Psychiatrist Martin Dysart is almost sleep-walking through middle-age on the downward slope to his twilight years. His marriage is passionless and empty. He goes to work at the hospital every day and helps the patients in his care.
At the behest of his friend, Hester Salomon, a magistrate disturbed by the case of Alan Strang, a young man who’s been arrested for blinding six horses, Martin agrees to take him on as his patient and becomes embroiled in discovering Alan’s motivations for his crime.
The psychiatrist turns investigator as he switches questions from the patient to his parents and uncovers Alan’s difficult upbringing in a home tainted with twisted religion and sexual repression. Rejecting his mother’s suffocating idea of God, Alan creates his own in the form of the horse, Equus.
But Alan’s God is a jealous God: “I am yours and you are mine.” And this inevitably is the driver for his heinous crime.
The more Martin learns about Alan, the more he is made aware of the bitter truth of his own existence and the role he plays in society. Martin finds himself in a dilemma; jealous of the all-consuming passion Alan has experienced in his life – even as deranged and twisted as it was – and realizing that he has never known a passion as deep, his own life is empty and he has no faith.
He confesses his envy to Hester:
“But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it. …
That's what his stare has been saying to me all this time: 'At least I galloped! When did you?'”
As Alan worshiped his pagan idol and exulted in his passion and pain, Martin numbed himself with work and his studies of relics and mythical Greece.
Martin is left in doubt as to his expertise. Will he cure the boy, or simply remove his source of worship and ecstasy and make him like everyone else? In doing so, he knows that he himself will sacrifice the boy’s passion to the god of Normal. Passion, as he sees it, can only be destroyed by a doctor – not created, with the conclusion that the removal of passion turns people into ghosts.
In one section, Martin states the following as part of a self-deprecating monologue:
"The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. 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."
The 1977 movie, based on Peter Saffer’s play, is a powerful adaptation and one of Richard Burton’s best roles, with exceptional acting from Peter Firth, as Alan Strang, and Jenny Agutter as Jill Mason.
Equus is a dark, poignant and haunting drama that explores the nature of man, the passion and desire that drives him – sometimes to extremes, and the need for faith.