Wild Ride

Long before War Horse, these beloved animals were stunningly depicted in Equus, a psychological thriller by legendary writer Peter Shaffer.

When Sir Peter Shaffer died last year at age 90, the London newspaper The Telegraph described him as: “A giant of post-war British theatre, producing a string of dramatic and cinematic triumphs and in the process bringing ritual, music and magic into a theater in danger of disappearing into kitchen sink naturalism.”

Shaffer’s triumphs include three works that were first hit plays then big-budget movies: The Royal Hunt of the Sun in the 60s, Equus in the 70s, and Amadeus in the 80s. Now Pittsburgh Public Theater is thrilled to produce a new staging of the sensational Equus, directed by Ted Pappas as part of his Grand Finale season.

Mining Shakespeare

Peter and his identical twin brother, Anthony, were born in the English city of Liverpool in 1926. In school the boys delighted in story hour, and this love of dramatic narrative would both comfort and inspire them as they grew.

As teenagers during World War II, the brothers were conscripted to work in a coal mining operation. To allay the tedium of his grueling tasks, Peter memorized long passages from Shakespeare’s plays then recited them in his head as he labored.

“It kept me from going mad,” Shaffer told the writer Michael Riedel. “I’d do Hamlet one day and King Lear the next.” Shaffer said he learned to write plays by absorbing the structure of Shakespearean monologues and scenes.

He attended Cambridge after the war and moved to New York in 1950. There he found employment in a bookstore and then at the public library, all the while devoting as much time as possible to writing novels and plays.

Mane Attraction

Shaffer had his first success in London in 1958 with a drama about a family. Titled Five Finger Exercise, it also ran on Broadway for more than 600 performances. But it was 1964’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun that began his reputation for visually ambitious plays with penetrating themes and demanding roles for actors. The spectacular tale of Spain’s conquest of Peru and the human desire to worship, The Royal Hunt of the Sun helped to put London’s recently established National Theatre on the map.

His play Black Comedy was also a hit for the National Theatre, but Equus was his next epic drama and it became a worldwide sensation.

While driving in the English countryside, a friend told Shaffer about a local boy who had been sent to an asylum after harming several horses. The playwright tried to track down the details but never learned the truth behind the horrific act.

“The story took hold of me in a way that I really wanted to account for this, somehow, in my head,” Shaffer has said. “I was thinking about it all the time, and the only why I could lay it to rest was to write about it.”

In Equus, Shaffer created 17-year-old stable hand Alan Strang, whose love of horses morphs into something odd, and then suddenly, into violence. He gets committed to the care of Dr. Martin Dysart, a man who is growing disillusioned with his passive lifestyle.

Told in a non-linear way, Equus is a psychiatric detective story that uncovers the hidden motives behind Alan’s deed. At the same time the play investigates not just the downside of uncontrolled passion, but the emptiness of pure reason.

The characters include a compassionate magistrate, Alan’s religiously zealous mother, his authoritative father, and the girl who is attracted to him. But equally important in the cast are the horses. Wearing stylized equine head gear, the actors in these roles convincingly evoke the animals’ movements, mannerisms, power, and grace.