Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot

What the dramatic is–no matter whether it be serious or comic in tone–requires some consideration in a volume such as this, even though but a brief discussion is possible and only a line of thought may be pointed out.

This discussion is placed here in the sequence of chapters, because it first begins to trouble the novice after he has accepted his germ idea, and before he has succeeded in casting it into a stage story. Indeed, at that moment even the most self-sure becomes conscious of the demands of the dramatic. Yet this chapter will be found to overlap some that precede it and some that follow–particularly the chapter on plot structure, of which this discussion may be considered an integral part–as is the case in every attempt to put into formal words, principles separate in theory, but inseparable in application.

In the previous chapter, the conscious thought that precedes even the acceptance of a germ idea was insisted on–it was “played up," as the stage phrase terms a scene in which the emotional key is pitched high–with the purpose of forcing upon your attention the prime necessity of thinking out–not yet writing–the playlet. Emphasis was also laid on the necessity for the possession of dramatic instinct–a gift far different from the ability to think–by anyone who would win success in writing this most difficult of dramatic forms. But now I wish to lay an added stress–to pitch even higher the key of emphasis–on one fundamental, this vital necessity: Anyone who would write a playlet must possess in himself, as an instinct–something that cannot be taught and cannot be acquired–the ability to recognize and grasp the dramatic.

No matter if you master the technic by which the great dramatists have built their plays, you cannot achieve success in writing the playlet if you do not possess an innate sense of what is dramatic. For, just as a man who is tone-deaf [1] might produce musical manuscripts which while technically faultless would play inharmoniously, so the man who is drama-blind might produce “perfect” playlet manuscripts that would play in dramatic discords.

[1] Not organically defective, as were the ears of the great composer, Beethoven, but tone-deaf, as a person may be color-blind.

1. What Dramatic Instinct Is

When you witness a really thrilling scene in a play you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat; you clench your hands until the nails sink into your flesh; tears roll down your cheeks at other scenes, until you are ashamed of your emotion and wipe them furtively away; and you laugh uproariously at still other scenes. But your quickened heart-beats, your tears, and your laughter are, however, no evidence that you possess dramatic instinct–they are a tribute to the possession of that gift in the person who wrote the play. So do not confuse appreciation–the ultimate result of another’s gift–with the ability to create: they are two very different things.

No more does comprehension of a dramatist’s methods–a sort of detached and often cold appreciation–indicate the possession of gifts other than those of the critic.

Dramatic instinct is the ability to see the dramatic moments in real life; to grasp the dramatic possibilities; to pick out the thrills, the tears and the laughter, and to lift these out from the mass and set them–combined, coherent and convincing–in a story that seems truer than life itself, when unfolded on the stage by characters who are more real than reality. [1]

[1] Arniel in his Journal says: “The ideal, after all, is truer than the real; for the ideal is the eternal element in perishable things; it is their type, their sum, their ’raison d’etre,’ their formula in the book of the Creator, and therefore at once the most exact and the most condensed expression of them.”

Elizabeth Woodbridge in her volume, The Drama, says: “It is in finding the mean between personal narrowness which is too selective, and photographic impersonality that is not selective at all, that the individuality of the artist, his training, and his ideals, are tested. It is this that determines how much his work shall possess of what we may call poetic, or artistic, truth.” [end footnote]

Yet, true as it is that dramatic ability inevitably shines through finished drama when it is well played upon the stage, there are so many determining factors of pleasing theme, acting, production and even of audience–and so many little false steps both in manuscript and presentation; which might be counted unfortunate accident–that the failure of a play is not always a sure sign that the playwright lacks dramatic instinct. If it were, hardly one of our successful dramatists of today would have had the heart to persevere–for some wrote twenty full-evening plays before one was accepted by a manager, and then plodded through one or more stage failures before they were rewarded with final success. If producing managers could unerringly tell who has dramatic instinct highly developed and who has it not at all, there would be few play failures and the show-business would cease to be a gamble that surpasses even horse-racing for hazard.

Not only is it impossible for anyone to weigh the quantity or to assay the quality of dramatic instinct–whether in his own or another’s breast–but it is as nearly impossible for anyone to decide from reading a manuscript whether a play will succeed or fail. Charles Frohman is reported to have said: “A man who could pick out winners would be worth a salary of a million dollars a year.”

And even when a play is put into rehearsal the most experienced men in the business cannot tell unerringly whether it will succeed or fail before an audience. An audience–the heart of the crowd, the intellect of the mass, whatever you wish to call it–is at once the jury that tries a play and the judge who pronounces sentence to speedy death or a long and happy life. It is an audience, the “crowd,” that awards the certificate of possession of dramatic instinct. [1]

[1] [four paragraphs:]

From three of the ablest critics of the “theatre crowd” I quote a tabloid statement:

“The theatre is a function of the crowd,” says Brander Matthews, “and the work of the dramatist is conditioned by the audience to which he meant to present it. In the main, this influence is wholesome, for it tends to bring about a dealing with themes of universal interest. To some extent, it may be limiting and even harmful–but to what extent we cannot yet determine in our present ignorance of that psychology of the crowd which LeBon has analyzed so interestingly.”

Here is M. LeBon’s doctrine neatly condensed by Clayton Hamilton: “The mental qualities in which men differ from one another are the acquired qualities of intellect and character; but the qualities in which they are one are basic passions of the race. A crowd, therefore, is less intellectual and more emotional than the individuals that compose it. It is less reasonable, less judicious, less disinterested, more credulous, more primitive, more partisan; and hence, a man, by the mere fact that he forms a part of an organized crowd, descends several rungs on the ladder of civilization. Even the most cultured and intellectual of men, when he forms an atom of a crowd, loses consciousness of his acquired mental qualities, and harks back to his primal nakedness of mind. The dramatist, therefore, because he writes for the crowd, writes for an uncivilized and uncultivated mind, a mind richly human, vehement in approbation, violent in disapproval, easily credulous, eagerly enthusiastic, boyishly heroic, and carelessly thinking.”

And Clayton Hamilton himself adds that, “. . .both in its sentiments and in its opinions, the crowd is hugely commonplace. It is incapable of original thought and of any but inherited emotion. It has no speculation in its eyes. What it feels was felt before the flood; and what it thinks, its fathers thought before it. The most effective moments in the theatre are those that appeal to commonplace emotions–love of women, love of home, love of country, love of right, anger, jealousy, revenge, ambition, lust and treachery.”

2. What “Good Drama” Is

By what standards, then, do producers decide whether a play has at least a good chance of success? How is it possible for a manager to pick a successful play even once in a while? Why is it that managers do not produce failures all the time?

Leaving outside of our consideration the question of changeable fashions in themes, and the commercial element (which includes the number of actors required, the scenery, costumes and similar factors), let us devote our attention, as the manager does, to the determining element–the story.

Does the story grip? Does it thrill? Does it lure to laughter? Does it touch to tears? Is it well constructed–that is, does it interest every minute of the time? Is every word, is every action, thoroughly motivated? Is the dialogue fine? Are the characters interesting, lovable, hateable, laughable, to be remembered? Does it state its problem clearly, so that everyone can comprehend it, develop its angle absorbingly, and end, not merely stop, with complete satisfaction? Could one little scene be added, or even one little passage be left out, without marring the whole? Is it true to life–truer than life? If it is all this, it is good drama.

Good drama is therefore more than plot. It is more than story plus characters, dialogue, acting, costumes, scenery–it is more than them all combined. Just as a man is more than his body, his speech, his dress, his movings to and fro in the scenes where he plays out his life, and even more than his deeds, so is a play more than the sum of all its parts. Every successful play, every great playlet, possesses a soul–a character, if you like–that carries a message to its audiences by means which cannot be analyzed.

But the fact that the soul of a great play cannot be analyzed does not prevent some other dramatist from duplicating the miracle in another play. And it is from a study of these great plays that certain mechanics of the drama–though, of course, they cannot explain the hidden miracle–have been laid down as laws.

3. What is Dramatic?

These few observations upon the nature of drama, which have scarcely been materially added to since Aristotle laid down the first over two thousand years ago, will be taken up and discussed in their relation to the playlet in the chapter on plot construction. Here they have no place, because we are concerned now not with how the results are obtained, but with what they are.

Let us approach our end by the standard definition route. The word “drama” is defined by Webster as, “A composition in poetry or prose, or both, representing a picture of human life, arranged for action, and having a plot, developed by the words and actions of its characters, which culminates in a final situation of human interest. It is usually designed for production on the stage, with the accessories of costumes, scenery, music, etc.”

“Dramatic,” is defined as, “Of or pertaining to the drama; represented by action; appropriate to or in the form of a drama; theatrical. Characterized by the force and fidelity appropriate to the drama.”

In this last sentence we have the first step to what we are seeking: anything to be dramatic must be forceful, and it also must be faithful to life. And in the preceding sentence, “dramatic. . . is theatrical,” we have a second step.

But what is “forceful,” and why does Webster define anything that is dramatic as “theatrical”? To define one shadow by the name of another shadow is not making either clearer. However, the necessary looseness of the foregoing definitions is why they are so valuable to us–they are most suggestive.

If the maker of a dictionary, [1] hampered by space restrictions, finds it necessary to define “dramatic” by the word “theatrical," we may safely assume that theatrical effect has a foundation in the very heart of man. How many times have you heard someone say of another’s action, “Oh, he did that just for theatrical effect”? Instantly you knew that the speaker was accusing the other of a desire to impress you by a carefully calculated action, either of the fineness of his own character or of the necessity and righteousness of your doing what he suggested so forcefully. We need not go back several thousand years to Aristotle to determine what is dramatic. In the promptings of our own hearts we can find the answer. [2]

[1] Webster’s Dictionary was chosen because it is, historically, closely associated with American life, and therefore would seem to reflect the best American thought upon the peculiar form of our own drama.

[2] Shelley, in his preface to Cenci, says: “The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama is the teaching of the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself.”

What is dramatic, is not what falls out as things ordinarily occur in life’s flow of seemingly disconnected happenings; it is what occurs with precision and purpose, and with results which are eventually recognizable as being far beyond the forces that show upon its face. In an illuminating flash that reveals character, we comprehend what led up to that instant and what will follow. It is the revealing flash that is dramatic. Drama is a series of revealing flashes.

“This is not every-day life,” we say, “but typical life–life as it would be if it were compactly ordered–life purposeful, and leading surely to an evident somewhere.”

And, as man’s heart beats high with hope and ever throbs with justice, those occurrences that fall out as he would wish them are the ones he loves the best; in this we find the reason for “poetic justice"–the “happy ending.” For, as “man is of such stuff as dreams are made of,” so are his plays made of his dreams. Here is the foundation of what is dramatic.

Yet, the dramatic ending may be unhappy, if it rounds the play out with big and logical design. Death is not necessarily poignantly sad upon the stage, because death is life’s logical end. And who can die better than he who dies greatly? [1] Defeat, sorrow and suffering have a place as exquisitely fitting as success, laughter and gladness, because they are inalienable elements of life. Into every life a little sadness must come, we know, and so the lives of our stage-loves may be “draped with woe,” and we but love them better.

[1] “The necessity that tragedy and the serious drama shall possess an element of greatness or largeness–call it nobility, elevation, what you will–has always been recognized. The divergence has come when men have begun to say what they meant by that quality, and–which is much the same thing–how it is to be attained. Even Aristotle, when he begins to analyze methods, sounds, at first hearing, a little superficial.” Elizabeth Woodbridge, The Drama, pp. 23-24.

Great souls who suffer, either by the hand of Fate, or unjustly through the machinations of their enemies, win our sympathy for their sorrows and our admiration by their noble struggles. If Fate dooms them, there may be no escape, and still we are content; but if they suffer by man’s design, there must be escape from sorrow and defeat through happiness to triumph–for, if it were not so, they would not be great. The heart of man demands that those he loves upon the stage succeed, or fail greatly, because the hero’s dreams are our dreams–the hero’s life is ours, the hero’s sorrows are our own, and because they are ours, the hero must triumph over his enemies.

4. The Law of the Drama

Thus, for the very reason that life is a conflict and because man’s heart beats quickest when he faces another man, and leaps highest when he conquers him, the essence of the dramatic is–conflict. Voltaire in one of his letters said that every scene in a play should represent a combat. In “Memories and Portraits,” Stevenson says: “A good serious play must be founded on one of the passionate cruces of life, where duty and inclination come nobly to the grapple.” Goethe, in his “William Meister” says: “All events oppose him [the hero] and he either clears and removes every obstacle out of his path, or else becomes their victim.” But it was the French critic, Ferdinand Brunetiere, who defined dramatic law most sharply and clearly, and reduced it to such simple terms that we may state it in this one free sentence: “Drama is a struggle of wills and its outcome.”

In translating and expounding Brunetiere’s theory, Brander Matthews in his “A Study of the Drama” condenses the French critic’s reasoning into these illuminating paragraphs:

“It [the drama] must have some essential principle of its own. If this essential principle can be discovered, then we shall be in possession of the sole law of the drama, the one obligation which all writers for the stage must accept. Now, if we examine a collection of typical plays of every kind, tragedies and melodramas, comedies and farces, we shall find that the starting point of everyone of them is the same. Some one central character wants something; and this exercise of volition is the mainspring of the action. . . . In every successful play, modern or ancient, we shall find this clash of contending desires, this assertion of the human will against strenuous opposition of one kind or another.

“Brunetiere made it plain that the drama must reveal the human will in action; and that the central figure in a play must know what he wants and must strive for it with incessant determination. . . .Action in the drama is thus seen to be not mere movement or external agitation; it is the expression of a will which knows itself.

“The French critic maintained also that, when this law of the drama was once firmly grasped, it helped to differentiate more precisely the several dramatic species. If the obstacles against which the will of the hero has to contend are insurmountable, Fate or Providence or the laws of nature–then there is tragedy, and the end of the struggle is likely to be death, since the hero is defeated in advance. But if these obstacles are not absolutely insurmountable, being only social conventions and human prejudices, then the hero has a chance to attain his desire,–and in this case, we have the serious drama without an inevitably fatal ending. Change this obstacle a little, equalize the conditions of the struggle, set two wills in opposition–and we have comedy. And if the obstacle is of still a lower order, merely an absurdity of custom, for instance, we find ourselves in farce.”

Here we have, sharply and brilliantly stated, the sole law of drama–whether it be a play in five acts requiring two hours and a half to present, or a playlet taking but twenty minutes. This one law is all that the writer need keep in mind as the great general guide for plot construction.

Today, of course, as in every age when the drama is a bit more virile than in the years that have immediately preceded it, there is a tendency to break away from conventions and to cavil at definitions. This is a sign of health, and has in the past often been the first faint stirring which betokened the awakening of the drama to greater uses. In the past few years, the stage, both here and abroad, has been throbbing with dramatic unrest. The result has been the presentation of oddities–a mere list of whose names would fill a short chapter–which have aimed to “be different." And in criticising these oddities–whose differences are more apparent than real–critics of the soundness and eminence of Mr. William Archer in England, and Mr. Clayton Hamilton in America, have taken the differences as valid ground for opposing Brunetiere’s statement of the law of the drama.

Mr. Hamilton, in his thought-provoking “Studies in Stage-craft," takes occasion to draw attention to the fact that Brunetiere’s statement is not as old as Aristotle’s comments on the drama. Mr. Hamilton seemingly objects to the eagerness with which Brunetiere’s statement was accepted when first it was made, less than a quarter century ago, and the tenacity with which it has been held ever since; while acknowledging its general soundness he denies its truth, more on account of its youth, it would seem, than on account of the few exceptions that “prove it,” putting to one side, or forgetting, that its youth is not a fault but a virtue, for had it been stated in Aristotle’s day, Brunetiere would not have had the countless plays from which to draw its truth, after the fruitful manner of a scientist working in a laboratory on innumerable specimens of a species. Yet Mr. Hamilton presents his criticism with such critical skill that he sums it all up in these judicial sentences:

”. . .But if this effort were ever perfectly successful, the drama would cease to have a reason for existence, and the logical consequence would be an abolition of the theatre. . . . But on the other hand, if we judge the apostles of the new realism less by their ultimate aims than by their present achievements, we must admit that they are rendering a very useful service by holding the mirror up to many interesting contrasts between human characters which have hitherto been ignored in the theatre merely because they would not fit into the pattern of the well-made play.”

As to the foremost critical apostle of the “new realism"–which seeks to construct plays which begin anywhere and have no dramatic ending and would oppose the force of wills by a doubtfully different “negation of wills"–let us now turn to Mr. William Archer and his very valuable definition of the dramatic in his “Play-Making”:

“The only really valid definition of the dramatic is: any representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting an average audience assembled in a theatre. . . . Any further attempt to limit the term ’dramatic’ is simply the expression of an opinion that such-and-such forms of representation will not be found to interest an audience; and this opinion may always be rebutted by experiment.”

Perhaps a truer and certainly as inclusive an observation would be that the word “dramatic,” like the words “picturesque” and “artistic,” has one meaning that is historical and another that is creative or prophetic. To say of anything that it is dramatic is to say that it partakes of the nature of all drama that has gone before, for “ic” means “like.” But dramatic does not mean only this, it means besides, as Alexander Black expresses it, that “the new writer finds all the world’s dramatic properties gathered as in a storehouse for his instruction. Under the inspiration of the life of the hour, the big man will gather from them what is dramatic today, and the bigger man will see, not only what was dramatic yesterday and what is dramatic today, but what will be dramatic tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

Now these admirably broad views of the drama and the dramatic are presented because they are suggestive of the unrestricted paths that you may tread in selecting your themes and deciding on your treatment of them in your playlets. True, they dangerously represent the trend of “individualism,” and a master of stagecraft may be individual in his plot forms and still be great, but the novice is very likely to be only silly. So read and weigh these several theories with care. Be as individual as you like in the choice of a theme–the more you express your individuality the better your work is likely to be–but in your treatment tread warily in the footprints of the masters, whose art the ages have proved to be true. Then you stand less chance of straying into the underbrush and losing yourself where there are no trails and where no one is likely to hear from you again.

5. The Essence of the Dramatic lies in Meaning, not in Movement or in Speech

But clear and illuminating as these statements of the law of the drama are, one point needs slight expansion, and another vital point, not yet touched upon, should be stated, in a volume designed not for theory but for practice.

The first is, “Action in the drama is thus seen to be not mere movement or external agitation; it is the expression of a will which knows itself.” Paradoxical as it may seem, action that is dramatic is not “action,” as the word is commonly understood. Physical activity is not considered at all; the action of a play is not acting, but plot–story. Does the story move–not the bodies of the actors, but the merely mental recounting of the narrative? As the French state the principle in the form of a command, “Get on with the story! Get on!” This is one-half of the playwright’s action-problem.

The other half–the other question–deals, not with the story itself, but with how it is made to “get on.” How it is told in action–still mental and always mental, please note–is what differentiates the stage story from other literary forms like the novel and the short-story. It must be told dramatically or it is not a stage story; and the dramatic element must permeate its every fibre. Not only must the language be dramatic–slang may in a given situation be the most dramatic language that could be used–and not only must the quality of the story itself be dramatic, but the scene-steps by which the story is unfolded must scintillate with the soul of the dramatic–revealing flashes.

To sum up, the dramatic, in the final analysis, has nothing whatever to do with characters moving agitatedly about the stage, or with moving at all, because the dramatic lies not in what happens but in what the happening means. Even a murder may be undramatic, while the mere utterance of the word “Yes,” by a paralyzed woman to a paralyzed man may be the most dramatic thing in the world. Let us take another instance: Here is a stage–in the centre are three men bound or nailed to crosses. The man at the left turns to the one in the middle and sneers:

“If you’re a god, save yourself and us.”

The one at the left interrupts,

“Keep quiet! We’re guilty, we deserve this, but this Man doesn’t.”

And the Man in the centre says,

“This day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

Could there be anything more dramatic than that? [1]

[1] Do not attempt to stage this sacred scene. However, Ran Kennedy, who wrote The Servant in the House, did so at Winthrop Ames’ Little Theatre, New York, in an evening of one-act plays, with surprising results.

To carry this truth still further, let me offer two examples out of scores that might be quoted to prove that the dramatic may not even depend upon speech.

In one of Bronson Howard’s plays, a man the police are after conspires with his comrades to get him safely through the cordon of guards by pretending that he is dead. They carry him out, his face covered with a cloth. A policeman halts them–not a word is spoken–and the policeman turns down the cover from the face. Dramatic as this all is, charged as it is with meaning to the man there on the stretcher and to his comrades, there is even more portentous meaning in the facial expression of the policeman as he reverently removes his helmet and motions the bearers to go on–the man has really died.

The movements are as simple and unagitated as one could imagine, and not one word is spoken, yet could you conceive of anything more dramatic? Again, one of the master-strokes in Bulwer-Lytton’s “Richelieu” is where the Cardinal escapes from the swords of his enemies who rush into his sleeping apartments to slay him, by lying down on his bed with his hands crossed upon his breast, and by his ward’s lover (but that instant won to loyalty to Richelieu) announcing to his fellow conspirators that they have come too late–old age has forestalled them, “Richelieu is dead.”

6. Comedy is Achieved in the Same Dramatic Way

The only difference between the sublime and the ridiculous is the proverbial step. The sad and the funny are merely a difference of opinion, of viewpoint. Tragedy and comedy are only ways of looking at things. Often it is but a difference of to whom the circumstance happens, whether it is excruciatingly funny or unutterably sad. If you are the person to whom it happens, there is no argument about it–it is sad; but the very same thing happening to another person would be–funny.

Take for example, the everyday occurrence of a high wind and a flying hat: If the hat is yours, you chase it with unutterable thoughts–not the least being the consciousness that hundreds may be laughing at you–and if, just as you are about to seize the hat, a horse steps on it, you feel the tragedy of going all the way home without a hat amid the stares of the curious, and the sorrow of having to spend your good money to buy another.

But let that hat be not yours but another’s and not you but somebody else be chasing it, and the grins will play about your mouth until you smile. Then let the horse step on the hat and squash it into a parody of a headgear, just as that somebody else is about to retrieve it–and you will laugh outright. As Elizabeth Woodbridge in summing up says, “the whole matter is seen to be dependent on perception of relations and the assumption of a standard of reference.”

Incidentally the foregoing example is a very clear instance of the comic effect that, like the serious or tragic effect, is achieved without words. Any number of examples of comedy which secure their effect without action will occur to anyone, from the instance of the lackadaisical Englishman who sat disconsolately on the race track fence, and welcomed the jockey who had ridden the losing horse that had swept away all his patrimony, with these words: “Aw, I say, what detained you?” [1] to the comedy that was achieved without movement or words in the expressive glance that the owner of the crushed headgear gave the guileless horse.

[1] It would seem needless to state categorically that the sources of humor, and the technical means by which comedy is made comic, have no place in the present discussion. We are only concerned with the flashes by which comedy, like tragedy, is revealed.

Precisely as the tragic and the serious depend for their best effects upon character-revealing flashes and the whole train of incidents which led up to the instant and lead away from it, does the comic depend upon the revealing flash that is the essence of the dramatic, the veritable soul of the stage.

7. Tragedy, the Serious, Comedy, and Farce, all Depend on their Dramatic Meaning in the Minds of the Audience

No matter by what technical means dramatic effect is secured, whether by the use of words and agitated movement, or without movement, or without words, or sans both, matters not; the illuminating flash which reveals the thought behind it all, the meaning to the characters and their destiny–in which the audience is breathlessly interested because they have all unconsciously taken sides–is what makes the dramatic. Let me repeat: It is not the incident, whatever it may be, that is dramatic, but the illuminating flash that reveals to the minds of the audience the meaning of it.

Did you ever stand in front of a newspaper office and watch the board on which a baseball game, contested perhaps a thousand miles away, is being played with markers and a tiny ball on a string? There is no playing field stretching its cool green diamond before that crowd, there are no famous players present, there is no crowd of adoring fans jamming grand stand and bleachers; there is only a small board, with a tiny ball swaying uncertainly on its string, an invisible man to operate it, markers to show the runs, and a little crowd of hot, tired men and office boys mopping their faces in the shadeless, dirty street. There’s nothing pretty or pleasant or thrillingly dramatic about this.

But wait until the man behind the board gets the flashes that tell him that a Cravath has knocked the ball over the fence and brought in the deciding run in the pennant race! Out on the board the little swaying ball flashes over the mimic fence, the tiny piece of wood slips to first and chases the bits of wood that represent the men on second and third–home! “Hurray! Hurray!! Hurray!!!" yell those weary men and office boys, almost bursting with delight. Over what? Not over the tiny ball that has gone back to swaying uncertainly on its string, not over the tiny bits of board that are now shoved into their resting place, not even over those runs–but over what those runs mean!

And so the playlet writer makes his audience go wild with delight– not by scenery, not by costumes, not by having famous players, not by beautifully written speeches, not even by wonderful scenes that flash the dramatic, but by what those scenes in the appealing story mean to the characters and their destiny, whereby each person in the audience is made to be as interested as though it were to him these things were happening with all their dramatic meaning of sadness or gladness.

However, it is to the dramatic artist only that ability is given to breathe nobility into the whole and to charge the singleness of effect with a vitality which marks a milestone in countless lives.

In this chapter we have found that the essence of drama is conflict– a clash of wills and its outcome; that the dramatic consists in those flashes which reveal life at its significant, crucial moments; and that the dramatic method is the way of telling the story with such economy of attention that it is comprehended by means of those illuminating flashes which both reveal character and show in an instant all that led up to the crisis as well as what will follow.

Now let us combine these three doctrines in the following definition, which is peculiarly applicable to the playlet:

Drama–whether it be serious or comic in tone–is a representation of reality arranged for action, and having a plot which is developed to a logical conclusion by the words and actions of its characters and showing a single situation of big human interest; the whole is told in a series of revealing flashes of which the final illuminating revelation rounds out the entire plot and leaves the audience with a single vivid impression.

Finally, we found that the physical movements of the characters often have nothing to do with securing dramatic effect, and that even words need not of necessity be employed. Hence dramatic effect in its final analysis depends upon what meaning the various minor scenes and the final big situation have for the characters and their destinies, and that this dramatic effect depends, furthermore, upon the big broad meaning which it bears to the minds of the audience, who have taken sides and feel that the chief character’s life and destiny represent their own, or what they would like them to be, or fear they might be. In the next chapter we shall see how the dramatic spirit is given form by plot structure.


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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