These short, unpublished plays provide an especially strong sampling of vaudeville routines from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century. They reflect the interests, character, and desires of the typical variety show audience: the working class (including immigrants) and white-collar workers. The scripts assembled here are a valuable historical resource and provide insight into the evolution of American popular entertainment.
One of the notable features of many of these playscripts is the use of stereotypes to depict characters and situations. Though the Library source collection, the copyright deposit plays housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, contains many works that use ethnic stereotypes, this digital selection of playscripts contains stereotypes of a different sort. In these plays one finds stock characters and predictable plots that would have been familiar to a vaudeville audience: aspiring singers who can't sing, fledgling actors who can't act, pushy suffragettes, man-starved old maids, social climbers, playboys, tramps, rubes, city slickers, untrustworthy theater managers, and cruel bosses. Because the typical variety sketch was quite brief, there was no time for the kind of character development found in longer dramatic works. The use of stereotypes evoked instant recognition and emotional response from the audience as conventional characters fumbled their way through traditional types of dilemmas. Moreover, the use of stereotypes helped writers create and revise their work at breakneck speed while under the pressure of deadlines, touring schedules, cast changes, and the constant need for new material. Scriptwriters tended to update, recombine, and add on to theatrical material that had proven successful with past audiences; therefore, successful stereotypes were constantly recycled.
The writers of variety texts are the unsung champions of vaudeville. Rarely have they been fully credited for their material on variety bills. One of the fascinating things to explore in this collection is the work of specific writers, since this will enhance understanding of the distinctions between genre conventions and individual contributions. The work of Junie McCree, for example, is well represented in this collection. A sampling of his titles hint at the range of his ideas: "After the Race," "Hired, Fired, and Hired" (in which a vaudeville comic must return to his double-act, and his wife, for success), "Types," and, possibly his most famous routine, "The Traveling Salesman."
McCree is an interesting example of a professional scriptwriter. He was born Gonzalvo Macrillo, in 1866, and died at the height of vaudeville's popularity in 1919. Unlike the majority of writers and performers in vaudeville, McCree hailed from the West Coast, and, for a time, he was apparently a member of the Bella Union stock company in San Francisco. McCree, like many others who submitted their texts to the Library of Congress for copyright registration, became well known for writing material for others; he was successful enough to open a New York agency. McCree's gags, routines, and one-act skits were in great demand, though it is difficult to identify the performers who used his material. In any case, McCree supplied scripts for hundreds of acts. Not only was he prolific, but he incorporated current slang and catchphrases into his routines. The use of the vernacular language of the day in variety scripts merits close examination.
There are other known writers represented in this collection, such as Will Cressy ("The Spring of Youth," 1901), Earl Carroll ("The Wireless Belles," 1910), Pat Rooney ("At the Newsstand," 1912), Aaron Hoffman (many examples), Augustus Thomas ("At Liberty," 1912), Ned Wayburn ("Melodyland,"1916), Charles Grapewin ("Above the Limit," 1900), and Barry Gray (numerous examples). There are also many lesser-known or completely unknown writers represented in this collection. Their work includes the more commonplace skits and acts of vaudeville, many of which were tailored either to fit specific entertainers, or particular cities or geographical areas through which a show was touring.
Of the various combinations possible in a vaudeville sketch (from monologue to large cast), the most common example represented in these playscripts is the two-person routine. These were usually written for one man and one woman, but dialogues between two men characters were not unusual; two-women dialogues were rare. Two-person acts were popular from the 1890s until the demise of vaudeville in the 1930s. The routines between George Burns and Gracie Allen, from the latter phase of vaudeville, are typical. It was during these final days of vaudeville that Gracie Allen perfected the dumb Dora "type" that is still found in today's television "situation comedies." Many other famous teams of vaudeville performers were active during this period, including Weber and Fields (represented in theater posters and on early sound recordings, to be released by the NDLP in 1997), Van and Schenck, Matthews and Bulger, Clark and McCullough, Montgomery and Moore, and, later, Montgomery and Stone (represented on sound recordings and in the motion picture components of this collection), Rock and Fulton, Whipple and Huston, and Melville and Higgins.
The two-person act became the basic structural underpinning for most vaudeville comedy by the early 1900s. It provided an opportunity for fast-flying repartee and the juxtaposition of contrasting characters such as the "straight man" with the comic, the city slicker with the rube, the immigrant with the more acculturated American, the husband with the wife, the mad-man with the doctor, or the socialite with the proletarian. Much of the humor in these dialogic relationships hearkens back to the minstrel show in which an arrogant "interlocutor" character (a "straight man") assumes authority (because of his superior education or assimilation) over a fool. The humor results from the fool undermining the interlocutor's authority through a variety of innocent, antic, or unwittingly disrespectful behaviors. In the process, the authority figure's pretentiousness or absurdity is revealed to the audience. Additional humorous devices used in the two-person act include insult, mistaken identity, and exaggerated boasting. Competitive sparring often takes place between men and women, particularly within a marriage relationship. Often, this gender-sparring forms part of vaudeville stage-courtship in which the feisty girl gains a proposal after she has bested her suitor in argument.
It is often impossible to identify the performers for whom routines were written, but the American Variety Stage collection provides a rich sampling of the two-person comic sketches in script form, including the following: "The Other Fellow, or, Burlesque Instrumentalities," by Carl Lick; "The Horse-Car Episode, or, Who'll Get the Umbrella," devised for Janet Melville and Evie Stetson; "Cupid's Capers," by Walter Augustine Snow; "Have a Care," by Tony Kennedy and John V. Bryce; "A Southern Episode," by Harry L. Newton; "Si Perkins, the Waiter," by William Henry Coyle; "Ballet Girl and the Bill-Poster," by W.H. Harder; "Training a Husband," by J. Murray Ferguson; "The Rube and the Veiled Lady," by E.J. Irvin; "Settled Out of Court," by John S. Carroll; "A Strenuous Proposal," by Edward Freiberger; and "The Travellers," written for the team of Morton ("Daffy Dill") and Rossie ("Lillian Dill," Daffy's wife), by Barry Gray.
Another type of vaudeville entertainment well-represented in this collection is the monologue. These scripts tend to be more topical than others and are filled with comments on politics, patriotism, feminism, and new inventions like the telephone and automobile. There are many examples of scripts written for monologues and other kinds of single acts, including "Original Woman's Rights Stump Speech A La Belva Lockwood," by Laura E. Burt; "A Trip to the Springs and a Ride around Randolph," by Ezra F. Kendall; "Bill Ryan, the Stage Hand," by Harold W. Hoadley; and "My Policies," by Aaron Hoffman.
Among the more curious works in this collection are those written for specialty acts that contain unusual gimmicks. Most of these scripts were written in the 1890s, before longer comic routines or one-act plays were in fashion. These scripts contain all kinds of oddities and novelties, such as acrobats, jugglers, mechanical effects (such as spring doors or "flying" eagles), trained animals, tableaux, and unusual props. Some examples of these works include: "Our Fishing Party," by William Hanlon and Robert J. Cutler (which includes mechanical effects that were submitted for patents); "The Russian Spectacular Pantomime," by Frank Melville; "A Political Nightmare," by George J. Mold; "Danse Deceptive," by Howard Whitnet; "Living Instruments," by Louis Koch; "'49 Mining Camp," by J.H. Love; "The World Champion American Boy," by Frank Hassall; "Flags of the World," by Frank Tannehill, Jr.; "The Tramp Juggler," by James Harrigan; and "The 5 Barrison Sisters' Extravaganza," by Fred Irwin.
In addition to texts themselves, these playscripts provide a wealth of details about staging, scenic requirements, and timing (often texts indicate specifically how long a routine is supposed to run). Most of the skits were meant to be no more than 10 to 20 minutes long. Spectacles, extravaganzas, and, later, one-act plays, have longer running times. Many of the plays incorporate songs, dances, or other specialty acts as part of a simple story line. Some provide "maps" or floorplans for the staging provided. Others include written stage directions or instructions for scenery, costuming, and incidental music. Most texts, however, simply indicate stage locations with little description.
Vaudeville sketches--monologues, one- and two-person-act plays, and specialty-acts--dominate the scripts in this collection, but there are samples of other entertainment forms included. Examples include the early burlesque, "Sultan of Ballehoho," by Dolph Levino and Dan Crimmins; the burlesque comedy, "Quo, Vadis, Upside Down," by Al Shean and Charles L.Warren; and spectacles such as Imre Kiralfy's "Nero, or, The Fall of Rome," and "Columbus and the Discovery of America."
There are also some very early examples of plays labeled "musical comedies." Unlike modern examples of this genre, these early works do not integrate an original score with a fully formulated "book," or narrative. Among these proto-musical comedies are "The Country Blacksmiths" (also called a semi-pantomimic one-act); "Hogan's Alley;" "Fun in an Artist's Studio;" and "Crimson Gulch." A number of scripts are labeled "comediettas," including "Non Compos Mentis" and "American Daisy," which suggest that the term simply meant a short comedy. In addition, the collection contains a small amount of material for the Ziegfeld Follies.
The playscripts in this digital collection provide an opportunity to explore many elements of American variety theater, including the work of individual writers, theatrical genres (such as vaudeville, spectacle, burlesque, and musical revue), types of acts and routines, comic devices, different forms (such as monologues), and the use of props and sets. The copyright deposit collections in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress hold many more such treasures.