Theatrical context

The impact of Epic Theatre

The staging of Equus demonstrates the impact of the work of German writer and director Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) on Shaffer’s output. Brecht objected to theatre presenting events as reality because that left no opportunity for plays to make political or social comments. He claimed that he did not want to entertain people, but to make them think and devised a dramatic ideology called Epic Theatre.

The rules of Epic Theatre in brief

  • Plays were episodic in structure, often dealing with history or foreign lands
  • Action covered long periods of time and happened in varied locations
  • The goal of any play (and the theatre in general) was to instruct
  • Plays used the Verfremdungseffekt: a German phrase which means literally ‘to make strange’, also sometimes called ‘the alienation technique’. Brecht believed that the audience should be ‘distanced’ so they would interact with theatre intellectually rather than emotionally
  • Plays often used a narrator to comment directly to the audience on what was happening
  • Actors spoke about their character and actions in the third person
  • The audience was always aware that they were in a theatre. Lights were bright; stage mechanics were visible; sets were very basic; no ‘box sets’ were used
  • Music, back projection, signs and banners were used to explain and inform
  • Actors would deliberately break the ‘fourth wall’ and address the audience directly.

Theatre in the 1960s 

Protest, politics and pop culture

Anti-Vietnam War protestsThe end of the 1960s was a watershed; a time of violent change with protests (mainly carried out by young people) against the Vietnam War, Communist oppression and authoritarian governments. It was also the time of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ when women took control of their sexual lives and the feminist movement gathered force. Fashion reflected the new freedoms with the mini skirt and ethnic clothes, whilst long hair was worn as a mark of dissent.

The end of censorship

The year 1968 saw the end of censorship in the theatre, which allowed topics like religion, politics and sex to be freely discussed. In 1967, the British Parliament’s adoption of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in England and Wales, meant that homosexuality could be acknowledged and nudity on stage became legal. As soon as the censorship law was repealed, two significant musical shows, Hair (1968) and Oh! Calcutta! (1970), took advantage of the new stage freedom with notorious scenes of full frontal nudity. Alan’s nudity in Equus could not have been portrayed prior to 1967.

Theatre in the 1970s

In the 1970s, the theatre in Britain and America was dominated by musicals, such as Chicago and A Little Night Music. However, there was a number of new plays which were often quite avant-garde. Improvisation and work shopping became the working method of many theatre companies and the 1970s saw the growth of small fringe or collaborative companies.

Plays in the 1970s often had a political or social message, or ideological themes. New plays tended to be striking in their strong views and language, but did not rely on elaborate sets or scenery, due to the rising costs of putting on a production. Equus is a good example of this, since the action relies on a simple set which was not expensive, and there are few props (although there are masks for the horses).

The Chorus

Equus features a chorus of horses – actors wearing masks – who make noises at certain points during the play.

The Chorus is a theatrical device, initially used in plays in Ancient Greece, particularly tragedies, where groups of actors wearing masks would speak together in a sing-song voice. It had a significant dramatic role. For example, it:

  • Could take on different forms (for example, young women, or old men), and might sing or dance if required
  • Would highlight certain parts of the action
  • Could also comment on the action, such as the characters’ behaviour or thoughts
  • Might also speak directly to the audience in some plays.

In Equus, the Chorus of horses does not speak, but they make noises. In particular, at moments of crisis in the play, they stamp their hooves, or make ‘the Equus noise’, which alerts the audience to the significance of the scene. The noise also heightens the tension on the stage.

When the horses are blinded by Alan, the Chorus steps into the action, which is unusual for a traditional Chorus. The horse Chorus in Equus serves as a constant reminder of Alan’s crime and why he is receiving treatment from Dysart, but they are also actors who participate in the action of the play.

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