Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated

Where does a playlet writer get his idea? How does he recognize a playlet idea when it presents itself to him? How much of the playlet is achieved when he hits on the idea? These questions are asked successful playlet writers every day, but before we proceed to find their answers, we must have a paragraph or two of definition.


Whenever the word “problem” is used–as, “the problem of a playlet"–I do not mean it in the sense that one gathers when he hears the words “problem play"; nothing whatever of sex or the other problems of the day is meant. What I mean is grasped at first glance better, perhaps, by the word “theme.” Yet “theme” does not convey the precise thought I wish to associate with the idea.

A theme is a subject–that much I wish to convey–but I choose “problem” because I wish to connote the fact that the theme of a playlet is more than a subject: it is precisely what a problem in mathematics is. Given a problem in geometry, you must solve it–from its first statement all the way through to the “Q.E.D." Each step must bear a plain and logical relation to that which went before and what follows. Your playlet theme is your problem, and you must choose for a theme or subject only such a problem as can be “proved” conclusively within the limits of a playlet.

Naturally, you are inclined to inquire as a premise to the questions that open this chapter, What are the themes or subjects that offer themselves as best suited to playlet requirements? In other words, what make the best playlet problems? Here are a few that present themselves from memory of playlets that have achieved exceptional success:

A father may object to his son’s marrying anyone other than the girl whom he has chosen for him, but be won over by a little baby–"Dinkelspiel’s Christmas,” by George V. Hobart.

A slightly intoxicated young man may get into the wrong house by mistake and come through all his adventures triumphantly to remain a welcome guest–"In and Out,” by Porter Emerson Brown.

A “crooked” policeman may build up a “system,” but the honest policemen will hunt him down, even letting the lesser criminal escape to catch the greater–"The System,” by Taylor Granville, Junie MacCree and Edward Clark.

Youth that lies in the mind and not in the body or dress may make a grandmother act and seem younger than her granddaughter–"Youth," by Edgar Allan Woolf.

A foolish young woman may leave her husband because she has “found him out,” yet return to him again when she discovers that another man is no better than he is–"The Lollard,” by Edgar Allan Woolf.

A man may do away with another, but escape the penalty because of the flawless method of the killing–"Blackmail,” by Richard Harding Davis.

A wide range of themes is shown in even these few playlets, isn’t there? Yet the actual range of themes from which playlet problems may be chosen is not even suggested. Though I stated the problems of all the playlets that were ever presented in vaudeville, the field of playlet-problem possibilities would not be even adequately suggested. Anything, everything, presents itself for a playlet problem–if you can make it human, interesting and alive.

What interests men and women? Everything, you answer. Whatever interests you and your family, and your neighbor and his family, and the man across the street and his wife’s folks back home–is a subject for a playlet. Whatever causes you to stop and think, to laugh or cry, is a playlet problem. “Art is life seen through a personality,” is as true of the playlet as of any other art form.

Because some certain subject or theme has never been treated in a playlet, does not mean that it cannot be. It simply means that that particular subject has never yet appealed to a man able to present it successfully. Vaudeville is hungering for writers able to make gripping playlets out of themes that never have been treated well. To such it offers its largest rewards. What do you know better than anyone else–what do you feel keener than anyone else does–what can you present better than anyone else? That is the subject you should choose for your playlet problem.

And so you see that a playlet problem is not merely just “an idea"; it is a subject that appeals to a writer as offering itself with peculiar credentials–as the theme that he should select. It is anything at all–anything that you can make your own by your mastery of its every angle.

1. What Themes to Avoid

(a) Unfamiliar Themes. If a subject of which you have not a familiar knowledge presents itself to you, reject it. Imagine how a producer, the actors and an audience–if they let the thing go that far–would laugh at a playlet whose premises were false and whose incidents were silly, because untrue. Never give anyone an opportunity to look up from a manuscript of yours and grin, as he says: “This person’s a fool; he doesn’t know what he’s writing about.”

(b) “Cause” Themes. Although more powerful than the “stump” or the pulpit today, and but little less forceful than the newspaper as a means of exposing intolerable conditions and ushering in new and better knowledge, the stage is not the place for propaganda. The public goes to the theatre to be entertained, not instructed–particularly is this true of vaudeville–and the writer daring enough to attempt to administer even homeopathic doses of instruction, must be a master-hand to win. Once in a generation a Shaw may rise, who, by a twist of his pen, can make the public think, while he wears a guileful smile as he propounds philosophy from under a jester’s cap; but even then his plays must be edited–as some of Shaw’s are–of all but the most dramatic of his belligerently impudent notions.

If you have a religious belief, a political creed, a racial propagandum–in short, a “cause"–either to defend or to forward, don’t write it in a drama. The legitimate stage might be induced to present it, if someone were willing to pay the theatre’s losses, but vaudeville does not want it. Choose any form of presentation–a newspaper article, a magazine story, anything at all–save a playlet for polemic or “cause” themes.

(c) Hackneyed Themes. What has been “done to death” in vaudeville? You know as well as the most experienced playlet-writer, if you will only give the subject unbiased thought. What are the things that make you squirm in your seat and the man next you reach for his hat and go out? A list would fill a page, but there are two that should be mentioned because so many playlets built upon them are now being offered to producers without any hope of acceptance. There is the “mistaken identity” theme, in which the entire action hinges on one character’s mistaking another for someone else–one word spoken in time would make the entire action needless, but the word is never spoken–or there would be no playlet. And the “henpecked husband,” or the mistreated wife, who gets back at the final curtain, is a second. Twenty years hence either one of these may be the theme of the “scream” of the season, for stage fashions change like women’s styles, but, if you wish your playlet produced today, don’t employ them.

(d) Improper Themes. Any theme that would bring a blush to the cheek of your sister, of your wife, of your daughter, you must avoid. No matter how pure your motive might be in making use of such a theme, resolutely deny it when it presents itself to you. The fact that the young society girl who offered me a playlet based on, to her, an amazing experience down at the Women’s Night Court–where she saw the women of the streets brought before the judge and their “men” paying the fines–was a clean-minded, big-hearted girl anxious to help better conditions, did not make her theme any cleaner or her playlet any better.

Of course, I do not mean that you must ignore such conditions when your playlet calls for the use of such characters. I mean that you should not base your playlet entirely on such themes–you should never make such a theme the chief reason of your playlet’s being.

2. What Themes to Use

You may treat any subject or play upon any theme, whatsoever it may be, provided it is not a “cause,” is not hackneyed, is not improper for its own sake and likely to bring a blush to the cheeks of those you love, is familiar to you in its every angle, and is a subject that forms a problem which can be proved conclusively within the requirements of a playlet.


1. The Three Forms of Dramatic Treatment

It is generally accepted by students of the novel and the short-story that there are three ways of constructing a narrative:

(a) Characters may be fitted with a story.

(b) A sequence of events may be fitted with characters.

(c) An interesting atmosphere may be expressed by characters and a sequence of events.

In other words, a narrative may be told by making either the characters or the events or the atmosphere peculiarly and particularly prominent.

It should be obvious that the special character of vaudeville makes the last-named–the story of atmosphere–the least effective; indeed, as drama is action–by which I mean a clash of wills and the outcome–no audience would be likely to sit through even twenty minutes of something which, after all, merely results in a “feeling.” Therefore the very nature of the pure story of atmosphere eliminates it from the stage; next in weakness of effect is the story of character; while the strongest–blood of its blood and bone of its bone–is the story of dramatic events. This is for what the stage is made and by which it lives. To be sure, character and atmosphere both have their places in the play of dramatic action, but for vaudeville those places must be subordinate.

These last two ways of constructing a story will be taken up and discussed in detail later on, in their proper order; they are mentioned here to help make clear how a playwright gets an idea.

2. Themes to fit Certain Players

It is not at all uncommon for a playlet writer to be asked to fit some legitimate star, about to enter vaudeville, with a playlet that shall have for its hero or its heroine the particular character in which the star has had marked success. [1] And often a man and wife who have achieved a reputation in vaudeville together will order a new playlet that shall have characters modeled on the lines of those in the old playlet. Or, indeed, as I have know in many instances, three performers will order a playlet in which there must be characters to fit them all. When a writer receives such an order it would seem that at least a part of his task is already done for him; but this is not the case, he still must seek that most important things–a story.

[1] In precisely the same way writers of the full-evening play for the legitimate stage are forever fashioning vehicles for famous stars. The fact that the chief consideration is the star and that the play is considered merely as a “vehicle” is one of the reasons why our plays are not always of the best. Where you consider a personality greater than a story, the story is likely to suffer. Can you name more than one or two recent plays so fashioned that have won more than a season’s run?

3. Themes Born in the Mind of the Writer

The beginner, fortunately, is not brought face to face with this problem; he is foot-free to wander wherever his fancy leads. And yet he may find in his thoughts a character or two who beg to serve him so earnestly that he cannot deny them. So he takes them, knowing them so well that he is sure he can make them live–and he constructs a story around them.

Or there may first pop into his mind a story in its entirety, full fledged, with beginning, middle and ending–that is; thoroughly motivated in every part and equipped with characters that live and breathe. Unhappily this most fortunate of occurrences usually happens only in the middle of the night, when one must wake up next morning and sadly realize it was but a dream.

4. The Newspaper as a Source of Ideas.

A playwright, let us say, reads in the newspapers of some striking characters, or of an event that appeals to him as funny or as having a deep dramatic import. There may be only a few bald lines telling the news. features of the story in one sentence, or there may be an entire column, discussing the case from every angle. Whatever it is, the bit of news appeals to him, and maybe of all men to him only, so he starts thinking about the possibilities it offers for a playlet.

5. Happenings of which the Playwright is Told or Which Occur under his Notice

Some striking incident rises out of the life about the playwright and he sees it or hears about it, and straightway comes the thought: This is a playlet idea. A large number of playlets have been germinated so.

6. Experiences that Happen to the Playwright

Some personal experience which wakens in the mind of the playwright the thought, Here’s something that’ll make a good playlet, is one of the fruitful sources of playlet-germs.

But however the germ idea comes to him–whether as a complete story, or merely as one striking incident, or just a situation that recommends itself to him as worth while fitting with a story–he begins by turning it over in his mind and casting it into dramatic form.


For the purpose of illustration, let us suppose that Taylor Granville, who conceived the idea of “The System,” had read in the New York newspapers about the Becker case and the startling expose of the alleged police “system” that grew out of the Rosenthal murder, here is how his mind, trained to vaudeville and dramatic conventions, might have evolved that excellent melodramatic playleet. [1]

[1] As a matter of fact, Mr. Granville had the first draft of the playlet in his trunk many months before the Rosenthal murder occurred, and Mr. MacCree and Mr. Clark were helping him with the final revisions when the fatal shot was fired.

In this connection it should be emphasized that the Becker case did not make The System a great playlet; the investigation of the New York Police Department only gave it the added attraction of timeliness and, therefore, drew particular attention to it. Dozens of other playlets and many long plays that followed The System on the wave of the same timely interest failed. Precisely as Within the Law, Bayard Veiller’s great play, so successful for the Selwyn Company, was given a striking timeliness by the Rosenthal murder, The System reaped merely the brimming harvest of lucky accident. And like Within the Law, this great playlet would be as successful today as it was then–because it is “big” in itself. [end footnote]

The incidents of “the Becker Case” were these: Herman Rosenthal, a gambler of notorious reputation, one day went to District Attorney Whitman with the story that he was being hounded by the police–at the command of a certain Police Lieutenant. Rosenthal asserted that he had a story to tell which would shake up the New York Police Department. He was about to be called to testify to his alleged story when he was shot to death in front of the Metropole Hotel on Forty-third Street and the murderer or murderers escaped in an automobile. Several notorious underworld characters were arrested, charged with complicity in the murder, and some, in the hope, it has been said, of receiving immunity, confessed and implicated Police Lieutenant Becker, who was arrested on the charge of being the instigator of the crime. [1] These are the bare facts as every newspaper in New York City told them in glaring headlines at the time. Merely as incidents of a striking story, Mr. Granville would, it is likely, have turned them over in his mind with these thoughts:

[1] Becker’s subsequent trial, conviction, sentence to death and execution occurred many months later and could not have entered into the playwright’s material, therefore they are not recounted here.

“If I take these incidents as they stand, I’ll have a grewsome ending that’ll ’go great’ for a while–if the authorities let me play it–and then the playlet will die with the waning interest. There isn’t much that’s dramatic in a gambler shown in the District Attorney’s Office planning to ’squeal,’ and then getting shot for it, even though the police in the playlet were made to instigate the murder. It’d make a great ’movie,’ perhaps, but there isn’t enough time in vaudeville to go through all the motions: I’ve got to recast it into drama.

“I must ’forget’ the bloody ending, too–it may be great drama, but it isn’t good vaudeville. The two-a-day wants the happy ending, if it can get it.

“And even if the Becker story’s true in every detail, Rosenthal isn’t a character with whom vaudeville can sympathize–I’ll have to get a lesser offender, to win sympathy–a ’dip’s’ about right– ’The Eel.’

“There isn’t any love-interest, either–where’s the girl that sticks to him through thick and thin? I’ll add his sweetheart, Goldie. And I’ll give The Eel more sympathy by making Dugan’s motive the attempt to win her.

“Then there’s got to be the square Copper–the public knows that the Police force is fundamentally honest–so the Department has got to clean itself up, in my playlet; fine, there’s McCarthy, the honest Inspector.”

Here we have a little more, perhaps, than a bare germ idea, but it is probably the sort of thing that came into Mr. Granville’s mind with the very first thought of “The System.” Even more might have come during the first consideration of his new playlet, and–as we are dealing now not with a germ idea only but primarily with how a playwright’s mind works–let us follow his supposititious reasoning further:

“All right; now, there’s got to be an incident that’ll give Dugan his chance to ’railroad’ The Eel, and a money-society turn is always good, so we have Mrs. Worthington and the necklace, with Goldie, the suspected maid, who casts suspicion on The Eel. Dugan ’plants’ it all, gets the necklace himself, tries to lay it to The Eel, and win Goldie besides–but a dictograph shows him up. Now a man-to-man struggle between Dugan and The Eel for good old melodrama. The Eel is losing, in comes the Inspector and saves him–Dugan caught–triumph of the honest police–and Goldie and The Eel free to start life anew together. That’s about it–for a starter, anyway.

“Re-read these dramatic incidents carefully, compare them with the incidents of the suggestive case as the newspapers reported them, and you will see not only where a playwright may get a germ idea, but how his mind works in casting it into stage form.

The first thing that strikes you is the dissimilarity of the two stories; the second, the greater dramatic effectiveness of the plot the playlet-writer’s mind has evolved; third, that needless incidents have been cut away; fourth, that the very premise of the story, and all the succeeding incidents, lead you to recognize them in the light of the denouement as the logical first step and succeeding steps of which the final scene is inevitably the last; fifth, however many doubts may hover around the story of the suggesting incident, there is no cloud of doubt about the perfect justice of the stage story; and, sixth, that while you greet the ending of the suggesting story with a feeling of repugnance, the final scene of the stage story makes the whole clearly, happily and pleasantly true–truer than life itself, to human hearts which forever aspire after what we sometimes sadly call “poetic justice.”

Now, in a few short paragraphs, we may sum up the answer to the question which opens this chapter, and answer the other two questions as well. A playlet writer may get the germ of a playlet idea: from half-ideas suggested by the necessity of fitting certain players; directly from his own imagination; from the newspapers; from what someone tells him, or from his observation of incidents that come under his personal notice; from experiences that happen to him–in fact, from anywhere.


A playlet writer recognizes that the character or characters, the incident or incidents, possess a funny, serious or tragic grip, and the fact that he, himself, is gripped, is evidence that a playlet is “there,” if–IF–he can trust his own dramatic instinct. A playlet writer recognizes an idea as a playlet idea, because he is able so to recognize such an idea; there is no escape from this: YOU MUST POSSESS DRAMATIC INSTINCT [1] to recognize playlet ideas and write playlets.

[1] See the following chapter on “The Dramatic–the Vital Element of Plot.”


No two persons in this world act alike, and certainly no two persons think alike. How much of a playlet is achieved when the germ idea is found and recognized, depends somewhat upon the idea–whether it is of characters that must be fitted with a story, a series of incidents, or one incident only–but more upon the writer. I have known playlets which were the results of ideas that originated in the concepts of clever final situations, the last two minutes of the playlet serving as the incentive to the construction of the story that led inevitably up to the climax. I have also known playlets whose big scenes were the original ideas–the opening and finish being fitted to them. One or two writers have told me of playlets which came almost entirely organized and motivated into their minds with the first appearance of the germ idea. And others have told me of the hours of careful thinking through which they saw, in divers half-purposes of doubt, the action and the characters emerge into a definite, purposeful whole.

What one writer considers a full-fledged germ idea, may be to another but the first faint evidence that an idea may possibly be there. The skilled playlet-writer will certainly grasp a germ idea, and appraise its worth quicker than the novice can. In the eager acceptance of half-formed ideas that speciously glitter, lies the pitfall which entraps many a beginner. Therefore, engrave on the tablets of your resolution this determination and single standard:

Never accept a subject as a germ idea and begin to write a playlet until you have turned its theme over in your mind a sufficient length of time to establish its worth beyond question. Consider it from every angle in the light of the suggestions in this chapter, and make its characters and its action as familiar to you as is the location of every article in your own room. Then, when your instinct for the dramatic tells you there is no doubt that here is the germ idea of a playlet, state it in one short sentence, and consider that statement as a problem that must be solved logically, clearly and conclusively, within the requirements of the playlet form.

With the germ idea the entire playlet may flood into the writer’s mind, or come in little waves that rise continually, like the ever advancing tide, to the flood that touches high-water mark. But, however complete the germ idea may be, it depends upon the writer alone whether he struggles like a novice to keep his dramatic head above water, or strikes out with the bold, free strokes of the practised swimmer.


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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