscure god that we see as the Normal, and he is in danger of being unmasked as a charlatan. Shaffer is showing that the psychiatrist cannot restore fertility through sacrifice. There is no successful transition to heterosexual fulfillment that includes worship. The specific reference to ritual sacrifice is intended, I believe, to make this play an antitragedy, at least in terms of this one approach to tragedy. Re-enactment may bring a catharsis to Alan, exciting his emotions to purge them, but Dysart and the spectator are left with a sense of loss that, if such generalizations make sense, only increases their pity and terror.

A discussion of Oedipus in this context would be incomplete without some mention of the rôle of the Oedipus complex in Alan's family life. In an act of symbolic castration, the father drags the boy off the horse in the beach scene, infringing on his ecstatic experience of sex. Alan speculates that his mother denies his father sexually, the father thinks mother and son are “thick as thieves.” I believe that the Oedipus complex is a psychiatric cliché and is meant to be seen as such. Freudian analysis alone, no matter how extensively it is developed in the play, is meant to be seen as inadequate. The crime is mysterious and eludes any one rational explanation, including other problems in the boy's life, such as his mother's religious fanaticism, a materialistic culture, and the boy's discovery that his father attends pornographic motion pictures. Even the totality of these negative factors, biological, developmental, and cultural, falls short of explaining the crime. Alan's mother may want to exonerate herself, but she is still speaking for the playwright when she says: “Whatever's happened has happenedbecause of Alan. Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn't find why he did this terrible thing.” This is, I think, a central statement about tragedy. The tragic error or crime exceeds any simple explanation, and the tragic hero is more than a victim of circumstances. He manages to find his identity in the very deed that creates his guilt. Alan is not the tragic hero precisely because he becomes or is to become someone else for whom this crime will not have central significance. We should remember that the crime and the boy who committed the crime are central for Dysart and for the audience.

The tragedies of Corneille and Racine focus on a tragic conflict between reason, frequently expressed as duty, and the heart. This pattern works out neatly for Dysart, who listens to Judge Hester remind him of his duty to cure Alan. Dysart experiences the unfulfilled longing of the heart for the ultimate consummation that Alan achieves in the god Equus. (Perhaps this use of Hester is a little too schematic, and the Doctor's wife too stereotypically bland.) The result of these conflicting claims on Dysart is a dilemma: His duty to society and even his compassion for the boy dictate that he effect a cure, while his own repressed instincts tell him of the great wrong he would be committing. Does his choice reflect a passive capitulation? In other words, has he really made a choice?

The central issue here is whether compromise is an acceptable course of action for a tragedy. The tragic hero pursues the consequences of his act to a limit, usually death. Racine's Phèdre presents a heroine who, according to Lucien Goldmann in The Hidden God, cannot accept the necessary compromise of living in the world. Having lusted after her stepson, Phèdre is caught between this impure desire and her demand for absolute purity. The goddess Venus, representing the ability to attain a pure love, remains hidden. There is a kind of logic in Phèdre's refusal of the world through suicide, and she is clearly tragic. Dysart yearns for a similar kind of absolute that combines illicit sexuality and a hidden god. Dysart imagines an Equus hidden in the “black cave of the Psyche,” and he can experience the god only through the reenactment of Alan's immediate or immanent perception of it. Like Phèdre, Dysart has glimpsed the contradiction between truth and his social rôle, between the power of raw emotion and the malaise of a corrupt world. Dysart is not tragic in the sense that Phèdre is because he compromises and survives. But a refusal to be corrupted through actions in the world would condemn Alan to a “superiority based on Alan's sucking of equine perspiration” to quote the critic John Simon [“Hippodrama at the Psychodrome,” The Hudson Review 28, 1975]. True, the horse may seem like a god, but it is still destroying a human being. There is a logic and inevitability in Dysart's decision to betray the hidden god and act in the world. It may be that this decision to act in the world is tragic in a different sense from Phèdre's decision to refuse to act in the world.

The horses in Phèdre, like those in Equus, are charged with symbolic meaning. Hippolytus, like Alan Strang, has a private relationship with horses which he has driven “half-deranged along the sand-bars, pulling a foaming chariot ... tilting and staggering upright through the surf.” This image of oneness with the horse is similar to that orgiastic union of Alan and the horse Trojan at the beach. In both plays the turn toward heterosexual love leads to a crisis. Hippolytus is afraid of his love for Aricia, and later of Phèdre's love for him, and tries to flee. Compared to Alan with his “chinkle chankle,” Hippolytus is a boy scout in the woods. Still, in both cases the horse represents potentially violent forces of the id, and in Phèdre, as in Equus, the horse can destroy the man who has failed to find in a woman a successful way to express sexual drives. At the end of Phèdre the monster emerges from the ocean, a metaphor for the human psyche, to incite the horses to trample Hippolytus to death.

That which was under control through reason and social decorum (that is, emotions, the id, sex) takes its victims, Phèdre and Hippolytus: “... then the horses, terrorstruck, stampeded. Their master's whip and shouting went unheeded, they dragged his breathless body to the spray. Their red mouths bit the bloody surf....”This passage from Phèdre highlights an important difference in the two authors' approaches to theater. Is it more effective to have an eyewitness describe Hippolytus' death through the medium of poetry than to employ Shaffer's more literal approach in representing horses on stage? It has been argued that Shaffer is too theatrical in exploiting the medium of dance. The scene of the blinding, the nude boy leaping up into the spotlight, is, visually at least, powerful. But the question lingers. Has spectacle been substituted for the power of language or has Shaffer discovered a more elemental language of forms, of the body? Has the play begun to get back to the roots of tragedy in ritual sacrifice? Formally, maybe. Thematically, Equus is closer to Death of a Salesman than to the Greeks. The Greek chorus, the music of words, has been replaced by the unnerving buzz of the horses, theatrically most effective, and by the bland and unconvincing character of Hester. On the other hand, one could argue that myth precedes language and that Shaffer has fulfilled Thomas Mann's hope that post-Freudian writers may eventually recreate myth [“Freud and the Future,” in Myth and Mythmaking, ed. Henry A. Murray, 1968]. This would, however, not result in tragedy, which deals with human incompleteness.

Shaffer's more literal approach to theater is also evident in the controversial nude scene. Tragedy frequently involves the progressive stripping away of illusions as, for example, with King Lear, who, it should be noted, does shed clothing, baring his chest, as a metaphor for this process. Lear's nakedness is expressed mainly through language, while Shaffer relies more heavily on literal nudity on stage. In addition to the stripping away of defenses, nudity suggests a sense of indecent exposure in Equus. The psychiatrist has violated another individual's integrity, or as Dysart sees it, he has stripped Alan of his religion, his worship. The scene also presents an image of feminine beauty, the heterosexual love that is so violently enticing and threatening to the adolescent boy.

Let us return, at this point, to the questions I raised at the outset. Is Equus a tragedy and do we need to revise our definition to accommodate this play? The play does not lead to catharsis, and the action lacks the kind of finality needed to achieve a new order out of tragic disorder. Instead of pursuing his tragic knowledge of his crime, curing the boy, to its limit, Dysart compromises. He does not have the stature of a statesman, someone larger than life. But he does achieve complete recognition of his dilemma, and it may be that there is a kind of transcendence in that recognition. No, he does not transcend himself like Othello, who affirms his personal value in the extremity of guilt before committing suicide. If Dysart does transcend the everyday, it is through his human understanding of and sympathy for Alan Strang.

He tears himself apart in doing what he has to do. Even as he becomes more uncertain of his rôle, more depressed about his own lack of religion, he becomes more intensely involved in the life of his patient. He is by turns clever, wily, cagey, unsparing, sarcastic, sardonic, and ruthless in his quest for a problematic cure that will leave himself exposed and guilty of self-betrayal. Like Oedipus, Dysart knows that he will endanger himself by bringing secrets to light. He lacks Oedipus' faith that the public good, or even the private good, will be served. Dysart is a man of greater courage because he is not a man of conviction.

So great is Dysart's insight that, by the end of the play, Dysart knows what Equus will say without the mediation of Alan. In that final brutal cross-examination, Dysart speaks for the god: “And you will fail!... You will see ME—and you will FAIL!... The Lord thy God is a Jealous God! He sees you.” After this moment of great intensity, Dysart cradles the broken Alan in his arms and covers him with a blanket. That gesture speaks with more eloquence than words. Dysart has made his own pain by helping to alleviate Alan's. He has discovered in a personal way his separation from the hidden god that could be described as a kind of worship. He has taken the moral ambiguity of the situation and pursued it to the limit in breaking and thus saving another human being. If he compromises, it is a courageous act in the face of radical doubt.

A definition of modern tragedy would have to allow for a private and incomplete form of transcendence that does not lead to a renewal of community bonds. Whether any public good, social or moral, is affirmed is problematic. But Dysart's honesty in confronting his dilemma and his ability to overcome potential paralysis represent a triumph of imagination and humanity. None of us believes that the boy should be abandoned to a sado-masochistic fantasy. All of us see the loss in Alan's cure through the pain that Dysart, and Peter Shaffer, have made for us.

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