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- Writing for Vaudeville - 20/95 -

big laughs, and lift the entire routine into the success your ability and the performers' cleverness can make it.

Even after it has won its way into a contract and everybody is happy, you must be prepared to keep your two-act up-to-the-minute. While it is on the road, you must send to the performers all the laughs you can think of--particularly if you have chosen for your theme one that demands constant furbishing to keep it bright.


It is with direct purpose that the discussion of the two-act has been confined to the kind of act that Weber and Fields made so successful--and of which Mr. Hoffman's "The Art of Flirtation" is a more up-to-date, mild and artistic form. There are other forms of the two-act, of course, but the kind of two-act we have discussed is peculiarly typical of two-act material. It holds within itself practically all the elements of the two-act that the writer has to consider. It is only necessary now to describe the other forms briefly.

By "pure two-act form," I mean the two-act that is presented without songs, tricks, or any other entertainment elements. Yet many of the most successful two-acts open with a song, introduce songs or parodies into the middle of their dialogue, or close with a song or some novelty.

Do not imagine that a two-act in which songs are introduced cannot be precisely as good as one that depends upon its talk alone. It may be an even better act. If it pleases the audience better, it is a better act. Remember that while we have been discussing the two-act from the writer's view-point, it is the applause of the audience that stamps every act with the final seal of approval. But, whether a two-act makes use of songs or tricks or anything else, does not change the principles on which all two-act points and gags are constructed.

The more common talking two-acts are:

1. The Sidewalk Conversation or Gag Act

This form may or may not open and close with songs, and depends upon skillfully blended, but not necessarily related, gags and jokes.

2. The Parody Two-Act

This sort of act opens and closes with parodies on the latest song-hits, and uses talk for short rests and humorous effect between the parodies by which the act makes its chief appeal.

3. The Singing Two-Act

This type makes its appeal not by the use of songs, but because the voices are very fine. Such an act may use a few gags and unrelated jokes--perhaps of the "nut" variety--to take the act out of the pure duet class and therefore offer wider appeal.

4. The Comedy Act for Two Women

Such acts may depend on precisely the same form of routine the pure talking two-act for men uses. Of course, the treatment of the subject themes is gentler and the material is all of a milder character.

5. The Two-Act with Plot Interest

Acts of this character make use of a comedy, burlesque, melodramatic or even a dramatic plot. This form of sketch seldom rises into the playlet class. It is a two-act merely because it is played by two persons. Often, however, this form of the two-act uses a thread of plot on which to string its business and true two-act points. It may or may not make use of songs, parodies, tricks or other entertainment elements. We have now come to a form of two-act which is of so popular a nature that it requires more than passing mention. This is

6. The Flirtation Two-Act

Usually presented with songs making their appeal to sentiment, almost always marked by at least one change of costume by the woman, sometimes distinguished by a special drop and often given more than a nucleus of plot, this very popular form of two-act sometimes rises into the dignity of a little production. Indeed, many two-acts of this kind have been so successful in their little form they have been expanded into miniature musical comedies [1].

[1] See Chapter XXX, The One-Act Musical Comedy.

(a) _Romance_ is the chief source of the flirtation two-act's appeal. It is the dream-love in the heart of every person in the audience which makes this form of two-act "go" so well. Moonlight, a girl and a man--this is the recipe.

(b) _Witty Dialogue_ that fences with love, that thrusts, parries and--surrenders, is what makes the flirtation two-act "get over." It is the same kind of dialogue that made Anthony Hope's "Dolly Dialogues" so successful in their day, the sort of speeches which we, in real life, think of afterward and wish we had made.

(c) _Daintiness of effect_ is what is needed in this form of two-act. Dialogue and business, scenery, lights and music all combine to the fulfillment of its purpose. The cruder touches of other two-act forms are forgotten and the entire effort is concentrated on making an appeal to the "ideal." Turn to the Appendix, and read "After the Shower," and you will see how these various elements are unified. This famous flirtation two-act has been chosen because it shows practically all the elements we have discussed.



The playlet is a very definite thing--and yet it is difficult to define. Like the short-story, painting as we know it today, photography, the incandescent lamp, the telephone, and the myriad other forms of art and mechanical conveniences, the playlet did not spring from an inventor's mind full fledged, but attained its present form by slow growth. It is a thing of life--and life cannot be bounded by words, lest it be buried in the tomb of a hasty definition.

To attempt even the most cautious of definitions without having first laid down the foundations of understanding by describing some of the near-playlet forms to be seen on many vaudeville bills would, indeed, be futile. For perhaps the surest way of learning what a thing is, is first to learn what it is not. Confusion is then less likely to creep into the conception, and the definition comes like a satisfactory summing up of familiar points that are resolved into clear words.


Even in the old music hall days, when a patron strolled in from a hard day's work and sat down to enjoy an even harder evening's entertainment, the skit or sketch or short play which eventually drifted upon the boards--where it was seen through the mists of tobacco smoke and strong drink--was _the_ thing. The admiration the patrons had for the performers, whom they liberally treated after the show, did not prevent them from actively driving from the stage any offering that did not possess the required dramatic "punch." [1] They had enjoyed the best of everything else the music hall manager could obtain for their amusement and they demanded that their bit of a play be, also, the very best of its kind.

[1] It is worthy of note in this connection that many of the dramatic and particularly the comedy offerings seen in the music halls of twenty years ago, and in the "Honkitonks" of Seattle and other Pacific Coast cities during the Alaskan gold rush, have, expurgated, furnished the scenarios of a score of the most successful legitimate dramas and comedies of recent years. Some of our greatest legitimate and vaudeville performers also came from this humble and not-to-be-boasted-of school. This phase of the growth of the American drama has never been written. It should be recorded while the memories of "old timers" are still fresh.

No matter what this form of entertainment that we now know by the name of vaudeville may be called, the very essence of its being is variety. "Topical songs"--we call their descendants "popular songs"--classic ballads, short concerts given on all sorts of instruments, juggling, legerdermain, clowning, feats of balancing, all the departments of dancing and of acrobatic work, musical comedy, pantomime, and all the other hundred-and-one things that may be turned into an amusing ten or twenty minutes, found eager welcome on the one stage that made it, and still makes it, a business to present the very newest and the very best of everything. To complete its claim to the title of variety, to separate itself from a likeness to the circus, to establish itself as blood brother of the legitimate stage, and, most important of all, to satisfy the craving of its audiences for _drama_, vaudeville tried many forms of the short play before the playlet was evolved to fill the want.

Everything that bears even the remotest likeness to a play found a place and had a more or less fleeting--or lasting--popularity. And not only was every form of play used, but forms of entertainment that could not by reason of their very excellencies be made to fill the crying want, were pressed into service and supplied with ill-fitting plots in the vain attempt.

Musical acts, whose chief appeal was the coaxing of musical sounds from wagon tires, drinking glasses, and exotic instruments, were staged in the kitchen set. And father just home from work would say, "Come, daughter, let's have a tune." Then off they would start, give their little entertainment, and down would come the curtain on a picture of never-to-be-seen domestic life. Even today, we sometimes see such a hybrid act.

Slap-stick sidewalk conversation teams often would hire an author to fit them with a ready-made plot, and, pushed back behind the Olio into a centre-door fancy set, would laboriously explain why they were there, then go through their inappropriate antics and finish with a climax that never "climaxed." All kinds of two-acts, from the dancing pair to the flirtatious couple, vainly tried to give their offerings dramatic form. They did their best to make them over into little plays and still retain the individual elements

Writing for Vaudeville - 20/95

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