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- Writing for Vaudeville - 4/95 -


But there is a wide difference between being able to think in a story-plot and in drama, and in this the playwright who has produced a full-evening play has the advantage over even the trained fiction writer when it comes to applying his dramatic knowledge to vaudeville. Precisely what the difference is, and what drama itself is--especially that angle of the art to be found in vaudeville--will be taken up and explained as clearly as the ideas admit of explanation, in the following pages. But not on one page, nor even in a whole chapter, will the definition of drama be found, for pulsating life cannot be bound by words. However, by applying the rules and heeding the suggestions herein contained, you will be able to understand the "why" of the drama that you feel when you witness it upon the stage. The ability to think in drama means being able to see drama and bring it fresh and new and gripping to the stage.

Of course drama is nothing more than story presented by a different method than that employed in the short-story and the novel. Yet the difference in methods is as great as the difference between painting and sculpture. Indeed the novel-writer's methods have always seemed to me analogous to those employed by the painter, and the dramatist's methods similar to those used by the sculptor. And I have marvelled at the nonchalant way in which the fiction writer often rushes into the writing of a play, when a painter would never think of trying to "sculpt" until he had learned at least some of the very different processes employed in the strange art-form of sculpture. The radical difference between writing and playwrighting [1] has never been popularly understood, but some day it will be comprehended by everybody as clearly as by those whose business it is to make plays.

[1] Note the termination of the word _playwright_. A "wright" is a workman in some mechanical business. Webster's dictionary says: "Wright is used chiefly in compounds, as, figuratively, playwright." It is significant that the playwright is compelled to rely for nearly all his effects upon purely mechanical means.

An intimate knowledge of the stage itself is necessary for success in the writing of plays. The dramatist must know precisely what means, such as scenery, sound-effects, and lights--the hundred contributing elements of a purely mechanical nature at his command-- he can employ to construct his play to mimic reality. In the present commercial position of the stage such knowledge is absolutely necessary, or the writer may construct an act that cannot possibly win a production, because he has made use of scenes that are financially out of the question, even if they are artistically possible.

This is a fundamental knowledge that every person who would write for the stage must possess. It ranks with the "a b c" course in the old common school education, and yet nearly every novice overlooks it in striving after the laurel wreaths of dramatic success that are impossible without it. And, precisely in the degree that stage scenery is different from nature's scenes, is the way people must talk upon the stage different from the way they talk on the street. The method of stage speech--_what_ is said, not _how_ it is said--is best expressed in the definition of all art, which is summed up in the one word "suppression." Not what to put in, but what to leave out, is the knowledge the playwright--in common with all other artists--must possess. The difference in methods between writing a novel and writing a play lies in the difference in the scenes and speeches that must be left out, as well as in the descriptions of scenery and moods of character that everyone knows cannot be expressed in a play by words.

Furthermore, the playwright is working with _spoken_, not _written_, words, therefore he must know something about the art of acting, if he would achieve the highest success. He must know not only how the words he writes will sound when they are spoken, but he must also know how he can make gestures and glances take the place of the volumes they can be made to speak.

Therefore of each one of the different arts that are fused into the composite art of the stage, the playwright must have intimate knowledge. Prove the truth of this statement for yourself by selecting at random any play you have liked and inquiring into the technical education of its author. The chances are scores to one that the person who wrote that play has been closely connected with the stage for years. Either he was an actor, a theatrical press agent, a newspaper man, a professional play-reader for some producer, or gained special knowledge of the stage through a dramatic course at college or by continual attendance at the theatre and behind the scenes. It is only by acquiring _special_ knowledge of one of the most difficult of arts that anyone may hope to achieve success.

3. A Familiar Knowledge of Vaudeville and its Special Stage Necessary

It is strange but true that a writer able to produce a successful vaudeville playlet often writes a successful full-evening play, but that only in rare instances do full-evening dramatists produce successful vaudeville playlets. Clyde Fitch wrote more than fifty-four long plays in twenty years, and yet his "Frederic Lemaitre," used by Henry Miller in vaudeville, was not a true vaudeville playlet--merely a short play--and achieved its success simply because Fitch wrote it and Miller played it with consummate art.

The vaudeville playlet and the play that is merely short, are separate art forms, they are precisely and as distinctly different as the short-story and the story that is merely short. It is only within the last few years that Brander Matthews drew attention to the artistic isolation of the short-story; and J. Berg Esenwein, in his very valuable work [1], established the truth so that all might read and know it. For years I have contended for the recognition of the playlet as an art form distinct from the play that is short.

[1] Writing the Short-Story, by J. Berg Esenwein, published uniform with this volume, in, "The Writer's Library."

And what is true of the peculiar difference of the playlet form is, in a lesser measure, true of the monologue, the two-act, and the one-act musical comedy. They are all different from their sisters and brothers that are found as integral parts of full-evening entertainments.

To recognize these forms as distinct, to learn what material [2] best lends itself to them and how it may be turned into the most natural and efficient form, requires a special training different from that necessary for the writing of plays for the legitimate stage.

[2] The word _material_ in vaudeville means manuscript material. To write vaudeville material is to write monologues and playlets and the other forms of stage speech used in vaudeville acts.

But not only is there a vast difference between the material and the art forms of the legitimate and the vaudeville stage, there is also a great difference in their playing stages. The arrangements of the vaudeville stage, its lights and scenery, are all unique, as are even the playing spaces and mechanical equipment.

Therefore the author must know the mechanical aids peculiar to his special craft, as well as possess a familiar knowledge of the material that vaudeville welcomes and the unique forms into which that material must be cast.

4. What Chance Has the Beginner?

The "gentle reader" who has read thus far certainly has not been deterred by the emphasis--not undue emphasis, by the way--placed on the value of proved ability in other forms of writing to one who would write for vaudeville. That he has not been discouraged by what has been said--if he is a novice--proves that he is not easily downcast. If he has been discouraged--even if he has read this far simply from curiosity--proves that he is precisely the person who should not waste his time trying to write for vaudeville. Such a person is one who ought to ponder his lack of fitness for the work in hand and turn all his energies into his own business. Many a good clerk, it has been truly said, has been wasted in a poor writer.

But, while emphasis has been laid upon the value of training in other forms of literary work, the emphasis has been placed not on purely literary skill, but on the possession of ideas and the training necessary to turn the ideas to account. It is "up to" the ambitious beginner, therefore, to analyze the problem for himself and to decide if he possesses the peculiar qualifications that can by great energy and this special training place him upon a par with the write who has made a success in other forms of literary work. For there is a sense in which no literary training is really necessary for success in vaudeville writing.

If the amateur has an imaginative mind, the innate ability to see and turn to his own uses an interesting and coherent story, and is possessed of the ability to think in drama, and, above all, has the gift of humor, he can write good vaudeville material, even if he has not education or ability to write an acceptable poem, article or short-story. In other words, a mastery of English prose or verse is not necessary for success in vaudeville writing. Some of the most successful popular songs, the most successful playlets, and other vaudeville acts, have been written by men unable to write even a good letter.

But the constant advancement in excellence demanded of vaudeville material, both by the managers and the public, is gradually making it profitable for only the best-educated, specially-trained writers to undertake this form of work. The old, illiterate, rough-and-ready writer is passing, in a day when the "coon shouter" has given the headline-place to Calve and Melba, and every dramatic star has followed Sarah Bernhardt into the "two-a-day." [1]

[1] The _two-a-day_ is stage argot for vaudeville. It comes from the number of performances the actor "does," for in vaudeville there are two shows every day, six or seven days a week.

Nevertheless, in this sense the novice needs no literary training. If he can see drama in real life and feels how it can be turned into a coherent, satisfying story, he can learn how to apply that story to the peculiar requirements of vaudeville. But no amount of instruction can supply this inborn ability. The writer himself must be the master of his fate, the captain of his own dramatic soul.

CHAPTER III

THE VAUDEVILLE STAGE AND ITS DIMENSIONS


Writing for Vaudeville - 4/95

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