Understanding the ‘subtext’ of a play is to grapple with the tacit language of metaphor, understatement, pause and silence; that which occupies the space between the words and interchanges of a play’s characters, between gestures and movements, and which also cements a sense of depth in relationships. It pertains to silence and non-action just as it does to action and dialogue.
In his translator’s note to four plays by Garcia Lorca, John Edmunds states that the subtext of a play is ‘[…] the unspoken thoughts and feelings which give rise to what is spoken […]’ (Edmunds, 1999). However one chooses to define it, subtext is delicate territory, there are no prescriptions for its creation, no signs for its identification, it comes with intuition and sensitivity and its implications and usages are specific from playwright to actor and director alike. Ultimately though, as with most things performative, it is left to the audience to interpret its significance.
Bernard-Marie Koltès’ play Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton (In the Solitude of Cotton Fields) is a dialogue between a dealer and a client whose paths cross somewhere in the shadows of a nocturnal urban wasteland. The men rally back and forth with ever-fervent tirades that question the implications of human interaction in the economic exchange of goods – a social inquest into the foundations of the free-market economy.
The play is written in a poetic, declamatory style, with a use of rhythm and inflection that echoes France’s classical trio: Moliere, Corneille and particularly Racine with his simple and elegant use of the alexandrine.
It is a play that presents scant physical action on stage, but while the bodies are rooted in the place of encounter, their words become vehicles on an invisible highway of overlapping sounds and racing thoughts that extends deep into the night; I have come to think of it as a set of ‘invisible dynamics’, by which I mean this:
Picture an urban street scene: high-rise buildings, streetlamps, traffic signs, cars, bikes and a flow of people negotiating space. City space is designed and built with attention to form. Form is of course inherent in the natural world, and as natural beings it is inherent in our own creations, in our ‘extensions’ of nature. However, it is in the interaction between a structure and the empty space that it fills that these ‘invisible dynamics’ come into play. In the example of the high-rise building, the dynamics of the structure do not simply end at the summit of the building or at its lateral protrusions, rather they continue beyond the physical object as projections in space (see my photograph below); and like radio waves or light rays they travel ad infinitum.
(Personal representation of architectural dynamics in space)
It is with this idea of invisible dynamics in mind that I approach the effect of language in Koltès’ play. And it is no coincidence that one of the marking moments in Koltès’ own life was a journey to the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and it was there that he began to think about a theatre that exists in the space and time of any location.