The Divine Queer and the Non-Divine Women: Marginalized Female Characters in Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus on Stage and on Screen – Meeting Report

We kicked off our Autumn programme this week with Hsin Hseih, who is in her fourth year of her PhD in the Film, Theatre and Television Department here at Reading, and who gave a fascinating paper based on her research on the work of Peter Shaffer. In her paper Hsin explored the idea of a “divine” queer masculinity, and the marginalisation of female bodies in Shaffer’s works, Equus and Amadeus. Hsin began by tracing the legacy of queer theatre, from the disruption of theatrical forms after the Stonewall riots, through the works of John Wilmot, Oscar Wilde, and Malcolm Scott, to the trope of the “problem” of homosexuality in mid-century works such as A Taste of Honey and Staircase. Turning to her case study of the work of Peter Shaffer, Hsin focused on the trope of two male leads in Shaffer’s work, specifically in Amadeus and Equus. She explained how often these two characters fulfilled roles loosely based on Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; the Apollonian, more mature and ordinary man (Salieri in Amadeus and Martin in Equus) is challenged and intrigued by the often younger, Dionysian, extra-ordinary character (Alan in Equus and Mozart in Amadeus). The narratives revolve around these relationships, as the two male leads are shown engaging in highbrow “divine” talk, such as the meaning of art, or in Equus, Alan’s psychological state following his blinding of several horses. Hsin argued that throughout Equus, horses are shown as godlike, and can be seen as symbolic of a divine masculinity. In Amadeus, Mozart is seen as godlike in the way he is presented, and fulfils a similar role. The Apollonian characters’ attempts to understand the godlike Dionysian characters challenge their sense of self, as they wrestle with understanding these alternative masculinities.

 

Hsin’s main focus in this paper was to question the role of the marginalised women in these narratives. As she demonstrated through clips from film adaptations of these two plays, women are shown as undesirable, even repugnant, and inherently of a lower intellectual class than the protagonists (Constance in Amadeus and Jill in Equus). Their relationships with the protagonists are seen as secondary to the relationship between the two men, and in scenes in both films, are shown being openly and aggressively rejected when they attempt to seduce one of the male leads, reinforcing the centrality of the “divine queer” i.e. the core relationships of the two male leads. Hsin argued that whilst an inherent misogyny provides an easy explanation for the marginalisation and even stereotyping of Jill and Constance, a more nuanced analysis of these marginalised female bodies was needed, which prompted a lively and constructive discussion.

 

Thank you for kicking off the new GSRN series Hsin, and thanks to all who attended. We will be reconvening on Monday 19th November at 4pm, in Old Whiteknights House G08, with a screening of clips from Jane the Virgin, Grace and Frankie, and Black-ish, before discussing representations of aging sexuality in contemporary American television comedies, chaired by Anna Varadi. We hope to see many of you there!

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