Thoughts on Equus by Jackie Stone
Sadly for me, I can not write a review of Leonard Nimoy’s performance as Dr Dysart in Equus on Broadway. I’ve never been to the US, and I never saw him in the play, and I mourn that fact. I did however find an article from 1977 about his approach to the part [LINK], which I felt was worth bringing to wider attention; if I was that interested then others may be too:
Dysart is a child psychiatrist, a man we are given to understand has had outstanding success in helping children and young people. It is his success and presumably his perceived humanity which prompts a magistrate to refer to Dysart a young man who has, apparently inexplicably, blinded six horses. The horror of the crime is such that those involved in the legal proceedings wanted simply to lock the boy away, but the magistrate felt sure that Dysart was the man to find out what had driven the boy, who worked in a stable and who was known to have loved horses all his life, to commit such an unspeakable act. Dysart succeeds; at the cost of the last remnants of his own peace of mind and the last of his own illusions that he actually helps the children in his charge.
The insight into Dysart’s psychological methods is fascinating in itself. The portrait of a well-meaning family utterly unaware of and unable to comprehend the extraordinary inner life of their own son is both chilling and tragic. The main thrust of the play however is Dysart’s despairing discovery that the boy’s vital and extraordinary relationship with horses, perceived as unnatural, sick or warped by “normal” society, reveals Dysart’s own life, his dead marriage and his love of the antiquities of ancient Greece, as empty sham and self delusion. Once that discovery is made, he can never regain his illusion of cleverness, of usefulness, of innate superiority. Dysart’s life is both changed and emptied by his encounter with the tortured young man brought to him for help.
The writer of the article describes Dysart as an “alienated alienist”. It’s tempting to immediately leap on the parallel between the alienated Dysart and the alienated Spock. On one level it’s a reasonably accurate description, but I’m not sure whether Dysart is in fact any more alienated than any of the rest of us who are forced to try to make sense of our lives and our relationships, whether successful or otherwise. I would rather describe Dysart as simply utterly disillusioned, and Spock was not that. Nevertheless, if the article is accurate, it demonstrates Leonard’s ability to create a character from nothing but the dry words on the page, fleshing out those words with his own imagination, intuition and sheer courage. It was this insight into Leonard Nimoy’s approach to his work which I found so fascinating (to coin a phrase, of course). The article suggests that he “questioned every line”. As a non-actor, who loves reading, it is impossible to comprehend the energy which must necessarily go into such a process; not to simply read and enjoy and accept, but to query every nuance, to reject the interpretations of previous stage Dysart’s and to make every phrase original to himself.
This is, of course, what he did with Spock. For all Leonard’s repeated assertions that one starts with the script and that the Spock character was formed by the writers, I feel confident in suggesting that all the people accessing this website are aware of Spock as a character who has achieved independent existence and reality, a sum of more than his parts, and this monumental creation, once the original Rodenberry notion had been aired and experimented with, was Leonard’s alone. This article on the Equus role concedes this point – that, once Leonard had breathed true life into this erstwhile clichéd character, the script writers were following his lead and watching where he was going with it, not the other way round. “A bottled cyclone” this author describes Leonard’s performance as Spock; an odd description but perhaps alluding to the two essential elements of the Spock character, those of power, and of control.
Dysart is powerful, and necessarily controlled in view of the fragility of his patient’s state of mental health. But, where Spock had weaknesses and doubts which framed his life and informed who he was, Dysart finds himself unravelling. By the end of the play he doesn’t simply doubt the efficaciousness of his work, he depises it. He has spent his life believing that he loves and respects the ancient world and its pagan and unrestrained and “uncivilised” worship. He sees that the young man in his charge truly lives those principles, worships truly and completely and outside the bounds of civilised society, and he recognises that his attempts to heal are nothing less than the destruction of mental freedom and worship. In bringing the boy back into the folds of accepted society he is killing everything true and honest and individual about him, turning him into a product of society as sham as he realises himself to be.
These concepts are huge and desperate. For Leonard to insist on “questioning every line” he was adopting them as his own. We know enough about him to know that this is how he works (and one can well appreciate why he abandoned the Paris character after two seasons when comparing those portrayals with Dysart) but the personal courage it must take is hard to comprehend.
If the article is true. We don’t know the writer’s sources. I would like to believe it’s true, as it fleshes out the oh so rational and nice guy who speaks in all the interviews. The descriptions of the ongoing rehearsals and even his wife’s account of how he slept next to her would suggest frequent and intimate access to the whole process, but nowhere does the author of the article explain how he’s accessed such apparently privileged information. However, I’d like to believe it; ruthless and hard as it describes him to be, it certainly is striking.
I so wish I could have seen Leonard Nimoy play this part. If anyone reading this did, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, the nearest I’ll get is rereading the play and imagining. I bet it was good.
A Stroll Down Memory Lane
In her blog "Are We There Yet" current 911 dispatcher Linda shares her memories of going to New York to watch Leonard Nimoy in Equus in 1977.
A Stroll Down Memory Lane
We were getting together to celebrate my birthday a few days late as well as attend my very first Broadway play at the Helen Hayes Theater. We had chosen Equus as at the time it was starring Leonard Nimoy and Carol and I were admittedly big Star Trek fans which made it totally exciting for us!
Probably the only reason we chose Equus was because of Nimoy as the play itself is rather, uhm, disturbing you might say. Equus was written in 1973 by Peter Shaffer and it tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses. Pretty heavy material for a couple of teenagers especially considering there's full frontal nudity at one point; you've got to remember, 1977 was a totally different time as compared to now and those things were still pretty racy. I can still remember the older lady sitting next to me waking up at just that point in the play and gasping "Oh my goodness!" rather loudly!
Still it was quite the adventure for Carol and I and we had a wonderful time posing for pictures in front of the theater ...
(...) Anyhow, this trip was just one of several that Carol and I took to New York City while I was living in New Jersey but it may be the only one that I have any pictures of. Obviously I wasn't attached to a camera back then like I am now which is too bad as the memories these pictures provoke are priceless. I can still remember how much we laughed when we went to open the window shade of our hotel room and it came crashing down off of the window or how shocked we were when Leonard Nimoy just materialized in front of us while we were taking pictures out in front of the theater. And what did my brilliant 19-year old mind come up with to say on such an auspicious an occasion? "Oh, it's you!" Duh ...