What lies beneath

Have you ever argued over the meaning of a play’s subtext? Tell us here!

When an actor asks, “What’s my motivation?” (because, believe it or not, some actually do), he’s really wondering about the subtext of the scene. The subtext is what’s going on beneath the lines — the unspoken themes, emotions. and ideas a play is trying to put across. An actor’s understanding of a show’s implicit meaning can really impact his performance. One of my favorite examples is in the movie The Goodbye Girl, when Richard Dreyfuss’s character is given a very strange and hilarious subtext for how to play Richard III. (Even Mark Rylance would find this take over the top!)

Since subtext is, by its very nature, not spelled out in words, its interpretation can vary wildly. In my twenties, I worked at a theatre ticketing agency, and I remember we received an angry letter from someone who saw Cats, complaining that the musical had “upsetting lesbian undertones.” (True story!) So you never know how the subtext of a work of art will be seen, save for in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen provides subtitles. Otherwise, it’s up to artists, academics, and audiences to decide what the subtext is — or if it exists at all.

— Raven Snook

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