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[This Doc includes


background notes,
dramatic influences
and conventions;
dramatic
strategies,
characterisations,
themes, revision
notes, class paper
notes, brief close
reading notes on
the text, etc]
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Make notes as you read
the play, take full class
notes, read and make
summaries of the critical
material, complete set
tasks and write the set
essays. Use the notes
below to guide your study.
Get into the habit of
comparing and contrasting
with other texts and
evaluating the purpose and
success of the various
dramatic methods, as they
convey their respective
visions of individual, society
and human life.
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Background Notes
1973 - The script of the play was written subsequently to its production.
The author expressed his reservations about the play’s translation into
print text, concerned to stress the expressionistic, stylised and
ritualistic nature of theatrical method. A ‘play is more than words on
a page’, he warns.

Inspiration for the play:


The play is based on a horrific, factual story of a disturbed boy blinding
some horses. The author saw in the incident potential for exploring
important insight into modern culture. The dramatic rendition,
psychological insights, the cultural analysis and critique are the
author’s.

Cultural contexts:
1970’s: popularity of psychiatry as new science and value system,
attempts to address social and psychological malaise; culture of
conformity deemed normality; repression of instinct and passion by
scientific rationalism, liberal humanism; etc.

Shaffer’s literary and cultural contexts are sources of ideas and


symbolism

Freud is found in psychiatrist’s reliance on talk therapy; Freud also


collected ancient Greek and Egyptian artefacts

Jung and his claim to a collective unconscious surfaces in Alan’s


recourse to symbols and rituals; also present in the process of
individuation achieved by Dysart’s self - confrontation

RD Lang sees mental illness and mentally ill as offering a deeper


window on the inner psyche of the culture; sees mental illness as a
legitimate natural way of responding to the contradictions in the social
environment

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Ideas informing Shaffer’s play

Religious ritual; Nietzsche’s ideas about the Birth of


Tragedy; Nietzsche’s analysis of culture into opposing
Dionysian and Apollonian principles; Horses in
literature often signifying the sexual, animal self;
Horses in Biblical texts often signify heroic over
coming; imagery of eyes in literature as eyes of god
and spiritual self; conscience; eyes in Biblical texts,
as ‘widows’ to the soul; eyes in enlightenment culture
as agents of knowledge; Christian symbolism, the
sacrifice and passion [suffering] of Christ;
contemporary thesis about modern alienation from
primal self; ideas about the shallow and conformist
consumerist culture; Jung’s ideas about archetypes
signifying a collective unconscious; Ancient Greek
myths and legends symbolically signifying deep levels
of the psyche; psychological and philosophical ideas
of R.D. Laing, Freud and Foucault on madness:
madness seen as expressing the repressed aspects
of the psyche, expressing some of our primal
impulses, legitimate and even heightened response to
life; Old Testament story of Job’s suffering , gilt
instigated by mother’s conventional religiosity; ancient
Greek savage rituals appear as part of Alan’s self -
constructed sadomasochistic worship, its religious
and sexual components fuse, as it combines pain,
pleasure, spiritual transport ecstasy, and sexual
passion; Homer and horse symbolism relies on
ancient mythology of the horse, horse signifies sexual
and beastly nature of humanity and primitive desire;
etc

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Shaffer’s hybrid dramatic method

Shaffer relies of aspects of Realism and Naturalism: a


shocking story of a boy’s maiming of horses provides
inspiration for the play; Shaffer’s dialogue is quite
naturalistic; Shaffer’s representation of psychiatric
practices is recognisably naturalistic [eg. encounter
between Alan and Dysart]; Shaffer explores character
interiority; Shaffer probes deep recesses of the psyche
and values of a culture; Alan’s characterisation and
motivations are grounded in experiences of the family,
the initial trauma of forbidden passions, cultural values
of repressed sexuality, etc. Alan’s initially unusual
psyche can be partly explained by reference to the
influence of parental values, his mother’s conventional
Christianity, father’s repressed sexuality, father’s
godless atheism, tension between the parents, his
initial encounter with Trojan, the horse, combining
terror and sexual excitement, his mother‘s stories of
horses, etc. Beyond the family, Shaffer suggests Alan’s
feelings for horses are part of human yearning for
passionate worship; modern emphasis on reason and
normality provide another set of determination; Alan’s
climactic blinding of horses can be explained in
reference to familial and cultural values, etc. Likewise
Dysart’s yearning for a Grecian style primitivism, is also
a reaction to a conformist, rationalistic cultural climate,
denying opportunity for passionate ritualistic worship,
etc

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Crime fiction genre
Critics have noted Shaffer’s invoking of the crime fiction genre: instead
of a “who done it?” the play traces the reasons for Alan’s action [why
done it]; Dysart is a kind of psychic ‘detective’; audience knows the
crime but needs to work out motivations for it

Theatre of Cruelty
Theatre of Cruelty involves audience identification with and
participation in highly emotional, often painful experiences, often
confronting deepest passions and instincts

Ritual Theatre
Audience is involved in the dramatic ritual experienced by the
characters, encouraging audience self - confrontation and self -
revelation

Classical Greek Drama:


Shaffer borrows much from Greek theatre: the Greek Chorus is
represented by the Equus noise, symbolic of the collective
subconscious; like Greek theatre, Shaffer’s theatre sees it self as
providing a moral and religious education; audience sits around the
stage as if in an ancient amphitheatre; Shaffer’s characters engage in
symbolic and stylised action; Shaffer insists on a strong catharsis;
Shaffer’s symbolic costumes, symbolic masks; echoes of Classical
Greek themes in exploring dangerous passions [see Medea and the
Bacchae]; Shaffer dramatises a conflict between the Apollonian
[civilisation] and Dionysian principles [instinctive passions]; notion of
guilt and atonement for past deeds

Expressionism/symbolism and departures from realism


Characters and actions symbolise or intimate meanings or principles
beyond their naturalistic representative roles; actions carry symbolic
meanings; props are used expressionistically; costumes are used
expressionistically; colours covey moods; gestures and movents are
symbolic of ideas or principles beyond simple verisimilitude; lighting
evokes moods, inner states and ideas; sets express moods and ideas;
colour scheme expresses themes, inner states, moods; settings,
shapes and seating arrangements are also used expressionistically, etc

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Brechtian alienation effect
Audience address by Dysart taking the audience into confidence and
explaining his and the play’s philosophy, shifts the play into a didactic
mode: Shaffer disrupts naturalism and realism

Departure from the three unities


Shaffer combines realism’s linear development; breaks in linear
development by flash - backs; linear structure unfolding Dysart’s story
of his encounter with Alan; some segments told in retrospect by Dysart;
Dysart’s recalls; Alan’s re - enactments of episodes in Alan’s story, as
part of process of treatment, in the form of flash backs; Styles and
dramatic conventions:

Questions – see some answers above


1. How does Shaffer use naturalism and realism? What are the
features of both?
2. How does he depart from realism and naturalism? Where?
Effect?
3. How does the play deploy other theatrical traditions, such as
expressionism, symbolism, ritual theatre, theatre of cruelty,
Brechtian alienation, etc?
4. How do the departures express the hidden, darker, dimension of
humanity, etc?
5. How do they work to convey Shaffer’s vision of human society
and its inner life?
6. Could he have achieved the same with naturalism?
Elements of drama: general
Narrative plot/development,
dialogue, monologue, language, imagery, style of language,

Characterisation;
inner state, psychological make up, motivation, representative status,
thematic site,

Structure;
linear, circular or episodic; climaxes, anti climaxes, denoument,
resolution, foreshadowing, dramatic irony, time management, time
frames, flashbacks,

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Non verbal aspects to theatre performance

costumes masks movements


(or lack thereof) gestures/actions

lighting staging

lighting sound

Q. How do they work [individually] to dramatise the


characters’ inner states, thematic concerns, play’s moral
vision, mould audience responses and engagement, etc
Which are most radical?
Which are most important?
Which work particularly well?

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Themes: brief summary of some themes [below]
How are they explored through the characterisations and other methods?

Inner Journey and rites of passage: Alan and Dysart undergo a rites
of passage as they re initiated into sexuality, other modes of
worship respectively; such rites involve a journey of self -
knowledge and self - understanding

 Meaning in modern rationalistic and consumerist society


 Search for meaning in spiritually barren modern life
 Deep human impulses and passionate worship
 Normality and conformity in conflict with individual freedom
 Sanity and madness and its status in modern rationalist
society
 Pagan passionate worship and conventional Christian
worship
 Sexual passion and its repression in modern society
 Reason and passion
 Dionysian and Apollonian principles in human psyche and
society
 Role and nature of psychiatry
 Parenting and family
 Individual self - expression and conformist society
 Consumerism and popular culture
 Paganism and civilisation
 Individual crisis of purpose and moral dilemmas
 Consumerism and barren modern inner life
 Individuality and conformity
 Death of passion in modern civilisation
 Sexuality and its repression in modern society
 Pagan and Christian religious worship
 Sanity and madness
 Family relationships and marriage
 Individualistic self - expression and conformity to
convention
 Failure of modern life to satisfy deep inner longings for
passion and transcendence
Others?
Some themes may be combined

How are these themes explored? What does the play say about each? What does
the play endorse, value and what does it critique? Ambiguity?

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Characterisation

Characters must be seen as psychological as well as allegorical


constructions:

Explore
 Psychological make up: motivations, moral nature, values, beliefs, dominant
feelings and moods, inner conflicts, etc
 Roles in play’s thematic interests: see the list of themes
 Class and class attributes represented through them
 Values they represent through them
 Parallels and contrasts between characters and its significance
 Authorial positioning: what we admire, endorse, sympathise with, view
critically or ambiguously
 Dramatic methods conveying the above such as colour, gestures, dialogue
monologue, quality of language, costumes, etc

Major characters
Alan Strang
Dysart
Hester
Dora Strang
Frank Strang

Minor characters
Jill - stable girl; represents easy sexuality
Dalton - stable keeper, conventional working class man

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Alan Strang – A teenage boy who maims the horses. He is the site or
exploration of key ideas about primitive passion, religious ritual,
individualistic self definition, transgressive departures from
conventional self expression. He also represents lost and repressed
aspects of the psyche, lost in modern atheism, repressive attitudes to
sexual passion. Alan’s character can also be viewed as triumph of the
apollonian over the Dionysian aspects of the self, reason over passion,
sanity over madness, conventional and normality over individuality, etc

A disturbed teenage boy, his maiming of horses brings him to legal and
psychiatric attention. Alan represents a human yearning for passionate
individualistic worship, repressed by a modern emphasis on rationalism
and conformity

Explore Alan as a psychological construction and as site for the exploration


of themes and vision of modern life.Find key passages demonstrating different
aspects of his character, passages showing key forces moulding his character and
steps contributing to his blinding of the horses

What motivates his actions and responses at each stage?


What motivates his blinding of horses?
Explore the elements in the encounter between Trojan, the rider, Alan and the
Strands. What impact did it have on Alan’s life?

What is his home life like?


How do his mother see religion? Sex? Love?
How do his father see religion? Sex? Love?
What inner conflict does the early life and family experiences set up?
How does it contribute to his blinding of the horses?

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What view of society doe we have?
To what extent is society responsible for his need to worship?
How does society repress or not provide an opportunity for the boy’s need for
passionate worship?

In what sense is the need to worship an essential need, as the play sees it?
Explore the symbolism of horses as objects of worship
What are the key ingredients of his worship?

Connect the horse to Christ. Alan himself. Instinctual humanity. Sexuality. Suffering.
Authority. God.
Contrast his horse worship to his mother’s religious practices and religious
feelings?
How does his regard for the horses differ from his mother’s love of horses?

How does the boy regard sexual love? How does he feel when is making love to
Jill? Why can he not make love to her?
How does his father’s no – nonsense, non - religious scepticism contribute to the
boy’s violent outburst?

What values aspects of society does the father represent?


How do the values he represents contribute to boy’s violent outburst?
Is the culture of consumerism responsible for his worship and outburst?

How does the play judge Alan’s violent outburst?


To what extent does the outburst endorse Hester’s view of Alan as a suffering
child? Does Shaffer suggest Alan be better off ‘as a normal child’? Evaluate the
loss/gain

How far does Alan’s violence endorse and reflect Dysart’s view of Alan’s passion?
Who does Shaffer finally blame for Alan’s violence?

Themes: the play explores the its themes through the character [see above]
How are these themes explored?
What does the play say about each?
What does the play endorse, value and what does it critique?
Ambiguity?
.

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Dysart
A psychiatrist treating Alan. He represents yearning for passionate
worship, repressed by modern civilisation’s privileging reason and
normality. Dysart suffers a crisis of purpose and meaning as a result of
his encounter with his patient and Alan’s individualistic religious rituals

Explore Dysart as a psychological construction: inner state, inner conflicts,


passions; professional status; motivations for opinions, action, inner states;
explore his moral stature.
Explore the elements in the initial monologue
What are his secret fears and desires?
How does he see his practice and profession as a psychiatrist?
How does he view normality?
How does he see modern society?
What does he feel guilty about?
How does his dram reveal?

What impact does Alan have on his life


What is his marriage and home life like?
How does he view modern religion? Primitive worship? Passionate life? Modern
humanity? Instinctual humanity?

Contrast Dysart’s view with views of others such as Hester and Alan’s parents?
What inner conflict does he experience?
How does it contribute to his taking on Alan?
To what extent does Dysart see society as responsible for Alan’s violence?
How does he view such violence?

Does he see the need to worship as an essential need?


How does the Dysart regard sexual love?
How does he feel when is making love to his wife?
Why can they not have children? What does it symbolise?

How does he see Alan’s father’s no – nonsense, atheistic scepticism?


How does he see the culture of consumerism?
Where does Shaffer stand on Dysart’s values?
How far does Alan’s violence endorse and reflect Dysart’s view of Alan’s passion?
Who does Dysart blame for Alan’s violence?

Themes: how does the play explore any of the themes through the
character?

How are these themes explored?

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What does the play say about each?
What does the play endorse, value and what does it critique? Ambiguity?

Dora Strand
The mother of Alan, represents conventional Christianity and a juxtaposition to the
conventional rationalist atheist, father of Alan

Explore Dora as a psychological construction: inner state, inner conflicts, passions;


profession, motivations for reaction, action, inner states; explore her moral stature

Explore the elements in the encounter between Trojan, the rider, Alan and the
Strands.
What impact did it have on Dora’s life?
What is her marriage and home life like?
How does she see religion? Sex? Love?
How does she see Alan’s form or worship and his blinding of horses?
How does she see her husband’s views on religion? Sex? Love?
What inner conflict does she have in relation to Alan’s worship?
How does she contribute to Alan’s blinding of the horses?
How does she repress or not provide an opportunity for the boy’s need for
passionate worship?

What are the key ingredients of her worship?


How does she see horses?

Contrast Alan’s horse worship to his mother’s religious practices and religious
feelings.
How does Alan’s regard for the horses differ from his mother’s love of horses?
What values or aspects of society does the mother represent?
How do the values she represents contribute to boy’s violent outburst?
How does she explain Alan’s violent outburst?

Themes: How does the play explore any of the themes through the character?
How are these themes explored? What does the play say about each? What does
the play endorse, value and what does it critique? Ambiguity?

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Frank Strand
The conventional rationalist atheist and father of Alan

Explore Frank as a psychological construction: inner state, inner conflicts,


passions; professional status; motivations for states of mind, action, inner states;
explore his moral stature.

Explore the elements in the encounter between Trojan, the rider, Alan and the
Strands.
What impact did it have on his life?
What is his marriage and home life like?
How does he see religion? Sex? Love?
How does he see Alan’s form or worship?
How does he see his wife’s views on religion? Sex? Love?
What inner conflict does he have in relation to Alan’s worship?
How does he contribute to Alan’s blinding of the horses?
How does he repress or not provide an opportunity for the boy’s need for
passionate worship?
How does he see horses?
Contrast Alan’s horse worship to his father’s non - religious life
What values aspects of society does the father represent?
How do the values he represents contribute to boy’s violent outburst?
How does he explain Alan’s violent outburst?

Themes: how does the play explore any of the themes through the
character?
How are these themes explored?
What does the play say about each?
What does the play endorse, value and what does it critique?
Ambiguity?

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Hesther Soloman
Magistrate and Dysart’s friend, represents compassionate humanity, reason
tempered by sympathy

Explore Hesther as a psychological construction: inner state, inner conflicts,


passions; professional status; motivations for action, inner states; explore her
moral stature

Explore the psychological characters developments in response to the


questions
Mode of characterisation is employed? Psychological realism? How is it
manifested?
What values and principles govern her life?
What secret desires and needs does she harbour?
Explore her conflict?
Does she yearn for a spiritual life?
Does she for a passionate life?
How does she view sexuality?
How does she view love?
How does she view religion?
What are the sources and reasons for her dissatisfaction/unhappiness?
Are we sympathetic to her view? Why?

Find key passages revealing significant aspects of her character.


Why are these moments significant? What do they reveal?

Themes: how does the play explore any of the themes through the
character?
How are these themes explored?
What does the play say about each?
What does the play endorse, value and what does it critique?
Ambiguity?

Minor characters:
What function do they play?
How does Shaffer explore central themes through them?
How does he critique Western and British values through them?
Explore parallels and contrasts with other characters.
How does Dalton contribute to class representatives?
What values are represented through them?
How do they contribute to gender constructions?
What mode of characterisation employed? Realism? Typology? Stereotype?

Jill - As above
Harry Dalton - As above

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Social and cultural analysis through characterisation
What aspects of British and generally Western culture and society does Shaffer
represent through them?
How does each character represent, in different ways, civilised Western society’s
repression of a passionate, inner life, the denial of the Dionysian self?
What values and institutions does Shaffer critique most harshly? Rationality?
Psychiatry? Family? Conventional religion? Materialistic Pragmatism?
Consumerism? Other?
Whom does Shaffer endorse and treat less harshly? Why?
What values does the play view ambiguously? How? Why?

Point of view
Whose point of view? With whom we identify? How does Shaffer make audience
participate in the emotional mood of the character and action? Why?

DRAMATIC DEVICES

Settings: note Shaffer’s explanations


Explore the effects of the expressionistic elements of settings
 square – civilisation and conventional society
 circle – challenge to conventional values and area of desire
 stage and audience positioning - amphitheatre - dissection theatre - evokes
intimate relationship between audience and actors
 colour scheme

Costumes: note Shaffer’s explanations


 masks – classical theatre represents deep simple passions
 horse costumes – deliberately symbolic eschewing realism
 silver – evokes horse equipment and rituals of worship
 metal – evokes horse equipment and rituals of worship
 leather – evokes horse equipment and rituals of worship
 naturalistic costumes are reserved for realistic social analysis – contrasts
between normal and deeper humanity

Dramatic structure
 different and fragmented time frames
 fragmented sequence
 flash backs
 circular and linear
 Two or three time frames – flash backs, cyclical, linear – purpose and
effect?
 Linear disclosure of Alan’s condition leading up to the brutal maiming of
horses followed by a promise of partial normalisation and subsequent loss of
worship – central irony and lingering dilemma
 Linear development of Dysart’s self understanding, through the agency of
Alan, disclosure of Dysart’s secret identification, longing, envy, dilemma and
decision

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Key scenes: consider the following key scenes
How do they expose key characterisations? How do they explore key themes and
values? How do they deploy a range of dramatic devices?

Examples of key scenes


How is the audience encouraged to be involved and respond?

1. Alan and parents and encounter with Trojan


2. Mother’s disclosure of Alan’s Christ picture, displacement by horse picture
3. Father’s disclosure of Alan’s passionate worship
4. Dysart’s passionless marriage and confession about love of Ancient Greece
to Hester
5. Dysart’s guilty dream of himself as priest sacrificing children
6. Alan’s memory of recalling passionate worship
7. Father and Alan conflict over the viewing of pornographic film
8. Alan and Jill unsuccessful lovemaking
9. The blinding of the horses - What does the blinding symbolise?

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Shaffer’s Vision of human life represented in the play
Note: Vision of life emerges form characterisations, action, language,
structure, themes and valuations.

Some questions you need to ask:


What are the deepest motives, impulses and conflicts in human life?
How does Shaffer view modern society and individual life in it?
Is it pessimistic or optimistic vision?
Is individual self - expression possible in modern society?
Can modern life accommodate a rich - inner life?
Vision of human life: Vision of life is a function of themes and values

Values and views: What does the play endorse? Critique?


How does the play celebrate, critique or see ambivalently the values of the society
and the ‘world’ represented in the play by the characters, language and action, etc?
How does the play celebrate, critique or see ambivalently the values of the
society and the ‘world’ represented in the play, by the characters, language and
action?

Theatre context – comparing with other plays


You will need to make pertinent comparisons with some of the plays studied this
year: themes, vision of life and theatrical methods.

Secondary sources
You will find some of the critical material reinforces some of the ways in which you
have been thinking about text, others will extend and challenge your interpretation
of the play. Be open to the ideas in the critical articles without accepting them
unconditionally. Quote if you wish. Acknowledge your source using the appropriate
conventions of notation. It is better, at this stage, to rely on your own language to
express your ideas.

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