Equus: Approaching exams and essays

Engaging with the text

Working with a literary text, whether it be a novel, play or poem, requires more than simply reading it and knowing ‘what happens’ or what it is ‘about’. If you are to write good essays and be successful in examinations, it is important that you should engage with the text as deeply as possible, and consider its themes, characters and form in detail.

Reading and working with Equus

  • Put yourself into the play: try to identify with different characters in the play, and consider whether you feel sympathy for Alan, Jill or Dysart
  • Think about the structure of the play: this includes the way in which the action is divided into scenes, the sometimes confusing chronology of the plot and the way in which stage directions are used
  • Remember that it is a play: it is written to be performed, so make sure you think about the visual aspects of the play. Try to see a performance, or at least a recording, of the play
  • Make notes as you read: this is the best way of keeping your reading alert and active – note down such things as the relationships between people, perhaps in a diagrammatic form, and the locations of various parts of the story
  • Make links with other books, films or TV programmes with similar plots and themes – for example, with other twentieth-century plays, or with texts which follow similar themes of psychiatry, freedom and teenage behaviour
  • Set aside time for reading: identify blocks of time when you can read without interruption.

Get to know the text

  • Read the play at least twice: this is essential if you are to develop a well-informed response to it
  • Follow up advice on reading given by your teacher or in study guides
  • BUT don’t rely on plot summaries 
    • They tell you nothing about language and style
    • They don’t identify themes and motifs in the text
    • However detailed, they are intended as reminders not substitutes
  • Read the text in different ways; once you have a firm grasp of the overall narrative, you may wish to: 
    • Re-read a particular section, such as the crucial moments when Alan opens up to Dysart, or Dysart’s monologues when he expresses his personal feelings
    • Concentrate on a theme or motif, such as the significance of eyes and looking in the play, or the part that psychiatry plays in the plot
    • Trace the development of a character or a relationship between characters; for example, the developing relationship between Dysart and Alan, or Alan’s relationship with his parents.

Know the complete text

This requires a separate section because examiners often report that students know the start of a play or novel well, but not the end. Classroom study often emphasizes the beginning of a book or play, where the author introduces characters, themes and imagery, and is then less detailed about the remainder of the text. So:

  • Do not ignore the impact of significant scenes or episodes in the second act of Equus
  • Remember that themes, motifs and images may be developed and modified as the play goes on
  • Remember that characters change and develop and that the reader’s attitude towards them may also change.

Keep a record of your reading

  • Make notes under headings, with page references to particularly useful passages
  • For major topics, you may find it helpful to have separate pages: one for each character, for example, or for ideas about the themes of the play: 
    • But don’t let your notes become too segregated and take care to comment on links and relationships
    • Use specimen essay questions to give you ideas for headings for your notes.
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