On January 25th I attended Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play ‘Equus’, for the opening night performance at Twilight Theatre Company. The rather nondescript rectangle of a building on North Lombard and Brandon is entered through a small door around the side. Walking upstairs I find a charming little lobby decorated very much like a cozy and informal living room. Twilight is a community theatre and makes do without the luxuries afforded by the rather excessive concentration of sponsorships bestowed upon Portland Center Stage. Rather alarmingly I read in the program that JP Morgan Chase, their largest corporate sponsor, has given between $50 and $250 to the theatre this season.
The troop of Twilight theatre actors are not sitting serenely in a green room, composing themselves and settling into character. Instead they bustle around making final adjustments to the set, serve drinks at the concessions counter, and help elderly people navigate their way to their seats. I myself am led to my seat by Jeff Gibberson, who plays one of the horses. To my surprise I am seated up on the stage itself.
‘Uh oh. Am I going to be in the play,’ I ask Jeff.
‘Yes,’ he says, in the grave tone of an actor who has been mentally preparing himself for the coming performance.
‘Umm, am I going to be asked to participate?’ I ask nervously. I have never seen Equus before.
This is a great relief. I love to sit up close, but I hate to become involved in ‘audience participation’ hijinks.
The inaugural production of Equus was performed at London’s National Theatre. Shaffer describes the stage setting as ‘a square of wood. The square resembles a boxing ring. On the square set are three little plain benches. Further benches stand upstage, and accommodate the other actors. All the cast of Equus sits on stage the entire evening. They get up to perform their scenes, and return when they are done. They are witnesses, and especially a Chorus. Upstage are tiers of seats in the fashion of a dissecting theatre. In these blocks sit members of the audience.’ This is where I myself am sitting. Before me is a scene almost identical to the original set created 46 years ago.
The audience is seated, the 8th hour of afternoon passes, and the lights dim. The entire cast walks onstage in the not quite fully black darkness. The lights begin to glow again. Christopher Massey, playing the part of the inpatient psychiatrist Martin Dysart, is front stage right. Center backstage, Skye Walton, playing the teenage patient Alan, is nuzzling Gibberson, who plays Nugget the horse. The rest of the cast, as mentioned, sits stage left and right. Their eyes are all focused impassively, laconically, suspiciously, at Dysart, who looks troubled.
‘With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces,’ says Massey, looking troubled and introspective. ‘The animal digs it's sweaty brow into his cheek, and they stand in the dark for an hour, like a necking couple. And of all nonsensical things I keep thinking about the horse! Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse? You see, I’m lost. What use are questions like these to an overworked psychiatrist in a provincial hospital? They’re worse than useless. They are, in fact, subversive.’
Massey seems to fill the role of doctor Dysart with a subtle sort of riveting acting, for from his first moments to his last on stage, I feel as if I am watching an actual psychologist. He uses none of the pacings of poetry so often interjected into theatre. Nor does he display any of that loathsome love of exhibitionism, in which the actor pours his own self struck confidence into all roles. Instead, he exudes a sense of struggling self control and forced calm, and talks in the cool tones of a practiced caretaker. Psychiatrists and psychologists themselves are always repressing displays of emotions, and this pitch perfect portrayal right away pulls me in. Only later would I realize the role of Dysart itself has become an enduring statement upon the conflicted nature of those who inhabit the uneasy gulf between medicine and philosophy, and my respect for Massey grows further.
Massey continues, ‘That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean hoofed on to a whole new track of being. But I can’t see it, because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle. Yet I handle children’s heads… I’m sorry. I’m not making much sense.’
The set is minimal and gives us no cues. This is a play utterly reliant on the actors. Crystal Lemons and Georgia Ketchmark, who play a public defender and a nurse respectively, come and go, and their naturalistic portrayals of alternately bored and stressed functionaries ground us very firmly in a bureaucratic process who’s only saving grace is the rare decent person who cares. Lemons brings a troubling new case to Masseys attention.
‘Martin, this is the most shocking case I ever tried. My court wanted to send the boy to prison. It took me two hours solid arguing to get him sent to you instead.’
‘What’s he done?’ says Massey, weary and already suffering from overwork.
‘He blinded five horses with a metal spike.’ And it is as if that metal spike went into Massey right then and there. His weariness flakes right off and we see that beneath his depression and confusion is truly a gentle and caring man.
After a few minutes Alan Strang is ushered into his first appointment with Dysart.
‘Won’t you sit down?’ offers Massey. I am sitting on stage, just a few feet from the actors themselves. Massey is performing for the audience, but I sit stage right. I feel as if I am not being performed too, but am able to see from a different, more personal angle. I can see clear as real life that Massey is struggling to put on a hopeful face, and heaped on top of Dysart’s professional depression is the shocking and perhaps terminal decline of Alan Strang into psychosis. Skye, who we have been able to watch for all this time, is now hunched and boxed up with tension, like a stubborn 10 year old on a visit to the principals office. But he is also morose like a convicted criminal, fresh from the courthouse to the nuthouse.
Massey continues, ’Is this your full name? Alan Strang? And you’re seventeen, is that right? Seventeen? …. Well?’
Suddenly Skye unleashes a manic expulsion, singing with anger and contempt a contemporary TV jingle, ‘Double your pleasure, double your fun! With Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum!’ His face is now beet red from yelling and singing these lines with an insane gusto. But he returns to his reclusive, shut down state. Massey is calm, but I can see the psychiatrist logic clicking away in his brain, or perhaps in his eyes, brows and mouth. He is outwardly calm and determined, and uses one strategy after another to eventually crack Alan open a little and be able to peer inside. At one point, after improvising a bit, Dysart hits upon the strategy of a game of truth for truth.
‘All right, it’s my turn now. You tell me! Answer me!’ Like a Wagnerian opera, Alan pivots from stubborn silence to explosive forcefulness. The entire cast acts in an extraordinarily naturalistic manner, with the sole exception of Skye, who plays Alan with a sort of overwrought psychosis, like the actors from the silent films or operas, who over gesticulate. He is perhaps playing an actor playing a madman, inhabiting the role of a boy in the grips of a quasi religious fervor. That being said, his neurosis looks to my eyes much more natural then Firth’s neurosis. The main document of record is his movie, the two play runs being lost to time. His film portrayal is confused and psychotic in the masculine equivalent of hysteria. Skye is more naturalistic. I recognize the behavior in the growing crowds of homeless people. I do not see Firth in the homeless people in Portland, but they are west coast American and Firth is a British child TV actor.
‘We’re not playing that game now,’ says Dysart, attempting to assert control over the session.
‘We’re playing what I say,’ Skye demands, petulantly.
‘All right, what do you want to know?’
Calming down due to ego indulgence, Skye asks, ‘Do you have dates?’
‘I told you, I’m married.’
‘I know. Her name’s Margaret. You see, I found out. What made you go with her? Do you have girls behind her back?’ says Skye, like a peeping Tom bragging of his success.
‘Then what? Do you fuck her?’ he says with devilish lust and joy.
‘I said that’s enough now.’
‘I bet you don’t. I bet you never touch her. Come on, tell me. You’ve got no kids, have you? Is that because you don’t fuck?’ Skye is triumphant with success, Massey is flustered and himself personally exposed. These are not intellectual insights of mine, I am a mere witness to the clarity of the acting.
While Alan is a crippled charity case with very little sense of conscientiousness, Dysart is like a multilevel wedding cake, growing stale from the inside out, since his main aspiration is to present honorably and professionally. The elaborate pipings of fondant cloud or choke his heart.
‘Wicked little bastard! He knew exactly what questions to try.’
Drawn in and fully consumed by the production, which presents the play not only in it’s original and thus minimal form, but also reveals the psychodrama of Shaffers script like taking LSD and visiting a Robert Irwin installation, I desired to talk to the director and the actors about the play, with the excuse of writing a review.
I meet Skye McLaren Walton in a NE Portland coffee shop.
‘I thought your portrayal of Alan Strang was just riveting. You portray him with such a manic burst of psychotic energy, I imagined that I was watching Peter Firth himself, who of course is the original lead who was directed and coached by Shaffer. Would you say this was the most challenging role you’ve done? You seem to be very young, and cannot have had much experience,’ I say.
‘Yes, I am 23, and Alan is supposed to be 19, so I suppose that’s a good fit. Well, this role was different for me. But I did play Dupree in Marat/Sade last season at Twilight,’ says Skye.
‘So what is your experience? What sort of acting have you done so far? Are you a part time actor, which Twilight Theatre seems to encourage, or are you a professional actor?’
He quickly aspirates a nervous laugh at this question.
‘Well, I suppose I’ve been acting since I was young. I grew up in Portland and began acting in the middle school plays. It came naturally to me, or at least, I felt like I was having fun. Then I went to college at PSU and studied with Devon Allen in the acting program there.’
‘What’s the method she uses?’
‘She teaches the method of Uta Hagen, who herself was a disciple of Stanislavsky. She believes that one needs to get the lines into the body. After memorizing the lines, which is simply the first step, then you need to work on knowing and relating to each line. Tobias Andersen, the director of this production of Equus, was very helpful. He was such a great combination of opinionated and knowledgable but he also encouraged me to come to my own understanding.’
‘Hmm. Ok. Well I’m not exactly an expert on the theatre, but my understanding of Stanislavsky, who I guess does the so called method method, is that this is the opposite of the character actor. The character actor is like DeNiro, they just play themselves. You’re saying you have some sort of process that results in the simulation of emotions?’ I worry I am out of my depth and wasting Skye’s time.
‘Well, no. Let’s see. How do I explain? First off, I don’t think DeNiro is a character actor. In any case, yes, character actors just play themselves or some single type of role. A method actor is a versatile actor. But they are not faking emotion. The method essentially involves working with the director or the other actors and coming to an interpretation of the role that… lets say the role of Alan. And so Alan for instance, he has some sort of psychotic break and then stabs out the eyes of these horses. I have never myself felt psychotic nor have I stabbed out the eyes of horses. So I try to find, I need to find, some corollary in my own experience. For instance, I have had moments of confusion in my life. And I’ve also been very angry. So then when I’m rehearsing I try to juxtapose the memory of these emotions onto the various scenes in the play, when Alan does this or that. Then when I’m acting I’m actually not faking the emotions, like you perhaps thought. I’m actually feeling them, or, if everything is working properly I would be feeling the memories of my own emotions mapped onto this particular script and role.’
‘That is fascinating. I don’t know if I knew that’s what method acting was. So have you ever played a role like the role of Alan?’
‘No, this was new for me.’
‘Wow. Well would you say this was your most challenging role?’
Skye thinks for perhaps 10 seconds, then says, ‘Actually, yes. I think this might have been the most difficult role I’ve done.’
‘But you seemed very natural. And I also thought one thing that stood out for me was that with many plays, especially with the ones with higher production values, the actors seem quite conceited and full of themselves. They talk with mid Atlantic accents. Showboating to a lesser or greater degree is more or less expected, even by the audience. You were just so devoted to the role I felt so drawn in, as if there was very little distance between me, you, and the character.’
‘Oh, thank you. Well I try not to assume I know everything. I want to be a good actor, an actor who fills the role. It takes a lot of work, that’s really the key. Going over and over until not only the words, but the emotional connection itself is a sort of habitual thing. Then if I’m successful the role sort of happens and I’m not tripping over myself.’
‘That’s very impressive. I myself have intense stage fright so it must feel very liberating to achieve a state like that. Now, when you walk onto the stage, after all that practicing, there must still be some sort of adrenaline or intensity that happens when you walk onto stage?’
‘I don’t have stage fright. But yes, I guess it is quite exhilarating to have an audience in front of you. You miss that when you do TV or movies.’
‘But this method your describing, it seems to require something dreamlike, if you are in fact training yourself to go through these emotions every night, on command. Is there a dreamlike quality when you are on stage? Or are you very aware of the audience.’
‘Hmm. Well I guess I go back and forth. Sometimes I forget about the audience and the set, and I’m in character. Sometimes I’m back on stage.’
This was all quite surprising for me. Just as I was astonished at Skye’s performance on stage, so was I astonished at the depth of his thinking and devotion to the role and indeed to acting in general. And another suspicion was verified after talking to him. I had felt that the actors on stage were themselves entirely devoted to the roles, and had dispensed with grandstanding, bravura performance, or my much hated ‘Shakespeare style’ acting affectations, but they were entirely devoted to being a unit in an ensemble. And here was Skye Walton describing a very touching and almost selfless style of acting. A process of continual doubt and refinement. While other actors I have known seemed very concerned with telegraphing to me the confidence that buoyed their charisma, and described moments of rapture in which they were hyper conscious of the eyes of the audience watching them, in thrall to them, here was Skye describing often the reverse. He sunk into himself and felt a sort of cathartic release, with a consciousness of the audience being a sign of falling out of character. While the awareness of the audience was nonetheless an adrenaline inducing moment, this surge of adrenal secretions would then propel him back into the character.
Perhaps many actors are more selfless than they seem? When John Gruen interviewed Firth in NYC for his review of the Broadway production, they were combative.
‘Moving and shifting about on a couch in the lounge, Firth restlessly fidgeted with his hands. He seemed continuously on the point of fleeing from the interview “God! Interviews make me anxious. Must we go on?” said Firth.’ And indeed many of these so called critics approach their craft as if they sit on top of the actors, when in reality they are far below them, often growing stale with a sedentary sort of writing, but nonetheless scrounging for scraps of feelings and exciting moments, like omnivorous trolls. But due to our respect for Judgement, and of course Final Judgement, in a sense the critic is able to convince their readers they are the final word.
While it was fascinating hearing Skye talk of his craft, I was still wrapped up in the riddle at the center of the play. I pumped him now and then for his ideas about the moral of the play. Was this a critique of Christianity? A critique of psychiatry? A critique of Freudian analysis? He was indifferent to such questions, and brushed them off as insignificant. For him meaning was to be found within Alan himself, who he found to be intelligent yet tortured. Why was Alan tortured? Did his parents harm him? Society perhaps? Skye was uninterested and seemed to think I was getting distracted with irrelevant conjecture. The important thing was that Alan was tortured, and through our sympathy with him we would find catharsis and release from our own demons, which will never resemble Alan’s. Everyone is unique and different, the important thing is sympathy.

But my mind kept returning to the horse, who Alan had used or confused as a substitute for Jesus Christ. Back in the theatre, in the timeless realm of the eternal present, Alan’s mother visits Dysart alone. Again and again, when we see a cripple and a failure of a human, we look to the parents. Is it evidence and story Dysart seeks, or is he examining the psychopathy of the parents themselves?
Alan’s mother Dora Strang, played by Rebecca Morse, seems rather checked out, but is nonetheless a sweet woman who worries about her son.
‘You see Mr. Strang and I thought you ought to know. We discussed it, and it might just be important,’ she says to Dysart.
‘Ah. So what was it you wanted to tell me?’ he says again in that neutral slightly questioning voice. We can tell Dysart is a pure character because Massey is a pure character, of pure heart, and his fault lies elsewhere. With Burton that is not so clear. However the play takes the form of Greek cathartic drama, the movie tries to purge that element from it’s structure.
‘Well, do you remember that photograph I mentioned to you. The one Mr. Strang gave Alan to decorate his bedroom a few years ago?’
‘Yes, a horse looking over a gate, wasn’t it?’ Dysart is clued into the symbolism.
‘That’s right. Well, actually, it took the place of another kind of picture altogether.’ Dora clearly has some guilty nagging thought.
‘What kind?’
‘It was a reproduction of Our Lord on his way to Calvary. Alan found it in Reeds Art Shop, and fell absolutely in love with it. He insisted on buying it with his pocket money, and hanging it at the foot of his bed where he could see it last thing at night. My husband was very displeased.’ Morse is telling the story as if she has practiced this before, as if talking to a therapist about her criminally psychotic son is a difficult chore requiring her to remove a part of herself.
‘Because it was religious?’
‘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.’
‘But Mr. Strang did?’
‘He stood it for a while but one day we had one of our tiffs about religion, and he went straight upstairs, tore it off the boy’s wall and threw it in the dustbin. Alan went quite hysterical. He cried for days without stopping, and he was not a crier, you know.’
‘But he recovered when he was given the photograph of the horse in its place?’
‘He certainly seemed to. At least, he hung it in exactly the same position, and we had no more of that awful weeping.’
‘Could you describe that photograph of the horse in a little more detail for me? I presume it’s still in his bedroom?’ Dysart and Massey are very skillful at presenting themselves as a sort of Sherlock Holmes, but we have been privy to Dysart’s thoughts, and it seems unclear if he is grasping or calculating, or simply asking questions to ferret out the character of the parents.
In the movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, many questions are asked or answered with angry demands or fearful subjugation. In Tobias’s staging the questions are asked with a gentle confusion or questing and answered honestly and truthfully.
‘Oh yes. It’s a most remarkable picture, really. You very rarely see a horse taken from that angle, absolutely head on. That’s what makes it so interesting.’
‘Why? What does it look like?’
‘Well it’s most extraordinary. It comes out all eyes.’
‘Staring straight at you?’
‘Yes, that’s right…’
Later, Alan’s father Frank comes to see Dysart. He is a blustery opinionated father, who Greg Prosser represents as a sort of 1950’s go get em boomer type.
‘Your wife told me about the photograph,’ says Dysart.
‘I know, it’s not that. It’s about that, but it’s worse. I wanted to tell you the other night, but I couldn’t in front of Dora.’ Prosser has established the father as terse and displaying the forced bravado of a man with a confused and overly traditional mindset, but who must meet the standards of confidence demanded of American men in the fifties. The play takes place in exurban London I should mention, as Shaffer is British, but these slight tweaks to accommodate regional character types help greatly in providing clarity.
‘Go on.’
‘It was late. I’d gone upstairs to fetch something. The boy had been in bed hours, or so I thought.’
‘Go on.’ Massey needs to offer encouragement, as Prosser is tongue tied while talking of his sons perverse anti social behavior. We later find out it is due to guilt at his own pornographic escapades.
‘As I came along the passage I saw the door of his bedroom was ajar. I’m sure he didn’t know it was. From inside I heard the sound of this chanting.’ Prosser presents a very understandable father figure duality of overbearing, spunky and intrusive but secretly guilty and depressed.
‘Like the Bible. Those begats. So and so begat, you know. Genealogy.’
‘Can you remember what Alan said?’
‘Well, I stood there absolutely astonished.’ It is as if he is trying to explain to a Catholic priest he caught his son masturbating. But at this point Franks descriptions stop, as Skye is sitting on a bench as if it were a bed, recreating the memory for us, the audience.
Skye as Alan says, ‘Prince begat Prance. And Prance begat Prankus! And Prankus begat Flankus! Flankus begat Spankus. And Spankus begat Spunkus the Great, who lived three score years! And Legwus begat Neckwus. And Neckwus begat Fleckwus, the King of Spit. And Fleckwus spoke out of chinckle chankle. And he said, Behold, I give you Equus, my only begotten son!’ Fleckwus, the King of Spit, reminds us of the white semen like horse drool Shaffer accentuates. Sexual and Christian references are continually being brought to the fore.
Frank continues to describe the scene. ‘I looked through the door, and he was standing in the moonlight in his pajamas, right in front of that big photograph.’
‘The horse with the huge eyes?’ ask Dysart.
‘Right. He said, Equus my only begotten son. Yes, no doubt of that. He repeated the word several times. Equus.’ It is as if Frank is describing the most humiliating memory of his son. The moment when he knew he had gone fruity. And it was his mother’s fault, who had introduced the irrationalism of the Bible, which had now infected even secular imagery.
And so I was quite excited to meet with Tobias Andersen, the director. I wanted to know what he felt the issue was. Was Shaffer pointing to the corrupting influence of Christianity, a brutal and irrational faith? The nascent field of psychotherapy was perhaps completely unable to deal with such an enormous millennia long indoctrination of irrational dehumanization, perhaps that was what Shaffer was getting at?
When I came to meet Tobias at, where else, another coffee shop, I found him trying to explain to the barista, in a feisty yet exasperated way, the particular manner in which he wished his cappuccino to be made. Then he began intensely questioning her about her opinions of different styles of coffee drinks. I am very inexperienced with interviews, and grew nervous that he might be hard to talk to. I ordered a coffee myself, we said hello, and sat down.
‘Well, what do you want to know?’ he said, staring me intensely in my eyes. His voice was deep and melodious. It had the practiced intonations of an experienced actor. At about 70, he has 50 years of acting and directing under his belt.
‘Well, I guess I’m fascinated by the play. You just seem like a very skilled director, and I thought it would be interesting to talk to you.’
‘Ok, what do you want to ask me?’
My mind sort of went blank, and I just launched into my suspicion of interpretation.
‘I feel like the play is getting at some sort of tug and pull between Christianity and Freudian analysis. I’m wondering if that’s something that informed your direction, your conception. It seems clear to me, based on how cohesive the ensemble of actors played with each other, that you must be the unifying element.’ He looked at me with a curious sideways glance, and I suddenly had the feeling I was myself auditioning for a chance to perform.
‘That’s an interesting perspective. I’ve never heard that before. Where’d you get that idea about it being about Christianity.’
‘Well….’ I stammered, ‘Some of the original reviews in the seventies seemed preoccupied with that dynamic.’
‘Hmm. Well, that’s the beauty of art isn’t it? You can see whatever you want.’
‘So, I see. You don’t see much of a Christian element?’
‘No, not particularly.’
‘What about the criticism of psychology? Isn’t Shaffer taking the Langian view, which was rather radical at the time?’
‘I don’t know about that.’ He did seem good natured. It was almost like he enjoyed pawing at me.
‘So what is the play about?’ I continue to ask my direct questions.
‘It is… about no less than what it means to be a human being. And the constrictions of being normal.’ Tobias offers this up matter of factly, as if I am the 50th person he has said this to during the pre production process.
I feel that this is on the right track. ‘So mental illness is a good thing? I mean, Dysart worries that curing Alan will remove or stunt some core humanity in him. But the kid is a total basket case, he doesn’t seem at all like a representative human, more like a misguided Christian.’
‘Your getting too wrapped up with details. The play is a universal metaphor, and I’ve approached it, or all of us have approached it as a metaphorical drama about humans who are confused and suffering.’
‘It sounds to me like perhaps as an actor or theatrical director you think the universal message is something related to performance? In that the performative process appears to be based on the ability to relate to extremities.’ He snorted with a sort of disgust at this hesitantly offered response of mine.
‘Look, I’m certainly not denying that the staging and the actors were not anything but pitch perfect, however each of them was a certain type of character. A doctor, a psycho kid, a religious checked out mom, a small business owning fifties father. But you’re saying it all adds up to a universal message not about any of those things?’
We did continue to have a pleasant discussion, as I dropped my initial rigid views and he told me about the production, and some of his past experiences, which I was very interested to hear. He says he is working on a memoir of his career and life, and I would be quite interested to hear more of his stories.
I had to admit, after talking to two of the principals, that my initial thoughts on the play seemed perhaps not relevant. Perhaps the value of the play was just that it was a well staged human drama that was deeply affecting? Not as a series of ideas, but in the momentary and timeless space of the theatre. Watching a real human experiencing real things, as opposed to watching a film composed of cut up and disembodied moments. The good film is alienating in its grandeur, whereas the theatre is human in scale. And to my mind, the community theatre is better then the well endowed theatre, for these very reasons.
But I have failed to mention Jill, played by Lydia Ellis Curry. A more perfect woman the combined talents of Shaffer, Tobias and God himself could never provide for Alan. She is played by Lydia with a slightly less naturalistic sense than the rest of the troop, other than Alan as I mentioned. She is more of an ideal woman, a girl really. In the play she is perhaps 17 or 18. In real life, late twenties perhaps. And truly heaven sent a woman she is, as she lacks entirely judgement nor guilt giving, and loves Alan for his individuality. She offers herself to him slightly loosely, and Alan is a virgin. She is like one of Shaffers perennial twins, beautiful and naked alongside Alan. But Alan is destined to reject Lydia. She is a sacrificial woman. Skye was also nude and bereft, Alberich like, Nietzsche like, stooped in trauma.
Jenny Agutter’s performance in the film version represents Jill as somewhat predatory and demanding, but Lydia shows us a Portland version of Jill. Sweet and not smothering. Playful and pagan not Catholic and rebellious. As sweet as honey whereas Agutter is like milk about to turn.
As the performance came to a close, the ensemble took their seats stage left and right. Skye lay before Massey, Dysart’s sacrifice. He had gone through the terrible, humiliating, psychotic break, stripped himself naked, poured out his heart, and was now calming down. His breathing was becoming slower. The sweat was evaporating from his body and hair. This was not acting, for he was done and was, as he later told me, going through a transitional process to calm himself down and get out of character, so he could go home and get a good nights sleep.
Dysart and Massey were still confused. They stood center stage, lost in their thoughts.
‘He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable! What then?’ The therapeutic process did seem to come to a conclusion, with a re lived catharsis having brought Alan closer to purging himself of whatever demon was inside of him. However, Dysart has estimated 59 more months of therapy will be required to bring about a so called cure.
‘My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband, a caring citizen, a worshipper of an abstract and unifying God. My achievement however, is more likely to make a ghost! Let me tell you exactly what I’m going to do to him. I’ll heal the rash on his body. I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes. When that’s done, I’ll set him on a nice mini scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal…’ Shaffer capitalizes this word ‘Normal’ in his first edition of the script.
‘…the Normal world where animals are treated property. Made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it! I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re there beside them, blinking our nights away in a non stop drench of cathode ray over our shriveling heads. Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.’
Massey looks to Skye now, ‘You won’t gallop anymore Alan. Horses will be quite safe. You will however, be without pain. More or less completely without pain.’
He turns to the theatre and the audience. I see him in profile. ‘And now for me it never stops. That voice of Equus out of the cave. Why me? Why me? Account for Me! All right, I’ll say it. In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place, yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do, yet I do essential things. Irreversible terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads.’ This is of course Alan’s crime as well.
‘I need a way… a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? What dark is this? I cannot call it ordained of God. I can’t get that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.’ He refers to the bit which reigns a horse in.
A long pause. The lights slowly dim. The cast walks slowly and solemnly off stage.
I am left with my thoughts. I cannot relate to Alan, although I sympathize with him. But I know fully what Dysart is saying. Or perhaps my prejudices know. While some psychiatrists are good people, in fact most are good people, as is to be expected in the selfless care taking profession. They lack something. They lack the tools of the ancients. Redemption. Traumas that elevate. Instead they sedate. Exorcise.
The audience applauds. The actors go home. And they return and do it again. The final performance is February 10th, after which the actors will disperse and slowly forget their memorized lines. The play is not videotaped, that would be to cheapen the performance, so no record will exist. Only we who went have experienced these particular actors, placed by this particular director, perform this particular play. Such is the transitory nature of true theatre. And for this and other reasons, perhaps this is why films are consumed with the petty while theatre continues to pursue the timeless?