Digging for Subtext is like Turning the Topsoil…(it’s not enough…)



Any meaning or set of meanings which is implied rather than explicitly stated in a literary work…’ (Oxford Reference)

I did a blog a while back called Concealing and Revealing about what lies beneath words (what doesn’t! We’d all get arrested or ostracised from society if we couldn’t hide our thoughts…) and I’ve always paid lip-service to ‘subtext’ in my own books and teaching. I have triumphantly uncovered at least 3 varieties:

1. You want the other person not to read your subtext…(e.g. lying)

2. You want the person to read it…(e.g. irony)

3. A hidden agenda you don’t admit to yourself…(e.g. I want to impress)

Suddenly yesterday I had an epiphany – subtext is waffle, subtext in a practical context is an extra confusion, subtext is jargon, subtext is only suitable for literary criticism. The idea is not useful for actors or directors – maybe not for writers…

Subtext is simply the end result of driving the action under given circumstances. It is what happens when you deal with the situation to get what you want and can’t speak about it directly. It is the outcome of what is happening to the role as they speak or act – whether they are censoring their thoughts for fear of causing pain to themselves or someone else, or simply that they are not prepared to tell the truth. (Truth is not easy – life without subtext would be nigh on impossible.) Nobody in life thinks about using subtext. If you are a thief you want not to get caught – so you lie. If you love someone but don’t want them to know it – you hide it. If you lust after someone, you show that feeling subtly or overtly depending on the circumstances and who you are.

I’m not suggesting that words have only surface meaning. Quite the contrary. Of course you need to dig beneath the role to speak them. But you need to go much deeper than to scrape away at the text to uncover a hidden meaning. In fact you won’t discover the whole subtext unless you are exploring – in depth – what the speaker wants, is doing, is trying to avoid or explore. You need to go to the bedrock of the human being and find what drives them – what they need – who they are – in the deepest sense possible. Then the words will be the audible part of their thoughts and life. And subtext will take care of itself.

I started thinking about all this because the other day I heard that an actor was advised to ‘play the subtext’. Now what does that mean? If the role doesn’t want the subtext known, you need to bury the truth not play it. Otherwise you are ‘showing’ the audience and if you are on camera we will see the falseness instantly. If you want a lesson in how to bury the truth – look at Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects.

Maybe the director or teacher meant: there is more to this role than I’m seeing – the feelings are deeper – more complex – there is more going on. In other words: up the ammunition, make the needs stronger, increase the jeopardy. Believe it.

‘Subtext’ has become a fashionable word. It hit its heights in the mid 20th century when playwrights, delighted by the ‘new’ discovery that people don’t always mean what they say, revelled in helping the actor to find what they meant underneath the words by adding ‘Pause’ or ‘Silence‘ to flag it up. And wonderful plays they wrote – although what seemed naturalistic then can appear pretty stylised now…

Shakespeare (supposedly) has little subtext – but all humans have hidden depths. He has people lying and short lines that leave a space for thought. But if you follow the life and needs of his characters in depth – I don’t think you’ll have to analyse your part for ‘subtext’ to know what those thoughts are.

Restoration dramas simply delighted in speaking the subtext aloud to the audience as asides – and what fun they were.

Peter Nichols brought subtext to life in Passion Play – literally – by having the roles doubled up; one speaking the surface words – one uncovering the subtext. (Does the alter ego have subtext too I wonder…?)

And it’s all good stuff. But there are deeper drives in these works that may escape in the exercise to find what superficial meaning lies under the words. Instead, explore what deeper impulses give rise to them – revealing or covering our desires. In other words – find out what you (in the role) need, and what you (in the role) need others to think – and subtext happens of its own accord. It’s simple.

With the usual serendipity that happens when you are exploring an idea – my husband read me this quote today from David Shield’s Reality Hunger:

‘Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterisation. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.’

But the actor, director and surely the writer (though Pinter would never admit it) have to be aware of the whole: the past, the person, the story – in order to remove it but retain its resonance within the work.

Later today, in The Observer, I happened upon an article where Simon Russell Beale discussed taking liberties with Shakespeare:

‘The idea is that (the text) in itself expresses the characters’ tormented thought process. If all you get out of it is ‘tormented thought process’, but not the thought itself, then, frankly, I prefer the thought.’

Yes indeed – so would I. Now you could argue that finding the thought is discovering the ‘subtext’. That I’m playing with semantics. And I wouldn’t argue.  But text analysis per se or ‘subtext’ bandied about in a lit. crit. context is apt to see the discovery of these undercurrents  as a superficial end in itself. It is ‘subtext’ as an easy analytical concept I’m arguing against, rather than the idea that words contain subtext. It can be a lazy way to approach a work. Its pursuit can diminish the text rather than give it life. It is akin to scouring Shakespeare for the puns without enjoying or being aware of the context in which they are used – sometimes as weapons and always with hidden messages. We could simply substitute  ‘thoughts’ for ‘subtext’ in our teaching and directing. Actors, directors and writers need, absolutely,-the thought (revealed or covered) within the words or the pun, and more than that – what gives rise to those thoughts…. That is the crux of the matter. In other words, if you mine out the needs, discover why you say the words, you can leave academics to discover that you are using subtext.

And not every work is refined enough to dig into and to do ‘text analysis’. I work on movies where the words may not be death-defying prose – but the humans that inhabit those stories are still driven by their needs and emotions. (I do remember one job where I helped a diligent actor (f) on a blockbuster to uncover every nuance suggested by the words and the way they were written. In the event the director (m) cut most of her lines and asked her mainly to scream. On some films – only primary needs are required…:)

Of course it’s fun scouring for subtext and the exercise where you speak your thoughts out loud, and then speak the text to see what lies underneath, is a good one for a fast route into the script – but those thoughts should happen by themselves if you’ve had time to work out what is going on in the imaginary world and what you – as the role – need.

You never think about ‘subtext’ in life; you just deal with the situation and subtext takes care of itself.

So to repeat – subtext is not an end in itself – it is the outcome of what the role wants and how the role is dealing with the situation and circumstances. By sifting a text looking for subtext, we may just be shifting the topsoil around and never going into the deep strata that will make the work extraordinary, unique and alive.

Don’t worry about showing or not showing or ‘living in the subtext’. Simply live. Be alive in the role, making the imaginary life, situation and circumstances as real and as important as your own life. Do what you (in the role) would do, speak as you (in the role) would speak. Make-believe. Subtext will happen on its own – like magic!

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.