‘Equus is great art because it forces us to re-examine the very fundamentals of our existence.’ Discuss.


The title statement seems to assume that we accept Equus as great art, leaving us to discuss the reason for why it is considered so. I would agree with this assumption, Equus is great art in that it does force its audience to re-examine the fundamentals of our existence to some extent. Fighting against Shaffer’s other great works, Equus is still widely considered his “crowning dramatic achievement”[1] and “has been hailed as one of the most powerful and provocative theatrical events of our time”[2] To what extent it does this is again down to personal experience, but I would propose that those who fully acknowledge Shaffer’s message would certainly acknowledge the importance of living a truly fulfilled life, and the difficulties in defining what indeed that is.


Footnotes 1 and 2 refer to “Peter Shaffer” review of Equus, Dennis Klein


Though a secular Jew, Shaffer’s views on religion and human spirituality remain of paramount importance to him and to this play. Equus analyses how organised religion has become irrelevant to a society which has been spiritually impoverished, and how it affects the individuals within it. Decline of religious belief in the West began in the 17th century after the religious wars, both between the European countries and within the countries themselves, which deeply affected many people’s faith as they failed to see the benefits of their efforts to please a seemingly malevolent God. As well as this, after the two world wars of the first half of the 20th century, the whole of Europe struggled to find any faith in an already floundering religion as the true scale of tragedy become apparent. Many people focused on the materialistic lifestyle made so easy with modern technological advances, though several others still felt the need to explore beyond the material world with more radical spiritual experiments, hence the emergence of the cult; La Manna tells us, ‘I am in agreement that in general the cults represent the earnest attempt of millions of people to find the fulfillment of deep and legitimate needs of the human spirit, which most of them seem not to have found in the established churches.’[3] Others turned to drugs as their form of transcendental experience, following the examples of the major idols of the day such as The Beatles. Equus is the story of a young man’s unique search for transcendence, with the attempt at understanding the base reasons for his supposed insanity. Rushing tells how Western humanity feels a deep-seated “sense of fragmentation and separation—from their world, their fellow human beings, and themselves” because all forms of transcendence have been rationalized out of existence by our “scientifically ‘enlightened’ world.”[4] Equus could be said to be Shaffer\'s analysis of society’s reaction to this “fragmentation and separation”[5], the way in which it explores this subject and prompts new ideas and questions in the minds of its audience is one factor that allows it to be called great art.


Footnote 3: La Manna, Gregory P. “Peter Shaffer As Transcendent Antithesis.”


Footnote 4 and 5: Rushing, Janice Hocker “E.T. As Rhetorical Transcendence,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 71 (1985).


The majority of society’s beliefs are represented by the characters in Equus. Alan’s mother, Dora Strang, is a devout Roman Catholic, a representation of the extreme way in which people can interpret the dogma of organized religions. Shaffer disliked organised religion as a whole and it is possible that through Dora Strang’s tragic misinterpretation and over-analysis of the true heart of the Christian message Shaffer is making a point which he succinctly puts here; ‘what is most distressing for me in reading history is… the way, for example, he [humanity] canalizes the greatness of his spiritual awareness into the second-rate formula of a Church—any Church: how he settles for a Church or Shrine or Synagogue.’[6] Throughout Alan’s upbringing she attempts to convert him to her religion, despite the opposition in the form of her atheist husband, Frank. It is the contrast between the devout believer and the devout atheist that Shaffer exploits so well. Equus is a work of great art in the way that it explores such fundamental ideas such as the