‘The problems of the second act’

In a very interesting little book by David Mamet called ‘3 Uses of the Knife: On the nature and purpose of drama‘ there is a section called ‘The problems of the second act.’  I can’t reproduce the whole section here, but I’m going to select a few quotations in the hopes you might find the ideas useful when you are studying plays with your IB students.  What Mamet is proposing is that there is energy from the playwright that can engage the audience but that sustaining that drive and pointing it to the conclusion present some tricky problems for the dramatist.

‘When the curtain goes up, we’ve got your attention. So we dramatists don’t have to do anything for a while. Later, either the plot will kick in or the audience will start yawning and eating popcorn. . . .The audience wants to be piqued, to be misled, to be disappointed at times, so that it can, finally, be fulfilled. The audience therefore needs the second act to end with a question.’

And according to Mamet, ‘Oh lord,’ the artist says, at this one-third  point, ‘here I find myself neither with the resolve and strength of the beginning nor with the renewal of strength that comes from a sight of the end–here I am, in short, in the middle.’

To this dilemma, Mamet proposes, the dramatist ‘manufacture[s] a complication,” introduces something previously unsuspected, and “emerging, must sink the protagonist (and the artist) into the slough of despair: ‘I had prepared for anything but this.’ Out of this despair must come the resolution to complete the journey.”

The section concludes this way: ‘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.  . . .This is the struggle of the second act.’

Mamet’s own play, Oleanna, is a favorite choice for me to include in Part 3, and I find some of the ideas in this section very useful to that reading.  Additionally, the play itself generates very lively discussion about the interactions that can occur between students and their teachers, a subject I find compelling and useful to explore, even important for students heading to university.   Along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Dead Poets’ Society, I think students can find footings to discuss such issues and anticipate dilemmas similar to the one Carol faces in Oleanna.

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