Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet

We have now come to one of the least important elements of the playlet–yet a decorative element which wit and cleverness can make exceedingly valuable.

If it is true that scenery is the habitation in which the playlet moves, that its problem is the heart beating with life, that the dramatic is the soul which shines with meaning through the whole, that plot is the playlet’s skeleton which is covered by the flesh of the characters–then the dialogue is, indeed, merely a playlet’s clothes. Clothes do not make a man, but the world gives him a readier welcome who wears garments that fit well and are becoming. This is the whole secret of dialogue–speeches that fit well and are becoming.

1. What is Dialogue?

It has been said that “Romeo and Juliet” played in English in any country would be enjoyed by everyone, even though they could not understand a word of what was said. There is a story told about a Slav in Pennsylvania who could not speak one word of English, but who happened to come up from his work as a laborer in a coal mine just as the people were filing in to the performance of “The Two Orphans,” and as he had nothing in particular to do, in he went–and nearly broke up the performance by the loudness of his sobbing. I shall never forget an experience of my own, when I took a good French friend to see David Warfield in “The Music Master"; this young chap could not understand more than a word here and there, but we were compelled to miss the last act because he cried so hard during the famous lost-daughter scene that he was ashamed to enter the theatre after the intermission.

Every great play is, in the last analysis, a pantomime. Words are unnecessary to tell a stage story that has its wellspring deep in the emotions of the human heart. Words can only embellish it. A great pantomimist–a Mlle. Dazie, who played Sir James M. Barrie’s “The Pantaloon” in vaudeville without speaking a word; a Pavlowa, who dances her stories into the hearts of her audience; a Joe Jackson, who makes his audiences roar with laughter and keeps them convulsed throughout his entire act, with the aid of a dilapidated bicycle, a squeaky auto horn and a persistently annoying cuff–does not need words to tell a story.

The famous French playwright Scribe–perhaps the most ingenious craftsman the French stage has ever seen–used to say, “When my subject is good, when my scenario (plot) is very clear, very complete, I might have the play written by my servant; he would be sustained by the situation;–and the play would succeed." Plutarch tells us that Menander, the master of Greek comedy, was once asked about his new play, and he answered: “It is composed and ready; I have only the verses (dialogue) to write.” [1]

[1] Reported in A Study of the Drama, by Brander Matthews.

If it is true that a great play, being in its final analysis a pantomime, is effective without dialogue, and if some famous dramatists thought so little of dialogue that they considered their plays all written before they wrote the dialogue, then speech must be something that has little comparative value–something primarily employed to aid the idea behind it, to add emphasis to plot–not to exist for itself.

2. The Uses of Dialogue

Dialogue makes the dramatic story clear, advances it, reveals character, and wins laughter–all by five important means:

(a) Dialogue Conveys Information of Basic Events at the Opening. As we saw in the discussion of the structural elements of plot, there are of necessity some points in the basic incidents chosen for the story of a playlet that have their roots grounded in the past. Upon a clear understanding of these prior happenings which must be explained immediately upon the rise of the curtain, depends the effect of the entire sequence of events and, consequently, the final and total effect of the playlet. To “get this information over” the characters are made to tell of them as dramatically as possible. For instance:

Angela Maxwell knocks on Miss Carey’s door the instant the curtain rises on “The Lollard,” and as soon as Miss Carey opens the door Angela says: “Listen, you don’t know me, but I’ve just left my husband.” And the dialogue goes on to tell why she left Harry, clearly stating the events that the audience must know in order to grasp the meaning of those that follow.

At the very beginning of a playlet the dialogue must be especially clear, vividly informing and condensed. By “condensed,” I meant the dialogue must be tense, and supported by swift action–it must without delay have done with the unavoidable explanations, and quickly get into the rising movement of events.

(b) Dialogue Brings out the Incidents Clearly. Never forgetting that action makes dialogue but that dialogue never makes action, let us take the admirable surprise ending of “The System,” for an example:

The Inspector has left, after giving The Eel and Goldie their freedom and advising them to clear out and start life anew. The audience knows they are in hard straits financially. How are they going to secure the money to get away from town? Goldie expresses it concisely: “Well, we’re broke again (tearfully). We can’t go West now, so there’s no use packing.” This speech is like a sign-post that points out the condition the events have made them face. And then like a sign-post that points the other way, it adds emphasis to the flash of the surprise and the solution when The Eel, stealthily making sure no one will see him and no one can hear him, comes down to Goldie, sitting forlornly on the trunk, taps her on the shoulder and shows her Dugan’s red wallet. Of course, the audience knows that the wallet spells the solution of all their problems, but The Eel clinches it by saying, “Go right ahead and pack.”

Out of this we may draw one observation which is at least interesting, if not illuminating: When an audience accepts the premises of a playlet without question, it gives over many of its emotions and most of its reasoning power into the author’s hands. Therefore the author must think for his audience and keenly suggest by dialogue that something is about to happen, show it as happening, and make it perfectly clear by dialogue that it has actually happened. This is the use to which dialogue is put most tellingly–bringing out the incidents in clear relief and at the very same time interpreting them cunningly.

(c) Dialogue Reveals Character Humanly. Character is tried, developed and changed not by dialogue, but by action; yet the first intimate suggestion of character is shown in dialogue; and its trials, development and change are brought into clear relief–just as events, of which character-change is the vital part, are made unmistakably clear–by the often illuminating word that fits precisely. As J. Berg Esenwein says, “Just as human interest is the heart of the narrative, so human speech is its most vivid expression. In everyday life we do not know a man until we have heard him speak. Then our first impressions are either confirmed, modified, or totally upset.” [1]

[1] Writing the Short-Slory, page 247.

It is by making all of his characters talk alike that the novice is betrayed, whereas in giving each character individuality of speech as well as of action the master dramatist is revealed. While it is permissible for two minor characters to possess a hazy likeness of speech, because they are so unimportant that the audience will not pay much attention to them, the playlet writer must give peculiar individuality to every word spoken by the chief characters. By this I do not mean that, merely to show that a character is different, a hero or heroine should be made to talk with a lisp or to use some catch-word–though this is sometimes done with admirable effect. What I mean is that the words given to the chief characters must possess an individuality rising from their inner differences; their speech should show them as not only different from each other, but also different from every other character in the playlet–in the whole world, if possible–and their words should be just the words they and no others would use in the circumstances.

If you will remember that you must give to the dialogue of your chief characters a unity as complete as you must give to plot and character as shown through action, you will evade many dialogue dangers. This will not only help you to give individuality to each character, but also save you from making a character use certain individual expressions at one time and then at another talk in the way some other character has spoken. Furthermore, strict observance of this rule should keep you from putting into the mouth of a grown man, who is supposed to be most manly, expressions only a “sissy” would use; or introducing a character as a wise man and permitting him to talk like a fool. As in life, so in dialogue–consistency is a test of worth.

Keep your own personality out of the dialogue. Remember that your characters and not you are doing the talking. You have laid down a problem in your playlet, and your audience expects it to fulfill its promise dramatically–that is, by a mimicry of life. So it does not care to listen to one man inhabiting four bodies and talking like a quartet of parrots. It wants to hear four different personalities talk with all the individuality that life bestows so lavishly–in life.

You will find little difficulty in keeping your individuality out of dialogue if you will only remember that you cannot write intelligently of characters you do not know. Make use of the characters nearest you, submerge yourself in their individualities, and you will then be so interested in them that you will forget yourself and end by making the characters of your playlet show themselves in their dialogue as individual, enthrallingly entertaining, new, and–what is the final test of all dialogue–convincing.

(d) Dialogue Wins Laughter. There are three sources from which laughter rises out of dialogue. First, from the word that is a witticism, existing for its own sake. Second, from the word that is an intensely individual expression of character–the character-revealing phrase. Third, the word that is funny because it is spoken at the right instant in the action. All three have a place in the playlet, but the last, the dialogue that rises out of and illuminates a situation, is productive of the best results. This is but another way of saying what cannot be too often repeated, that the playlet is plot. [1]

[1] See Chapter V, in which humor was discussed in relation to the monologue.

Even in dialect, dialogue does not bother with anything much but plot-expression of character. Indicate the odd twist of a character’s thoughts as clearly as you can, but never try to reproduce all his speech phonetically. If you do, you will end disastrously, for your manuscript will look like a scrambled alphabet which nobody can decipher. In writing dialect merely suggest the broken English here and there–follow the method so clearly shown in “The German Senator.” Remember that the actor who will be engaged to play the part has studied the expression of that particular type all his life. His method of conveying what you intend is likely to be different from your method. Trust him–for you must.

(e) Dialogue Advances the Action and Rounds Out the Plot. Precisely in the way that incidents are brought out clearly by dialogue, dialogue advances the action and rounds out the plot at the curtain. Clear as I hope the method has been made, I wish to point out two dialogue peculiarities which come with the rise of emotion.

First, as the action quickens, there inevitably occurs a compression inherent in the dramatic that is felt by the dialogue. Joe Maxwell’s epitome of vaudeville as he once expressed it to me in a most suggestive discussion of the two-a-day, illustrates this point better, perhaps, than a chapter would explain: “Vaudeville is meat,” he said, “the meat of action, the meat of words.” There is no time in vaudeville climaxes for one word that does not point out, or clinch home the action. Here action speaks louder than words. Furthermore, in the speed of bodily movement there is actually no time for words. If two men are grappling in a life and death struggle they can’t stop for speech.

And second, as the playlet nears its ending there is no need for explanatory words–if the preceding action has been dramatic. Every new situation rises out of the old, the audience knows it all now, they even foresee the climax, and, in a well constructed playlet, they feel the coming-to-an-end thrill that is in the air. What need is there for dialogue? Only a need for the clearing, clinching kind, and for

The Finish Line. While the last-speech of a playlet is bone of the bone and blood of the blood of plot, the finish line is peculiarly a part of dialogue. It is here, in the last line, that the tragic has a strangely illuminating force and the comic must be given full play. Indeed, a comedy act that does not end in a “scream” is hardly worth anything. And, as comedy acts are most in demand in vaudeville, I shall relate this discussion solely to the comic ending. Here it is, then, in the last line of a comedy act, that the whole action is rounded neatly off with a full play of fancy–with emphasis on the use of wit.

Of course I do not mean that the last line may be permitted to stray away from the playlet and crack an unrelated joke. But the last line, being a completing line, may return to some incident earlier than the closing action. It may with full profit even go back to the introduction, as “The Lollard’s” last line takes Miss Carey back to her interrupted sleep with, “Now, thank Gawd, I’ll get a little sleep.”

Or it may be merely a quaint line, like that which ended a very successful playlet which has stuck in my memory, but whose title I have forgotten. Here the sweethearts were brought together, they flew into each other’s arms, they kissed. Naturally the curtain was on that kiss, but no–they drew apart and the girl rubbed her lips with the back of her hand. “Aw,” said the boy, “what you rubbing it off for?” And the girl, half-crying, half-laughing, answered, “I ain’t rubbing it off; I’m rubbing it in!

Or the last line may be a character line, rounding back to the opening, perhaps, but having its mainspring in character, like the last line of “The Village Lawyer”: “Well,” he sighs–as he watches the money with which he could have satisfied his longing to buy a clarionet, disappear–"Maybe I couldn’t play the darned thing anyway!” [1]

[1] Chapter XV, section I.

Example after example might be quoted to illustrate every possible variation, yet in the end we would come to the very same conclusions these four instances reveal. The finish line is the concluding thought of the action. It may round back to the opening plainly; bring out sharply the most prominent point developed; vividly present a pleasing side-light with a punch; illuminate a character point; take some completing element and twist it into a surprise– indeed, the finish line may present anything at all, so long as it thrills with human interest and laughter.

3. Fit and Becoming Dialogue

In playlet dialogue there is as much need of the dramatic spirit as in the playlet plot. Not what is said in real life, but what must be said to express the action concisely, is its aim. Playlet dialogue cannot take time to reproduce small talk. It must connote, not denote, even the big things. To omit is more important than to include. A whole life must be compressed into a single speech and entire stages of progression be epitomized in a single sentence. True enough, in really big scenes a character may rise to lofty expression; but of all playlet moments, here sane selection and compression are most vital. The wind of talk must be made compressed air.

Conversation for conversation’s sake is the one thing, above all others that stamps a playlet as in vain. I have seen producing manager after producing manager run through manuscripts to select for careful reading the ones with short speeches. Those weighty with long speeches were returned unread. Why? Because experience had taught them that a playlet filled with long speeches is likely to be filled with little else. They realize that conversation as an art died the day the first automobile did the mile in sixty flat. Speed is what the playlet needs, and talk slows the track. In the classic words of vaudeville, if you must talk, “hire a hall.”

Where is it you hear more clever lines than anywhere else? In vaudeville. Where is it that slang hits the hardest? In vaudeville. On what stage do people talk more nearly like you and I talk? The vaudeville stage. For vaudeville is up-to-the-minute–vaudeville is the instant’s dramatic review.

And it is this speech of the instant that playlet dialogue needs– the short, sharp, seemingly thoughtless but vividly pulsating words of everyday life. If today men talked in long speeches filled with grandiloquent periods, the playlet would mimic their length and tone, but men today do not speak that way and the playlet must mimic today’s shortness and crispness. As Alexander Black says, “The language of the moment is the bridge; that carries us straight to the heart of the whole world, and all the past. Life or fancy that comes in the language of the moment comes to us translated. Fantastically, the language of the street is always close to the bones of art. It is always closer to the Bible and to all the big fellows than the language of the drawing rooms. Art is only the expression of ideas. Ideas, emotions, impulses, are more important than the medium, just as religion is more important than theology. There is just as much excuse for saying ’theology for its own sake’ as for saying ’art for art’s sake.’ The joy of a new word should make us grateful for the fertility of the street out of which most of the really strong words come. The street doesn’t make us fine, but it keeps us from being too sweet and thin. It loves the punch. And the punch clears the path.” It is the punch in dialogue that the playlet demands.

Before we agree upon what is fit and becoming dialogue, I think it advisable to condense into a few words all that I have said on the subject. In its final analysis a playlet is a pantomime. Dialogue is primarily employed to add emphasis to the plot. It does this by conveying information of basic events at the opening; by bringing out the succeeding incidents clearly; by revealing character humanly; by winning laughter; by advancing the action; and by rounding out the plot in a finish line which thrills with human interest and, in the comedy playlet, with laughter. And now, what is fit and becoming dialogue? Fit dialogue is–what fits the plot exactly. Becoming dialogue is–what makes the plot seem even better. But dialogue cannot make plot better, it can only make it seem better–it can only dress it. Remember that.


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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