Dramatic structure

Structure by act and Scene

Equus is written in two acts and thirty-five scenes. Each act comes to a culmination in exposing the heart of Alan’s motivation. Many scenes are quite short with action moving fluidly backwards and forwards in time. As in a Shakespearean drama, actors overlap in their entrances and exits, although the concept of having all the actors visible on stage even when not acting is a Brechtian conceit. The shifts in time and perspective mean that only gradually do the audience understand the details of what Alan has done and why he was driven to do it.

The Author’s Notes make it clear that the changes of scene indicate changes in mood or focus, but the action in the play is uninterrupted. The play is therefore structured as a continuous development of the themes and plot.

Structure by time

The present action of the play occurs in Dysart’s consulting room and Alan’s hospital room as Dysart analyses Alan’s case. It covers a relatively short time span (Dysart refers to ‘one Monday last month’ in Scene 1). However, the time frame is expanded by the use of flashbacks. These allow the audience a glimpse of Alan’s past, and provide a vivid re-enactment of key situations. These flashbacks are an integral part of the play, as Alan recalls events which have resulted in his hospitalisation. Ultimately we are led up to the recent past where we witness the crime for which he is now being analysed.

More on flashbacks...: The flashback is a term for a scene in a novel, film or play, in which a character in the present returns to - and re-enacts - a relevant scene from the past. Flashbacks are part of a continuous action, although they go back in time.

Flashbacks serve several purposes:

  • They fill in the reader or viewer’s knowledge of past episodes in the life of a character
  • They help to explain aspects of the plot
  • They permit the character time to reflect
  • They relate to the character’s present situation.

Dysart’s commentary on his own life further extends the time covered by this relatively short drama. The end of the play looks bleakly forward into the future, as the psychiatrist contemplates a life for Alan that lacks worship. 

The stage set

The action of the play is fairly limited, taking place in Dysart’s office, the hospital, Alan’s home, and the stables, with a short interlude at the cinema. The stage directions make it clear that the set is minimal, and that each scene requires only minor alterations to the set. 

The Author’s Notes explain the stage set in detail: there are benches, set on blocks of wood, with a rail and tiered seating. This set is flexible and the benches can be moved to indicate different settings. This minimal set throws the focus of the play onto the characters and their emotional dramas.

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