The Problem with (the Argument Against) Subtext

“Where’s my cheese-roll?


Someone’s taken my cheese-roll. I left it there. (To SAM.) You been thieving?”

The above line, spoken by Lenny in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, might be my single favorite line in all of modern drama. It's so very “Pinter”—the quotidian playfulness, the off-tempo humor, the seething anger. I have been thinking about Pinter and this line a lot recently. I have been thinking about Pinter, this line, and subtext, and if it is a good thing, or if it is a bad thing. I have been thinking about how language, or lack of language, can and should function inside a theatrical universe. I have been thinking about cheese-rolls.

a portrait of a man
A graphite drawing of Harold Pinter by artist Reginald Gray, originally published in the New Statesman. Photo courtesy of Dominic Finocchiaro.

As a term, subtext carries a heavy load in today’s theatrical climate. It is hard to think of a word more over-stuffed with symbolism, more weighted down with built-in assumptions and prejudices. We say “subtext” and we see a panoply of clunky scenes, overloaded dialogue; playwrights who underscore and highlight a certain psychological and conservative notion of meaning in relation to the human psyche. In fact, we see so many things that the one thing we fail to see is the word itself and what it stands for.  Subtext is the proverbial forest, and the trees are the well-made play, Stanislavski, the Method, American realism, Freud, dead mothers, childhood trauma, self-help books—you name it—there are so many trees. But what of the forest?

The arguments against subtext in contemporary theatre are widespread, and these arguments are valuable and spot-on in many ways. Too many plays are constructed as paint-by-numbers emotional experiences meant to tickle an audience’s feeling receptors without actually affecting them in any deeper way than a particularly sentimental Bud Light commercial. It is writing-by-recipe (insert emotional revelation on page 88, hold for audience tears) that allows its patrons to believe they had a unique and meaningful artistic experience without ever having to leave the comforts of their own assumptions and secure lifestyles. This is a problem, brought on by a number of factors, economic and otherwise, that plagues our landscape. But I argue that this problem has nothing to do with subtext. And to argue that it does risks falling into the very traps of convenient thinking that such an attack aims to target.

What even is subtext? To define it in language is counterintuitive—it’s ekphrastic at best. How do you define the Mona Lisa? It’s simply the wrong paradigm. Subtext is all the things that can’t be defined by words. Subtext is the ghost note. It’s the reverberations at the center of the earth, Doppler readings. The definition of subtext? That which is beyond definition. The space between words. The ink but not what the ink comes to represent.

By and large, people are binary thinkers. Binaries are safe and convenient and comforting. We understand black and white—grey is trickier, safely contextualized only in relation to the two. Of course, the problem with binary thinking is a certain fascism of thought that it encourages, a need for order that leaves out the complexity and truth of the matters at hand, which forces the elements of a topic into boxes that are amenable and easily parsed. When we look at things from the perspective of the binary, we automatically speak in a language made by someone else; we are playing a game whose rules we have not chosen. In such a game, we can speak of grey, but by the nature of the conversation—a conversation that defines grey only as not black or white—the very notion of the color has lost all meaning. The idea of black and white existing simultaneously (which is, at its heart, what subtext is all about) becomes an impossibility. The binary is a closed system that seemingly allows for a discussion of complexity, but in actuality undermines any such method of thought.

This is my problem with the impulse to deride subtext. All too often what is being derided is not subtext—it’s bad subtext. Or it’s not even bad subtext—it’s naturalism, commercialism, artistic conservatism—or it’s simply bad writing. When done in good faith and with acuity, there is nothing clean or neatly packaged about subtext; subtext muddies the water rather than filtering it. In today’s post-Freudian theatre panic, subtext has become a signifier that refers to a multiplicity of concepts and ethos, most of which have nothing to do with the signifier itself.

So, deriding subtext on principal is actually merely playing ball, accepting the rules of a game that has been constructed elsewhere and that is specious in its organization. It is accepting that there is a black and a white, that there are two teams in opposition on the battlefield of contemporary theatre—an Us and a Them, uptown and downtown, traditional and avant-garde—however you choose to define the sides. It is accepting a binary that is easy and safe but is also conservative and fascistic in its very impulse. What’s more, it is a binary that allows everyone to feel satisfied with themselves and their positions—the “Us” against subtext nestled in apolitical and privileged self-chosen obscurity, and the “Them” for subtext even more comfortably luxuriating in the commercial mainstream.

This is not an attack on either group because both groups are falsely constructed. It’s a common technique of those in power to segment through the construction of false, or imagined, enemies. If everyone is arguing about subtext, they are more likely to accede to any number of the real enemies and problems that face the American theatre today, such as gender and racial disparity, skyrocketing prices, lack of community engagement, and awareness. By waging a war against subtext, theatre artists are splintering themselves along party lines that presuppose difference without acknowledging any of the middle grey, that messy murky space where art is most evocative and most pulsating with life-force and transcendent energy. More grey please.

Which brings me back to Pinter. Like his work or not, Pinter must be seen as an extraordinary example of an artist whose work manages to precariously balance between commercial acceptance and artistic innovation. Whether Pinter would be allowed to flourish as a new playwright in today’s theatre world is a question for another essay, but what is undeniable is the ways in which Pinter’s plays reveal, through their craft and their subtlety of formal technique and emotional honesty, the inherent fallacy of the subtextual argument.

Pinter’s subtext is grounded in the reality of bodies in space, of verbal animals. It is grounded in the fact that things—in life, hopefully in theatre as well—are constantly in flux and are always both what they are and what they are not.

Each silence and pause in Pinter is weighted with the unsaid, the unspoken, the unknown, and the unacknowledged. And yet this is not the dreaded subtext contemporary theatremakers are so terrified of. There are no reveals of long lost traumas or scars, no damaging fathers and damaged mothers lingering underneath the lines, carefully and neatly explaining all of the messy darkness and meat of the work and its world. No, Pinter’s subtext is subtext grounded in the reality of bodies in space, of verbal animals. It is grounded in the fact that things—in life, hopefully in theatre as well—are constantly in flux and are always both what they are and what they are not. Art is transformation, is alchemy, is taking one thing and making it another.

Subtext, when utilized as Pinter does, does not explain away or close off, but instead opens up the world of the play and its characters. It defies simple categorization and forces an audience to acknowledge that what they believe to be true is only an aspect of what is actually at stake, of what is the case. In Pinter, characters are both more and less than what they say and do. This is not psychology, but human geography; this is the peaks, valleys, wells, and hidden heaths and bogs that constitute human beings and human interactions. No need to explain the bog—but don’t forget that it is there, and rivers and swamps and caves and mountains are there too. There are more things there than you can even begin to imagine.

Shakespeare has no subtext. This is a very popular argument thrown around in the theatre world. It’s a true statement. But only if we again define subtext in the Bud Light-commercial, pocket-Freud-for-Dummies way. It’s true that there are no easy explanations in Shakespeare; Iago’s soliloquy about what happened that one night at summer camp when the lights went out was thankfully cut after the first draft. No, there’s none of the if this, then that brand of subtext here. But there is subtext in the Pinter sense: things vibrate and reverberate on multifarious levels, sentences are both true and false, say both nothing and everything. This is what makes Shakespeare’s verse entrancing even hundreds of years later—it is not simple. It does not explain.

And subtext is more than simply what it is. Compare this to the Bud Light commercial that makes you cry—there tends to be a racehorse or a puppy involved, and maybe a manly man brought low by unexpected emotion. The Bud Light commercial exists as what it is and only what it is—this is what gives it, and commercials in general, their most potent power. We see it, we understand it, we feel something related to that understanding, and then we move on. Commercials are disposable, they are built to be forgotten, to leave an impulse (to buy), but to resonate no further than that. Perhaps they are a form of art, but they function on a different scale than more “complex” forms because they are flat—they are built like great plains, straight and compassable and able to be seen and understood instantaneously. No bogs here.

If psychologizing explains people and situations away, proceses and simplifies them for audience consumption, then subtext does the opposite—it adds shades to the palate rather than taking them away. The Bud Lite commercial psychologizes (the man lost his dog, but then he found it—happiness is achievable, buy beer!), but Shakespeare is subtextual (people are good, but they are also bad, but what is good, but what is bad, but either way shit happens and we deal, or fail to deal, and life continues on unabated).

What I do want is the inexplicable, the undiscovered. I want the spaces in between. I want theatre to be a reverberation machine, whether that machine is the non-narrative majesty of Foreman, or the heartbreaking characters of Ibsen. And because of this, I love subtext.

All of which is to say: I hate subtext, or what people mean by subtext. I don’t want a play to tell me what to feel, or when to cry. I don’t want to understand every action of a character because I don’t understand every action of my own. I don’t want a death or a trauma to explain away complexity because death and trauma don’t work that way. What I do want is the inexplicable, the undiscovered. I want the spaces in between. I want theatre to be a reverberation machine, whether that machine is the non-narrative majesty of Foreman, or the heartbreaking characters of Ibsen. And because of this, I love subtext. Done right, it is the evocation of the other. It is the embracing of the infinite, of the curves and crevasses that we don’t even know are there to begin with.

Subtext acknowledges that grey is the only color, and that this color is a thousand different shades. Subtext shows us the doubts and ambiguities and vagaries that make us, on a core level, human. It alerts us to the fact that our assumptions and expectations are limited, and that characters and stories are more expansive than a conservative artistic ideology wants us to believe. It opens up space for us to reach out and it allows for radical empathy, for the embracing what is not us, what we don’t understand, what is other. It forces us as audiences to not merely spectate, but to think and engage and grow outward toward a universe, a society, a world, that is bigger than a single viewpoint or answer. If subtext has been given a bad name, which it has by generations of writers whose cleanliness too often belies a vacant center, then it is time to take the term back and allow it its true, messy vibrancy.

Now, seriously—where’s my cheese-roll?

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