The Furry Canon: Equus

12 May 2016 |

Equus, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, features a cast of humans and horses. The horses, of course, are humans dressed as horses. They are intentionally abstracted, usually wearing nothing equine beyond minimalist horse heads and tack that never obstruct their human faces. The horse costumes are the extent of bodily anthropomorphism in the play. The horses’ actors and actresses move like horses; they do not speak. Why do I render my verdict, then, that Equus belongs in the Furry Canon?

[EDIT: After warranted critique, I've decided to reverse my verdict. While Equus should not be part of the Furry Canon, I think it addresses matters relevant to the furry experience, albeit torqued by mental illness. Read on for my reasons.]

In a comment on JM’s review of Animal Farm, Scale wondered “whether a good serious novel/movie starring furry fans and fursuiters, dealing with social and identity issues related to the fandom, and perhaps including an escapist furry nested narrative, could qualify as a furry classic.” While Equus predates the furry fandom, it pointedly explores these very issues1.

Ready, then? Let’s begin.

Alan Strang, a reclusive teenager, has just blinded six horses with a metal spike. No one knows why; he had always loved horses. As it stands, though, psychologist Martin Dysart is Alan’s only hope to avoid incarceration. As Dysart meets with Alan, Alan’s parents, and others involved in the case and gathers bits and pieces of Alan’s past, he tries desperately to figure out what motivated the heinous crime. These pieces form an image of a personal religion Alan has elaborated since he was very young that focuses on becoming one with “Equus,” the “God-Slave” embodied in all horses. This religion’s sacrament is a clandestine, sexually charged midnight ride every three weeks in a field beside the stable where Alan volunteers his free time. When Equus’s demands prove too much for Alan, he lashes out in violence against his god.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dysart is deeply unhappy with his place in life, continually dreams of ancient Greece, of a “primal” age of sacrifices and pantheons to lend life significance through ritual. His encounter with Alan throws his mundane life into sharp relief: here is someone who has summoned a personal god and worships Him regularly, casting off the monotonous, empty grind of capitalist productivity. But the plea of the judge who sent Alan to Dr. Dysart was that the psychologist relieve the boy’s pain. Dysart fears that doing his societal duty--dissecting Alan to extract Equus--would leave behind a hollow man, a cog in the machine: a husk like himself.

Equus is strongest when it comes to questioning the medicalization of abnormality, the idea that deviation from the culturally acceptable must be diagnosed as a disease and cured. This Dysart attributes to the reign of the tyrant god “Normal,” whose throne is that of expediency and efficiency, founded on health and happiness. (Recall how “sick” has come to be a synonym of “degenerate.”) His edicts include allaying all pain and slaking appetites at minimal marginal cost.

In contrast, Dysart dreams of a world of “thousands of local gods” to ground the experience of the diversity of humanity, a world in which the ancient Aegean and Alan equally partake, but Dysart cannot. Allowing individual geniuses to flourish could inject wonder and worship into the monochrome of life.

Of course, Dysart ignores that Alan was, indeed, in pain; that we should be loath to romanticize mental illnesses, which are real; and that the solitude of individual worship can not only tear the worshiper apart, but harm others. Alan’s isolation and secrecy permit no outlet for his anxieties or joys besides his trysts with Equus; when a tryst cannot satisfy a perceived need, he gouges out six horses’ eyes. Few accept violence as the cost of worship, and for those who do... well, I know a couple dozen national security apparatuses that want to meet them.

Equus is, without a doubt, “serious.” But what does this dark tale have to do with furries whose drama, while much ballyhooed, to my knowledge has never culminated in murder? Quite a bit.

First--and this was what stood out to me when I read the script years back--Equus is the story of a boy who has an abnormal relationship with animals. Those around him confusedly report his affection for talking animal stories, his nighttime reenactment (in his room) of donning a bit and whipping himself, and of never wanting to ride the horses he worked with, only to care for them. Indeed, he actively despises the trappings of upper-class English riding. Alan’s fixation on horses fits none of the typical patterns.

To furries, this is old hat. A Twitter friend of mine—a horse, to boot—commented he had difficulty taking Equus as seriously as his non-furry classmates because Alan’s relationship with horses, though incomprehensible to them, was quotidian to him. The familiarity of it all dulled the play’s drama. But in outline, this is a major indictment sometimes leveled against furries: that they love animals in an inappropriate or inordinate way, whether that be adults clinging to something branded infantile or someone having disapproved sexual preferences2.

On that note, as with media coverage of furries, Shaffer focuses on the sensational--meaning, of course, the sexual. For instance, Alan considers his first experience of riding a horse to have been “sexy” and—in innuendoes I did not understand as a teenager—the play describes horse heads as phallic. Alan’s midnight rides are explicitly sexual, though the union is a mystical one, horse and human merging to create the centaur (quite apropos: at once teacher and raucous destroyer in Greek myth). Alan loses his mind when a new sexual desire conflicts with his desire for midnight runs with Equus.

Now we come to my major gripe with the play: in Equus, sex is either the prototype or the paragon of all human pleasures and relationships. Dr. Dysart and Alan’s parents are not having sex with their spouses regularly; therefore, they are unhappy. Alan has a sexual experience with Equus every three weeks; he is fulfilled.

This obsession with sex sidelines necessary non-sexual elements of the human (and extrahuman) experience. To use C.S. Lewis’s terminology: when Venus rules with such an iron fist, Eros quails while brotherly love (philia) and affection (storge) flee. Alan’s trauma, which Shaffer casts as a psychosexual drama, is as much due to his intense paucity of experience with the variety of human relationships as it is about the difficulty of actualizing the range of his pleasures. He has no friends; he reads no books; he does not, apparently, attend school. Friends and family who treat him with basic respect as a soon-to-be adult are absent from his life. In this extreme social isolation, his outlets are reduced to sexual fulfillment alone--he gets stuck in a rut--and any competition for his sexual feelings becomes an existential crisis.

Indeed, Alan might be considered a particularly devoted paleofur--one of that cadre who came of age before the internet. His escapades were lonely ones, without a rational animal to keep him company. Nowadays, a computer terminal can connect us to others around the world, no matter how niche our interests. And while niche communities can become insular and harmful, I would venture that even an imperfect community is better than none at all. To paraphrase God in Genesis, it is not good for human to be alone3.

And as religion—no matter what some may say—is about more than micromanaging bodily pleasures and pains, so is furry. The anthropomorphic subculture is about constructing personal and social systems of meaning, based in images of nonhuman animal life, and building the worlds these symbols delineate. In our interactions, online and off, we instantiate these imagined worlds in the flesh, binding ourselves together as dialogue partners, friends, patrons and artists, fans, and so forth.

If only Alan Strang had lived in the times of the internet. Furry is infinitely richer than Shaffer’s constricted, impoverished vision of humanity in Equus. With such a community of peers available, Alan may have learned that others spoke his metaphorical language and, able to speak with them, could have expressed his otherwise inexpressible troubles and joys.

While it has significant blind spots, and even if it is not well-known to furries, I would still believe Equus to be highly relevant to the furry experience and would recommend it for inclusion in the [a][s] Furry Canon.

1 Indeed, when I first read the play, I did so because it was about horses. I was not expecting to find a character who, like me, lent to them significance that differed both in quantity and quality from the average. This year I was able, for the first time, to see it onstage. My observations are based on both the text and the production.
2 Both are major points made against furries with varying degrees of inaccuracy.
3 Note, too, that the first companions God creates for Adam are “every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air.”

The Furry Canon, recommended, at the time of publication:
Black Beauty