Enjoying Equus: Jouissance in Shaffer's Play

Article excerpt

abstract

This article takes a new look at Peter Shaffer's Equus, which, as its recent remounting in London and New York would attest, remains as popular today as it was in the 1970s. Through an examination of the Lacanian objet a and its relation to subjectivity, I seek to explore the dynamics of this play and its commentary on the fate of sublimity and Enjoyment in contemporary times. Looking closely at the encounter that Equus stages between jouissance and paternal-symbolic authority, and drawing upon Zizek's analysis of such concepts as the contemporary superego and the "subject supposed to Enjoy," the article argues that Shaffer's play encourages us to re-evaluate its own psychiatrist's diagnosis of the discontent afflicting a "post-Sacred" universe. In doing so, it attempts to re-conceive the nature of our enduring attraction to this play as well as the enjoyment derived from it in live performance.

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In the middle of Peter Shaffer's Equus, the psychiatrist Dysart discusses his vacation plans. Distraught with the sterility and "worshipless" nature of contemporary existence, he speaks of his desire to take a receptive partner to Greece, for the purpose of standing "in front of certain shrines and sacred streams" (62), where he plans to deliver the following lecture:

Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones ... but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops, if you like, and slate roofs-just as of certain frowns in people and slouches ... I'd say to them-Worship as many as you can see-and more will appear! (62)

Such a speech may sound inspiring from one's theatre seat, but we can easily imagine how stressful it would be to go on this vacation with Dysart. His would-be companion is enjoined to find something sacred and mind-blowing in every crevice of life, to absorb from every mundane feature something spiritual and magical. Dysart proposes this vacation as offering Passion, Life, God, against the tragic aridity of a despiritualized world; yet we might suspect that an arid world would itself come as something of a vacation from this demand for total Worship, and from the guilt of having failed (inevitably) to honour a small fraction of these "thousand" Gods. (What precisely might an appropriate Worship of these Gods entail?)

Of course, we might also ask why Dysart would need to travel to Greece if such divinity is omnipresent in his own English backyard. Is he not secretly grateful that the requirements of his job make it impossible for him to find time for such demanding forays into the divine heart of Life?

This reference to a "thousand local Gods" stands in revealing contrast to the phrase with which the psychiatrist opens both of the play's acts: "With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces" (17, 75). Dysart refers here to his teenaged patient Alan Strang, who has constructed for himself a mythic fantasy-world of transcendent passions, ruled by a horse-god named "Equus" in whose honour he conducts ecstatic night-time rituals. While Dysart sees in the intensity and primitive passion of Alan's Worship something tragically missing from his all-too concrete, secular reality, we might ask: would not the condensation of one's Worship in a particular, nameable object come as a tremendous relief from the incredible pressure of having to honour "a thousand local Gods"? Would not a single God, safely contained in the dark space behind the eye of a horse (kept locked away in its owner's stall, accessible for worship only once every three weeks) come as a real holiday from the urgent, ever-increasing demands of Dysart's god, a divinity that spills out, proliferating exponentially?

Gene A. Plunka argues-and the bulk of critical opinion affirms-that what Shaffer's play dramatizes is Alan's desperate resistance to a contemporary world "replete with oppression" (156), a valiant clinging to sublimity and ecstasy in an era that seeks to squelch it. …