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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: May ::
Re: Subtext (Character)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0528.  Saturday, 3 May 1997.

[1]     From:   Dale Lyles <
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        Date:   Friday, 2 May 1997 12:02:40 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0519 Re: Subtext

[2]     From:   Jane A Thompson <
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        Date:   Friday, 2 May 1997 19:12:12 -0500 (CDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0519 Re: Subtext (Character)

[3]     From:   Kurt Daw <
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        Date:   Friday, 2 May 1997 23:07:23 -0500
        Subj:   Subtext


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dale Lyles <
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Date:           Friday, 2 May 1997 12:02:40 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 8.0519 Re: Subtext
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0519 Re: Subtext

Professor Hawkes:

While I'm quite clear on the 20th-century's critical stance on texts,
I'm not sure you're as clear on what it means to transform one of these
texts into a performance for an audience.  At least, none of these
ideological/critical discussions has ever attempted to explain how their
entirely valid approaches to "text" is applicable to the quite-different
task faced by an actor.

You may smirk about "seeing" Hamlet smirking, but we *must* see him
smirk.  We must *make* him smirk.  Reminding us that Hamlet is nothing
more than a collection of words on a page, and words that have no
reliable meaning between readers, is not useful in this context, and
makes you look condescending, a charge I am loath to make of someone for
whose wit and wisdom I have a high regard.

If the discussion on subtext has faltered through this group's usual
equivocal use of a term, then say that.  Or maybe I'm being more
provincial than usual: is it possible that the destructuralists, et al.,
say that not even actors should attempt to impose an inner life on a
character they're performing in a play?

Respectfully,
Dale Lyles
Newnan Community Theatre Company

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jane A Thompson <
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Date:           Friday, 2 May 1997 19:12:12 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: 8.0519 Re: Subtext (Character)
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0519 Re: Subtext (Character)

Terence Hawkes <
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 > wrote:

> David Jackson observes that a lot of 'issues' are always churning around
> in the 'minds' of Shakespeare's characters. Yes, I thought I caught a
> slight smirk on the face of that Hamlet only the other day.

Which Hamlet was that?  I'd like to check.

> I blame his mother myself. Do they ever think about us?

Heavens, no.  Don't be silly.  We are fictional.

--Jane

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kurt Daw <
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Date:           Friday, 2 May 1997 23:07:23 -0500
Subject:        Subtext

I couldn't agree more with David Jackson that whenever an actor is
engaged in performing Shakespeare, or anything else for that matter,
there is something going on inside the actor ALL THE TIME (his
emphasis). I think this so completely that I have written a book on the
subject (forthcoming in about a month from Heinemann, plug, plug) trying
to say what that something is. I am keenly interested in the actor's
creative process, but I stand by my definition of "subtext" as something
quite different. One reason I continue to use the term "subtext"
narrowly, meaning the buried plot points of a play which are not
revealed through dialogue, is because that is what was meant by the
originators of the term. To them, it was something implied by the text,
rather than invented by the actor.

A bigger reason I resist the identification of the actor's internal
process with the term "subtext," however, is because it seems to me to
blur our ability to think clearly about issues of both text and
performance. If we use the term "subtext" to mean everything the actor
thinks and feels while performing, then (to reverse Jackson's question)
what do we call important plot points revealed through some method other
than dialogue? That is a very crucial issue for both actors and textual
scholars, who need a term of some precision in order to talk about this
specific phenomenon in modern and contemporary drama. There are other
terms available to talk about "what is going on inside the [actor]."

To label as "subtext" everything the actor is thinking and feeling while
performing is to lose the distinction between actor and character, as
Terry Hawkes' posting reminds us. Likewise, to instantly conflate all
the actor's thoughts and intentions with the character comes dangerously
close to eliminating all distinction between actor and playwright.

I began to lean toward this perhaps "extreme" opinion, while thinking
about Dale Lyles' question and example. Oberon's speech "Thou
remember'st/Since once I sat upon a promontory..." is, indeed, a pretty
long way of saying, "Go get that flower." I could concede that the actor
may need to do something special to hold the audience's interest while
performing this piece. Nonetheless, I still think it is awfully
dangerous to solve this problem by introducing new plot lines of the
actor's own invention. (I'd prefer to hear it well-spoken, and see it
intriguingly physicalized, in order to hold my interest.)

The last time I saw MND performed, I will confess, this particular
speech seemed to mean something much more like, "Hey, Puck, you are a
pretty handsome young man and I hope you will save some quality time for
a brief sexual encounter with me later this evening." I don't mean to
sound "schoolmarmish," objecting to this not being "what Shakespeare
wrote." I was just troubled because this piece of invention on the part
of the actor playing Oberon, while adding some spice to the moment,
created an expectation in the audience of plot developments that never
came. The show became confusing.

The important plot information in the scene is that Oberon needs to get
this flower. In this, as in most Shakespeare scenes, the plot
information is conveyed through the dialogue, and it is misleading to
subordinate that to some other (invented) interest being introduced
through non-verbal methods. That is all I meant by saying that I think
it is sound advice for young actors not to seek Chekhovian solutions to
early modern challenges.  They are apt to create more problems than they
solve.

Kurt Daw
Kennesaw State University
 

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