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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: April ::
Re: Subtext
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0449.  Saturday, 12 April 1997.

[1]     From:   Harry Hill <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Apr 1997 07:43:58 +0000 (HELP)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0444 Re: Subtext

[2]     From:   Adrian Kiernander <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Apr 1997 12:02:36 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0442  Qs: Subtext

[3]     From:   Kila Burton <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Apr 1997 09:51:13 -0400
        Subj:   Subtext

[4]     From:   Harry Teplitz <
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        Date:   Friday, 11 Apr 1997 16:39:23 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Subtext


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Apr 1997 07:43:58 +0000 (HELP)
Subject: 8.0444 Re: Subtext
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0444 Re: Subtext

Eric Armstrong seems to me to be talking sense, but there is of course
subtext to what he writes as we only have the written words before us. I
too do not use Strasbergian role-research methods but rely on the text,
and I am still aware than as an actor I'm kidding myself. "Subtext" is
created whenever one opens one mouth and makes an utterance that is
inflected; the only "surface" reading would be the monotone of a
machine, which in itself would of course provide a meaning that
announces "I am a machine."

    "Madam how like you this?" is given a "subtext" whenever it is
spoken.

Taking this brief discussion to another part of the forest, I might add
that subtext=inflection=interpretation and that it is this that causes
the conflict of page and stage. I myself would rather read the plays
than see them, as "my" Cleopatra is not realizable unless I direct it
myself and not even then as I would have to act it. And not even then
unless it were on film rather than renewing itself by alteration,
augmentation eight times a week and dragged up off the floor on the
Tuesdays after the dark Mondays.

Where "subtext" is perilous, I'd say, is when characterization and the
playing of moments rely on the performer's personal psychological
apparatus rather than on the phonetic texture of the words, the
perception of which of course is also subjective although less so.
Thomas Heywood was probably right when he wrote some centuries ago that
appropriate typecasting was more than half of the secret of successful
performance of the text. Not only physical appearance but vocal makeup
too.

One of students in a Shakespeare class this year is blind. He joined me
and some of the rest of the class at a recent production of *The
Winter's Tale*, and was unable to feel Leontes' jealousy in any aural
way at all as the actor had insufficient vocal equipment and gift; the
sighted students could *see* it while finding something indefinably
"wrong with his voice". The actor's father had died on day of the first
dress rehearsal and was naturally bringing his filial rage and grief to
his role; this had become part of his subtext, inaudible and largely
invisible. He was even less able to respond to the physical demands of
the particular words.

In another Shakespeare production a year ago a fellow actor could not,
as Octavius Caesar, make one of his entrances until he could "feel his
motivation"; this Strasbergian flaw could only be remedied
homeopathically by my talking to him in the wings as Lepidus and asking
him often what was the content of the letter he had just received about
Antony so that he could be propelled onstage in an infuriated
informative mood and mode. Subtext and motivation sleep in the same
incestuous sheets.

        Harry Hill

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Adrian Kiernander <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Apr 1997 12:02:36 +1000
Subject: 8.0442  Qs: Subtext
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0442  Qs: Subtext

It's some combination of the work of writers and readers, in the case of
a play the author(s), director(s), actor(s) and audience(s), who create
the (appearance of a) subtext. So there's no definitive answer to the
question of whether or not there IS a subtext in Shakespeare. I've seen
Shakespeare productions where there seemed to be an attempt to explore
subtext, and have acted in and observed rehearsals of productions where
I know there was. Just as I've seen and worked on productions that
avoided subtextual thinking like the plague. It partly comes down to
working methods. If a director or whoever wants the production to work
through subtexts then it's possible to create (or reveal) them. If not,
you can deal with everything up front. (But I suppose an audience member
accustomed to viewing in those terms can always read in subtexts, even
where none have been deliberately or consciously explored within a
production.)

Ariane Mnouchkine is one notable director who chooses to deny the
usefulness of thinking in terms of subtexts in Shakespeare. Subtext is
the death of theatre, and diverts the actor from "acting". (She also
says there is no psychology in Shakespeare, and in her vocabulary
"psychologism" is one of the most pejorative insults available.)
According to her, the meaning of the text lies on the surface; and in
the rhetorical, delamatory style in which she directed her Shakespeare
cycle it would be almost impossible to do irony. The Shakespeare
productions which she mounted in the early 1980s are in part a
consequence of that way of approaching/thinking about theatre.

Adrian Kiernander

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kila Burton <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Apr 1997 09:51:13 -0400
Subject:        Subtext

I've always understood that there was no opposing subtext, i.e. if
someone says .."thou speakest well of fools", this would not be an
example of irony, or sarcasm, but truth.  The theory was that in his
time, there was little use of irony among Shakespeare's characters.
This is a contemporary spin.  Same with rhetorical questions-when a
character asks "how like you this play?" the character expect an anser
and genuinely wants to know.  The subtext lies in the motivations behind
the need to know.

Kila Burton

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[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Teplitz <
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Date:           Friday, 11 Apr 1997 16:39:23 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Subtext

Here's another interpretation of the "no subtext" issue.

I've always understood that no subtext meant that characters in
Shakespeare plays have lines that are closely related to what they
feel.  This does not mean that these lines do not have multiple
interpretations (by stressing different words, for example, as one
poster noted).  But it does mean that they don't tend to talk about the
weather when they really want to talk about the death of their mother.

A modern play will often have a line like "would you like some tea",
where the actor is required to convey the full depth of her feelings
about another character with no other opportunity to express them.
These feelings may not even be discussed explicitly anywhere in the
play.  It is the actor's and director's job to make the audience
understand what is really going on beneath the text-the subtext.  In a
Shakespeare play there may be moments of forced civility, but there is
rarely (never?) an example of characters with strong feelings who do not
express them to either each other or to the audience; certainly, not
strong feelings on which events in the play are later to hinge.  A
modern play does not necessarily ever give characters the chance to
express their feelings, but Shakespeare always does.

Also, no subtext is similar to characters never keeping a secret from or
lying to the audience, but not exactly the same.  A character could
easily be very obvious in their emotional relationships, while still not
warning the audience of their devious plan.  This would be someone with
no subtext, but who lied to the audience.

I do agree, though, that part of what a lack of subtext implies is that
actors must act "ON the lines".  And more than that, they must "act the
lines".  I don't think this means one can't have an overall
psychological point of view for a character, but I think it is very
risky to play any substantial amount of text to mean something other
than what it says.

Well, I'm sure I've rambled on enough for now....

-- Harry Teplitz
UCLA Shakespeare Reading and Performance Group
 

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