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Second Act Problems

By Steven Pressfield

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I’m reading a terrific book by David Mamet called Three Uses of the Knife. It’s not a play or a novel, it’s a treatise on the subject of drama. There’s some great stuff in it, particularly in the section Mamet calls “Second Act Problems,” that we as writers, artists, entrepreneurs (and just plain human beings) can profit from.

All writers know: Act One is easy. You come up with some crazy idea and heave it against the wall. Act Three isn’t that hard either. We’ve figured out where we’re going; we just tromp on the accelerator and go there.

Ah, but Act Two …

A joke from the Algonquin Round Table [Mamet writes]: A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, “How’s the play going?” The other says, “I’m having second act problems.” Everybody laughs. “Of course you’re having second act problems!”

What makes Act Two so hard is it’s too much like real life …

In his analysis of world myth, Joseph Campbell calls this period “in the belly of the beast”--the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which the artist and the protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun. [The artist and the protagonist have hit] the slough of despair: “I had prepared for anything but this.”

The other nasty aspect of Act Two is it’s glamorless. It’s unromantic. Its problems are boring.

In the middle term the high-minded goal [of Act One] has devolved into what seems to be a quotidian, mechanical and ordinary drudgery: now we are not trying to establish a Jewish Homeland but negotiating a contract with a stationer to supply the paper so that we may write fund-raising letters.

Act Two sucks. In our life and our art. (And Act Two can come at any time in our lives; it doesn’t have to wait for our middle years. You can hit Act Two at nineteen, alas!) In Act Two,we’re stuck. We started out with the noble goal of draining the swamp; suddenly we find ourselves up to our asses in alligators.

How many times have we heard (and said): Yes, I know that I was cautioned, that the way would become difficult and I would want to quit, that such was inevitable, and that at exactly this point the battle would be lost or won … but those who cautioned me could not have foreseen the magnitude of the specific difficulties I am encountering at this point–difficulties which must, sadly, but I have no choice, force me to resign the struggle (and have a drink, a cigarette, an affair, a rest), in short, to declare failure.

Act Two is the epicenter of Resistance. And here Mr. Mamet identifies a villain I have never put my finger on: romance. The romantic notion that Don Corleone, Elvis or Obi Wan Kenobi will swoop down and save us.

In the romance the period of struggles is truncated, formalistic and capped with the intervention of the Fairy Godmother (the God from the Machine, Santa Claus, the arrival of the cavalry.) These romances do away with the quest of the middle term–the problems of the second act–in a way similar to hallucinogens’ promise of the key to the universe. They reduce the difficulty of the problem to zero and then reward the individual for solving it.

What exactly do we want in our second act? We want to get to Act Three. We want, Mamet says,

the precipitation of the end struggle … the granting of the hero’s wish, engendered in the middle term, for a clear-cut fight which would absolutely resolve the question at hand.

This is serious stuff, because if it’s true (and I believe it is), it means asking and answering the really nut-busting questions of our art and our lives. What self-serving delusions are we in thrall to? Why can’t we find peace or happiness–or simply stop ourselves from hurting those we love? Why can’t we get out of our own way? Why do we keep repeating the same self-destructive actions?

There is an answer. There is an Act Three. We can get to that “clear-cut fight.” But the hell of it is slogging through this gloryless, romanceless Act Two.

The true drama, and especially the tragedy, calls for the hero to exercise will, to create, in front of us, on the stage, his or her own character, the strength to continue. It is her striving to understand, to correctly assess, to face her own character (in her choice of battles) that inspires us–and gives the drama power to cleanse and enrich our own character.

Two things I love about David Mamet’s take on this subject:

First, he promises no magic bullet. It is what it is. Each of us has to lick his or her own Act Two, in terms that only he or she can know and can implement. There’s no short cut and no Royal Road.

And second, the concept of seeing this struggle as “second act problems.” We as human beings, Mamet says, are natural dramatizers. That’s how we make sense of our world. It’s our survival mechanism; we can’t help ourselves.

It helps me to think of my own struggles, in life and in art, as a passage in the hero/protagonist’s journey. It helps me to conceive of the struggle as a trial that is part of life, one that every man and women has had to negotiate since our paths crossed that dastardly serpent in the Garden–and with no better tools than you or I have at our disposal now. And it encourages me to remember that there is an Act Three, if we can find the resolve to play it straight in Act Two. And in that third act, we’ll get the “clear-cut fight” we’ve been looking for–the one that will resolve the issue we’ve been struggling with since Act One.

(I should add that David Mamet, the real guy, is a hero of mine. Not only for his artistic gifts, courage and integrity, but also for the life he lives as a man. He and his wife Rebecca Pidgeon live in Santa Monica, not far from me. They are both tremendously involved in the community–politically, spiritually and personally. They support more causes, without ever taking credit, than anyone I know. And they’re both funny. Thanks, David, for the books you’ve sent me just for the hell of it–and particularly for Three Uses of the Knife, which came into my life on its own.)

About Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield is the author of "The War of Art" and "Do The Work," along with seven novels of historical fiction including "Gates of Fire," "Killing Rommel" and the current "The Profession." He's also a screenwriter, though he refuses to admit to any of the movies he's worked on. He lives in Los Angeles.
Screenwriting Article by Steven Pressfield

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