Eyes and seeing


The staging devised by John Dexter for the original National Theatre production of Equus in 1973 immediately confronts the audience with the significance of sight:

The very shape of the set echoes that of an eye (albeit with a square iris) with an inner square that rolls around within a circle edged by curved benches

The staging appears transparent, with nothing hidden behind stage flats etc.

The presence of the entire cast onstage throughout the drama means that they observe everything and, according to Shaffer’s Introduction/Setting, act as ‘witnesses’ who are expected to comment on what they see, like a ‘Chorus

Although most of the audience is within the auditorium, there is also a number who sit on ‘tiers of seats’ upstage from the action – in other words, what happens onstage is open to view from both sides, by people who can also watch each other observing the action. Dysart asks both sets of viewers to assess what takes place.

Eyes and power

The play contains many images of eyes which have a compelling effect on the viewer. For example, in Alan’s first encounter with a horse, on the beach, Frank points out the horse’s eyes. From that point onwards, Alan cannot resist looking at horses:

They sort of pulled me. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. (Sc 13)

Both Jill and Dalton notice the boy who ‘keeps staring in’ to the stableyard (Sc 15).

The mesmeric power of the horses’ eyes has been fostered by the dramatic picture of a horse on Alan’s wall, which:

Dora: .. comes out all eyes.

Dysart: Staring straight at you? (Sc 11)

Dysart recognises for himself how this has affected Alan:

I’ve stared at such images before. Or been stared at by them .. often .. the feeling is that they are staring at us (Sc 22)

He alone comprehends how Alan can feel that the power of Equus’ gaze is inescapable:

Dysart: What does [Equus] say to you?

Alan: ‘I see you.’ (Sc 19)

Eyes and attraction

It is interesting that the chief (initial) focus for Jill’s attraction to Alan, and his to her, is the other person’s eyes:

Alan:(to Dysart)  She was always looking. ..

Jill:   You’ve got super eyes.

Alan:(to Dysart) Anyway, she was the one who had them.

For Jill, eyes are ‘sexy’ but for Alan, female eyes clearly remind him of those of Equus, which ‘shine. They can see in the dark..’ (Sc 21). Earlier, he has attributed to those eyes the vivid power of the risen Jesus, as depicted in Revelation: ‘His eyes were as flames of fire’ (Sc 13).

Tragically, the power of an equine gaze outweighs Alan’s ‘normal’ desire for Jill. As he tries to kiss his date, Alan ‘couldn’t ... see her. .. Only Him.’ (Sc 33).

Sight and understanding

The idea of watching is significant because, through doing so, characters hope to achieve understanding. Alan is being ‘watched’ by the nurse and Dysart in order to help them treat his malaise. Both Hesther and Dysart assess children who may have been traumatised by looking at their eyes:

You know what I mean by a normal smile in a child’s eyes, and one that isn’t (Sc 18)

Dysart extends this assessment to adults who he feels have lost their innocence and joy to the demands of mundane normality:

The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes.. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. (Sc 19)

Part of Dysart’s frustration with his wife Margaret is that she doesn’t ‘see’ the richness of ancient Greek culture or engage with nature for herself with anything other than pragmatic utilitarianism. By not sharing her husband’s view she fails to understand him.

Sight and judgement

Inevitably, sight also leads to assessment in terms of judgement. The overarching metaphor for this is Dora’s belief in God’s omnipresence. As Alan mimics:

 ‘God sees you, Alan. God’s got eyes everywhere’ (Sc 13)

This mirrors the process that Dysart and others are applying to Alan – trying to see him from every angle so as to attribute motive and/or blame. Both Frank and Dora have clearly studied their son keenly, though both also sought to evade the other’s observation. Alan’s mimicking of them indicates that he has observed them in return – and found them wanting.

This is in part what is behind Alan’s accusing stare, which Dysart notes in Scene 6:

He has the strangest stare I ever met. .. .It’s exactly like being accused, violently accused.

Dysart has already admitted to feelings of inadequacy regarding his profession, conveyed in a dream that emphasises sight imagery:

The damn mask begins to slip. The priests both turn and look at it .. they see the green sweat .. their gold pop-eyes suddenly fill up with blood (Sc 5) [editor’s italics]

He realises that, to some extent, Alan sees (and sees through) him, just as Alan himself believes that he is seen - and judged - by Equus.

The climax of the play is of course Alan’s attempt to evade the judgement of Equus by removing the horses’ capacity for vision. He brutally puts into practice Dora’s proverb:

What the eye does not see the heart does not grieve over. (Sc 7)

Yet, given that Alan believes that Equus is capable of seeing through material barriers (such as the stable door) and of knowing his soul (‘I see you. I see you. Always! Everywhere! Forever! Sc 34) it is not surprising that Alan retains his conviction that Equus continues to watch and judge him. So powerful is this conviction that Alan attempts to blind himself in terrible nightmares, and Dysart too is affected:

And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave (Sc 35)
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