Social / political context

The 1940s and 1950s

When Shaffer left school, the Second World War had begun, so he was required to work in coal mines before going to university. The war meant that many young people were displaced, to fight or to do other war work. Many would be bereaved, or killed, during the war. Rationing was in place, so life was strictly controlled and there was only just enough food and clothing for everyone.

After the war, Shaffer began to write seriously for the first time and had a radio play accepted by the BBC. In the 1950s, attitudes began to change as rationing ended. Culturally Britain became more relaxed, and it was in this environment, towards the end of the 50s, that Shaffer began his career as a playwright and critic.

The 1970s

The advance of individualism

In the 1970s, when Equus was written and first performed, Britain was much more socially progressive than it had been in the 40s and 50s. There was a growing movement of individualism (people being interested in pursuing independence, as opposed to collectivism, in which people worked together, as they had done during the war, for example). This individualism led to a rise in interest in psychiatry and psychology, not just for those who had serious mental health problems but also for those who had smaller issues or problems and were hoping to learn how to manage their lives and increase their happiness.

Equality for all

At this time, women’s liberation began to take hold in the UK, and women were beginning to be treated more equally with regard to jobs and pay. In 1975 the government’s Equal Pay Act of 1970 finally came into force and was supported by the Sex Discrimination Act of the same year. Previously, women had been paid less than their male counterparts and had been expected to leave employment on becoming mothers. Female empowerment appeared to culminate with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first female prime minister, in 1979.

The contraceptive pillWomen experienced increasing sexual freedom with the spread of effective family planning and the widespread prescription of the contraceptive pill. No longer were they subject to multiple pregnancies either within or outside marriage.

Industrial turmoil

The 1970s also saw financial hardship for many. Traditionally, Britain had relied on its heavy manufacturing industry as a source of wealth and employment. However, in the face of international competition, which led to declining markets and revenues, companies needed to retrench. Inevitably this was resisted by trades unions and the era saw successive waves of industrial unrest. Strikes occurred throughout the country – those by coal miners in 1974 resulted in frequent power-cuts and people having to work a three-day week, to save on electricity.

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