Classroom Teaching: Theatre, Subtext and Understanding Plays

Understanding subtext allows actors to make connections.
Understanding subtext allows actors to make connections.
Understanding subtext allows actors to make connections.

When teaching a play written in verse you find that overall the characters say what’s on their minds. Shakespeare, Sophocles, Racine and others don’t utilize what we call subtext. But when dealing with plays written from around the time of Ibsen on you find that subtext is a major tool utilized by playwrights. Understanding subtext and how it works is important for anyone reading, acting in, writing, or directing a contemporary play.

Subtext

Subtext, which became a major aspect of the Stanislavski system and which is used by playwrights and analyzed by any creative person involved in a production, is a very simple thing to understand but not always an easy thing to analyze.

Subtext is a major part of great plays like Death of a Salesman.
Subtext is a major part of great plays like Death of a Salesman.

“Subtext” is the text under or within a line of dialogue. The actual line of dialogue is the “text.” Here’s a basic example of subtext.

One character who is angry over a decision another character has made may say to them in front of others, “I know you’re always right.” The subtext to the line would be “You’re not always right, you were just wrong in a major way.”

Another example would be a character asking another about their health and showing concern for it when they really want to know if they are vulnerable at the moment because they want to seize power. Thus the line, “I hope you’re in good health” may have the subtext of “Let me know in what way you are weak?”

Looking for Subtext

The great Russian actor, director, teacher Konstantin Stanislavki focused on subtext.
The great Russian actor, director, teacher Konstantin Stanislavki focused on subtext.

How do you discover subtext in a play? After all, playwrights don’t use special type for it or explain it even though it’s there. Here’s a basic process to identifying subtext.

  • Read the play thoroughly. In order to discover subtext you must know the play and what each character in the play wants.
  • Go back and read it again carefully analyzing each line.
  • After you read each line ask the basic questions, “Why is the character saying that? Do they want something or are they subtly trying to make a point? What do they really want?”

This simple process will allow you and your students to begin recognizing and understanding subtext. One other hint: It’s a lot easier to recognize subtext when you read the text aloud and also when different people are reading the lines.

Here are some guidelines and a basic exercise that will allow your students to actively discover subtext when reading a play aloud in the classroom.

Creating Subtext

Being able to create subtext is an essential skill that every playwright needs to have. Subtext enriches a play in many ways. It helps create complex characters that audiences find fascinating and it adds another layer to dialogue, giving actors more to play when they are on stage. This can add depth to their portrayal.

Here is a simple subtext exercise that you can use with your students when they are writing plays or scenes.

Be sure to introduce your students to subtext, which is an important aspect of so many plays, including Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie and A Raisin in the Sun, which are standard assignments for many high school students.

  • This Author:

    Paul Mroczka

    Paul Mroczka has served Theatre By the Sea as associate director and playwright-in-residence. He has directed for companies including North Country Center for the Arts, Pontine Movement Theatre, The Theatre of Newburyport and the Palace Theatre. A former National Endowment for the Arts fellow in playwriting, he has also garnered a Shubert Fellowship, the Jason Miller Award and has received grants from the New Hampshire Council for the Humanities. His plays have been performed at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria, Nat Horne Theatre, and Manhattan Punchline Theatre, among others. His interactive planetarium show, Pathfinders, is running at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, NH. Recent directorial assignments include Good People, Steel Magnolias, and The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) at The Barnstormers Playhouse in New Hampshire, and Rumors, Orpheus in the Underworld, and The Glass Menagerie at PSU. This summer Paul finished an initial draft of his new play, Smart Money ... Read Full
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