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Literature and Therapy

von Jennifer Tubler (Autor)

Seminararbeit 2003 14 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


I. Introduction

Peter Schaffer’s Equus was first published back in 1973. This play asks compelling and relevant questions about society today by first and foremost dealing with the character and personality of Alan Strang whose extraordinary capacity for passion serves as the underlying topic because it goes beyond the normal boundaries of modern society’s acceptable views. After him committing a horrible crime, Alan’s parents feel utterly helpless and turn to the middle-aged psychiatrist Dysart who agrees to treat him and seems to be the only one not giving up on the boy while he is trying to discover Alan’s motives. In this process the reader is allowed to join Dysart on his psychologically demanding journey through the boy’s tortured mind and is forced to re-evaluate the concepts of conscience and moral behaviour .

Here I want to discuss Alan’s ability to live in a dream world so ardently that he completely gives up reality and submerges in an idea of his own horse-god that can bring him the salvation no other entity is able to offer him in his own imagination.

II. The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

The “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge[1] talks about, does not only refer to the play and its audience but also creates a profound meaning within the dramatic piece concerning Alan Strang itself. I would like to illustrate this statement by the following:

In the sense of the suspension’s literary meaning, it leads the audience to adopt the mental attitude in which it is willing to ignore the reality of every day life and accept all kinds of fantasies and impossibilities on stage. The profound meaning mentioned is not necessarily or completely different from Coleridge’s original concept for the audience, however it is a different viewpoint that originates inside Alan’s psyche.

“Just as the will to love precedes the loving, so can the willing suspension of disbelief precede the believing, beginning with ridding ourselves of the notion that something must be demonstratively clear before it can be considered true.”[2]

With Alan, the willing suspension of reality precedes and positions itself by his faith in Equus, his extreme obsession for the horse-god.

On further explanation, according to Coleridge, the spectator and reader will permit the illusion of show and play to erase the non-fictitious attitudes. In addition to that, the participation through eyes and ears bring about the association to realistic feelings and project them on the particular observation, which can be observed in the example of a crying audience member when the protagonist portrays overwhelming suffering and is empathized with. This ‘imaginative involvement’ is best described by Kafka’s[3] quote referring to movies that one’s sight does not master the image seen, it is the picture that creates the different images in one’s mind. In the same way can Alan’s perspective be explained. On average, he is a boy who appears as rather ordinary to the outside world, his parents and society as a whole. In this particular society however, he portrays very little success in living life the way that is expected from a thriving individual, because his boring job in an appliance store is less than fulfilling and contributes to his apathetic outlook. As a salesman, Alan is weary. Hoover, Philco and Remington are not just the brand names of the appliances Alan must try and sell, they represent a world where energy is measured in watts and amperes in the service of domestic convenience, in contrast to the raw energy of the horses of the Old Testament and classical mythology he admires and marvels at.

To Alan, the simultaneous existence of his life and his dreams can be compared to remaining in a magnificence of constant departure, wishing to change his situation, while continually arriving, tragically coming to a standstill in this effort. In this position, he subconsciously submerges himself into the concept of the “willing suspension of disbelief” by creating an imaginary internal world of ecstatic devotion to Equus, which determines the course of the rest of his life. He builds this world from biblical quotations, bits of Greek mythology, a photograph of a horse his printer father brings home from work, and an emotionally charged seaside horse ride he takes as a child with a stranger. In this mixture of emotional despair and anguish, the horse becomes the extension of his character and his personal window to the world. Torn between his religious mother and his atheistic father, Alan finds additional and much needed comfort in the adoration of his beloved horses and lets go of the realistic world of both his parents to create a God for himself, the horse-god Equus.

One needs to realize however that society cannot be escaped without a certain amount of effort, which makes every person a social construction, implicating that every person is marginalized, fragmented and subdued to a union of forces and thus having responsibility to act a certain way or to be rejected. As mentioned before, Alan sees little of this accountability and these characteristics as his own; to him it is a matter more abstract, an issue that does not touch his idealism because he has yet to identify with these kinds of structures. In truth, facing this reality would mean talking to people, opening up, making decisions and bearing the consequences. What an individual does makes a difference and has impact on the social surroundings but Alan seemingly sees himself as a victim of different forces not within his control. By neglecting the fact that it is more often than not the individual’s decision of who they are, he does not make his own existence a reality but willingly reduces himself to a believer of the horse-god.

The creation of this idol is a ‘willing suspension of reality’ to Alan. However, this creation evolves out of his imperfections, frustrations and out of a natural striving to transcend his isolation from people. He may not intentionally wish for a change, but he still feels that his life has lost the usual momentum all the same. Here language does not suffice to express feelings like frustration, anger or love and therefore he has to utilize a higher power since words to him are motionless and lifeless symbols of communication, not having been able to put them to successful use. Rather, he finds refuge in his memories, like the ones of the above mentioned horseman who shared a joyful ride with the six-year old Alan, or finds his sanctuary in feelings of ecstatic happiness on his nightly rides on Nugget while he is working at the stables; all these perceptions are unspeakable to him and for the longest time words stay inadequate for their expression.

Alan’s forced communication with Dysart is hardly achieved because when people communicate with one another, they usually feel connected and understood, which is an interaction that Alan has not practised. The time spent in thoughts of the horse-god in his earlier years and Nugget later on has been Alan’s only meaningful contact so far in which this passionate boy captures feelings of spiritual communion, the one transient feeling that almost every individual lives for and which Dysart is incapable of recreating in the sessions with Alan because there is no well to draw from, neither his own or the boy’s. Dysart lacks this very ability – if he ever did have as much passion and zeal as Alan does at any point in his life, and Alan himself is too indignant to share his in the beginning.Dysart therefore grows increasingly uneasy, uncomfortable and unsatisfied with his own life’s accomplishments because he envies Alan’s verve. “I am jealous, Hesther. Jealous of Alan Strang.”[4]


[1] The Dynamics of Literary Response, Norman N.Holland, (page 63), Oxford University Press, 1968


[3] The Dynamics of Literary Response, Norman N.Holland, (page 65), Oxford University Press, 1968

[4] Equus, Peter Shaffer, (page 82), London 1973,1974


ISBN (eBook)
510 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Mannheim – Anglistik
Literature Therapy Proseminar


  • Autor: undefined

    Jennifer Tubler (Autor)

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Titel: Literature and Therapy