Subtext has always been an incredibly important technique for telling these stories properly. The art of conveying information with just-below-the-surface cues rather than explicit reference is a challenging one, but is always a component of the drama I find most compelling. I used to struggle with it enormously, so that I’ve dedicated myself to its continual practice. When you’re telling a Victorian story, characters are not always going to feel free to say exactly what they mean, so it’s an absolutely necessary skill to depicting the characters in a genuine, compelling way.
Gilded Cages 2.1
Because I’m continually testing myself on this, I challenge myself to retrace my own process, as it were, to vet it for the level of meaning and effectiveness. Subtext is hard in that because it’s not frankly conveyed, it’s easy to miss, so there must be a lot of effort in choosing the words to suggest the ideas without giving them away. I find drama so moving when it works, so I am always trying to improve my skills at incorporating it!
Here’s a “deleted scene” from the flashback sections of Gilded Cages, one that was recorded as a quick audio drama by actors Cari Keebaugh and Jeremiah O’Sullivan. Here I’ve annotated the scene, entitled “Now Where You’re Standing”, to illustrate why the characters say the things they said, what their intention was behind their lack of free communication and understanding of each other’s position. The relationship between the characters of Victoria Stanton and Reginald Hawking was one that was never on the same page, and I have to sell how they related to each other, how such a profound misunderstanding could come about. And that relies intensely on them plausibly failing to connect with each other, even when they think they are.
So, did I do a good job getting my point across even though it wasn’t explicit? Did I pick the right words? Was I too subtle, or not subtle enough? You be the judge! And be sure to listen to our stellar actors’ recording of it, as they convey a lot of what’s below the surface that the plain script never can!
Now Where You’re Standing
From “Gilded Cages”
By Phoebe Roberts
VICTORIA STANTON, daughter of the lieutenant territorial governor
CAPTAIN REGINALD HAWKING, hero of the Indian Rebellion
REGINALD: Excuse me, but— might I cut in? Miss Stanton here has promised me a dance, you see. (whispered) I hope you don’t mind.
VICTORIA: No. Thank you for that.
REGINALD: I thought you looked as though you could use the rescue.
His impulse is always to rescue her. He doesn’t see her as a person who can handle herself. She doesn’t yet realize, so she doesn’t yet mind.
VICTORIA: I hate these stupid parties.
She’s already identified him as someone she can put her emotions plainly out on the table for. She does this quickly because she has so few others like that in her life.
REGINALD: That’s clear. Unfortunately, now you’ll have to suffer a dance with me. And I’m afraid I’ve no idea what I’m doing.
He is trying to make the evening easier for her by pulling her out of an uncomfortable social situation. But I don’t think until he’s actually got her in his arms that he realized how badly he wanted it— the opportunity to be that close to her. The intensity of it is what ends up frightening him off.
VICTORIA: It’s just dancing.
This indicates just how little it matters to her to be in this position that’s having such an effect on him. Already, their impressions and positions are not matching up.
REGINALD: We don’t all know ballet.
He remembers the little details about her because he’s so impressed by how unusual she is.
VICTORIA: The way you ride and fence, and you can’t do a box step? How ridiculous!
She genuinely does admire his competence and skills. He is not totally mistaking that there is some connection between him, though he massively overestimates it.
REGINALD: Well— thank you— I think.
He is flattered by her compliments, even though he acknowledges that they’re couched in her typical judgmental manner.
VICTORIA: Did you learn in the cavalry?
She finds him interesting and admirable enough that she actually wants to know things about him.
REGINALD: It made a man of me, but I’ve been in the saddle all my life. Perhaps a trade is in order— your stars and your dancing, for my horses and navigation tricks.
I like the idea that Reginald was a great horseman, to the point where it’s something Victoria respected him for even late into life. Also, by encouraging them to exchange skills, he’s encouraging their enmeshment. It’s more time to spend together, more opportunity to bond.
VICTORIA: And sabers. Make it even.
He gets a glimpse of her martial impulses, though I think he never understands the extent of it. He would have been intensely surprised if he’d ever learned she became a fighter.
REGINALD: Hm. If you like. Though I daresay we may get it from your father if I do.
He doesn’t mind teaching her, but he thinks it’s just a lark. While he mostly gets how much and why she hates her father, he does feel he ought to warn her off of getting herself in trouble with him. Again— his impulse is to protect her from everything.
VICTORIA: Blast my father. I hate him. I hate all of them.
She trusts him enough to be honest with him. This isn’t something she tells many people. She isn’t a good liar, especially now, but she mostly just avoids people entirely.
REGINALD: That’s hard.
The vitriol of her feelings is slightly off putting to him. He is sympathetic, but it hints at how he’s going to encourage her to bottle up her ugly feelings later in their lives, at least in a public context. Reginald is much more accustomed to putting up to get along— he thinks that’s how life works. It is one of the early wedges in their relationship that she will eventually hate him for.
VICTORIA: Is it, now? Well, Captain, why don’t you spend nineteen years stuck here with them, and we’ll compare notes.
She has no qualms about being sharp with him. This mild level of it is intensely attractive to him. Eventually it grows to the point where he cannot avoid confronting the painful notion that she hates him, but when they mostly got along and she drew him up every now and again it really pushed his buttons.
REGINALD: Thank you, but the last few months have been enough.
He backs down gracefully, and accepts the rebuke without complaint. He actually likes that she’s a little sharp with him.
VICTORIA: Getting to you, is it?
She is pleased and smug that he’s conceding that the place does kind of suck.
REGINALD: It’s not here, precisely. It’s— what I have to do.
Reginald is referring to how he’s being treated as the “rebellion-quelling expert” but sees the signs of unrest brewing, and how they’re reluctant to make the changes he’s recommending to head it off. He’s not telling her much of what is actually bothering him about being there– bad feelings are to be bottled up, again –but he in turn trusts her enough to be honest that he’s not been feeling good about it.
VICTORIA: You mean be paraded about like a show pony?
She recognizes this part of the problem because it’s the only one she’s seen— plus he mentioned it specifically in the cellar in scene 1.5.
REGINALD: That’s certainly part of it. It’s not what I signed on for, that’s for sure.
He acknowledges what’s correct about her observation without going into specifics about what she’s missing. Ugly feelings are to be bottled for the comfort of others!
VICTORIA: What did you sign on for?
REGINALD: To tell the truth? To do something that mattered. Something that was hard, but I work at it. Something with a purpose, to the good of the world.
He’s quoting her own words back to her to show her that he meant it when he said he related to them.
He also uses a phrase, “to the good of the world,” that we hear Nathaniel use in Base Instruments to describe how he sees his work helping Mrs. Hawking. More and more I find myself giving them the same words; I like the implication that he shares a lexicon with the Colonel; perhaps that’s who he learned much of it from.
VICTORIA: I see.
Victoria recognizes her words coming from him and is a little pleased to hear them. At this point she appreciates the implication that they are the same. Also, she likes when people seem to be telling her she’s right.
REGINALD: But it’s been some time since I thought I was doing any good.
Again, he is vague on details— he is not an emotionally open man. But this dissatisfaction’s existence is not something he’s confided in anyone else, speaking of the closeness he feels with her.
VICTORIA: Well. You’ve done me a favor just now. Nobody else would have pulled me out of that rat trap.
Victoria, sympathetic to his obvious distress, attempts to buck him up. But her reasoning is noticeably immature, citing the fairly small thing he did to cater to her childish impatience, in a manner that centers her whims. She doesn’t realize his worries are on a completely different scale. It underscores their age difference— he’s a grown man of thirty-one, while she’s still a child at nineteen.
REGINALD: Surely there must be some obliging friend.
He downplays his action, quite reasonably seeing it as a small gesture.
VICTORIA: And who would that be? One of the officers’ idiot daughters? Some blockhead soldier?
She has few peers in this military posting in Singapore, and she doesn’t get along with many people. It’s also a preview of the attitude that dominates her later in life, that, as Mary puts it in Mrs. Hawking, “the women are fools and the men are beasts.”
REGINALD: I’m one of those blockheads, you know.
He is not offended or defensive here; in fact, he is being self-deprecating in a manner he often is with her. He means more, “Are you sure you don’t mind hanging out with a blockhead?”
VICTORIA: (dismissive) You’re different.
This is not an important statement to her. She fails to see how important it might be to him.
REGINALD: Do you think so?
Reginald is quite touched to think that she sees him as special— particularly because he very strongly sees her that way. Her stating this is part of what makes him able to believe that she might be falling for him the way he’s falling for her.
VICTORIA: You don’t think you know everything.
Most of the people who talk to Victoria like to lecture her, or tell her about how something she’s doing is wrong. Reginald does not do this— at least not at this stage. Eventually a thing that will deteriorate their relationship is his insistence that people have to put away their feelings to get along in the world.
REGINALD: That’s certain. But… aren’t you lonely?
Right now, Reginald doesn’t feel certain of anything, since his career is not turning out the way he thought it would. And he’s not quite sure what emotions he’s developing for her right now, so he’s generally feeling off-balance.
VICTORIA: I like to be on my own. Besides, I’ve got Malaika now. And Elizabeth too, I suppose.
Victoria, though suffering for her isolation, does not feel loneliness in the manner that most people do. A good analogy might be that it’s like she is starving, but does not realize because she does not feel hunger. She is unable to see how much her lack of connection to others harms her.
I also love the way she takes Elizabeth completely for granted— who has, up to this point, completely supported and been there for her. Victoria truly loves Elizabeth, but sees her more as a nagging older sister than a friend she chose for herself. Malaika is the only person she realizes how much she cares about.
REGINALD: Just your governess and your maid?
Reginald feels a sudden wave of pity for her thinking that her only friends are people who are paid to be around her.
VICTORIA: Who else is there?
Victoria does not see the problem; she doesn’t recognize that her situation is kind of pathetic.
REGINALD: You know, miss… it won’t always be like this.
He is acting from the impulse to rescue her again— in this case, specifically from the loneliness and dissatisfaction of her situation.
VICTORIA: How do you mean?
REGINALD: You have your whole life ahead of you. You won’t be here under your father’s thumb forever.
He’s actually attempting to be frank here, at least as frank as his ethos allows him to be. He wants to give her some hope, specifically the same hope he feels— that the two of them loving each other could be the thing that saves them from the disappointment of their current situations. But he is not a person who can speak plainly of those feelings, so he is attempting to say it without saying it.
VICTORIA: (scoffing) Ugh!
Victoria is not really hearing the message. She thinks it’s a sort of generic “chin up, it’ll all turn out in the end” admonition.
REGINALD: It might be hard to see now, but… before long you’ll be past all this. And someday, we’ll be looking back on it all and laughing that we ever thought it mattered.
By use of “we” he’s unitizing them, suggesting that by the time she’s at that point he will still be in her life in a way that they’ll be able to look back on things together. In a way, it’s him floating the idea of them as a “we” to see how she reacts.
VICTORIA: And you’re certain of that?
But she is misses the full significance of the “we”— but at the moment the notion does not offend her. And she has come to like and trust him enough that she is open to the possibility that what he’s saying on the surface— that eventually she’ll be past this —is true.
REGINALD: I have to be.
He is holding to hope that the future will be better because of how great his current disappointment is. If he doesn’t believe it will all be to future good, he’ll be really depressed.
REGINALD: Somehow, now where you’re standing… I find it seems very close.
This is a slip. He’s actually being almost TOO literal here. And it frightens him how honest he is in that moment.
REGINALD: Victoria… I— I— beg your pardon, miss.
He is embarrassed and a little frightened by the intensity of his feelings. He was just trying to sound her out a little; he was not ready to “confess” in any way. His apology is for being so ungentlemanly forward.
Fortunately for him, though, she genuinely doesn’t get it.
REGINALD: Thank you for the dance, Miss Stanton. I hope the rest of your evening goes on better than it began.
He is retreating back into formality.
VICTORIA: Are you going? Why?
REGINALD: Please understand me, miss, when I say… it’s almost closer than I can bear.
He cannot help but be a little more honest here in the face of her confusion. But because he cannot just say these things, which is what allows them to grow, even fester, in a way that traps them both.