Actor Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) recently appeared naked on stage in a play about horses. This is all I know about Equus until our community theatre presents the play. I am anxious to see it.
I don't know to expect a psychic thriller, a riveting suspense story, a whydunnit. Back in the 1970s, after reading a newspaper account of a teenager's horrific crime, playwright Peter Shaffer wondered what could drive a person to act in such a way. Equus was his answer.
My husband and I arrive at the studio theatre early. It's festival seating, so first come, first served. We select center seats on the front row. We become unwitting targets for the lead actor's spittle.
We soon learn that 17-year-old horse lover Alan Strang has been working weekends at a riding stable, and one night blinded all six horses with a sharp grooming pick. He has been remanded to the psychiatric wing of a hospital. The psychiatrist assigned to his case addressees the audience as the lights come up.
Behind the rumpled professional in his suit coat and tie, spotlighted in blue against a gray-black set, a young man stands stroking the skeletal, iron-frame, horse head mask worn by a muscled bare-chested actor in tight black jeans. This coupling grabs my attention right off.
So this is how the horses are portrayed. Eerily effective! And this is Alan and this, one of the horses he will viciously attack. Already I'm asking the question, "Why?"
Slowly the answer unfolds. Slowly the psychiatrist lays bare the boy's secrets. By the time of the climactic revelation, Alan's incomprehensible action seems perfectly logical.
Meanwhile, I keep my eyes on the young man who plays the teenager. He has the surly brooding adolescent disregard for authority down pat. His body carriage signals noncooperation and, over time, a struggle to participate in his own healing.
His hands fascinate me. He clenches them most of the time. Rage? The longer I watch, the more I think perhaps they are hoof-like. Too, his mouth. When contemplating an answer he works his jaws in peculiar fashion. Later it strikes me that perhaps he's feeling a horse's bit in his mouth. This makes sense. Alan so identifies—erotically, religiously, whole-heartedly—with the horses he cares for that he begins to embody them unconsciously. This makes his violence toward them all the more heart-wrenching. Perhaps he redirects self-hatred toward the objects of his affection and worship.
The therapist asks hard questions about the cost of appearing normal. He begins to doubt his profession, the ethics of taking away his patient's drive for life, his unique source of meaning and purpose. "That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life," he says. While he doesn't excuse the boy's actions, he grieves the loss of spiritual energy Alan will incur in fitting in, in finding a level of mediocrity that will win him easy societal acceptance.
I find my own hands clenching. Isn't this an issue for the lgbtiqq community? At what cost, assimilation? Do we give over our passion, that which makes us unique, in the hopes of being accepted by the masses? By the brokers of political power? By the boss? The neighbors? Mom and Dad? By ourselves?
"We're just like everybody else," I heard a gay therapist say yesterday, addressing a college classroom of ostensibly straight people.
But we're not. Yet. Are we?
Maybe some of us have grown indistinguishable from society at large. But some of us have not. Some of us are different, and different in different ways. Effeminate men, drag queens, diesel dykes, transgendered persons, the queer homeless teens on the streets of our big cities and small towns, lgbt persons of color, anyone with an especially queer passion for life...are we not often set apart, singled out as different, less-than, second-class, targeted for injustice, indifference and more?
We blind our own eyes to community members who do not look like us, live like us, shop like us, who do not share our specific brand of passion.
Hope lies not in assimilation, not in aspiring to mediocrity, but in finding the difficult balance between pursuing our own passions in a healthy way and co-creating an environment for others to do the same. Whenever I see it, this coupling grabs my attention. Give me a front row seat. Better yet, let me get up on stage and be a part of the action.
This essay appeared in The Letter, April 2010