by Dionysus Contemporary Theatre | www.dcthk.com.hk
Starring Anthony Wong, Hins Cheung, Directed by Olivia Yan
Original script by Peter Shaffer
EQUUS 2014 is breathe-taking. What I saw on stage is very impactful. And what residues in my mind is really powerful.
Without any literature review nor am I a drama expert, this is a not a critic, but a direct personal responds to this marvelous art piece. Equus, like many great art, has many open and abstract suggestions, thus my interpretations might not reflect the accurate expression of the producers. Nonetheless, I find it valuable to share the insights.
The plot of Equus and the performance of the actors are masterful to say the least, but I won’t focus it here. What is also impactful to me are the complex web of insights that the sum of the play and actors suggest to me, as in the previous spontaneous draft on my Facebook. This article tries to explore what is beneath the surface of Equus, and further personal insights departed from it.
There are so much notions in the play: religion, social norms, sex, love, passion, distorted child development, parenthood, violence, suffering, God, Shame, even masochism, Narcissism, etc. When I write the following, I feel the limitation of linearity of words, that the following continuous flow of paragraphs is an insufficient device to communicate what is truly a multi-dimensional relations of concepts. It’s like, after I wrote every sentence I want to branch off another paragraph yet there is no way of writing such multi-dimensional ideology in the confinement of a language device. So in fact my previous flowchart is little more proper (yet still confined to 2-dimensions) but there will be no elaboration to share the ideas as effectively as writing article like this, hence this article is still valid, so long with my limited writing ability but a big desire to share my thoughts as a way to congratulate my teachers and friends’ great work.
What is Equus?
In the story it gradually emerges Equus is the self-created God of horse by the boy (Alan). Seeing deeper, I say Equus is the self-projection of Alan himself. A psychological phenomenon resulting from all he received since the youth, that makes sense from a psychological point of view.
This self-projection is so complex that it flow through every details of the play, and it’s very difficult to explain by words: Equus appears to me a close conception to “Godness”, a symbol of freedom like horses, unbounded creativity, an escape from reality, a passion that contains unashamed self-love to the point of Narcissism that Alan cannot fully expressed it by normal means, and manifested through externalizing the idea (like Fetishism) to project on external objects: in this case horses. It’s a kind of compulsive worship, to a point he becomes a “masochist”, as seen in the scene where Alan use the rod to beat his own back, and only through this radical ritual can he expresses his desire for both self-punishment and enjoyment from his sacred act. Here we see a cocktail of “Godness”, religion, passion, Fetishism, Masochism.
Alan also has huge empathy for the horses’ pain, almost putting the horse welfare above his own. This is another example of him projecting the emotions onto his externalized self (horse), He has to externalize it to feel more secure, plus he is so suppressed through the years that he must find another “container” of his own self or he can’t take it. A foundation of Fetishism.
We also see obsession, addiction to horse, that he devoted himself entirely to his own cult of horse, and denial, isolate himself completely from other “normal living” time. Two side of a coin, a highly polarized personality, and the two side reinforce each other to its extremity: unsatisfied daily life pushed him into obsession of his own fantasy, while his dependency of the fantasy further pushes him away to deny everyday life more.
So, here we see an highly integrated sum of Passion, Godness, Sex & Love, Nacarrism, Obsession, Heightened self and creativity, even Fetishism, aggression and Masochism. I call it Equus. And I think it tells us a lot of humanity.
Friedrich Nietzsche – Superman
The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s has a “Superman” theory: What Alan did in his secret “mid-night affairs” with horse in the wild, is in fact analogous to the state of “superman” – a true transcended state of mind of freedom, originality, and creativity, which has a close resemblance of Godness. This deep affection to horse is very prominent in the play.
Alan also display the essence of an artist self. His “mid-night affair” is true to himself, full of originality and passion. I still remember the stunning performance of the Hin (Alan) just before the show intermission, where Alan depicts his memory of the mid-night affairs, riding the horses like he is the center of the world, commanding the world under his finger tips, full of power. Creating his fantasy world in such intensity is a very artful act. And one can only reach this state by an extreme state of Nacarrism, loving himself to the most, and enlarge himself to conquer the world, at least for that sacred private moment.
As in the plot, Alan hooked into horse by a childhood encounter of horse and probably mixed with his mum’s biblical stories. For me, choice of horse is arbitrary yet thoughtful design of the script, a suitable container and powerful symbol for the above complex psychological projection: Horse symbolize freedom, that Alan and every human being longs for as well as the contrasty quality: they are chained in the mouth. As the play converses several times: “The burden exist forever and cannot be unchained”. I translate it as: We, as a human being, will forever long for freedom, yet forever confined.
Equus – Alan – Martin
The complexity doesn’t stop here. Not only Alan projected himself into horse, but Martin also project himself onto Alan through the therapy sessions. The difference is that Martin is conscious about this, while Alan is unconsciously doing so. The chain inside horses’ mouth are what Alan strive to free them. It’s another powerful symbol of Alan’s own projection of his pain and boundary exerted endlessly by his parents, social norms, etc; and ultimately Martin do a similar self projection from Alan to his own fate as a middle-age man, struggle with meaning of his professional practice, as well as his unfulfilled marriage, especially sex, while Alan effectively has the true freedom to pursue his passion without boundaries and express himself through unconventional intimate activity with horses.
Martin actually struggle that, Alan, although being the sub-ordinate role in his patient-doctor relationship, actually display a more sublimed passion of life, of sex, almost a glory that Martin envy, jealous, because Martin sees himself lacking all. Yet the irony is he is the one to “fix” Alan.
He struggles that, while the society all agrees Alan should be fixed to become “normal” child, doing so will essentially rip off the most precious thing he sees and envy in this boy. Almost feel like a killer to rip away children who has true originality and passion in their lives, hence the earlier scene Martin has a symbolic dream that he tears off children’s’ guts and brutally throw them to the ground, suggesting that’s what Martin feels and doubts about his professional practice, that “fixing” children are in fact destroying them. The end of the play further reinforce this early notion.
The author choose to end the story without Martin pursuing his ideal, but jumping to the sader conclusion that not only horses are chained, not only Alan are confined, but also Martin himself. (and imaginatively all of us human being?) kind of throwing the question to the audience is this the truth of reality. (despite what the Bible and the society tells you about all the ideals)
This double projection between Equus – Alan – Martin is like a cycle of fate, an inevitable suffering/suffocation of being a human that lives. Which leads us ultimately to the Truth of human being, and leaves it there for the audience to interpret. The ending feels to me sensible to associate it with Buddism’s notion of life, of which every living thing is suffering, and the cycles repeats itself, the only solution to be Budda-ish: seeing through, and accepting the secular world and oneself as “none”, which majority of people do not have insights on this.
Sigmund Freud – Psychoanalysis
Throughout the play, Alan is living in a sense of Shame, Guilt, Denial, and acting self-protected. How is it this way?
Trying to analysis Alan’s inside world, I found that all his behaviors make sense. In fact we can view from Sigmund Freud’s perspective as Martin essentially is doing a lot of practice similar to Freud.
Fitting in Freud’s “id-ego-SuperEgo” terms,
His “id” has tremendous primal creativity, and this is also a sexual creativity that drives his passion, even to a point of obsession. It’s very instinctive. In contrast to most 14 year-old boy, Alan has kept his id part in a primitive form, while most people get “matured” by unconsciously suppressing id with SuperEgo. In this angle, Alan is being truer to himself than most people, although one may argue his id has been distorted and psychopathical.
His superEgo has huge contradictions on the other hand, as formed by his parents and social norms, nearly everyone external. (Hesther the laweyer is the definite symbol of social norms. Although she doesn’t exert pressure directly to Alan, The values of his parents is nonetheless a product of widely consensed social norm, formed by “normal people” who are all like Hesther)
Alan’s ego is the pressured sandwich between Id and SuperEgo. It manifested what we see his resulting behavior. Sadly, no one but only Martin take his heart to step in this middle-ground to understand Alan. The play started to tell that no one else in the society would take the case for Alan. Alan is a marginalized individual in the society, stereotyped as psychopath. The whole play unfolds the secret of Alan in this perspective.
This “id-ego-SuperEgo” triangle is a key to understand Alan and the play. His “id” wouldn’t be so powerful if the superEgo do not gives so much suppression to Alan. As you think about Freud’s theory more, a lot of notions fits right in place of Alan’s psyche. Throughout the play, Alan is living in a sense of Shame, Guilt, Denial, and acting self-protected. He also display subtle aggression in the therapy and ultimately burst into violent. We can attribute the root of his distorted self-esteem largely by his early age micro-trauma: how his unique mind is stumbled between two disagreed parents, each holds a high ground on their own values. The prolonged frustration together with Alan’s own personality, little by little, incident by incident, explains very well how Alan becomes his current state and why he did every of his actions.
Alan’s mother leads the role of a “stubborn” Catholic, whereas Alan’s father describe his wife as brainwashing Alan and even feel his wife accountable for his son’s strangeness. The father, on the other hand, display dictatorship and over-controlling in parenting Alan into his own concept of “righteous man”, and later loses his authority as in the adult cinema scene. Big irony. Both of them fail to embrace their child’s own uniqueness and exerted pressure that represents social norms. The play also shows the audience how religion (his mother) and ethical dictation (his father) not only fails to rise their child to become “decent”, but also yields radical consequence.
Somehow the play both criticize their way of parenting as well as depicting the reality of parenting: It’s so tough to rise our children well, despite parents huge and genuine love and effort. Yes, Alan’s parents here does expressed huge love yet they are helpless of how the child developed himself. And the play feels realistic as there are tiny bits of adult selfishness here and there behind their love.
The following thoughts are extensions of the above which might not always related to Equus directly.
More about religion
Throughout the play, Alan is living in a sense of Shame, Guilt, Denial, and acting self-protected. Even with Jill’s seduction, Alan fails to have sex with her when all it fill his mind is “Equus”, here Equus is his own guilt, . This is trying to suggest and criticize how religious extremity can doom one’s life. Guilt being one of the most evil element injected by religion, particularly Christianity. And we see how it ends: Violence. This actually fits the psyche profile of a violent person in general, they are torn apart inside, and their rage take over into violence externally.
On the other hand, what difference a religion is to Alan’s Equus? no difference, Equus is also a religion living inside Alan. so All the above about Equus also applies to religion and vice version. Religion born out of humanity. And however truthful or not a religion is, it is a psychology necessity. It’s a nature of humanity desire for security, a container to comprehend the unknown, conquer the fear, feel the love. A sense of purpose and self-worth in a physically meaningless world. These are enough reason for religion to exists through the centuries.
So what is God?
When I watch the play I repeatedly ask myself one important question: What is God and does traditional religion gives us the true answer?
The play throws out this question without even asking. and answer itself silently by probing every audience own interpretation. However, it does gives suggestions by displaying the deficiency of traditional religion and suggest us to rethink. This is mostly depicted through scenes of Alan’s parents.
There is one plausible interpretation: God is not an external being, He is rather THE truth about human ourselves, and living inside oneself in mono-scale, as well as a mass-scale psychological self-projection that can not be easily described, as discussed earlier about Equus, which is a complex manifestation of humanity, with inevitable suffering since born til death. Everyone has to project oneself to make sense and make peace of the too-complex-to-comprehend concept of our existence. Is God that complex? Or is it just one simple but profound notion that is beyond languages. I said it’s the same thing. This concept coincide somehow when people say “God is the mother nature.”” God is in our heart.” etc. This of course do not provide enough answers to the question what is God, but an pragmatic answer might not be meaningful anymore in this perspective.
The phrase “Our existence” is the keyword. Here, it leads me to think that, existentialism in philosophy actually provides more hints to this. It doesn’t try to solve it, but to address this very reality and nature of God, denial of traditional religion, and embrace one’s existence as the sole meaning of life and asserted this to be the only truth.
If you ask me what is the philosophical standpoint of the play? My short answer will be “Existentialism”.
Then I ask, “Is Alan a free soul than Martin and everyone else?” Hardly. Alan might find his absolute freedom in Equus. However Equus is at the same time his biggest chain in the mouth. Sometimes he conquer it, but he always needs it and has addictive dependency on it. Then it comes to a logical conclusion striving for freedom doesn’t yell freedom , because once you need it, it confines you. Only if you need nothing from the world that you are truly free. Here i should quote a line from Brad Pete in Fight Club: “Only after you loses everything, that you are free to do anything”. (at the scene where Brad Peter chemically burnt Edward Norton’s hand)
Speaking til here, you ask, “so Equus is everything?” The complexity of the world and humanity cannot be described in words, or it doesn’t have to be described. It exists just as is. It’s one, it’s none, it’s all. like nothing, like superman. If we need a label to comprehend? EQUUS it is.