Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet

The kind of playlet is largely determined by its characters and their surroundings, and on these there are practically no limits. You may have characters of any nationality; you may treat them reverently, or–save that you must never offend–you may make them as funny as you desire; you may give them any profession that suits your purpose; you may place them in any sort of house or on the open hills or in an air-ship high in the sky; you may show them in any country of the earth or on the moon or in the seas under the earth–you may do anything you like with them. Vaudeville wants everything–everything so long as it is well and strikingly done. Therefore, to attempt to list the many different kinds of playlet to be seen upon the vaudeville stage would, indeed, be a task as fraught with hazard as to try to classify minutely the divers kinds of men seen upon the stage of life. And of just as little practical value would it be to have tables showing the scores of superficial variations of character, nationality, time and place which the years have woven into the playlets of the past.

In the “art” of the playlet there are, to be sure, the same three “schools"–more or less unconsciously followed in nearly every vaudeville instance–which are to be found in the novel, the short-story, painting, and the full-length play. These are, of course, realism, romance, and idealism. [1] These distinctions, however, are–in vaudeville–merely distinctions without being valuable differences. You need never give thought as to the school to which you are paying allegiance in your playlet; your work will probably be neither better nor worse for this knowledge or its lack. Your playlet must stand on its own legs, and succeed or fail by the test of interest. Make your playlet grip, that is the thing.

[1] Should you wish to dally with the mooted question of the difference between realism and romanticism–in the perplexing mazes of which many a fine little talent has been snuffed out like a flickering taper in a gust of wind–there are a score or more volumes that you will find in any large library, in which the whole matter is thrashed out unsatisfactorily. However, if you wish to spend a half-hour profitably and pleasantly, read Robert Louis Stevenson’s short chapter, A Note on Realism, to be found in his suggestive and all-too-few papers on The Art of Writing. In the collection of his essays entitled Memories and Portraits will be found an equally delightful and valuable paper, A Gossip on Romance. A brief technical discussion will also be found in Writing the Short-Story, by J. Berg Esenwein, pp. 64-67.

But do not confuse the word “romance,” as it is used in the preceding paragraph, with love. Love is an emotional, not a technical element, and consorts equally well with either romance or realism in writing. Love might be the heading of one of those tables we have agreed not to bother with. Into everything that is written for vaudeville love may stray. Or it may not intrude, if your purpose demands that love stay out. Yet, like the world, what would vaudeville be, if love were left out? And now we come to those broad types of playlet which you should recognize instinctively. Unless you do so recognize them–and the varying half-grounds that lie between, where they meet and mingle quite as often as they appear in their pure forms–you will have but little success in writing the playlet.

In considering the broad types of playlet you should remember that words are said to denote definitely the ideas they delineate, and to connote the thoughts and emotions they do not clearly express but arouse in the hearer or reader. For example, what do “farce,” “comedy,” “tragedy” and “melodrama” connote to you? What emotions do they suggest? This is an important matter, because all great artistic types are more or less fully associated with a mood, a feeling, an atmosphere.

Webster’s dictionary gives to them the following denotations, or definitions:

Farce: “A dramatic composition, written without regularity, and differing from comedy chiefly in the grotesqueness, extravagance and improbability of its characters and incidents; low comedy.”

Arthur Denvir’s “The Villain Still Pursued Her” is one of the best examples of the travesty vaudeville has produced. [1] James Madison’s “My Old Kentucky Home” is a particularly fine example of burlesque in tabloid form. [1] These two acts have been chosen to show the difference between two of the schools of farce.

[1] See Appendix.

Comedy: “A dramatic composition or representation, designed for public amusement and usually based upon laughable incidents, or the follies or foibles of individuals or classes; a form of the drama in which humor and mirth predominate, and the plot of which usually ends happily; the opposite of tragedy.”

Edgar Allan Woolf’s “The Lollard” is an exceptionally good example of satirical comedy. [1]

Tragedy: “A dramatic composition, representing an important event or a series of events in the life of some person or persons in which the diction is elevated, the movement solemn and stately, and the catastrophe sad; a kind of drama of a lofty or mournful cast, dealing with the dark side of life and character.” Richard Harding Davis’s “Blackmail” is a notable example of tragedy. [1]

[1] See Appendix.

Melodrama: “A romantic [connoting love] play, generally of a serious character, in which effect is sought by startling incidents, striking situations, exaggerated sentiment and thrilling denouement, aided by elaborate stage effects. The more thrilling passages are sometimes accentuated by musical accompaniments, the only surviving relic of the original musical character of the melodrama.”

Taylor Granville’s “The System” is one of the finest examples of pure melodrama seen in vaudeville. [2]

[2] Written by Taylor Granville, Junie MacCree and Edward Clark; see Appendix.

There are, of course, certain other divisions into which these four basic kinds of playlet–as well as the full-length play–may be separated, but they are more or less false forms. However, four are worthy of particular mention:

The Society Drama: The form of drama in which a present-day story is told, and the language, dress and manners of the actors are those of polite modern society. [1] You will see how superficial the distinction is, when you realize that the plot may be farcical, comic, tragic or melodramatic.

[1] As the dramas of the legitimate stage are more often remembered by name than are vaudeville acts, I will mention as example of the society drama Clyde Fitch’s The Climbers. This fine satire skirted the edge of tragedy.

The same is true of

The Problem Drama: The form of drama dealing with life’s “problems"–of sex, business, or what not. [2]

[2] Ibsen’s Ghosts; indeed, nearly every one of the problem master’s plays offer themselves as examples of the problem type.

And the same is likewise true of

The Pastoral-Rural Drama: The form of drama dealing with rustic life. [3]

[3] The long play Way Down East is a fine example of the pastoral–or rural–drama of American life.

And also of

The Detective Drama: [4] The form of drama dealing with the detection of crime and the apprehension of the criminal. I cannot recollect a detective playlet–or three-act play, for that matter–that is not melodramatic. When the action is not purely melodramatic, the lines and the feeling usually thrill with melodrama. [5] “The System,” which is a playlet dealing with the detection of detectives, is but one example in point.

[4] Mr. Charlton Andrews makes a series of interesting and helpful discriminations among the several dramatic forms, in his work The Technique of Play Writing, published uniform with this volume in “The Writer’s Library.”

[5] Sherlock Holmes, William Gillette’s masterly dramatization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories, is melodramatic even when the action is most restrained.

Here, then, we have the four great kinds of playlet, and four out of the many variations that often seem to the casual glance to possess elemental individuality.

Remember that this chapter is merely one of definitions and that a definition is a description of something given to it after–not before–it is finished. A definition is a tag, like the label the entomologist ties to the pin after he has the butterfly nicely dead. Of questionable profit it would be to you, struggling to waken your playlet into life, to worry about a definition that might read “Here Lies a Polite Comedy.”

Professor Baker says that the tragedies of Shakespere may have seemed to the audiences of their own day “not tragedies at all, but merely more masterly specimens of dramatic story-telling than the things that preceded them.” [1] If Shakespere did not worry about the precise labels of the plays he was busy writing and producing, you and I need not. Forget definitions–forget everything but your playlet and the grip, the thrill, the punch, the laughter of your plot.

[1] Development of Shakespere as a Dramatist, by Prof. Baker of Harvard University.

To sum up: The limits of the playlet are narrow, its requirements are exacting, but within those limits and those requirements you may picture anything you possess the power to present. Pick out from life some incident, character, temperament–whatever you will–and flash upon it the glare of the vaudeville spot-light; breathe into it the breath of life; show its every aspect and effect; dissect away the needless; vivify the series of actions you have chosen for your brief and trenchant crisis; lift it all with laughter or touch it all with tears. Like a searchlight your playlet must flash over the landscape of human hearts and rest upon some phase of passion, some momentous incident, and make it stand out clear and real from the darkness of doubt that surrounds it.


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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