Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form

The playlet is a very definite thing–and yet it is difficult to define. Like the short-story, painting as we know it today, photography, the incandescent lamp, the telephone, and the myriad other forms of art and mechanical conveniences, the playlet did not spring from an inventor’s mind full fledged, but attained its present form by slow growth. It is a thing of life–and life cannot be bounded by words, lest it be buried in the tomb of a hasty definition.

To attempt even the most cautious of definitions without having first laid down the foundations of understanding by describing some of the near-playlet forms to be seen on many vaudeville bills would, indeed, be futile. For perhaps the surest way of learning what a thing is, is first to learn what it is not. Confusion is then less likely to creep into the conception, and the definition comes like a satisfactory summing up of familiar points that are resolved into clear words.


Even in the old music hall days, when a patron strolled in from a hard day’s work and sat down to enjoy an even harder evening’s entertainment, the skit or sketch or short play which eventually drifted upon the boards–where it was seen through the mists of tobacco smoke and strong drink–was the thing. The admiration the patrons had for the performers, whom they liberally treated after the show, did not prevent them from actively driving from the stage any offering that did not possess the required dramatic “punch.” [1] They had enjoyed the best of everything else the music hall manager could obtain for their amusement and they demanded that their bit of a play be, also, the very best of its kind.

[1] It is worthy of note in this connection that many of the dramatic and particularly the comedy offerings seen in the music halls of twenty years ago, and in the “Honkitonks” of Seattle and other Pacific Coast cities during the Alaskan gold rush, have, expurgated, furnished the scenarios of a score of the most successful legitimate dramas and comedies of recent years. Some of our greatest legitimate and vaudeville performers also came from this humble and not-to-be-boasted-of school. This phase of the growth of the American drama has never been written. It should be recorded while the memories of “old timers” are still fresh.

No matter what this form of entertainment that we now know by the name of vaudeville may be called, the very essence of its being is variety. “Topical songs"–we call their descendants “popular songs"–classic ballads, short concerts given on all sorts of instruments, juggling, legerdermain, clowning, feats of balancing, all the departments of dancing and of acrobatic work, musical comedy, pantomime, and all the other hundred-and-one things that may be turned into an amusing ten or twenty minutes, found eager welcome on the one stage that made it, and still makes it, a business to present the very newest and the very best of everything. To complete its claim to the title of variety, to separate itself from a likeness to the circus, to establish itself as blood brother of the legitimate stage, and, most important of all, to satisfy the craving of its audiences for drama, vaudeville tried many forms of the short play before the playlet was evolved to fill the want.

Everything that bears even the remotest likeness to a play found a place and had a more or less fleeting–or lasting–popularity. And not only was every form of play used, but forms of entertainment that could not by reason of their very excellencies be made to fill the crying want, were pressed into service and supplied with ill-fitting plots in the vain attempt.

Musical acts, whose chief appeal was the coaxing of musical sounds from wagon tires, drinking glasses, and exotic instruments, were staged in the kitchen set. And father just home from work would say, “Come, daughter, let’s have a tune.” Then off they would start, give their little entertainment, and down would come the curtain on a picture of never-to-be-seen domestic life. Even today, we sometimes see such a hybrid act.

Slap-stick sidewalk conversation teams often would hire an author to fit them with a ready-made plot, and, pushed back behind the Olio into a centre-door fancy set, would laboriously explain why they were there, then go through their inappropriate antics and finish with a climax that never “climaxed.” All kinds of two-acts, from the dancing pair to the flirtatious couple, vainly tried to give their offerings dramatic form. They did their best to make them over into little plays and still retain the individual elements that had won them success.

The futility of such attempts it took years to realize. It was only when the stock opening, “I expect a new partner to call at the house today in answer to my advertisement (which was read for a laugh) and while I am waiting for him I might as well practice my song,” grew so wearisome that it had to be served with a special notice in many vaudeville theatres, that these groping two-acts returned to the pure forms from which they never should have strayed. But even today you sometimes see such an act–with a little less inappropriate opening–win, because of the extreme cleverness of the performers.


Among the dramatic forms–by which I mean acts depending on dialogue, plot and “acting” for appeal–that found more or less success in vaudeville, were sketches and short plays (not playlets) using either comedy, farce, or dramatic plots, and containing either burlesque or extravaganza. Let us take these dramatic forms in their order of widest difference from the playlet and give to each the explanatory word it deserves.

1. Extravaganza Acts

Extravaganza is anything out of rule. It deals comically with the impossible and the unreal, and serves its purpose best when it amazes most. Relying upon physical surprises, as well as extravagant stage-effects, the extravaganza act may be best explained, perhaps, by naming a famous example–"Eight Bells.” The Byrne Brothers took the elements of this entertainment so often into vaudeville and out of it again into road shows that it is difficult to remember where it originated. The sudden appearances of the acrobatic actors and their amazing dives through seemingly solid doors and floors, held the very essence of extravaganza. Uncommon nowadays even in its pure form, the extravaganza act that tries to ape the play form is seldom if ever seen.

2. Burlesque Acts

Burlesque acts, however, are not uncommon today and are of two different kinds. First, there is the burlesque that is travesty, which takes a well-known and often serious subject and hits off its famous features in ways that are uproariously funny. “When Caesar Sees Her,” took the famous meeting between Cleopatra and Marc Antony and made even the most impressive moment a scream. [1] And Arthur Denvir’s “The Villain Still Pursued Her” (See Appendix), an exceptionally fine example of the travesty, takes the well- remembered melodrama and extracts laughter from situations that once thrilled.

[1] In musical comedy this is often done to subjects and personalities of national interest. The Ziegfeld perennial Follies invariably have bits that are played by impersonators of the national figure of the moment. Sometimes in musical revues great dramatic successes are travestied, and the invariable shouts of laughter their presentation provokes are an illuminating exemplification of the truth that between tragedy and comedy there is but a step.

Second, there are the acts that are constructed from bits of comedy business and depend for their success not on dialogue, but on action. Merely a thread of plot holds them together and on it is strung the elemental humor of the comedy bits, which as often as not may be slap-stick. The purpose being only to amuse for the moment, all kinds of entertainment forms may be introduced. One of the most successful examples of the burlesque tab, [2] James Madison’s “My Old Kentucky Home” (See Appendix), serves as the basic example in my treatment of this vaudeville form.

[2] Tab is short for tabloid. There may be tabloid musical comedies–running forty minutes or more–as well as burlesque tabs.

3. Short Plays

Short plays, as the name implies, are merely plays that are short. They partake of the nature of the long play and are simply short because the philosophic speeches are few and the number of scenes that have been inserted are not many. The short play may have sub-plots; it may have incidents that do not affect the main design; its characters may be many and some may be introduced simply to achieve life-like effect; and it usually comes to a leisurely end after the lapse of from twenty minutes to even an hour or more.

Again like the full-evening play, the one-act play that is merely short paints its characters in greater detail than is possible in the playlet, where the strokes are made full and broad. Furthermore, while in the playlet economy of time and attention are prime requisites, in the short play they are not; to take some of the incidents away from the short play might not ruin it, but to take even one incident away from a playlet would make it incomplete.

For many years, however, the following tabloid forms of the legitimate drama were vaudeville’s answer to the craving of its audiences for drama.

(a) Condensed Versions, “Big” Scenes and Single Acts of Long Plays. For example–an example which proves three points in a single instance: the need for drama in vaudeville, vaudeville’s anxiety for names, and its willingness to pay great sums for what it wants–Joseph Jefferson was offered by F. F. Proctor, in 1905, the then unheard-of salary of $5,000 a week for twelve consecutive weeks to play “Bob Acres” in a condensed version of “The Rivals." Mr. Jefferson was to receive this honorarium for himself alone, Mr. Proctor agreeing to furnish the condensed play, the scenery and costumes, and pay the salaries of the supporting cast. The offer was not accepted, but it stood as the record until Martin Beck paid Sarah Bernhardt the sum of $7,500 a week for herself and supporting players during her famous 1913 tour of the Orpheum Circuit. In recent years nearly every legitimate artist of national and international reputation has appeared in vaudeville in some sort of dramatic vehicle that had a memory in the legitimate.

But that neither a condensed play, nor one “big” scene or a single act from a long play, is not a playlet should be apparent when you remember the impression of inadequacy left on your own mind by such a vehicle, even when a famous actor or actress has endowed it with all of his or her charm and wonderful art.

(b) The Curtain-Raiser. First used to supplement or preface a short three-act play so as to eke out a full evening’s entertainment, the little play was known as either an “afterpiece” or a “curtain-raiser"; usually, however, it was presented before the three-act drama, to give those who came early their full money’s worth and still permit the fashionables, who “always come late," to be present in time to witness the important play of the evening. Then it was that “curtain-raiser” was considered a term of reproach. But often in these days a curtain-raiser, like Sir James M. Barrie’s “The Twelve Pound Look,” proves even more entertaining and worth while than the ambitious play it precedes.

That Ethel Barrymore took “The Twelve Pound Look” into vaudeville does not prove, however, that the curtain-raiser and the vaudeville playlet are like forms. As in the past, the curtain-raiser of today usually is more kin to the long play than to the playlet. But it is nevertheless true that in some recent curtain-raisers the compact swiftness and meaningful effect of the playlet form has become more apparent–they differ from the vaudeville playlet less in form than in legitimate feeling.

Historically, however, the curtain-raiser stands in much the same position in the genealogy of the playlet that the forms discussed in the preceding section occupy. As in the other short plays, there was no sense of oneness of plot and little feeling of coming-to-the-end that mark a good playlet.

Therefore, since the short play could not fully satisfy the vaudeville patron’s natural desire for drama, the sketch held the vaudeville stage unchallenged until the playlet came.

4. Vaudeville Sketches

The vaudeville sketch in the old days was almost anything you might care to name, in dramatic form. Any vaudeville two-act that stepped behind the Olio and was able to hold a bit of a plot alive amid its murdering of the King’s English and its slap-stick ways, took the name of “a sketch.” But the “proper sketch,” as the English would say–the child of vaudeville and elder half-brother to the playlet–did not make use of other entertainment forms. It depended on dialogue, business and acting and a more or less consistent plot or near-plot for its appeal. Usually a comedy–yet sometimes a melodrama–the vaudeville sketch of yesterday and of today rarely makes plot a chief element. The story of a sketch usually means little in its general effect. The general effect of the sketch is–general. That is one of the chief differences between it and the playlet.

The purpose of the sketch is not to leave a single impression of a single story. It points no moral, draws no conclusion, and sometimes it might end quite as effectively anywhere before the place in the action at which it does terminate. It is built for entertainment purposes only, and furthermore, for entertainment purposes that end the moment the sketch ends. When you see a sketch you carry away no definite impression, save that of entertainment, and usually you cannot remember what it was that entertained you. Often a sketch might be incorporated into a burlesque show or a musical comedy and serve for part of an act, without suffering, itself, in effect. [1] And yet, without the sketch of yesterday there would be no playlet today.

[1] Not so many years ago, a considerable number of vaudeville sketches were used in burlesque; and vice versa, many sketches were produced in burlesque that afterward had successful runs in vaudeville. Yet they were more than successful twenty-minute “bits,” taken out of burlesque shows. They had a certain completeness of form which did not lose in effect by being transplanted.

(a) The Character Sketch. Some sketches, like Tom Nawn’s “Pat and the Geni,” and his other “Pat” offerings, so long a famous vaudeville feature, are merely character sketches. Like the near-short-story character-sketch, the vaudeville sketch often gives an admirable exposition of character, without showing any change in the character’s heart effected by the incidents of the story. “Pat” went through all sorts of funny and startling adventures when he opened the brass bottle and the Geni came forth, but he was the very same Pat when he woke up and found it all a dream. [1]

[1] The Ryan and Richfield acts that have to do with Haggerty and his society-climbing daughter Mag, may be remembered. For longer than my memory runs, Mag Haggerty has been trying to get her father into society, but the Irish brick-layer will never “arrive.” The humor lies in Haggerty’s rich Irishness and the funny mistakes he always makes. The “Haggerty” series of sketches and the “Pat" series show, perhaps better than any others, the closeness of the character-sketch short-story that is often mistaken for the true short-story, to the vaudeville sketch that is so often considered a playlet.

Indeed, the vaudeville sketch was for years the natural vehicle and “artistic reward” for clever actors who made a marked success in impersonating some particular character in burlesque or in the legitimate. The vaudeville sketch was written around the personality of the character with which success had been won and hence was constructed to give the actor opportunity to show to the best advantage his acting in the character. And in the degree that it succeeded it was and still is a success–and a valuable entertainment form for vaudeville.

(b) The Narrative Sketch. Precisely as the character sketch is not a playlet, the merely narrative sketch is not a true playlet. No matter how interesting and momentarily amusing or thrilling may be the twenty-minute vaudeville offering that depends upon incident only, it does not enlist the attention, hold the sympathy, or linger in the memory, as does the playlet.

Character revelation has little place in the narrative sketch, a complete well-rounded plot is seldom to be found, and a change in the relations of the characters rarely comes about. The sketch does not convince the audience that it is complete in itself–rather it seems an incident taken out of the middle of a host of similar experiences. It does not carry the larger conviction of reality that lies behind reality.

(1) The Farce Sketch. Nevertheless such excellent farce sketches as Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Drew, Rice and Cohen, Homer Mason and Margaret Keeler, and other sterling performers have presented in vaudeville, are well worth while. The fact that many of the minor incidents that occur in such finely amusing sketches as Mason and Keeler’s “In and Out” [1] do not lend weight to the ending, but seem introduced merely to heighten the cumulative effect of the farce-comedy, does not prove them, or the offering, to be lacking in entertainment value for vaudeville. Rather, the use of just such extraneous incidents makes these sketches more worth while; but the introduction of them and the dependence upon them, for interest, does mark such offerings as narrative sketches rather than as true playlets.

[1] By Porter Emerson Brown, author of A Fool There Was, and other full-evening plays.

(2) The Straight Dramatic and Melodramatic Sketch. In identically the same way the introduction into one-act dramas and melodramas of “bits” that are merely added to heighten the suspense and make the whole seem more “creepy,” without having a definite–an inevitable–effect upon the ending makes and marks them as narrative dramas and melodramas and not true playlet forms.

From the foregoing examples we may now attempt

5. A Definition of a Vaudeville Sketch

A Vaudeville Sketch is a simple narrative, or a character sketch, presented by two or more people, requiring usually about twenty minutes to act, having little or no definite plot, developing no vital change in the relations of the characters, and depending on effective incidents for its appeal, rather than on the singleness of effect of a problem solved by character revelation and change.

It must be borne in mind that vaudeville is presenting today all sorts of sketches, and that nothing in this definition is levelled against their worth. All that has been attempted so far in this chapter has been to separate for you the various forms of dramatic and near-dramatic offerings to be seen in vaudeville. A good sketch is decidedly worth writing. And you should also remember that definitions and separations are dangerous things. There are vaudeville sketches that touch in one point or two or three the peculiar requirements of the playlet and naturally, in proportion as these approach closely the playlet form, hair-splitting separations become nearly, if not quite, absurd.

Furthermore, when an experienced playwright sits down to write a vaudeville offering he does not consider definitions. He has in his mind something very definite that he plans to produce and he produces it irrespective of definitions. He is not likely to stop to inquire whether it is a sketch or a playlet. [1] The only classifications the professional vaudeville writer considers, are failures and successes. He defines a success by the money it brings him.

[1] In discussing this, Arthur Hopkins said: “When vaudeville presents a very good dramatic offering, ’playlet’ is the word used to describe it. If it isn’t very fine, it is called a ’sketch.’”

But today there is a force abroad in vaudeville that is making for a more artistic form of the one-act play. It is the same artistic spirit that produced out of short fiction the short-story. This age has been styled the age of the short-story and of vaudeville–it is, indeed, the age of the playlet.

The actor looking for a vaudeville vehicle today is not content with merely an incident that will give him the opportunity to present the character with which he has won marked success on the legitimate stage. Nor is he satisfied with a series of incidents, however amusing or thrilling they may be. He requires an offering that will lift his work into a more artistic sphere. He desires a little play that will be remembered after the curtain has been rung down.

This is the sort of vehicle that he must present to win success in vaudeville for any length of time. While vaudeville managers may seem content to book an act that is not of the very first rank, because it is played by someone whose ability and whose name glosses over its defects, they do not encourage such offerings by long contracts. Even with the most famous of names, vaudeville managers–reflecting the desires of their audiences–demand acceptable playlets.


Edgar Allan Woolf, one of the day’s most successful playlet writers who has won success year after year with vaudeville offerings that have been presented by some of the most famous actors of this country and of England, said when I asked him what he considered to be the difference between the sketch and the playlet:

“There was a time when the vaudeville sketch was moulded on lines that presented less difficulties and required less technique of the playwright than does the playlet of today. The curtain generally rose on a chambermaid in above-the-ankle skirts dusting the furniture as she told in soliloquy form that her master and mistress had sent for a new butler or coachman or French teacher. How the butler, coachman or French teacher might make her happier was not disclosed.

“Then came a knock on the door, followed by the elucidating remark of the maid, ’Ah, this must be he now.’ A strange man thereupon entered, who was not permitted to say who he was till the piece was over or there would have been no piece. The maid for no reason mistook him for the butler, coachman or French teacher, as the case may have been, and the complications ensuing were made hilarious by the entrance of the maid’s husband who, of course, brought about a comedy chase scene, without which no ’comedietta’ was complete. Then all characters met–hasty explanations–and ’comedy curtain.’

“Today, all these things are taboo. A vaudeville audience resents having the ’protiasis’ or introductory facts told them in monologue form, as keenly as does the ’legitimate’ audience. Here, too, the actor may not explain his actions by ’asides.’ And ’mistaken identity’ is a thing of the past.

“Every trivial action must be thoroughly motivated, and the finish of the playlet, instead of occurring upon the ’catabasis,’ or general windup of the action, must develop the most striking feature of the playlet, so that the curtain may come down on a surprise, or at least an event toward which the entire action has been progressing.

“But the most important element that has developed in the playlet of today is the problem, or theme. A little comedy that provokes laughter yet means nothing, is apt to be peddled about from week to week on the ’small time’ and never secure booking in the better houses. In nearly all cases where the act has been a ’riot’ of laughter, yet has failed to secure bookings, the reason is to be found in the fact that it is devoid of a definite theme or central idea.

“The booking managers are only too eager to secure playlets–and now I mean precisely the playlet–which are constructed to develop a problem, either humorous or dramatic. The technique of the playlet playwright is considered in the same way that the three-act playwright’s art of construction is analyzed by the dramatic critic.”


We have seen what the playlet is not. We have considered the various dramatic and near-dramatic forms from which it differs. And now, having studied its negative qualities, I may assemble its positive characteristics before we embark once more upon the troubled seas of definition. The true playlet is marked by the following ten characteristics:

1–A clearly motivated opening–not in soliloquy form.

2–A single definite and predominating problem or theme.

3–A single preeminent character.

4–Motivated speeches.

5–Motivated business and acting.

6–Unity of characters.



9–A finish that develops the most striking feature into a surprise–or is an event toward which every speech and every action has been progressing.

10–Unity of impression [1]

[1] See page 30, Writing the Short-Story, by J. Berg Esenwein, published in “The Writer’s Library,” uniform with this volume. Note the seven characteristics of the short-story and compare them with the playlet’s ten characteristics. You will find a surprising similarity between the short-story and the playlet in some points of structure. A study of both in relation to each other may give you a clearer understanding of each.

Each of these characteristics has already been discussed in our consideration of the dramatic forms–either in its negative or positive quality–or will later be taken up at length in its proper place. Therefore, we may hazard in the following words

A Definition of a Playlet

A Playlet is a stage narrative taking usually about twenty minutes to act, having a single chief character, and a single problem which predominates, and is developed by means of a plot so compressed and so organized that every speech and every action of the characters move it forward to a finish which presents the most striking features; while the whole is so organized as to produce a single impression.

You may haunt the vaudeville theatres in a vain search for a playlet that will embody all of these characteristics in one perfect example. [1] But the fact that a few playlets are absolutely perfect technically is no reason why the others should be condemned. Remember that precise conformity to the rules here laid down is merely academic perfection, and that the final worth of a playlet depends not upon adherence to any one rule, or all–save as they point the way to success–but upon how the playlet as a whole succeeds with the audience.

[1] Study the playlet examples in the Appendix and note how closely each approaches technical perfection.

Yet there will be found still fewer dramatic offerings in vaudeville that do not conform to some of these principles. Such near-playlets succeed not because they evade the type, but mysteriously in spite of their mistakes. And as they conform more closely to the standards of what a playlet should be, they approach the elements that make for lasting success.

But beyond these “rules"–if rules there really are–and far above them in the heights no rules can reach, lies that something which cannot be defined, which breathes the breath of life into words and actions that bring laughter and tears. Rules cannot build the bridge from your heart to the hearts of your audiences. Science stands abashed and helpless before the task. All that rules can suggest, all that science can point out–is the way others have built their bridges

For this purpose only, are these standards of any value to you.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

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