Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Eyes Have It
In the opening act of Equus, the audience is told that a teenage boy, named Alan, has committed an unspeakable act of violence against six horses. Alan, for reasons that are unclear in the beginning to the audience and the psychiatrist who examines him, has blinded the horses. As the story unravels we learn that this twisted act was born of a mind that was formed, in part, by his parents' conflicting ideas about love, sex, and religion. His smothering mother is a religious woman, who comes from an upper middle class Christian background and his controlling father is her opposite as an atheist and a member of the working class.
Early on, we are told that Alan is educated about sex by his mother and that she places her explanation of love and sex within a Christian framework. She states, "I told him the biological facts, but I also told him what I believed. That sex is not just a biological matter, but spiritual as well. That if G-d willed, he would fall in love one day. That his task was to prepare himself for the most important happening of his life. And after that, if he was lucky, he might come to know a higher love still…." (29). His mother also initiates him into the world of stories and fantasy. She tells him about a horse named Prince, who will only let a faithful rider mount him. She also tells him about the passage in The Book of Job that refers to the nobility of horses.
Alan begins to conflate horses, religion, and sex--a process which was started by his mother and is continued by his father when he replaces the picture of Jesus at the foot of Alan's bed with a picture of a horse. Alan has been taught by his mother that G-d is a judgmental G-d, with eyes everywhere that watch and see everything. The image of the horse, which Alan's mother describes to Dr. Dysart as being "all eyes," has replaced the image of G-d, and now stares down in judgment with eyes that see everything as Alan sleeps (40). Alan associates the horse's gaze with shame as it is only at two removes from his judgmental mother and at one remove from her judgmental Christian G-d.
This recalls Michel Foucault's description of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish, where everyone in society is locked in a permanent state of surveillance, watching everyone else and being watched at all times. Thus, behavior becomes normalized by the collective gaze of society's judgment (551-555). In Alan's world, everyone is watching one another and being watched. And there is a real sense of shame whenever one of the characters steps outside of what is considered normal. The father watches and shames Alan when he catches him in the act of worshipping his horse-gd, Equus. Alan's mother watches and judges her son through her Christian G-d, which Alan has morphed into his horse-gd. The father attempts to escape the shaming gaze of his wife by sneaking off to watch a dirty movie. Father and son catch each other at the dirty movie and shame each other for being at the theater. Alan, who has learned to view sex as a shameful act, is unable to consummate his sexual relationship with Jill in the stables because he feels that the eyes of his G-d/mother/society are upon him in the form of the watchful horses. In order to relieve his shame, he blinds the horses and destroys their power to judge him. In doing so, Alan creates a world where, if only for a brief moment, the all-seeing eyes of G-d and society see him no more.
Foucault, Michel. "Discipline and Punish." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 549-566.
Shaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Scribner, 2002.