Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life in the Third Act

Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American life.” I am not the first to observe how wrong he was.

In his own life, as he saw it, probably, Act One began when he was in his mid-20’s and had sold This Side of Paradise, his first novel.
He never wrote or spoke of his childhood, and, although he was, in fact, a child at some point; his life began at Princeton with his relationship with Genevra King and then the fabulous, fraught Zelda. His reason for pessimism after his great early success may have been that, like so many celebrities before and after him, he reached for fame and got it too soon. He didn’t have the equipment to handle it. (There is also the matter of his alcohol addiction and his wife’s schizophrenia. I cannot know for certain, but suspect that at the heart of his life’s tragedy was the 20th Century’s confusion of values – an individual’s pursuit of material possessions and fame at the expense of his nobler motivation to produce art.)

But let’s think of life, any life, as broken into three acts. Take me, for instance, since this is my blog and I can do what I want with it.

My Act One was decidedly Childhood. Growing up in Fairhope, Alabama, a utopian colony with one of the world's first Progressive schools, was unforgettable--growth-producing, and a pathway to a good second act. I was made alert to its potential through the advantage of an education in the  aforementioned school,  the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, where kids made things happen and things happened to kids. We were not talked at or talked down to, we were questioned, we were allowed (yea, encouraged) to ask questions, and at the end of the 12 years in school we knew who we were. We just couldn’t wait for more stuff to happen. (For more on this, read The Fair Hope of Heaven, available online through amazon.com and Page & Palette, a local bookstore in Fairhope.)

Act One ended poignantly with a romance; a promise of things to come. I would no longer be a child. I had the tools to grow into a productive adult. I just didn’t know it.

Act Two was Romance and Travel, with a smattering of comedy, melodrama, and adventures in the arts, particularly the theatre. Act Two abounds with stories – short stories, novels, character sketches, changes of locale, marriage(s), the raising of a child, divorces, deaths -- an infinity of challenge and growth. This would have been Scott Fitzgerald’s Act One, but, because I had such a rich childhood, all this stuff was Act Two for me. There are indeed second acts in American life.

Act Three is just at the beginning now; a chance to assess and apply what I’ve learned while at the same time learning more. A chance to work at perfecting the instrument. An awareness that it is now or never, so it’s gonna be now. Well, knowing the instrument doesn’t mean the same circumstances won’t recur, or necessarily that I’ll handle them differently. It just means I know they’re coming.

There, I’ve done it again, glossed over things as if life were just a somewhat bumpy ride down an unpaved road. In Act Three I’m learning to write it well, clarifying and not letting myself off the hook so easily. Perhaps I’ll get involved in theatre again, and I’ll work at it. Perhaps there is another book or two in me, yet to be written. Maybe even another house. The two little boys who are my grandsons are young men, ready to take on the world, and if they’re lucky their lives will have three acts as well. Even if they become cynics, they still will not say that there are no second acts in American life. I hope that, like me, they will attempt to deal with the whole show with some humor, intelligence, and good will.

An earlier version of this blog post appeared when I was still living in Fairhope, on my "Finding Fair Hope" blog, and a reader corrected me about my interpretation of Scott Fitzgerald's statement. She said he didn't mean Americans didn't reinvent themselves, but that their lives were filled instead with "first" acts. I didn't mean to reinvent myself either, but I'm not sure I agree that was what Fitzgerald meant. "How's your second act?" was a common taunt among writers of the 1920s and 30s, as the second act was the most difficult to craft--the place in a play where conflict came into focus, setting up a need for the inevitable resolution in Act Three.

All my acts have been a bit helter-skelter, compared to the well-made plays of years past, and now that I'm in the last act, I have a sense that it's all working out.


  1. It is typically American to believe that life continues to improve and then ends with satisfaction and peace. This not how most of my experience has been, but to voice it brings about accusations of being "negative." I keep hearing the phrase "this is 2014!" as if the date infers that positive progress is a given. It is my observation that we keep going over and over the same territory as if it is always new and always believing that it is different than what has happened in the past.

  2. I so enjoyed reading this - beautifully written and very interesting. I, on the other hand, see my life as a flow - no acts, no real differentiation. Just going along. I've never been a life planner, or someone who looks ahead much. I'm kind of a day to day girl.

  3. But surely, as you look back, you can see segments, one leading to the other. Luckily there are NO intermissions!