Modern society

The failure of materialism and politics

Shaffer gives prominence to various aspects of twentieth century society, such as television, advertising jingles and Frank’s socialist politics. These images represent the intrusion of the outside world into Alan’s mind, and suggest a build-up of pressure and negative influences on him.

The demands of consumerism, conveyed by the electrical brand-names (and particularly associated with capitalist post-war economy), are oppressive to Alan. The promises of material prosperity outlined by Dysart at the end of Equus are wholly unsatisfactory. The ‘non-stop drench of cathode ray’ (television) shrivels the soul and makes people, in the words of Frank ‘stupid for life’.

In Act 2, scene 25, Dysart illustrates the insufficiency of modern culture and communities to reach out to unique individuals like Alan, who knows:

No music except television jingles. No history except tales from a desperate mother. .. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make him know himself more moderately. He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist.

Hesther sees this ‘cut-off little figure’ as one inevitably in deep pain. But modern society offers no better alternative.

Human reality

Shaffer seems to indicate that humanity has lost its soul in its pursuit of the tangible rather than belief in the intangible. As Frank says, although the materialism of modern life ‘seems to be offering you something, .. actually it’s taking something away.’ But the play demonstrates the real human need for something beyond the material, and for genuine human connection with one another.

Alan’s worship of Equus, and also Dysart’s interest in Ancient Greece, represent their attempts to escape from the hollow realities of their world. The build-up of trust and sympathy between the two exemplify the power of human relationships. It is a tragedy when both worship and trusting relationship have to be sacrificed to the ‘God of the Normal’.

Investigating imagery...

  • What repeated images can you find in the play?
    • How do they relate to the main themes?
  • How does the imagery support the themes of the play?
  • Do you think the themes and imagery give the play an overall moral or message?
    • If so, what is it?
  • Does the visual imagery in the language of the text (of eyes, for example) make up for the plain stage set?
    • How visual do you think this play is?
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