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Sturm und Drang and Its Aftermath II: Broadway <Equus> (1) - Aesthetics of Muscle

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  • Design
  • Literature
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science


This paper constitutes the first half of a bi-partite research that investigates popular and critical responses to the Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1974-76) and attempts to explicate its apparent enthusiastic reception by New York audiences in terms of aesthetic and political contexts. As such, the present paper draws specifically on the aesthetic implications and ramifications of the production, leaving a correlated exploration in its socio-political contexts for the subject of another paper that will soon follow. An extensive reading of New York theatre reviews of the play reveals the ways in which it was introduced - prior to and during the run of the production - to the American public, and was described, evaluated, and finally defined for them. At its inception the Broadway Equus turns out a joint-venture by British and American theatrical communities, consisting of producers and critics as well as theatre artists including the playwright himself. In their collaboration to “make a hit” on Broadway, the largest theatrical market of the world, theatre critics in particular deployed a characteristically laudatory - occasionally hyperbolic - rhetoric in their reviews. An in-depth analysis of these reviews uncovers a set of rhetorical trajectories, often endorsed by Shaffer in his interviews, that were provided for audiences to follow in their reception of the play. Prominent among them are emphases on crime, sex, spectacle, and virtuoso performance. On its aesthetic dimension, therefore, the Broadway Equus seems to have exploited popular taste for psycho-thrillers with sexual titillation, indulgence for theatrical magic of overwhelming spectacles, and attraction to glamorous star vehicles, a combination of which constituted a powerful entertainment. In the final instance, the Broadway production obscured - the questions regarding - the thematic or philosophical issues of the play, which had loomed large in the British reviews on its original London production, a circumstance that warrants a deeper critical insight but was only dubbed by a New York critic as follows: “At London’s National Theater, the play’s thought smothered its strength. Here, the muscle wins out.”

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