SUBTEXT

Wendy Wasserstein: from Tender Offer

To interpret characters and their objectives accurately, we frequently need to look beneath the surface of a play’s dialogue and consider its subtext. Russian director and teacher Constantin Stanislavsi considered the subtest the innermost essential reason for any character’s speech. Frequently in life and on stage, people and characters do not say precisely or specifically what they mean. For many reasons, they often prefer to hint or to speak indirectly, hoping that the listener will grasp their meaning through implication, through the subtext of what their overt speech suggests. Of course, there is always a danger that the intent of indirect speech will be missed, that a speaker will be misunderstood.

In the theater, actors help us understand subtext through gesture and intonation. The playwright supplies the text, the actor the subtext. This, unsurprisingly, is more challenging when we are reading the text of a play and not seeing it enacted. Even so, however, we can become attentive to subtext and we can help our students become alert to the implications of dialogue in this way. Consider the following lines from Wendy Wasserstein’s one-act play, Tender Offer, as the teenage Lisa is engaged in conversation with her father, Paul:

 

LISA   … Talia Robbins told me she’s much happier living without her father in the house. Her father used to come home late and go to sleep early.

PAUL  Lis, stop it. Let’s go.

LISA   I can’t find my leg warmers.

PAUL  Forget your leg warmers.

LISA   Daddy.

PAUL  What is it?

LISA   I saw this show on television, I think it was WPIX Channel 11. Well, the father was crying about his daughter.

PAUL  Why was he crying? Was she sick?

LISA   No. She was at school. And he was at business. And he just missed her, so he started to cry.

PAUL  What was the name of the show

LISA   I don’t know. I came in in the middle.

 

What Lisa is trying to communicate to her father has little to do with the actual words she speaks to him. She is angry with her father for missing her dance recital. When she mentions Talia Robbins, whose situation she cares little about, she is posing a veiled threat to her father that she is too timid to press directly. Her subtext might be put this way: “For all the attention you give me, you may as well never come home. At least I won’t be so hurt and disappointed when you fail to keep a promise to me.”

Her father is tired and wants to go home. And so he tries to ignore this subtext and his daughter’s hurt feelings. Lisa, however, tries a delaying tactic—using the legwarmers as a way to prevent Paul from leaving. We suspect she has not really misplaced her legwarmers; she simply uses that as a way to keep her father with her a while longer.

Her single line: “Daddy,” signals, on one hand, her tenderness toward her father, and on the other, her exasperation with his lack of attentiveness toward her. Lisa wants him to know how she feels, but she is not comfortable confronting her feelings directly. Besides, she wishes he would see that for himself—take the hint of her subtext. She tries to make him feel guilty by her references to a likely imaginary TV program. By considering the emotional subtext of the dialogue in plays, we can better understand dramatic characters. In this case, an understanding of the depth of Lisa’s emotions—her pain, frustration, desperation, love, and longing for her father.

 

Robert DiYanni

Robert DiYanni

Author ⪢ | Professor ⪢ | Consultant ⪢

Robert DiYanni is a professor of humanities at New York University, having served as an  instructional consultant at the NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Center for Faculty Advancement. For these centers he conducted workshops and seminars on all aspects of pedagogy, consulted with faculty about teaching concerns, visited and observed classes, and provided a wide range of pedagogical consultative services. Professor DiYanni serves on the faculties of the School of Professional Studies and the Stern School of Business at NYU. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Rutgers University, attended a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins University, and received a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center.  

In addition to his work at NYU, Dr. DiYanni has taught at City University of New York, at Pace University, and as a Visiting Professor at Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and at Harvard University. As a high school teacher for four years and a college professor for more than four decades, Professor DiYanni has taught students from eighth grade through doctoral candidates. Most of his teaching, however, has been with college and university undergraduates. His numerous workshops, offered in more than twenty countries, have been attended by secondary school teachers and administrators, as well as by undergraduate college and university faculty and administrators.

Dr. DiYanni has written and edited numerous textbooks, among them, Literature: An Introduction; The Scribner Handbook for Writers (with Pat C. Hoy II); Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, (with Janetta Rebold Benton), the basis for a series of lectures given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, which served as a companion text for the PBS television series Voices and Vision, which aired in the late 1980s.

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