March 27, 2008
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 schizophenia. 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.)
In the days when Fitzgerald made his famous remark, almost all the plays were written with three acts, the second one being the most difficult to write. It was where all the neatly arranged characters and situations in Act One got mixed up, jostled, and its people were challenged to begin to think in different ways. Everything would be resolved in Act Three, but Act Two was where the problems were. Let us 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 was unforgettable, growth-producing,, and a pathway to a good second act. I deal with Fairhope in great detail in my blog Finding Fair Hope. In that unique little town, I was made alert to life's potential through the advantage of an education in 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 Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, which is available online through amazon.com or iUniverse.com and local bookstores in Fairhope.)
Act One ended poignantly with a romance, a promise of things to come. I would no longer be a child, and 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. I have chosen a scene change, back to the cold and challenging North, to begin this act.
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’ll learn to write it well, clarifying and not letting myself off the hook so easily. I’ll get onstage again, and I’ll work at it, and I’ll pull together people to work at Mrs. Johnson’s school. By the time I’m ready to leave Fairhope, Fairhope will notice that I’ve been here. The two little boys who are my grandsons will be 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.