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Against Subtext

six actors on stage
Students at Whitman College perform Hello Failure by Kristen Kosmas, directed by the author. Cast: Henry Nolan, Alexandra Schaffer, Caroline Rensel, Morgan Patton, Sam Halgren, Trisha Way, Mari Cannon, Nik Hagen, Caitlin Goldie, Taia Handlin. Photo courtesy of Agnes Borinsky.

Back to the rough ground!—Wittgenstein

I’m going to talk about what I mean by subtext, and then I’m going to talk about certain playwrights, and the world.


Subtext is a way of reading plays, watching plays, and writing them.

The play crashed through the wall of my brain. Did it leave a clean hole the shape of an idea, or was it ragged, with bits of flesh, feather, and muck?

Subtext-driven plays tend to leave clean holes. I prefer feathers and muck.

In subtext-driven plays, the bodies on stage aren’t speaking to one another so much as the playwright is telling me, the audience, something else about them.

That something else might be a story—plotty or psychological—or an idea—about loss, say, or capitalism.

The language of the play exists at a certain distance from the something else it’s trying to tell me, and that distance never changes. The bodies sweat and laugh and cry but never alter that distance.

If the bodies are just vessels for some subtextual idea, why bother with them at all?

It might be nice if the playwright just came out and told me her idea.

Certain nights, I see plays that are dreary arrangements of stock psychologies, familiar from scanning the backs of self-help books and prize-winning novels.

(I live in a golden age of pre-packaged psychologies. I know all the old feelings—love, jealousy, ambition, fear—and now I know the new ones, too—ADD, PTSD, OCD, FOMO, anxiety, uncertainty, fulfillment, self-acceptance. Writers can order their characters’ emotional lives from a storehouse the size of an Amazon fulfillment center, same day delivery, then disguise them behind a pleasing pattern of dialogue, set them in an off-beat context, cast them with Juiliard-trained actors, and wait for the Times write-up: “keenly-observed… finely-wrought… subtle… wrenching…”)

Of course, psychological drahmah is not a new target—see the relevant critiques, on varied grounds, towards varied ends, in essays by Gertrude Stein, Susan Sontag, Mac Wellman, Sarah Ruhl, Taylor Mac, etc. etc. etc.

(Sometimes I like a good psychological drahmah.)

But when I talk about SUBTEXT I’m not just talking about psychology.

When I say SUBTEXT I mean: there is a gap between the language of the play and something else (below it? behind it?). The size of the gap is steady, and the something else is fixed and nameable.

I can think of stiff subtextual “experimental” plays drunk on their own sophistication. They were theatrical, they were nonlinear and nonliteral, maybe there was movement or poetry, but language was incidental to the way the makers wanted me to feel about the something else hovering behind it. The relation between the language and the something else never shifted. And the poor dreary something else sat there the whole time—lumpy, waiting.

(Waiting things tend to get stale.)


A gap between surface and something else.

A steady gap.

A fixed and nameable something else.


When I say SUBTEXT I mean: there is a gap between the language of the play and something else (below it? behind it?). The size of the gap is steady, and the something else is fixed and nameable.



Henry Ford broke down industrial processes in order to run them better. App developers break down a life so a person can live it better. Techies or not, we love a time-saver. We love a life-hack.

Subtext makes a play knowable. It makes the play seem complex, which makes us feel good. But it is, in the end, quite simple. It seems complex and is comfortable.

The subtextual playwright writes like an inexperienced teacher and revises like a software engineer.

She whips up something that seems like it’d coax students—to a subtextual writer an audience is like a roomful of students—towards a particular understanding, then breaks it down into functional units and focuses on what each moment does, and whether it is clear.

Subtextual writing grooms plays for the marketplace.

In the marketplace I sell my attention and I buy experiences.

The subtextual play is prepared to give consumers what they need: assurance—in advance and at every moment—of value. Assurance (in advance, at every moment) of a good story, yes, or of provocative high-concept downtown art—but mostly assurance of subtextual value.

Assurance that Yes, there is something behind this text.

There are dramaturgs who speak like economists:

Set that up… so there’s payoff… invest in that character… I didn’t buy it… What was the takeaway…

Even some avant-garde directors speak with a similar orientation to underlying value (though with them it’s better-hidden).

Even if a play makes me think, I the consumer want to know that the writer has planted something there behind it—lumpy, waiting to be thought.

And so I move through the world less an explorer than an auditor of the already-known.


Wonderful plays are out there, plenty of them. But most people talk about them poorly, as if they were apps.

Even writers get their own work wrong, paw at the structure till the upholstery wears thin. They miss the gorgeous lifeness of the thing.

Four playwrights you might know, and their plays:

David Greenspan (I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, Go Back to Where You Are): A joyful and mischievous relation to character and story. Not so much psychological as interested in time passing and a dance of repetition and change. Stock characters and psychologies and the temptation to sentimentalize—chopped and shuffled and hemmed in by memory (stuck) and death. Sly recursion deflates and inflames and ironizes. Loops that move and delight. Or delight and devastate.

Kristen Kosmas (Hello Failure, The Mayor of Baltimore): Plays that function like melon ballers or cheese graters or muffin tins, caked with pasty smears of pure human life. These are the smallest niches and curls of how we speak and see and imagine. There may be meaning, but it is sort of wobbly and could vanish at any moment. Plays like a wooden chair, or like a whiff of sweat that takes a secret back-path into the brain.

Bertolt Brecht (The Good Person of Szechwan): Desire and strategy and plot—desiring and strategizing and plotting—oh yes. But all so transparent and mechanical that the plays are like big metal jungle gyms we have time to climb into and explore. Big metal stories full of completely extraneous poetry or silliness or mucking around in otherwise simple tasks.

Clare Barron (You Got Older, Dirty Crusty): In simple delicate conversations we feel currents of subtext, but they are not specified. The movement of deep energies, but nothing made concrete, nothing psychologized. Long speeches that are more a flow of energy than a set of ideas or narrowly playable actions, wet gushings of frustration and desire. Rich surface textures, and just behind you, out the window, mountains steely or glowing and cold riverwater. A hot tub on a snowy night.

Other playwrights you might not know, but should: Yasser Abu Shaqra, Eryk Aughenbaugh, Angela Hanks, Jerome Hairston, Paul Cameron Hardy, Brendan Hill, Donna Oblongata, Savannah Reich… I could go on. All writing strange and gorgeous plays.

(There are things livid and bright that don’t have a name. They can lurk behind language without ever taking on the dry concreteness of exhausted meaning.

There can be patterns, too, that rearrange familiar scraps of experience. Stock emotions and characters (longing, loss; the faded starlet, the lovelorn prostitute) dry up and drop out like knots in wood, evacuate the play, and leave holes I can slip my own life into.

The inevitable gaps between language and meaning, story and emotion, image and association will be there, of course—but can’t they be constantly shifting, twisting, twirling over the course of the play?

Won’t you trust your delight and your desire?

Won’t you risk a little something?)


We live in a cacophony of simultaneous and incommensurate languages.

One liberal hope has been to find a single, universal language that can accommodate them all. Candidates have included multiculturalism, Esperanto, political rights, or dollar value as determined in a free market.

Sometimes it is useful to look for a singular, accommodating language. Sometimes it is useful to collapse experience into two dry smooth parallel planes: the surface and the substance behind it. But the theater is not a space for usefulness.

A good liberal makes sense of difficult people, of people he doesn’t understand, by looking past what they seem to be and insisting on something underneath, or behind—an underlying humanity. I’d propose that this is a dubious maneuver.

In every person there is an underlying humanity, says the good liberal, just as in every line there is a fixed and nameable subtext. What makes human beings worth attending to is not what they are, but what lies under them—their essential humanity, their use, their subtext. Their relation to an abstract idea of humanness.

Liberal humanism makes a person abstractly knowable. It makes the person seem complex—after all, she is so different from me, but ah, so much the same—which makes us feel good. But it is, in the end, quite simple. It seems complex and is comfortable.

Assuredly, there is value.

I’d pay for that.

Why do we need that moment, or that line?

Let’s do away with the extra bits.

At its best, theatre allows for
the simultaneous suspension of mutually-confounding realities
bodies without discernible subtexts
baubles without discernible value
individuals and groups without discernible goals.

If the favorite liberal arguments for human dignity are subtextual (“…a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…”), this is because these arguments are also economic (underlying value).

And it is why subtextual writing has such a hold on theatre in the United States.

The crank winds both ways—liberals to marketplaces to plays, plays to marketplaces to liberals.

What is that play about?

What does that line mean?

What is that line worth?

What is that life worth?

A good play, well-performed, speaks in surfaces and depths, textures and vacuums. It jabbers and sings in multiple incommensurate languages. What it’s doing is constantly changing.

The best playwrights resist depth metaphors. They attend to surfaces, to textures, to dangly bits and remainders. Rather than asking what a life means they asks what a life is.

“…and the usefulness of a thing is not all a thing does, and we must have excess or some of us will die and that is enough.”

Use, much like underlying humanity, much like subtext, is an attempt at a shorthand in a universal language. It is the language of liberal pieties, and the market.

Subtextual writing speaks that language, and has forgotten the warm bumpy babble of its childhood.

Children speak dozens of languages, and make up their own.

When I first got glasses, the best part about it was I could see people’s skin.


I’d like to consider writing that doesn’t start with a story, or a character, or a structure, or an idea, or an “experimental” project—though it may, at one point or another, involve all of those things.

I’d like to consider writing that doesn’t grow from the outline down, but from the sentence up.

Plays, after all, happen one word at a time. One sound, or stillness, or breath at a time—a dash, or a comma.

Of course there will be meaning, sometimes, and unspoken implication. But if there is a gap between the sentence and the thing behind it, the size of the gap will constantly shift and the thing behind it won’t be fixed. (That shifting, twisting, twirling…)

If you do it right, every line of this play will be essential.

(Two senses in which every line might be essential:

Every line makes up a structurally significant part of a larger idea.


Every line has heft, which is to say, every line is like an object, which is to say it has a certain dignity and presence and history and soul. It has a skin, freckled or ashy—even if we can’t quite see the content of its character.)

What’s essential in a play is movement—kinesis from moment to moment. Not movement towards some fixed end, but movement relative to surrounding moments.

There is potential movement between any two objects with heft (i.e., gravity: moon tugs at floppy edge of ocean). Sometimes that’s enough, sometimes not. Sometimes, to use another natural metaphor, objects (substances) are reactive to one another, producing heat, which is to say energy, which is to say movement, which is what a play needs.

In performance, every sentence has its own physical and chemical properties. Different sentences exist at different distances from their meanings. Some sentences cast long shadows, and linger in memory after they’ve been spoken. Some sentences cast short ones and vanish almost immediately. Some sentences pop in the ear like blueberries. Some need to soak for hours like dry beans before they soften and release their flavor. A good play uses all of those sentences.

(I’ve been working on a taxonomy of spoken sentences.)

All sentences, written or spoken, are like streets—broad public avenues or kinked old-world alleys. Consider how you like to move through a city. What succession of streets—stops and turns and climbs and dead ends and vistas—most pleases you?

A play, like a city, isn’t an idea. It’s a place.

Maps have their use, but they are no substitute for walking around.


Lives of constant doing, restless activity, pasted over with abstract goals, signaling depth.

Listen, Honey—

If we make it to the ends of these long lives of ours,

we just end up in dreary rooms, doing nothing.

Maybe a wasp will thud against the window. Maybe, we’ll clench our loose bottom and shift in our chair and somewhere, out of nowhere, an ancient clock will hum and click forward a minute, a month.

Words will gather in our minds in bunches, then disperse and drift

But anyway


“…and the usefulness of a thing…” comes from “Practice Text No. 1” by Tara Aisha Willis and Millie Kapp, in Movement Research Performance Journal 46.

seven actors on stage
Les Ballets C de la B, “Out of Context—For Pina.” Photo by Prudence Upton.

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Donna Oblongata and Ruhl plus a very compelling essay. Thanks for getting this playwright thinking on and off subtext as well.

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