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The Crucible and Equus

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Compare and contrast the ways in which ‘The Crucible’ and Equus’ follow when religious faith turns into religious mania. How far does the two text attempt to present a more positive attitude to a life lived in faith? The plays ‘Equus’ and ‘The Crucible’ both explore the positive aspects of religion and its damaging qualities. The critic Mitchel Hay suggests that ‘The parental, adolescent and professional conflicts exhibited by Peter Shaffer’s Equus need not be disruptive. They can be fed into a crucible of growth.’ The plays reflect the situations in American and British society during the time in which they were written.

‘The Crucible’ investigates the effects of religion universally accepted and how the unknown leads to mass anxiety and distress; Arthur Miller states ‘I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.’ By contrast Equus reveals how mental instability can lead to a different type of religious mania, which destroys both the individual and those around him. Peter Shaffer’s opinions are expressed though this quotation from ‘Amadeus’, “what use, after all, is man, if not to teach God His lessons?’ Both plays project intense religious faith and its fatal consequences however they also illustrate examples of positive worship, such as Rebecca Nurse, whose faith is genuine and never corrupted.

Perhaps unexpectedly we are also able to sympathise with Dora’s Christianity, despite it being a pivotal contributor to Alan’s religious mania. Despite these small insights into religion’s positive impacts, there is still strong evidence in both plays to suggest that when religion collides with issues such as sexuality, tyranny, envy, deceit and conflict it results in mania. Abigail Williams is a vital character in ‘The Crucible’. Her insight into the lies and hypocrisy of the puritan church, leads directly to her exploitation of its power. Sarah Lasko, one actress playing the agitator, Abigail, describes her as “the alpha. . . . She’s so devious and manipulative. . . . Abigail hides behind the innocence and ultimately is this evil person.’

She is a strong character with a natural ability to influence those around her, ‘And mark this. Let eiether of you breathe a word or the edge of a word, about the other things and I will come in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.’ This quotation is found very early on in the play and we are therefore able to see right from the beginning the hostile and ruthless traits that Abigail possesses. Abigail uses these threats in order to protect herself; she is aware of the strict conducts expected of the society in Salem and knows that she will be severely punished for playing with black magic.

Abigail therefore takes advantage of the blindness of Salem’s religious faith in order to protect herself and Abigail is thus the catalyst for a society that was intent on destroying itself. She can therefore not, in my view, be fully blamed for the chaos. Abigail’s defensive instinct can also be seen in the character Alan Strang from ‘Equus’; Alan similarly protects himself from punishment by blinding the horses, ’Equus…Noble Equus…Faithful and True…God-slave…Thou – God – Seest- NOTHING!’ Alan is hysterical at this point in the play; quite blinded by the intensity of his faith. The critic, Mitchell Hay, claimed that ‘Equus is the image of the particular god whom everyone conceives in his or her own unconscious and unfulfilled fantasy.’

Alan lashes out in such a way so his god cannot see the sin he has committed. Though Abigail and Alan are strongly linked by the extremity of their actions, their motives are very different. Abigail’s ambitions are malicious and self-satisfying; she uses her fear of being punished and spreads it throughout the community. On the other hand Alan’s actions arise from the guilt and shame he feels as a result of his spiritual weakness and an intense fear of his god. Alan’s passion towards his faith supports Peter Shaffer’s theory that without spiritual guidance you shrivel, ‘Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship?’

Alan needs religion in order to have a sense of identity. By contrast Abigail needs religion to protect her from an intensely spiritual society. This connection demonstrates the extremes to which people are willing to go in order to protect themselves. Nature versus Nurture was a massive debate towards the end of the 1960s. In ‘Equus’ Dysart attempts to unpick all the various influences that may have causes Alan to commit such a terrible crime. ‘I only know it’s the core of his life. What else has he got? Think about him. He can hardly read. He knows no physics or engineering to make the world real to him. No paintings to show how others have enjoyed it. No music except television jingles.

No history except tales from a desperate mother. No friends. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make him know himself more moderately. He’s a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist.’ In this passage Dysart expresses his views on what a deprived life like Alan’s has resulted in and a critic’s judgment is that ‘several fantasms which haunt the boy’s mind are blended in skilful gradation: hostilities, self-punishment, erotic desire and religious needs.’ Dysart investigates what could have caused Alan to be different; His initial superstitions relate to Alan’s sexual deprivation, lack of knowledge, religion and secretive parents.

These are overturned by his sudden realisation that it may be Alan’s innate chemical imbalance in the brain that has made him so twisted. Dysart’s conclusion is expressed by Alan’s mother Dora as she struggles to come to terms with what her son has done, ‘Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself. Every soul is itself. If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing-because that’s him.’ Dora goes on to describe Alan’s illness as the possession of the devil, a diagnosis remarkably close to that of Salem! Here Dora’s Christian beliefs are illustrated. A critic’s interpretation of Dora is that she is ‘unable to share guilt with her husband, baffled by her son’s criminal behaviour, she finds refuge in that old trick of religionists: accusing the devil.’

We are nevertheless very sympathetic towards Dora despite her religious fanaticism being a primary influence on Alan’s religious mania. Alan’s mental instability could be likened to the volatile community in ‘The Crucible’ which produces a similar form of chaos through religion. However where it is Alan’s troubled state in ‘Equus’ that leads to the aftermath of religious worship; It is the power of both religion and the state that leads to the mass fear of the unknown in ‘The Crucible’. There is a prominent theme of tyranny in ‘The Crucible’. The state worthies used their power to protect themselves and to gain throughout the play, exposing their corrupt system.

Arthur Miller uses this autocracy to symbolise the McCarthy hearings that were taking place due to a large communism scare in the 1950s. Russia after declaring it had nuclear weapons became a primary target for the Americans and the USA has always relished in having a simple enemy and believing they are doing the greater good. Arthur Miller was an aesthetic who supported the Russians in their plight against the Nazis, attending several communist meetings to show his support and was brought in for questioning by McCarthy after ‘The Crucible’ was published.

The McCarthy hearings were another low point in America history, those accused of supporting communism were fined, imprisoned, sacked from their jobs and permanently rejected from society. The trials prove that Americans had a very narrow view on what is acceptable and right. The McCarthy hearing fizzled out, exactly the same as the Salem witch trials. It is suggested in both texts that when religion is accepted with loyalty and compassion it is very positive. In ‘The Crucible’ it is Proctor and Rebecca Nurse that are shown in the best light. Proctor’s struggle for redemption leads to his final act which dubs him a martyr; he finds courage and peace through his religion which he otherwise would not have been able to achieve.

Despite Proctor’s sin his faith is constantly displayed as genuine, though state officials however, think otherwise, ‘I mean it solemnly, Rebecca; I like not the smell of this ‘authority’. Proctor’s valour to go against the system is again, a result for his religion; His dislike of materialistic worship and corrupt heads of state make him question the authenticity of the Christian faith in Salem. This ability to question in a society which is so conditioned not to, is the key trait which Miller gives his protagonist. Proctor is very much like Alan in his hatred of money-orientated worship. ‘It does, sir, it does; and it tells me that a minister may pray to god without he have golden candlesticks upon the altar.’

Proctor’s faith is secured by his very dislike of this greedy worship and a similar attitude can be seen in Alan when he is working in the shop. I believe that both Shaffer and Miller use this aversion to make the audience aware of how devoted these two characters are to their faith. However, unlike Alan, who worships his god whole-heartedly, Proctor constantly questions his faith throughout the play and can be compared to Dysart in his uncertainty. Both characters examine their religious worship and begin to doubt their beliefs. Dysart’s paganism, which he so proudly reverences, is demoted by the intensity and passion Alan has for his god, ‘He was dangerous, and could be again, though I doubt it. But that boy has known passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life.

And let me tell you something: I envy it.’ Peter Shaffer has used Dysart’s questioning nature in ‘Equus’ to symbolise the changing attitude of society in the late 1960s early 1970s.The traditional structure of society was loosening and a more open-minded attitude was being adopted .Homosexuality was legalized, capital punishment was abolished and the feminist movement was moving to its peak. People were no longer willing to accept their place in society as pre-ordained. The biggest change was in the new approach to religious faith; Church-going became less of a habit, Buddhism was being read and religious rituals were modernised.

This new exploration of different faiths and ways of worship are portrayed vividly in ‘Equus’ through the number of different religions represented. Alan has his Equus worship, Dora her Christianity, Frank his political worship, Dysart his pagan worship while society indulges in materialistic worship. All these religions have a certain appeal and interconnect with the zeitgeist attitude of British society in the 1970s. Peter Shaffer’s central point, here and in Amadeus is that without religious worship your life is dead. Out of all these religions, only one leads to religious mania. Sexuality is a major contributor to the religious mania seen in both ‘Equus’ and ‘The Crucible’.

In ‘Equus’ Alan struggles to separate a normal sexual relationship from his god, ‘You know who!…When I touched her, I felt him. Under me… His side, waiting for my hand…His flanks…I refused him. I looked. I looked right at her…and I couldn’t do it.’ Alan’s inability to react physically allows us as the audience to see the suffocating hold Alan’s religion has on him. This instant therefore is one of the most pivotal and moving moments within the play. Shaffer uses this moment to illustrate Dysart’s incorrect judgement; the critic Mitchel Hay considers that ‘Dr. Dysart is quick to discern, this emotional involvement, with its sexual overtones, goes far beyond pubescent sensuality…The boy is looking for a mystical union with infinity.’

Dysart believes that Alan’s worship has made him strong and he envies him for it. This is a stark contrast to the truth that his mania has actually weakened him to the point of breaking and the scene ends with Alan’s terrible act of blinding six horses. This further displays the brutality of such a twisted religion. A similar situation can be seen in ‘The Crucible’; the girls in the woods all have different motives for dancing and Abigail’s is to get rid of Goody Proctor.

This makes the audience question Abigail’s relationship with Proctor; They both communicate not just through lust but through their hated of hypocritical religion. Where Alan and Jill’s relationship was a simple clash of religion and sexuality, Abigail uses her sexuality to show her contempt for Salem. She also forms a sharp distinction to Jill who is very understanding and considerate when Alan is unable to perform.

Abigail’s implacable hostility when Proctor wishes to end the affair is an indication to the audience of her malicious nature. In conclusion there is something about the mixture of fear, anxiety, passion and jealousy in ‘The Crucible’ that we as the audience find disturbingly familiar. As extreme as the plot is we have seen this episode in history over and over again. ‘The Crucible’ accentuates how often history repeats itself, with religion more often than not being the central cause.

Although in comparison ‘Equus’ displays religion in more positive light. Shaffer never lets us forget the terrible thing Alan has done though the central theme is that without religion we are unable to function. Both playwrights display religious mania in different aspect of life, one in an individual, the other in a community. The plays also reflects the context of what was happening at they were time it was written, the McCarthy hearings, and the changes in society’s attitude. Despite there being many negative connotations for religion both playwrights would argue that true faith is necessary to survive.

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