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2.8 Exploring subtexts in other texts - Std, ES and EAL/D

Although often we see dialogue as revealing the intention of characters, frequently in texts, a character’s dialogue may be no more than a mask, a means through which they skirt across the surface of relationships. In responding to dialogue it is important to focus on not just what the characters say but how their utterances are received and reinterpreted. Take for example, the opening scene to Alex Buzo’s play Norm and Ahmed:

Lights up on NORM, who is leaning against the fence. He wears an open-necked white shirt and grey trousers. A clock strikes twelve. NORM moves around restlessly looking up and down the street. He takes out a cigarette packet, looks in it, then screws it up and flings it on the ground angrily. He brings out a fresh packet, rips off the cellophane with his teeth and takes out a cigarette, which he lights with a lighter He moves around a bit more and then leans on the fence again. He waits. Then he starts moving around some more, and suddenly straightens up, looking to his left. He puts his cigarette out and takes another from the packet, putting it in his mouth unlit. He leans casually against the fence. The sound of footsteps is heard and AHMED appears, wearing a Nehru-style suit and carrying a briefcase. He walks past NORM.

NORM: Excuse me, mate.

AHMED stops and looks at NORM. Pause.

Got a light? AHMED: Yes, certainly.

He offers a box of matches.

NORM: Thanks.

He keeps the matches after he has lit up.

I was dying for a smoke. Lucky you turned up. Nothing open at this hour. AHMED: No, it's nearly midnight.

Pause. AHMED has been waiting for NORM to return his matches, but now he starts to edge away warily.

NORM: Wait a minute, mate. AI IMED: Yes?


NORM: You forgot your matches.

He holds them out.

AHMED: [taking them warily] Thank you. He edges away.

NORM: What's the matter, mate? Do you think going to hold you up and rob you or something?

AHMED: [hastily] Oh no, not at all.

NORM: This isn't India, mate. You're in Sydney. No Bombay stranglers around here. You're quite safe.

Discuss with a partner how Buzo orients the audience to the character of Norm. Note down and comment upon

  • examples of Norm’s dialogue that seem to be masking other intentions. Here you might consider the volume and bluntness of his speech.
  • examples of Ahmed’s interpretation of Norm’s words and behaviour
  • examples of how Norm interprets, perhaps, distorts the intentions behind Ahmed’s words and reactions
  • what Ahmed’s dialogue may be ‘masking’
  • how Buzo uses subtext to establish a particular set of power relations in this opening.
  • What this opening suggests might be the dominant themes in this play?

Bringing it all together: Experimenting with dialogue and subtext

In pairs, develop and present a dialogue in which you each try to achieve a goal without actually expressing it. You may

  • want someone to do something they are not interested in. As a result of your careful manipulation, they come to believe that this is their idea and are eager to move ahead with it.
  • be keen to date someone, feel very nervous about asking but do not want to betray your fear. You are desperate to be accepted.

 or a situation of your choice.

Make sure that your intention is clear in your head but is not communicated directly to your partner.

Last update: 24th January 2019