If you have a religious belief, a political creed, a racial propagandum—in short, a “cause”—either to defend or to forward, don’t write it in a drama. The legitimate stage might be induced to present it, if someone were willing to pay the theatre’s losses, but vaudeville does not want it. Choose any form of presentation—a newspaper article, a magazine story, anything at all—save a playlet for polemic or “cause” themes.
(c) Hackneyed Themes. What has been “done to death” in vaudeville? You know as well as the most experienced playlet-writer, if you will only give the subject unbiased thought. What are the things that make you squirm in your seat and the man next you reach for his hat and go out? A list would fill a page, but there are two that should be mentioned because so many playlets built upon them are now being offered to producers without any hope of acceptance. There is the “mistaken identity” theme, in which the entire action hinges on one character’s mistaking another for someone else—one word spoken in time would make the entire action needless, but the word is never spoken—or there would be no playlet. And the “henpecked husband,” or the mistreated wife, who gets back at the final curtain, is a second. Twenty years hence either one of these may be the theme of the “scream” of the season, for stage fashions change like women’s styles, but, if you wish your playlet produced today, don’t employ them.
(d) Improper Themes. Any theme that would bring a blush to the cheek of your sister, of your wife, of your daughter, you must avoid. No matter how pure your motive might be in making use of such a theme, resolutely deny it when it presents itself to you. The fact that the young society girl who offered me a playlet based on, to her, an amazing experience down at the Women’s Night Court—where she saw the women of the streets brought before the judge and their “men” paying the fines—was a clean-minded, big-hearted girl anxious to help better conditions, did not make her theme any cleaner or her playlet any better.
Of course, I do not mean that you must ignore such conditions when your playlet calls for the use of such characters. I mean that you should not base your playlet entirely on such themes—you should never make such a theme the chief reason of your playlet’s being.
2. What Themes to Use
You may treat any subject or play upon any theme, whatsoever it may be, provided it is not a “cause,” is not hackneyed, is not improper for its own sake and likely to bring a blush to the cheeks of those you love, is familiar to you in its every angle, and is a subject that forms a problem which can be proved conclusively within the requirements of a playlet.
1. The Three Forms of Dramatic Treatment
It is generally accepted by students of the novel and the short-story that there are three ways of constructing a narrative: