Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet

In considering the “business” of the playlet, we have come to the place where it would seem that writing must be left behind and the function of the producer entered upon. For business is the detail of stage action and movement. But, while it is the peculiar function of the producer to invent and to incorporate into the playlet little bits of everyday movements of the characters to lend the effect of real life to the mimic picture, it is the province of the writer–in reducing his words to the lowest possible number, in an effort to secure that “economy of attention” which is the foundation of all art–to tell as much of his story as he can by actions that speak even louder than words. Every great playwright is as much a producer as he is a writer.

As we saw in Chapter VII, “business” includes every movement an actor makes while he is on the stage. Thus a facial expression may be called “business,” if it lends a peculiar significance to a line. And a wild leap of a man on horseback through a window–this has actually been done in a vaudeville act–is also called business. In fact everything, from “mugging,” [1] walking about, sitting down, picking up a handkerchief, taking off or putting on a coat, to the wordless scenes into which large parts of the story are condensed and made clear solely by situation–everything is called “business.” But to differentiate the actor’s part from the work of the playwright, I shall arbitrarily call every action which is as indivisible from acting as facial play, “pantomime"; while I shall employ the word “business” to express the use of movement by the playwright for the purpose of condensing large parts of the story and telling it wordlessly.

[1] “Mugging,” considered by some to be one of the lowest forms of comedy, is bidding for laughter by facial contortions unrelated to the action or the lines–making the scene subservient to the comical faces made by the actor.

1. The Part Business Plays in the Dramatic [2]

[2] The impossibility of keeping separate the designing and the writing of business, will be seen as the chapter progresses, therefore I shall treat both freely in one.

Let us turn to that part of the third scene of “The System” where The Eel and Goldie–who have been given their liberty “with a string to it” by Inspector McCarthy in his anxiety to catch Officer Dugan red-handed–are “up against it” in their efforts to get away from town. They have talked it all over in Goldie’s flat and The Eel has gone out to borrow the money from Isaacson, the “fence." Now when The Eel closes Goldie’s door and runs downstairs, Goldie listens intently until the outer door slams, then begins to pack. She opens the trunk first, gets her jacket from the couch where she has thrown it, puts it in the trunk and then goes up into the bedroom and gets a skirt. She shakes the skirt as she comes down stage. Then a long, low whistle is heard–then the rapping of a policeman’s club.

“Bulls!” she gasps. Looking up at the light burning, she turns it out and closes the trunk at the same time. And she stands still until she sees the shadow of a man’s hand cast by the moonlight on the wall. Then she gives a frightened exclamation and cowers on the sofa.

Here we have packed into little more than sixty seconds a revelation of the fear in which all crooks live, the unthinking faith and love Goldie bears The Eel, and a quiet moment which emphasizes the rush of the preceding events–a space also adding punch to the climax of incidents which follow hot upon its heels. When the long, low whistle sounds and the policeman’s club raps out its alarm, the audience feels that the action is filled with tense meaning–The Eel has been caught. That hand on the wall is like a coming event casting its shadow before, and when Goldie gives her frightened exclamation and cowers on the couch, her visible fear–coming in contrast to her commonplace packing to get away–builds up the scene into a thrill that is capped by the meaningful window entrance of Dugan. “Ah!” says the audience, “here’s the first time they’ve gotten together alone. It’s the first time we’ve really seen that Dugan is behind it all. Something big is going to happen.”

All of these revealing flashes, which illumine like searchlights, are told by movement. The only word that is spoken is Goldie’s cry “Bulls!” The only other sounds are the whistle and the rapping of the club. But if Goldie had taken up the time with telling the audience how glad she was to pack and get away with The Eel to a new life, and if she had expressed her fear by bewailing the hardness of fate–the dramatic effect would have been lost. Do you see how words can kill and soundless movements vivify?

In “The Lollard,” when Miss Carey wants to disillusionize Angela, she does not sit down and argue her out of her insane infatuation for Fred; nor does she tell Angela that Fred is a “lollard” and weakly unmask him by describing his “lollard “ points. She cries “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Whereupon Fred dashes out on the stage and Angela and the audience with their own eyes behold Fred as a “lollard.” Here the whole problem of the playlet is solved in a flash. Not one word of explanatory dialogue is needed.

In “Three of a Kind,” a comedy playlet produced by Roland West, two crooks fleece a “sucker” and agree to leave the money in a middle room while they sleep in opposite rooms. They say they trust each other implicitly, but each finds a pretext to sit up and watch that money himself. The comedy rises from their movements around the room as they try to outmaneuver each other.

These three examples plainly show how movement, unexplained by dialogue, may be used to condense a middle action, a climax, and an opening. Now, if you will turn to the surprise ending of “The System"–which has been discussed before in its relation to dialogue–you will see how business may condense an ending. Indeed, the very essence of the surprise ending lies in this dramatic principle. Of course, how the condensation of story into movement is to be made in any given case depends upon the material, and the writer’s purpose. But as a part of the problem let us see

2. How Pantomime Helps to Condense Story and Illumine Character

Consider the inimitable gesture the Latins use when they wish to express their helplessness. The shoulders shrug until the man seems folding into himself, his hands come together approaching his face and then he drops them despairingly to his side as if he would say: “But what can I do?” A gesture such as this reveals in a flash the depths of a human soul. Volumes could say no more.

This is what the actor may bring to your playlet, and what you, with the greatest caution, may sometimes–though rarely–indicate in your manuscript.

“Walk up stage,” said David Belasco to an actor who was proving “difficult,” “and when you turn your back, get some meaning into it. Make your back express–the whole play, if you can.” Most certainly you would not write this in the directions for a playlet–the producer would laugh at it and the actor would be indignant. But you might with the greatest helpfulness direct that the character turn his back–and this is the point of the problem–if, by turning his back on some one, the character conveys, say, contempt for or fearlessness of an enemy’s bravado. Every direction for acting in your playlet must be of such a kind that anyone can convey the meaning–because the emphasis is inherent in the situation. A stage direction ought not to depend for its value on the actor’s ability. If this were not so, play writing would consist chiefly in engaging fine actors.

When an actor receives a part he studies it not only to learn the lines, but with the desire to familiarize himself with the character so thoroughly that he may not seem to be playing it. He hopes to make the audience feel that the character is alive. For this reason, it is not amiss to indicate characteristic actions once in a while. A good example of this is found in “The Lollard," where Angela says to Miss Carey: “But–excuse me–how do you know so many different kinds of men if you’ve never been married?”

“Boarders,” says Miss Carey quickly. “To make ends meet, I’ve always had to have a male boarder since I was left an orphan." “She rises–turns her back to audience–gives a touch to her pigtail, during laugh on this line. This business always builds laugh,” say the directions. It is such little touches that stamp a character as individual; and therefore they are just the little touches the playwright may add to his manuscript by way of suggestion to the actor. They may be very helpful, indeed, but they should be made with great care and discretion. For the actor, if he is a capable performer, is ready when rehearsal begins with many suggestions of a like nature. He will often suggest something that will not only exhibit character clearly, but will also condense story by eliminating needless words and movement.

For instance: F. F. Mackay was rehearsing to play the French count in the famous old play, “One of Our Girls.” Mr. Bronson Howard had directed in his manuscript that the count, when struck across the face with a glove by an English officer, should become very violent and angry, in accordance with the popular notion of an excitable Frenchman’s character. “But Mr. Mackay,” says Daniel Frohman, “argued that the French count, having been shown in the play to be an expert duellist with both the rapier and the pistol, and having faced danger frequently, was not liable to lose control of himself. Mr. Howard readily saw the point. The result was one of the most striking situations in the American drama; for the Frenchman received the insult without the movement of a muscle. He stood rigid. Only the flash of the eye for an instant revealed his emotion. Then the audience saw his face grow red, and then pale. This was followed by the quiet announcement from the count that he would send his seconds to see the Englishman.

“This exhibition of facial emotion betrayed by the visible rush of blood to the actor’s face was frequently noted at the time. It was a muscular trick, Mr. Mackay told me. He put on a tight collar for the scene and strained his neck against it until the blood tame, and when he released the pressure, and the blood receded, the effect was reached. It was a splendid moment, and it is one of the many effects that have been studied out during the progress and development of a play during rehearsals.”

It is for the great majority of such little touches, therefore, that the playwright must depend on the actor and the producer to add to his playlet. However, the playwright may help to the limit of his ability, by giving very short, very carefully thought out directions in his manuscript. But it is much better for the novice to disregard suggestions to the actor for character analysis and even to be sparing with his hints for facial expressions or slight movements–and to content himself with an effort to condense his story in the broader ways.

3. How Tediously Long Speeches may be Broken up by Movement

As the playlet is primarily action, and as the audience expects the playlet to keep moving all the time, it is a common practise to try to trick the audience into believing every speech is vibrant with emotional force, by keeping the actors moving about the stage. But the fact that a really vital speech may be killed by a movement which distracts the attention of the audience ought to be proof positive that needless movements about the stage are merely a confession of poverty in the playlet. Nevertheless, as a long explanatory speech seems sometimes unavoidable, I devote two or three short paragraphs to what has saved some playlets from absolute failure.

If you are unable to tell every bit of your story by dramatic means and therefore face a long speech that may seem tiresomely wordy, break it up with natural movements which lend a feeling of homely reality to the scene. For instance, don’t let the character who is delivering that long speech tell it all uninterruptedly from the chair in which he is sitting. Let him rise after he has spoken two or three sentences and cross to the other character, or do something that will illustrate a point in his story, or have the one who is listening interrupt now and then. Inject motive into the interruptions if you can; but in any event, keep your characters moving.

But make the movements natural. To this end, study the movements of the men and women about you. Try to invent new ways of expressing the old things in movement. Strive not so much to be “different," as to be vividly interesting. You can make the movements of your characters about the stage as brilliant as dialogue.

Above all, make sure that you do not let your characters wander about the stage aimlessly. To make it a complete unity every little scene demands as careful thought as does the entire playlet. A playlet may be suggestively defined as a number of minute-long playlets moving vividly one after the other to make a vivid whole. Remember this, and you may be able to save a tiresome scene from ruining the entire effect of your playlet.

4. Why Business is More Productive of Comedy than Dialogue

As a playlet is nothing if it is not action, so a comedy playlet is nothing if its comedy does not develop from situations. By “action,” as the word is used here, I mean that the story of the playlet is told by the movements of its characters. In real life, you know, comedy and tragedy do not come from what persons say they are going to do–but from what they actually do. Therefore, the merry jests that one character perpetrates upon another must be told not in words, but by showing the character actually perpetrating them on the victim. In a comedy playlet, the playwright must be a practical joker. Every funny happening in a playlet is a “scene that must be shown.”

For instance, in “Billy’s Tombstones,” the football player who is in love with the girl, whom he has followed half around the world, is shown first as losing his “tombstones"–his false teeth, made necessary by the loss of his real ones in a famous college game; then he is shown in his wild efforts to pronounce his sweetheart’s name without the dental help. Much of the comedy arises from his efforts to pronounce that loved name–and the climax comes when the lost tombstones are found and Billy proposes to her in perfect speech that lingers fondly on her name.

In farce–particularly in the old farces which depended on mistaken identity, a motive force considered hardly worthy of use today–the comedy arises very rarely from a witty saying in itself. The fun usually depends upon the humorous situations that develop. “The New Coachman"–one of those old farcical “screams"–contained an exceptionally fine example of this point and is pertinent to-day because it had no relation to mistaken identity in this humorous scene. Here the best fun of the comedy came from the use of a stepladder by the supposed coachman, who got all tangled up in it. After the first misstep with that stepladder, there was never any time for more than a word here and there. Of course, such a scene depends upon the actor almost entirely, and therefore cannot be indicated in the business by the playwright, but I use it for an example because it is a peculiarly brilliant instance of the fact that hearty laughter depends not on hearing, but on seeing.

But do not make the mistake of trying to patch together a comedy playlet from the bits of funny stage business you have seen in other acts. If you present such a manuscript to a producer you may be very sure it will be refused, for there are plenty of producers and performers in vaudeville who can supply such an act at a moment’s notice from memory.

The sort of comedy expected from the playwright is comedy that develops from situation. It is in the invention of new situations and new business to fit these situations that the playlet writer finds his reward in production and profit.

5. Entrances, Exits and the Stage-Cross

Among the many definitions of drama–frequently misleading, but equally often helpful–there is one which holds the whole art of play writing lies in getting the characters on the stage naturally and effectively and getting them off again–naturally and effectively. But, even the most daring of definition makers has not yet told us how this is to be accomplished in all cases. The fact is, no one can tell us, because a method that would be natural and effective in a given playlet, would very likely be most unnatural and ineffective in another. All that can be said is that the same dramatic sense with which you have constructed the story of your playlet will carry you forward in the inevitable entrances and exits. How these moments are to be effective, lies in the very nature of the story you are telling. This is boldly begging the question, but it is all that may with honest helpfulness be said.

However, regarding the stage-cross, and allied movements of the actors, there are two suggestions that may be helpful. The first is founded on the old theory that a scene ought to be “dressed" all the time–that is, if one character moves across the stage, the other ought to move a little up stage to give him room to cross and should then move down on the opposite side, to keep the scene dressed or “balanced.” But no hard and fast rule can be given, even for the stage-cross. If it seems the easy and natural thing for the characters to do this, all well and good. But you should feel no compulsion about it and really should give to the matter but little thought.

The second is based on the common-sense understanding at which you yourself will arrive if you will take the trouble to notice how the slightest movement made by one of two persons to whom you are telling a story distracts the other’s attention. Briefly, never indicate business for a character during the moments when short and vitally important speeches are conveying information to the audience.

Both of these minor suggestions may be summed up in this sentence with which I shall dismiss the subject: The box sets in which the playlet is played in vaudeville are usually not very deep and are so arranged that every part of the scene is in plain view from practically every seat in the house, therefore you may forget that your story is being played in a mimic room and may make your characters move as if the room were real. If you will only keep in mind you should have little trouble.

6. How “Business” is Indicated in Manuscript

In the old days before the boxed set, the manuscript of a play bristled with such cryptic signs as R. U. E., and L. F. E., meaning, when reduced to everyday English, “right upper entrance,” “left first entrance,” and the like. But as the old “entrances” of the stage have been lost with the introduction of the box set, which closely mimics a real room–being, indeed, a room with the fourth wall removed–the modern stage directions are much simpler. “Right door,” “centre door,” “left door,” are the natural directions to be found in a playlet manuscript today.

It is a good general rule to avoid in your stage directions expressions which show you are dealing with a stage scene and not a scene of real life. In the first place, if you attempt to be technical, you are very likely to be over-technical and confusing. In the second place, you will be more likely to produce a life-like playlet if you are not forever groping among strange terms, which make you conscious all the time that you are dealing with unreality. Therefore choose the simplest directions, expressed in the fewest possible words, to indicate the effects you have carefully thought out: Never forget that reality and simplicity go hand in hand.

And now it may be of advantage to sum up what has been said about stage business in this chapter. We have seen how business may be used to condense the story of a playlet; how business is often–though not always–the very heart of the dramatic; how pantomime may be skillfully used to condense salient parts of the playlet story and illumine character; how business may be employed to break up a clumsy but necessarily long speech–thus sometimes saving a playlet from the failure of the tedious;–and why business is more productive of comedy than is dialogue. We have concluded that the playlet writer must not ape what has already been done, but can win success only in the measure he succeeds in bringing to his playlet new business which makes his new situations all the more vivid and vital. Finally, we have seen that entrances and exits must be natural and effective, and that all stage business should be conceived and thought of and indicated in the manuscript as simple expressions of reality.

With this chapter, the six elements of a successful playlet have been discussed from the angle of exposition. In the next chapter I shall make use of all this expository material and shall endeavor to show how playlets are actually written.


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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Writing for Vaudeville
By Brett Page
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