When considering the adolescent crush on horses, many of us tend to think of young girls—National Velvet. With his new Broadway play, Equus, the British writer Peter Shaffer obliges us to examine the possibility that these beautiful, enthralling animals may bewitch men as well.
Shaffer's drama focuses on a young man named Alan, who in the midst of his urban environment develops a deep love of horses. The boy is "a modern citizen for whom modern society doesn't exist," and horses become mythic creatures to him. In a demented moment, after unsuccessfully making love to a girl in a stable, he is convinced the horses are staring at him accusingly, and he puts their eyes out. Shaffer plays too much with the old chestnut that crazy people are really sane and sane people insane, but nothing in the whole play struck me so much as his psychiatrist's final bittersweet assessment of the young man's future. Alan's sanity will only be regained, the psychiatrist believes, when he transfers his affection to a more normal object—a motor scooter, and then a car—when at last a horse is merely something "to put the odd 50 pence on."
Shaffer is right on the button. We don't think people are at all crazy if they go bananas over an automobile, which may be a large part of our problem today. The road to hell is paved—period. And the horse, because his function has been usurped by the automobile, is seen only in distant, impersonal profile, as in crossing a finish line, numbered. We modern citizens never peer head-on into those coal-black eyes that seem to hold the depths of eternity—the ultimate thing that drives Alan cuckoo. Those eyes.
The playwright has based his work on a bizarre episode that actually happened with a boy and horses. But it occurred to me that our popular culture leaves all young boys with a wish, a centaur wish if you will, for being one with a horse. Roy Rogers and Trigger, Gene Autry and Champion. When we were kids, these, not the Yankees or 49ers, were our first teams. Then Emiliano Zapata and his great white stallion in romantic history, Robert E. Lee and Traveller in real history. Everywhere, the man and his horse. We never think of the man and his car unless he is killed in it.
It is all very easy to laugh about the cowboy's love of horse instead of lady, but since that is one distinct choice all of us little boys have, maybe it really isn't a laughing matter. A woman literary agent told me not long ago, "It's awful. All you American heterosexual males have no passion." At the racetrack, it often seems that horseplayers are not just angry at the little men who get to ride horses, but also jealous of them. They scream at jockeys in a more personally abusive way than at other athletes. With the economy demanding that cars serve our gaudy fantasies less and less, and more and more be built just as ve-hickles, as they are known in the Army, there may soon be more Alans among us. Maybe the horse is going to make a comeback, trauma-wise anyway.
I don't think for a moment that this is what Shaffer wanted us to ponder—or even imagined that anyone would. He was writing a psychological why-done-it, not moonlighting as a P.R. man for horses. Still, even though I had some strong reservations about Equus as drama, Equus as theater is fascinating—and largely because of the horses. They are portrayed by actors dressed plainly, in pants and sweaters, with high slanted clogs and stark bird-cage horseheads. And yet, with only this simple costuming, the actors absolutely portray horses, performing amazingly equinelike movements. Certainly not since Zero Mostel turned into a rhinoceros before our very eyes, simply by roaring and posturing as rhinos do, have we seen anything on Broadway like the animals of Equus. Special praise must go to a handsome young actor from Kansas named Everett McGill, who plays the lead horse. I have bet on horses who performed less like horses than Mr. McGill.