The term subtitle occurs in two ways when speaking of the literature and the performing arts:
1 To refer to an explanatory, supplementary, or alternate title to the main title of the work.
2 To refer to the provision of written translations or commentary in film and TV
1 An explanatory, supplementary, or alternate title
The use of supplying subtitles (i.e. secondary, or additional titles) to the main title of a theatrical work is as old as theatre itself, particularly prevalent in comic writing.
A famous example is of course is Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare, which satirizes the Elizabethan penchant for cumbersome sub-titling.
A good 19th century example is A Thumping Legacy by John Maddison Morton (1811–1891), which was originally performed (and published) with this title alone, but in Leeds later in the same year bore the additional subtitle of The Cockney's Trip to Corsica (and in other cases The Cockney in Corsica and A Cockney in Corsica). All these titles have also been used as main titles, at times with A Thumping Legacy as the subtitle.
This flexible usage is found not only in England, but also in America and the colonies, particularly noticeable during the 19th century, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in particular, as can be seen from this encyclopaedia.
The foregoing is one aspect of the general variety found in the naming of particular theatrical works. Other factors leading to the multiple titles were the lack of copyright laws (e.g. to cover up plagiarism), and the marketing considerations when a play is done in a later or different era (when the names of well known characters in the work become the title for example), or where the work is transferred to another country, most notably perhaps to the USA. (This is still true today with regard to novels, films, etc. published in the USA.)
The usage declined significantly in theatre during the 20th century, except when used for parody or satire, though still quite prevalent in TV and film - particularly in series (Star Trek, Superman, Pirates of the Caribbean and so on)
2 The provision of written translations for the dialogue
Also known as captions, subtitles in this sense derive from the old silent film days, and today are most often used for the translation of dialogue in foreign language films and TV programmes that have not been dubbed into the local language. This usage has on occasion also been applied in theatre, especially opera sung in the original language.
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