In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Martin Dysart attempts to find out the reasons for Alan Strang’s actions. However, throughout the investigation, he begins to ask himself if he really has a right to “cure” Alan and turn him into what society views as “Normal”. The psychiatrist eventually realizes that perhaps it is not Alan who is sick. Perhaps it is society. Who has the right to label a person as insane or sane? What is Normality? The definition of insanity differs from country to country and from culture to culture. What may seem acceptable to us may not seem acceptable to others. Where does one draw the line between what is deemed “sick” and what is deemed acceptable? Albert Einstein once said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Does this apply to Alan or on the contrary, to society?
Dysart is a renowned psychiatrist and has seen myriad types of victims that needed treatment, whether he or she is a “fifteen-year old schizophrenic” or a “girl of eight thrashed into catatonia by her father”. It is difficult for him to create a close bond with them as he must treat at least a dozen patients every week. He does not anticipate much from Alan. He expects “one more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual.”
However, Dysart finds himself confronted with a young man dealing with troubling mental issues as well as trying to come to terms with the gravity of the violent act he has committed. Society views his seemingly irrational act as insane and expects him to be somewhat “cured” and go through a metamorphosis in order to fit in with everyone else. Dysart envies the fact that Alan has a passion and compares him to the rest of society who “trot on (their) metal pony tamely through the concrete evening”; staying within the confines of rules and expectations.
In The Sane Society (1955), the psychiatrist Fromm wrote, "Yet many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of 'unadjusted' individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself." Is society a healthy one, and are those having difficulties adjusting to it mentally unstable? Or is society an unhealthy one, and are many individuals with emotional difficulties simply alienated rather than sick? It is sad that so many individuals nowadays, especially children, are prescribed antidepressants and other medication in order to fit into hostile environments.
The people at the very top of the societal hierarchy don’t seem to understand that they send out the message that if you are not the best and not ambitious then you are worth less. Schools and the workplace actually encourage people to develop manipulative and selfish relationships due to “the survival of the fittest” mentality; and not genuine and respectful relationships instead. Frank Strang is exceptionally susceptible to this in the play and represents the lower classes when he exclaims “upper-class riff-raff! That’s all they are, people who go riding! That’s what they want – trample on ordinary people!” Dora Strang laughs at his words; representing the “righteous and very Christian” upper-class. Fromm warned, "Today the function of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis threatens to become the tool in the manipulation of man”.
We are taught that to deviate from our own original ideas will result in ridicule and perhaps the label of “insanity” if it doesn’t correspond with society’s values. Orwell wrote, "At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. ... Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals." A great example of this is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. He was ridiculed and thought of as a mad man for even thinking for one second that us “highly sophisticated” humans could be descendants of such primal creatures. His findings also went against the Bible scriptures, which caused even more mayhem.
Could Alan and Dysart just be victims of the system? Dysart repeatedly mentions his inner conflict over whether or not he should surrender Alan to the God of Normality. It is ironic how Dysart is told to destroy the very thing he craves; “Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.” He yearns for Alan’s passionate madness and curses his “educated, average head for being held at the wrong angle”. The unfortunate psychiatrist is forced to choose between his personal values and satisfaction and societal mores, dogmas and institutions. Is it not madness to live a life devoid of colour just for the sake of others?
The Apollonian and Dionysian fight within him… The thinking, self-controlled, rational, logical and ordered side of his personality clashes with the feeling, passionate, irrational, instinctual and chaotic side. Should he keep on treating these tormented patients and forsake his own happiness; as society dictates he should? Or should he drop everything and live his dream life in Greece, immersing himself in its mythology and turquoise seas; as his heart tells him he should? Eventually, he resigns to a life of psychiatry; one where “there is now, in (his) mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.” Like the majority of society, he gives in to what is deemed the “right” thing to do. He hints at curing Alan, he’ll “give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them – blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shriveling heads!”
People follow and believe the leaders, like a herd of sheep following its shepherd. Our brains soak up the ideas they feed us through the media, as well as the music and film industry. “Religion is the opium of the people” and dictates what is right and what is wrong, in the name of divine protection and salvation. Doesn’t it seem a bit insane that we choose to just follow them blindly, not bothering to question them? We are told that we should go to school, get a job, get married and have a family. School teaches us to think with “antiseptic proficiency”, discouraging us from believing our own ideas and theories. Alan has followed his heart, disregarding other people’s judgments completely. Is it not him that is sane and free? Aren’t we the oppressed and could it be that society has unknowingly succumbed to insanity?