Sunday, June 28, 2009

Equus Then and Now

I had the most interesting experience last night, when we went to see Equus, Peter Schaffer’s classic play now starring Richard Griffiths (one of the great stars of the British stage mostly recently seen here in The History Boys) and Daniel Radcliffe (known to most for his recurring role as Harry Potter in the unimaginably successful series of movies still in progress based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels). Slightly unexpectedly—it was Joan’s idea to get tickets, not mine—it was a great evening at the theater…but not precisely in the way I had anticipated in advance or expected it to be.

I saw the show when it opened thirty-five years ago too. In those days, the show starred Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth, both of whom I recall as having been terrific in their respective roles. So there was an element of return in yesterday’s experience for me, not to the theater (the original production was at the Plymouth Theater, now renamed for Gerald Schoenfeld) but to the play itself. And therein lies the detail I had failed to anticipate in last night’s experience: when the show opened on Broadway in 1974, I was just a little older than the Peter Firth-Daniel Radcliffe character. Now, thirty-four years later, I am the age of the Anthony Hopkins-Richard Griffiths character. So if the whole point of theater is to allow the playwright to create a context in which audience members can deepen their personal self-awareness through the experience of peering into the mirror being held up and seeing themselves reflected in the personalities being portrayed on stage, I was certain to find the experience just a bit disorienting: my life’s trajectory from in those thirty-four years has taken me from the twenty-year old college student to the rabbi I am today, from Firth to Griffiths, from seeing myself reflected (and not all that flatteringly) in the adolescent on stage wrestling with his demons to seeing myself reflected (also not that flatteringly) in the portrait of the deeply unhappy psychiatrist on stage wrestling with his own related, but not identical, set of analogous demons.

The play itself takes up a theme was very popular in the 1970s and which recurred in any number of plays and movies from that era: that the whole mental health concept is a sham, and that, as a result, it’s the crazy people who are truly wise and their shrinks who are the desiccated, passionless pedants devoted to “curing” their patients precisely by depriving them of those very idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and quirky passions that make them individuals in the true sense of the world. For some reason, I found that a very resonant theme in those days. Catch-22 was my favorite book when I was in college. Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts was my favorite movie. So it made sense that Equus would be my favorite play. The plot is based on a real-life event that happened in England in the late 1960s: a disturbed teenaged boy blinded six horses for reasons that never became clear. The play, which centers on that crime, but which provides a completely fictional framework for unraveling its background and the story of the boy’s motivation, concerns the relationship that develops between the boy who blinded the animals and his psychiatrist and slowly reveals the bitter and unpalatable truth that the way the “system” has devised for dealing with the truly dionysian among us is to drug them into submission, then forcibly to extract from them any inclination to live lives suffused with passion and the freedom to act unfettered by convention. I loved it! It was all about me! (When I look back, I can’t quite recall what precisely in my nature I found so unfairly stifled by convention back then. Nor does the word “dionysian” come readily to the fore when I try to remember what I was like at twenty. Still, which of us really knows whether time brings clarity or distortion to the memories we harbor of ourselves?)

And now, thirty-four years later, I’m not the troubled youth wrestling with his unrestrainable desire to live a life unfettered by the rules of society, but his shrink, his counselor, his (if he were Jewish) rabbi. The underlying notion that it’s the doctor who needs to be cured and the patient who, by ignoring convention, has transcended the boundaries of his pre-assigned role in life to live truly free—that whole concept feels forced and just a bit silly to me now. I had forgotten the details about the subplot concerning the boy’s father and his girlfriend (or rather the girl who would like to be his girlfriend), but mostly I had forgotten—or possibly never quite seized—the degree to which the play is as much an attack on religion as it is concerned with attacking the conventions of the mental health profession. In the end, the boy’s problems center on his rejection of Western religion and his invention of a personal faith based on Equus, the horse-headed god embodied on earth by a horse named Nugget, not unlike the way Christians believe Jesus to have been the human-shaped embodiment of divinity. We are supposed to see where the boy’s religious development leads him—to acts of depravity, to sexual inability, and eventually to life in a mental institution—and wonder just how different his personal religion is from our own. That theme will be particularly insulting to Christians, but it can also be taken as a general assault on all non-personal religions, including our own, that seek to create a community of the observant united by a common set of tasks, rituals and spiritual goals rather than inspiring people to invent their own gods, their own rules, their own context for communion with their self-generated gods based on their own, wholly idiosyncratic ritual and moral codes. The play is dated in any number of ways. (A note from the playwright published in the Playbill acknowledges this explicitly.) But it still works, I think, and (at least for me personally) it is precisely as a reflection of my personal trajectory from adolescence to adulthood that the play speaks to me the most loudly and clearly.

I don’t find the notion of religion uniting like-minded people in common endeavor and shared spiritual effort to be self-defeating or silly. Just the contrary: I find the notion of spending my life within the boundaries of a supportive community of others seeking to live their own Jewish lives in the same place and within the same spiritual framework to be very satisfying and very fortifying. That’s why I’m such a strong promoter of synagogue membership among the unaffiliated: not because it’s a good plan to affiliate on the off chance someone might possibly need something or some service someday only an organized community can provide, but because we have evolved the whole concept of the synagogue community as a way for people to grow into their own adult spiritual identities while being supported by others on similar journeys. In the end, the road to Jerusalem is one you travel by yourself. But the concept of taking that journey by yourself in the company of hundreds or even thousands of others taking similar solitary journeys –that paradox is at the core of our sense of ourselves not solely as individual Jewish men and women, but as part of the Jewish people. Idiosyncratic behavior is not the enemy. But neither is it a prerequisite for spiritual growth. And, in the end, the fact that the truly creative among us can find ways that are total novel to express themselves doesn’t mean that mentally ill individuals shouldn’t be the care of doctors trained to help them become well.

Perhaps some of you will see Equus while it’s still here. (It is closing, I believe, in February.) Certainly, some of you must have seen it in the 1970s when it opened here. If you had the same experience I have now had of seeing it then and now…let me know! I’m curious if I’m the only one who felt his life’s trajectory summarized in the journey from identifying with the boy on the stage to identifying with the man. If you do go see it, you won’t be disappointed: it’s a great production of a play that dated or not, still spoke directly to me. (December 12, 2008)

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