Subtext

January 15, 2015

As a student of the theater I am no stranger to “subtext”.   In school we would spend weeks pouring over scripts figuring out what our characters were REALLY thinking or REALLY saying in any given moment. It always drove me crazy.  I mean I understand that complicated characters are sometimes the most fulfilling and interesting characters for an actor to dive in to, but why couldn’t they ever just say what they wanted to say? I think that’s why I fell so in love with Shakespeare. The Bard gives you everything you need to know on the page. How his characters feel about any given situation is present in the language; the meter, the presence or absence of rhyme, or quite simply the syntax alone tell you everything you need to know. His characters can be just as complex as those of Chekhovian origins or of our modern-day American playwrights, but we’re always on the same page about it. Pun mostly intended.

 

What set me off on this train of thought was the return of “Downton Abbey” last week. For those of you who may be new to the blog, I LOVE “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I love the world, I love the characters, and I love the customs. For an hour every week on PBS we can experience a return to all things graceful and dignified, and I think that is why the show has grown such legs in America. We long for that time gone by when a man’s word meant something, when our value wasn’t based on how many “followers” we had, when the touch of a hand was enough to scandalize a county, and when people said, quite simply, what they meant, whenever possible. The inhabitants of Downton represent a generation that had seen devastating war and tremendous loss, the residual effects of which included a general opinion that Brits, as a people, were no longer interested in pussyfooting around. Life was too short, and there was no longer room or time for subtext. An opinion that is quite prevalent already in the series' new season.

 

Now if you are a fan of the show but are not caught up I’m warning you now – SPOILER ALERT – read on at your own risk.

Okay!  So, last season we were left with a widowed Lady Mary finally deciding she was ready to find love again, and not without options. In one corner we have Lord Anthony Gillingham, an old family friend of the Crawley’s who has just inherited his estate after his father’s death and must marry to seal the deal.   In the other corner we have one Charles Blake, more of an every-man scholar who comes to Downton to help with the estate. He challenges Mary in ways she has never been challenged and speaks to her as an intellectual and social equal, which is a new and exciting feeling for her.  Both men make their intentions known, quite plainly, and Mary in her last line of the season proclaims, “Well then… let battle commence!”  I remember being dumbfounded by that moment. I couldn’t believe she had been so straightforward about it!!  I loved it so much. I believe a “YAASSSSSS” escaped my lips.  And I must say that I have been equally pleased with how the men have responded with a similar clarity of intention.

 

 

In this season’s premiere, Gillingham appears to be in the lead as far as “battle” is concerned. He is a guest at the house when he knocks on Mary’s door late one night. He isn’t there with salacious intentions, but only to inform Mary that he wishes them to “know one another” in all ways; to become lovers. He invites her to come away with him on a trip for a few days, and she agrees. He then bids her goodnight in a manner akin to our “kthanxbye” and that’s all there is to it!  Cut to this week’s episode – they’ve gone away and rendezvoused in Liverpool. Gillingham has secured them adjoining rooms at the hotel and informs her upon arrival, rather casually, that they’ll go to dinner and then come back to the hotel and make love.  I believe he said, “… until neither of us have stamina left”.   Talk about not pussyfooting around!!!

 

I have to admit, as shocking as it was to see my beloved Downton characters speaking this bluntly, I kind of loved it.  This straightforward form of courtship characteristic of the early 1900s, though not always this explicitly sexual, is something I have always missed among today’s societal norms.  Today it’s all about game playing - endless texts and chats about nothing of consequence where both parties are competing to see who can be the most “breezy”.   Have y’all seen that episode of “Friends”?  It ‘s in the season when Monica is dating Tom Selleck (who even remembers his character’s name he’s just Tom Selleck) and she leaves him a message on his answering machine (remember those?!) just checking in and hoping to see him soon, but assuring him that she didn’t really care either was because she was “breezy”… “I’mmmmmm BREEZY!” The clip will do it more justice:

 

 

We’ve all been there, right?  It’s AWFUL!!!  Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if she had just been honest about how she felt instead of feigning breeziness?  YES. But by today’s standards that’s not what you do to get someone to take interest in you. Today you have to wait a certain amount of time before reaching out, and even then it has to be for a reason other than wanting to see the person. And then you can’t be too eager or available, because then you’ll look either super boring or like a Stage 4 clinger.  Can’t a person just be free on a Friday night and ask another person, right out, if they want to go to a movie?  The best OkCupid date I went on last year was with a fella who just out of the blue sent me a message asking me, right out, to go to dinner on a Friday night.  He ended up being a nutter sadly but at least I caught a glimpse of straightforward courtship.

 

A simple dinner invitation… I’ll cherish it forever.

 

What I loved most about Lady Mary and Lord Gillingham’s exchange was that neither of them danced around their motives for going away. There were no question marks. No subtext to read. Gillingham didn’t say, “Come away with me to Liverpool to see the flowers (or whatever the hell one goes to Liverpool to see).”, while knowing all too well why he was REALLY asking her to Liverpool. That would have left her in the dark, and when sex is involved that isn’t a good place to be. It is so rare that a man you meet in New York actually comes out and says what he wants from you. I think there is a stigma put on men who “only want one thing”, so men worry that if they come right out and say that, it will send girls running. So instead they take you for a drink, then for dinner if you’re lucky, and then ask you to come over for something. It’s different for every part of the city.  For instance, in my experience “a glass of wine” is the Upper West Side booty call.  Or, “I’d love your opinion on the new couch I just bought from West Elm” is SoHo Guy for, “I’d love to rip all your clothes off and on the new couch I just bought from West Elm.” And, “Let’s watch a documentary on Netflix” is Williamsburg Guy for, “Let’s have sex while Morgan Freeman talks about penguins in the background.”

 

Subtext.

 

So we live and we learn that a glass of wine is never just a glass of wine. But wouldn’t it be nice if it could be?  Wouldn’t it be nice for all parties involved if we could just be honest about what we want?  Like imagine if you got a proposition like Lord Gillingham’s. Once the initial shock wore off wouldn’t it be so much simpler?  Like, in my case it would give me the opportunity right away, before any feelings get hurt or time and money is wasted to say, “Sorry, that’s not my bag, but good luck to you!” (Though if it were ACTUALLY Lord Gillingham asking I’d probably make it my bag let’s be real.)   Or, in someone else’s case, that might totally be something they were in to, in which case they could respond, “Sounds great, thanks for the heads up now I know to shave my legs!”

 

Doesn’t an exchange like that sound so much less stressful?  And isn’t the idea of being able to meet honesty with honesty refreshing?  Because it goes both ways.  I loved that Mary didn’t play games either. She could have easily held the sex over Gillingham, as women today are wont to do, cooing about how she’d have to see how lovely the hotel room was or how he’d need to take her to a lovely champagne dinner first. But she didn’t.  She heard his offer, and responded accordingly.  Simple.  And with that out of the way, Mary can relax and take heart in knowing that if Lord Gillingham asks her if she’d like a glass of wine that it really is just a glass of wine!

 

Now I want to make clear that I’m in no way discrediting romance. There’s nothing wrong with a little mystery. But let the mystery come in the form of a secret date location or flowers from a secret admirer.   That might be cheesy, but hey – cheese is DELICIOUS. And the fat free variety is only 1 Weight Watchers Point.  Hell yes.  But I digress.  The point is... don’t ever let your feelings or intentions be the things that are mysterious about your relationship because in the long run, that doesn’t behoove anyone involved.  Honesty is the best policy, or if you prefer quotes to expressions:

 

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful 100 percent.”

 

- Horton the Elephant, Dr. Seuss

 

Smart man that Dr. Seuss. Let’s all be elephants… At least mentally. I’m counting Weight Watchers Points with the express desire NOT to resemble and elephant.

 

With Grace and Good Humor,

 

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My name is Mary Lane Haskell and my two "claims to fame" are that I have Dolly Parton's fax number and that Reese Witherspoon once liked a post on my Instagram.  I am an actor, a writer, and a profound Chipotle enthusiast making my way in Los Angeles while trying to stay true to my family's southern roots, all with grace and a touch a good humor.  I'm so glad you're here!

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