Sunday, September 28, 2008

American Equus?

Now that the Equus revival has opened on Broadway, the reviews seem generally favorable, but several of them (Ben Brantley, John Simon) praise the actors while criticizing the script. They consider Shaffer's play theatrically exciting, but also a dated psychodrama with a heavy-handed homosexual subtext. I've got an idea, though, for making Equus relevant again--and it doesn't have to do with elaborate theatrical effects or a former child star getting naked onstage. No, what I'd like to see is a production of Equus that is set in the United States.

On the one hand, I agree with Terry Teachout's contention that Equus is one of the myriad of artistic works about "British middle-class inhibition," what with its veddy British playwright and British leading actors. On the other hand, I wonder if these days, its central conflicts--conformity vs. individualism, puritanism vs. permissiveness, quiet desperation vs. unbridled passion--are not more American than they are British.

In order for the play to work and its homosexual subtext to make sense, it has to take place in a rather staid, conservative, and Christian culture. Alan's mother Dora is a by-the-book Christian and Alan's horse-worshiping belief system turns out to be a twisted version of Christianity. In the 30+ years since Equus premiered, Britain has become an increasingly secular society while America has been gripped by a series of "culture wars" over homosexuality, abortion, religious freedom, etc. When I first saw Equus I was bemused by the character of Dora Strang: "There are fundies in England?!" I thought. But if it were set in America, there wouldn't be such a cognitive disconnect.

Were I producing an American Equus, I think the obvious thing to do would be to set it in Kentucky. A state famous for horse farms, with a relatively large Evangelical/conservative population--what could be more appropriate? Of course the director would need to make sure the production didn't tilt too far toward Southern Gothic, since that would make Equus seem more silly and dated instead of less so. (I don't think that the Strang family should be portrayed as ignorant rednecks, for instance.) But it could be very effective if some or all of the actors spoke with light Southern accents, as long as they did not condescend to their characters.

Come to think of it, the only Equus production I've ever seen (by a student theater group) had the actors speak in their standard American accents as opposed to adopting British ones. I don't know if this was a conscious decision to set the show in America--it might have been more a case of "we have half a semester to rehearse this show, build the sets, and weld together six horse-shaped masks, so let's make things easy on ourselves and not worry about doing British accents"--but the production was very effective, nonetheless.

Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

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