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Theatre Or Cinema: "Equus" Versions Comparison

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“The normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes. It is also the dead stare in a million adults.”

– Peter Schaffer

As the deeply conflicted psychiatrist Dysart, Richard Griffiths delivers this line with wonderful restraint to an audience in the new Broadway revival of Peter Schaffer’s 1973 play, “Equus,” directed by Thea Sharrock. Essentially a psychosexual mystery, the play introduces the case of Alan Strang (Danielle Radcliffe) within the first few minutes—a disturbed 17-year-old who violently blinds six horses one night with a metal spike. A sympathetic magistrate (Kate Mulgrew) places Alan under the treatment of Dysart, who, for the entirety of the play, seeks to discover the dark motives behind the boy’s apparently senseless crime. As the boy and doctor play cat and mouse in their sessions to discover more about each other, the sexual and religious confusion that led up to that chilling night is deconstructed into a twisted mix of incidents, puritanical and authoritarian upbringing, and profoundly passionate worship.

Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film adaptation of “Equus,” starring Richard Burton as Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan, stays true to this narrative structure—neither production is a “whodunit,” but rather, a “why did he do it” Freudian inquiry. Both movie and play showcase impassioned performances from seasoned and young actors alike, and both adaptations are steeped in Christian mythology and surreal metaphors. The difference, then—and it is a world of difference—lies in the medium’s inherent suitability to the nature of the play. For a storyline that relies so heavily on memories, psychological links, and mental imagery, the realism of Lumet’s film fails to capture the poetic mystery of the play, an essential quality captured in the stage production’s theatrical symbolism. John Napier’s minimalist stage design requires greater work on the audience’s part filling in visual and emotional storyline gaps, further fostering the surreal mood so crucial to this play. The stage resembles a boxing ring in which Alan and Dysart spar out their sessions, as well as a Greek temple replete with an audience chorus situated high above the action. This temple connotation is drawn upon when the stage functions as a sanctified stable, Equus’ Holy of Holies in which Alan and Jill attempt to make sacrilegious love, triggering Alan’s breakdown. One might say that the stylized, totemic horse masks donned by the male dancers on hoof-like platform footwear achieve a more majestic, eerie presence than the actual equines used in the film.

While the film is undoubtedly well-acted and intelligently directed, the audience is not allowed to use their imagination, whether through the redundant images of the sterile Dysart with his passionless wife, or the gratuitous violence in the ultimate reenactment of Alan’s crime. The cathartic finale in the play is choreographed to achieve an effect that is more stunning than sadistic, while the film’s unsparingly literal version is so sensational and repulsive, it distracts the viewer from properly analyzing the scene’s symbolic importance. The father’s retelling of Alan’s flagellation below the unearthly horse image is similarly dramatized to voice-over, further stripping Alan’s worship of its original, more perversely disturbing, mystique. Alan’s midnight horse rides, written by Schaffer as clandestine communion rites, are also played out for all to see, and the sacred posters above his bed are recreated and exposed as literal, limited visuals. Lumet is surprisingly heavy-handed at certain points as well, e.g. when the camera pauses with great intent on Richard Burton holding up the poster of Christ next to the poster of the horse as he looks meaningfully between the two, as if to further spell out to the audience the obvious psychological connection. The literal nature of the film does provide gateway to some of the more painterly images—when Alan runs across the cabbages in the moonlight with Jill, he describes the entire countryside as steel-plated grey in voice-over—the image could not be more apt. However, the images are more often than not excessive, and the film seems to have little faith in the audience’s imaginative ability or intelligence.

That being said, the film version does offer some advantages, i.e. angles, which cannot be achieved through theatre. There are many moments of cinematic beauty that are quite effective, such as Alan’s first ride on the horse at the beach. Lumet gives this scene a heightened passion and dreamy quality that captures the magic of Alan’s moment more personably than the stage version, namely, because the camera can show the beach ride from Alan’s point of view. The audience more easily relates to Alan’s awe as the camera gazes up at the impossibly tall, grand horseman from the small character’s viewpoint as a six-year-old. When the camera mounts the screen atop this great black beauty, the audience experiences Alan’s reverie as well; the music and view create a rhythm and floating sensation to this visual gallop along the beach. The audience can connect to Alan more intimately from these shared experiences, or memories; we can better understand the beauty and magic he felt in this moment, and the resultant infatuation he develops for horses. Similarly, the close-ups of Firth in full writhing agony bring unsparing immediacy to Alan’s inner turmoil, as the audience is not spared the intensity of his eyes (the accusing stare, of which much to-do is made throughout the play). This dangerous gleam draws the audience closer to Alan’s psyche throughout the film, marking him more vividly as someone “who sees and feels more deeply than ordinary folk.” An enviable depth, the play suggests, “even if it prohibits its possessors from fully belonging to human society” (Brantley).

Both performances by Firth and Radcliffe portray Alan with comparable degrees of agitation and anguish, while humanizing him enough for the audience to sympathize with his situation. Firth’s characterization, however, is viewed much more close-up by camera, with every twice of his face and shudder of his body more immediately palpable, making his performance feel that much more unstable and disturbing. In fact, one feels a little too close for comfort with Firth’s nakedly, brutally honest Alan. One can more easily focus on Radcliffe’s skillful stage presence from the palatable distance in a theatre, also making the experience easier to “otherize” as a jarring psychological case-study, and less so as a painfully intimate, personal journey.

Finally, perhaps the most noticeable interpretational differences lie in the senior actors. At the center of “Equus” is a story about an older man experiencing extraordinary, internal doubts at a late stage in his life—a professional and ethical crisis. For the burnt-out Dysart, played by Griffiths with precise banality, professional detachment, and understated self-deprecation, Alan’s raging fantasies and devotion have “the mythic grandeur of Homer’s Olympus” (Brantley). Not only does Dysart envy Alan for his wild Dionysian passions, he questions the legitimacy of his own line of work. In excising all that is abnormal in Alan, Dysart fears he is also removing Alan’s individuality and ability to worship. He likens a return to the Normal to an emotional lobotomy, saying, “It both sustains and kills—like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest” (Schaffer). Early on in the play, Dysart is distraught by a nightmare in which he presides over the ritual sacrifices of young children, noting that despite clearly being “tops…as chief priest,” he is disgusted by his actions and profoundly empty. In the face of his increasing stress in the dream, however, he recalls experiencing a disproportionate terror at being discovered by the other priest doctors. This aptly foreshadows Dysart’s increasing introspection and discontent throughout his sessions with Alan, as he, too, comes to feel a similarly unbearable judgment by Equus, Alan’s image of God: “‘Account for me,’ says staring Equus. ‘First account for Me.’. . .” (Schaffer) Of this deistic spirit that resides in all horses, Dysart confesses,

“I keep thinking about the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that be? . . . You see, I’m wearing that horse’s head myself. That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there” (Schaffer).

His musings, despite the language of equitation, refers to an ontological desire that forms a core theme in the play. “Straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there” is one of the more visual images describing the Kierkegaardian leap of faith. It is Alan’s unquestioning devotion to this leap, his passion and courage that enable him to leap, which Dysart most painfully lacks.

As this unprepossessing Dysart, then, Griffiths is convincingly ordinary and reasonable, speaking in a practiced, habituated, flattened tone, seasoned with occasionally witty utterances. Griffiths is not too quick to dispose with the unflappable, and less dramatic, characteristics of Dysart, and admirably refrains from over-acting every opportunity in Schaffer’s play into loud, tortured monologues. As Ben Brantley from the New York Times observes, “He builds Dysart’s character with care, so when the eruptions of naked doubt, self-contempt and sorrow finally break out, he’s earned them.”

Ironically, Burton’s grand portrayal of Dysart has all of the intelligence but less of the sensitivity of Griffith’s realism. While Lumet’s film can be criticized for its realism, its actors are still, quite obviously, movie stars. Burton suffers too loudly, too majestically for the professional, Apollonian Dysart, and while the intensity of his performance is captivating to watch, it seems less truthful to the character and his grievances. For a sterile psychiatrist who laments his lack of passion in life, Burton certainly imbues enough machismo into Dysart’s monologues to remind viewers of his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. His performance in the film is powerful, but by not toning down his interpretation for accuracy, his off-screen persona comes dangerously close to overshadowing his on-screen character.

As if to balance out the Dysarts, the Hesthers in both film and stage adaptations are quite opposite in demeanor as well. Eileen Atkins plays an understated, rational magistrate to Burton’s impassioned megastar psychiatrist—she presents a thoughtful, though less memorable, performance. On Broadway, Kate Mulgrew offsets Griffith’s sensibility with a rather misdirected fire engine-style of acting, approaching her supporting role “like a headlining grande dame” (Grode). Then again, she was the only cast member awarded exit applause before the final curtain, suggesting a desire in modernized audiences for a bit of campy grandeur from at least one of the actors.

Ultimately, taking into account the various styles and nuances in acting and directorial interpretation, the greatest difference between the cinematic and stage version is very basic. Schaffer’s play, replete with mysticism and metaphors, is a work best served with theatrical symbolism, not filmic realism. Lumet’s adaptation likely achieves the best a film can offer, but some things in “Equus” are better left to the imagination.


Works Cited

1. Brantley, Ben. “In the Darkness of the Stable.” The New York Times. September 26, 2008.

2. Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. “Film Review: Equus.” Spirituality and Practice. 1970.

3. Canby, Vincent. “’Equus’: Film of a Different Color.” The New York Times. October 17, 1977.

4. Gardner, Elysa. “Radcliffe puts the spurs to his role in ‘Equus.’” USA Today. September 25, 2008.

5. Grode, Eric. “A Wizard Casts His Spell in the Stable: ‘Equus’.” The New York Sun. September 26, 2008.

6. Hay, Mitchell. “Equus: Human Conflicts and the Trinity.” Christian Century. May 18, 1977: 472.

7. Schaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Scribner, 1973.

8. Sommers, Michael. “The agony and the ‘Equus’-ty.” The Star-Ledger. September 25, 2008.

9. Teachout, Terry. “A Child Star Earns His Spurs.” The Wall Street Journal. September 26, 2008.

10. Christine. “‘Equus’: An analysis of normality.” Hereford Cathedral School. 2003.

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