Tuesday, April 5, 2011


A few weeks ago, Chris and I went to our local English language theater production of Equus. Playwright Peter Shaffer's 1973 play is about a psychiatrist in a provincial British psychiatric asylum, trying to decipher the mystery of why a seventeen year old boy blinded six horses in a stable.

The script is simply brilliant, the stage set is minimal. The play is largely a dialogue between the psychiatrist and his patient.

Equus is somewhat dated. The psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, seems to have all the time in the world to entertain impromptu visits from the boy's parents and the stable owner. Today's hospital psychiatrists are always in a rush and aren't too keen on drop-in visits. Neuroleptic medications are never mentioned in Equus, neither are they used. The boy's parents willingly share with the psychiatrist their interpretation of events that might have traumatized their son, in the hopes that this will help him heal his troubled state of mind. Today, parents are encouraged not to go down the line of thinking that quite possibly the family environment has an impact.

I wonder if anyone else who has seen the play has a complaint about its portrayal of schizophrenia. Martin Dysart knows his client is troubled, but it doesn't occur to him that his client is "schizophrenic." He casually and disparagingly mentions a fifteen year old schizophrenic patient of his but there is no connection in his mind of schizophrenia with his present patient. Schizophrenia, even to Dr. Dysart, seems to be a special case. My word, the boy was mute when he arrived at the hospital, retreated into singing jingles from television and radio commercials when he got anxious, and had whopping fantasies about horses and Jesus in shackles.

Martin Dysart did just what R.D. Laing and Loren Mosher recommended by done for schizophrenia. He looked for trauma in his patient's background, he talked to him, he didn't use neuroleptic medications. The final scene is one of catharsis for the patient.

I don't really care about labels, but I do care about the ingrained attitude in the public's mind that people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are not "curable." The boy, Alan Strang, seems "schizophrenic" to me, so I question what Dr. Dysart  thought he had for a patient. How naive could the doctor have been? Perhaps the playwright Peter Shaffer labored under the delusion that schizophrenia was incurable, so whatever Strang had, and had "cured" by the psychiatrist, couldn't be schizophrenia.

Chris's reaction to the play was interesting. He remarked that whatever fantasies he is deeply ashamed of, are really quite mild compared to what he observed in the play. This thought was liberating to him.

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