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- Writing for Vaudeville - 3/95 -
rule, but by feeling.
3. The Writer's Part in a Vaudeville Show
In preparing the raw material from which the manager makes up his show, the writer may play many parts. He may bear much of the burden of entertainment, as in a playlet, or none of the responsibility, as in the average dumb act. And yet, he may write the pantomimic story that pleases the audience most. Indeed, the writer may be everything in a vaudeville show, and always his part is an important one.
Of course the trained seals do not need a dramatist to lend them interest, nor does the acrobat need his skill; but without the writer what would the actress be, and without the song-smith, what would the singer sing? And even the animal trainer may utilize the writer to concoct his "line of talk." The monologist, who of all performers seems the most independent of the author, buys his merriest stories, his most up-to-the-instant jests, ready-made from the writer who works like a marionette's master pulling the strings. The two-act, which sometimes seems like a funny impromptu fight, is the result of the writer's careful thinking. The flirtatious couple who stroll out on the stage to make everyone in the audience envious, woo Cupid through the brain of their author. And the musical comedy, with its strong combination of nearly everything; is but the embodied flight of the writer's fancy. In fact, the writer supplies much of the life-blood of a vaudeville show. Without him modern vaudeville could not live.
Thus, much of the present wide popularity of vaudeville is due to the writer. It is largely owing to the addition of his thoughts that vaudeville stands to-day as a greater influence--because it has a wider appeal--than the legitimate drama in the make-believe life of the land. Even the motion pictures, which are nearer the eyes of the masses, are not nearer their hearts. Vaudeville was the first to foster motion pictures and vaudeville still accords the motion picture the place it deserves on its bills. For vaudeville is the amusement weekly of the world--it gathers and presents each week the best the world affords in entertainment. And much of the best comes from the writer's brain.
Because mechanical novelties that are vaudeville-worth-while are rare, and because acrobats and animal trainers are of necessity limited by the frailties of the flesh, and for the reason that dancers cannot forever present new steps, it remains for the writer to bring to vaudeville the never-ceasing novelty of his thoughts. New songs, new ideas, new stories, new dreams are what vaudeville demands from the writer. Laughter that lightens the weary day is what is asked for most.
It is in the fulfilling of vaudeville's fine mission that writers all over the world are turning out their best. And because the mission of vaudeville is fine, the writing of anything that is not fine is contemptible. The author who tries to turn his talents to base uses--putting an untrue emphasis on life's false values, picturing situations that are not wholesome, using words that are not clean--deserves the fate of failure that awaits him. As E. F. Albee, who for years has been a controlling force in vaudeville, wrote:  "We have no trouble in keeping vaudeville clean and wholesome, unless it is with some act that is just entering, for the majority of the performers are jealous of the respectable name that vaudeville has to-day, and cry out themselves against besmirchment by others."
 "The Future of the Show Business," by E. F. Albee, in The Billboard for December 19, 1914.
Reality and truth are for what the vaudeville writer strives. The clean, the fine, the wholesome is his goal. He finds in the many theatres all over the land a countless audience eager to hear what he has to say. And millions are invested to help him say it well.
SHOULD YOU TRY TO WRITE FOR VAUDEVILLE?
"I became a writer," George Bernard Shaw once said, "because I wanted to get a living without working for it--I have since realized my mistake." Anyone who thinks that by writing for vaudeville he can get a living without working for it is doomed to a sad and speedy awakening.
If I were called upon to give a formula for the creation of a successful vaudeville writer, I would specify: The dramatic genius of a Shakespere, the diplomatic craftiness of a Machiavelli, the explosive energy of a Roosevelt, and the genius-for-long-hours of an Edison: mix in equal proportions, add a dash of Shaw's impudence, all the patience of Job, and keep boiling for a lifetime over the seething ambition of Napoleon.
In other--and less extreme--words, if you contemplate writing for vaudeville for your bread and butter, you must bring to the business, if not genius, at least the ability to think, and if not boundless energy, at any rate a determination never to rest content with the working hours of the ordinary professions.
If you suppose that the mere reading of this book is going to make you able to think, permit me gently to disillusion you; and if you are imbued with the flattering faith that after studying these chapters you will suddenly be able to sit down and write a successful playlet, monologue, two-act, musical comedy libretto, or even a good little "gag," in the words of classic vaudeville--forget it! All this book can do for you--all any instruction can do--is to show you the right path, show precisely _how_ others have successfully essayed it, and wish you luck. Do you remember the brave lines of W. E. Henley, the blind English poet:
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.
And again in the same poem, "Invictus":
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
There sings the spirit that will carry a writer to success in vaudeville or in any other line of writing; and it is this inspired attitude you should assume toward the present book of instruction.
These chapters, carefully designed and painstakingly arranged, contain information and suggestions which, if studied and applied by the right person, will help him to a mastery of vaudeville writing. But they should be viewed not as laying down rules, only as being suggestive. This book cannot teach you how to write--with its aid you may be able to teach yourself.
Are you the sort of person likely to make a success of writing for vaudeville? You, alone, can determine. But the following discussion of some of the elements of equipment which anyone purposing to write for vaudeville should possess, may help you find the answer.
1. Experience in Other Forms of Writing Valuable
Let us suppose that you have been engaged in writing for a newspaper for years. You started as a reporter and because of your unusual ability in the handling of political news have made politics your specialty. You have been doing nothing but politics until politics seems to be all you know. Suddenly the sporting editor falls ill, and at the moment there is no one to take his place but you. Your assistant takes over your work and you are instructed to turn out a daily page of sporting news.
If you knew nothing at all about writing you would find the task nearly impossible to accomplish. But you do know how to write and therefore the mere writing does not worry you. And your experience as a special writer on politics has taught you that there are certain points all special newspaper work has in common and you apply your knowledge to the task before you.
Still you are seriously handicapped for a time because you have been thinking in terms of politics. But soon, by turning all your energy and ability upon your new subject, you learn to think in terms of sport. And, if you are a better thinker and a better writer than the old sporting editor, it won't be long before you turn out a better sporting page than he did. If you were the owner of the newspaper, which, in the emergency, would you choose to be your sporting editor: the untried man who has never demonstrated his ability to write, the reporter who has no knowledge of special writing, or the trained writer who has mastered one specialty and, it may reasonably be supposed, will master another quickly? The same care you would exercise in choosing another man to work for you, you should exercise in choosing your own work for yourself.
Do you know how to write? Do you write with ease and find pleasure in the work? If you do, class yourself with the reporter.
What success have you had in writing fiction? Have you written successful novels or short-stories? If you have, class yourself with the special writer. Did you ever write a play? Was your full-evening play accepted and successful? If you have written a play and if your play was a success, class yourself with the sporting editor himself--but as one who has made a success in only one specialty in the realm of sport.
For, those who have had some success in other forms of writing--even the successful playwright--and those who never have written even a salable joke, all have to learn the slightly different form of the vaudeville act.
But, having once learned the form and become perfectly familiar with vaudeville's peculiar requirements, the dramatist and the trained fiction writer will outstrip the untrained novice. Remember that the tortoise was determined, persistent, and energetic.
2. Ability to Think in Drama and Technical Knowledge of the Stage Required
The dramatist and the trained fiction writer possess imagination, they think in plots, they have learned how to picture vivid, dramatic incidents, and they know a story when it comes up and taps them on the shoulder. Furthermore, they know where to look for ideas, and how to twist them to plot uses. In every one of these points of special knowledge both the dramatist and the trained fiction writer have the advantage over the untrained novice, for the essence of all vaudeville writing lies in plot--which is story--arrangement.
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