The Play’s the Thing: Life in Three Acts

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No professional writer is going to tell the same story in exactly the same way; though every story has the same structural elements. That being said, stories written by professionals must generally be structured in the same way, no matter who is telling it, or folks will likely not enjoy reading it. The elements of good story telling, you were first exposed to in grade school. Not much has changed since the day they were first written down some three millennia or so ago by a member of the venerable Greek nation‒ Aristotle. In his Poetics, the great philosopher purports ‘art’ as being ‘the mirror of life.’ Truly, if done right. But the corollary to this is that life structures art, that is, if art is to reflect it. The two processes are inextricably and fully linked, if they are linked at all by the writer. We are the writers of our own ‘life-stories;’ we could easily render our lives in terms of Aristotle’s ‘three act structure,’ were we to look at it with a critical story-teller’s eye, with only one obvious caveat. If you cannot guess now, it will come up a little later in this post.

ACT I – Setting the stage = Growing up:

We come into this world innocent and fully engaged. And why not? Everything is ‘new’ to us and we wonder at everything‒and are afraid of nothing(thank god we have parents). We don’t even concern ourselves with how we got here or where we’re going; only with what’s happening right here, right now. We are firmly in Eckhart Tolle’s Now – world.

In our opening act, we (the protagonist) are introduced to the major characters: mom and dad, brothers and sisters, best friends, the neighbourhood, then kindergarten, then that infamous Grade One teacher- you know, the one whose job is to convince her young charges fresh out of kindergarten that they just aren’t in Kansas anymore…By Grade Seven or Eight, puberty happens. In scriptwriter nomenclature, the onset of puberty is our ‘inciting incident.’

Now, the student of drama will know our story now takes an entirely new turn. Nothing is as it was; everything is about the protagonist’s attempts to deal with the inciting incident:

we obsess to look right, to do all the right things, to say all the right things in the right way, to be popular‒ especially among members of the opposite sex‒ to make our own money, spend our own money, to have our own place, and finally, to be independent of mom and dad, especially when it comes to getting advice, but not so much when it comes to paying the rent and showing up at suppertime. We experience falling in love and then most of us will experience the heartbreak of love lost.

Then we meet the ‘person of our dreams.’ We have tired of the things of our youth and decide it is time to get married. Getting married is our response to the inciting incident. The writer would identify the marriage event as their story’s plot point one‒ coinciding with the end of ACT I. The dramatic question of our life’-story, answered at our story’s end, is also rendered:

‘Will I / WE be successful in life? Will we make a good living for ourselves and our family, or is this going to end in divorce; the kids living with mom, dad living somewhere else?

We are come to our life-story’s second act.

ACT II – the confrontation = adulthood, family and career:

The ‘person of our dreams’ we imagine to be our life’s co-protagonist, but may soon become the primary antagonist in the life-story we are writing, as we most assuredly have in theirs‒not exactly what either of us would have had in mind. We all are all ‘writing’ for a happy ending; no one’s life exists simply to provide cathartic release for other folks unless you are a slave to others and they are writing your life-story for you. That’s never good for a writer, and writers we are. You can’t copy someone else’s life-story because that would be plagiarism ‒we’re supposed to be ourselves anyways‒neither can you write someone else’s story because that would be imagination and not real at all but rather a projection of your own mind. We are the writer of our own life-story as our partner is of theirs.

Our partner’s interest in what we have to say, in how we are feeling, in what we are doing, in what we’d like to do‒ all that is often displaced by virtue of a relentless progression into me-ism, which can occur on either or both sides. The primary motif at this stage of our story may become, ‘what do you do for me?’ Consideration for our wants and needs is wholly displaced by demands to satisfy their wants and needs, and vice-versa: both of you are already tired beyond measure by all your other responsibilities; at the end of their respective ‘work days, ‘ both are looking to their significant other for respite. Given that the commute and the work shift leaves little to nothing in you battery, neither of you has the resources, even if you did have the desire, to adequately provide for the needs of the other for very long.

Your soul-battery goes flat. You no longer seem to have the energy to provide adequate consideration of your partner’s ‘state of the union,’ never mind your own. Consequently, neither of you is able to resolve much or to let anything go that is unresolved. But now, everything requires resolution to the satisfaction of the partners’ respective egos. Going off to bed at day’s end with no issues remaining; the comfort of just being together after a long day at the office and/or out in the world‒all that is replaced with going to bed facing away from each other, a sense of loneliness, a free fall into despondency as you begin to realize things are not going to change but are rather going to get worse. The choice remaining to you: either collapse into submissiveness to the ego of your partner, likely as messed up as yours and no benchmark upon which to base your self-actualization and resolution of your life-story, or leave the nest. Most of us in that case will end up leaving the nest and getting divorced. With respect to drama theory, this represents the midpoint of our life-story and of the second act. We will encounter a relentless downturn in our fortunes as we negotiate the emptiness that replaced the drama with our ‘ex.’ Eventually, we hit rock bottom and we have only two choices remaining: to let ourselves fall out of the bottom or to begin the long, arduous, but fulfilling climb upwards and out of the life-hole we fell into. In drama-writer parlance, this is plot point two. The curtain falls and our second act draws to a close.

An interesting subplot to the story thus far is how things play out in our careers. If you work for someone else, you could easily find yourself living from payday to payday, in constant fear of each being the last one; and then what will you do, in the current job market, to replace the lost income soon enough? You worry perhaps that your employer doesn’t need you like you need the job.

If you are self-employed, you might not fare any better‒you will worry month to month about penny-pinching customers.

A salient feature of the second act is the character arc. It describes how events compel the protagonist to grow spiritually and/or to discover they have all the quality of spirit necessary to successfully answer their story’s dramatic question. The writer will oblige his/her protagonist to experience myriad setbacks; to hit their nadir so that, minus the blinds of their own ego, the way forward becomes plain and accessible to them. This provides evidence that we are not the only ones involved in writing our stories: no one would see the value in their having to struggle in order to progress, that like water, we will seek the easiest route. Our story must therefore have a co-writer. The co-writer of our life-story is the creator. We are both writer and protagonist; because we have free will and must exercise it, we are helping him/her to write it. Our own ‘character arc’ is motivated by our attempts to improve on the sub-optimal circumstances we find ourselves in. You enter ACT II – marriage and career- innocent and believing if you love truly and work hard, everything will turn out just fine. But they don’t always…

You work past the aforementioned midpoint(divorce) at the outset, spending much of your free time alone. You can easily slip into a deep and protracted period of despondency. You will do a lot of soul-searching. You have lots of time because you are gone from the nest and no longer attending to its daily responsibilities. At minimum, you have both resolved to soften the blow to your children as much as you can by maintaining civility with one another. You know that kids need to love and admire their moms and their dads.

One day, you will realize that you have stopped living in your past; that you walked out the door that morning and forgot to take it with you. You’ve come back and are ‘alive’ again. You’ve rejoined Eckhart Tolle’s Now:

You’ve missed out on much. You are looking upwards instead of down. Your kids, now grown up, are healthy and well on their way to writing their own life-stories and fulfilling their dreams. You are hopeful their ACT II will be as beneficial to their spiritual growth as your ACT II was to your spirit, only without the drama and pain. You pray their children will not have to live through divorce like yours did.

Your general focus, slowly and by degrees, turns toward what you have and away from what you had.

Despondency slowly and by degrees is displaced by hope and optimism.

You are on the proverbial ‘rebound.’ You’ve resolved to move forward, resolute and with newfound purpose (implying a spirit reawakened) and to embrace the future with anticipation. You’ve arrived at what dramatists refer to as plot point two and the curtain comes down on ACT II the moment you experience the change in attitude and discover purpose once again.

ACT III – the Resolution-the Climax/ answer to our dramatic question and resolution of all major tensions = our physical death:

Let’s face it, the only certainties in life really are ‘death and taxes.’

Everyone ‘dies.’ None of what you acquire, by effort or by luck, you are able to take with you. What you can take is…you. Your spirit. Your consciousness ‒that’s it; but that’s everything you came into the world with, and for you, at the time, it was quite enough. As an added bonus, you have left all of your ‘disappointments’- the life-lessons the grand architect of your life-story needed you to experience‒ behind. Upon death, your spirit is freed from the shackles of having to earn a ‘living.’ You are nourished by the positivism and goodness emanating from other souls as you nourish other souls with your positivism and goodness. After material death, the stage for your play and the opportunities with which you are now presented have broadened immeasurably. You are no longer limited by your own ego or by the egos of others. You are seen by others as you truly are and you see others truly. There are no airs, no misunderstandings, no power games, no hidden agendas, no being judged by the standards of another person’s ego or of your own. There are only opportunities to channel god’s love and to extend god’s creation.

This is exactly what you have been striving for throughout ACT II; the way you thought and dreamed the world was out of the innocence of the early stages of ACT I. Dreams become real again, but you must wait until the curtain rises on your ACT III.

On the other side of the Styx you are still very much engaged in following the ‘circle of life.’ As you progress along your own life’s arc, you will be approaching the point you originated from (that is the nature of the circle). You will eventually and inevitably return to your point of origin, returning to what you were (and still are): a son or daughter loved by and loving your parents, a soul created by god and loved by god and by all other souls created by god, save for the ones corrupted by their own ego.

In short – you will come to see that you have succeeded, only not in the way you were taught to view ‘success.’
Your material wealth cannot be takes as the measure of success in life; as noted earlier, none of us can pack a suitcase and tote it across the River Styx. Plainly then, your character arc involves everything but what our modern society esteems as the measure of success.

But you will be loved as you love. People no longer enter into and exit out of your life. There is never a sense of loss, rather an omnipresent sense of fulfillment-one you have felt before in life for fleeting instants‒only now it’s so omnipresent, you might not even think about it. Like the dogs you see frolicking in the off-leash areas along the local beach, you are so engaged in the moment and living without care, you don’t even think about how good you feel because you feel that way all of the time…bow-wow!

Conclusion:

In the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare’s hapless hero plows through reams and a realms, both spiritual and material, of hidden agendas, uncertainties, and his own mistakes, while on his quest for the truth about his father’s death. His reaction to the truth (revealed to him by his father’s ghost, no less) compels him to worsen the seeming ‘rottenness’ in Denmark by feigning madness on his quest for truth, which, as an unintended side effect leads to his life-love’s madness and suicide. He distances himself from the people that are true and who truly love him because all of the uncertainty, the gulf between appearance and reality, has overwhelmed him; disposing him to be suspicious of everybody.

Shakespeare, Hamlet’s creator and the sole author of Hamlet’s ‘life-story’ since Hamlet is not a living soul and cannot help to write it, has purposely set Hamlet up to fail: his father’s ghost reveals the truth to him about his fratricidal uncle, his mother marries her murderous brother-in-law, and it appears that none of the murdered king’s ministers appear to suspect the new king and continue to serve him faithfully. This is, understandably, a bit too much for the son of a murdered father to unpack and properly process. Instead, the truth is so routinely put to the question, it causes him to doubt his own senses and his ability to tell where appearances end and realities begin. Doubt was Hamlet’s hamartia- his tragic flaw. He is neither permitted to know the truth about others or others about himself until it is too late to save him from death at the hand of Laertes.

But the truth he sought had been in his grasp all along; it is just that he could not see it ‒not until the shade of his ego had been lifted and his uncle’s guilt exposed. This was accomplished by virtue of the occurrence and means of his own death; it exonerated him in the eyes of Laertes, whose father Hamlet had killed by mistake and whose sister Hamlet had unintentionally driven to suicide.

Fortinbras provides the resolution of the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark at the end of the play and all is well in Denmark once more. Hamlet is released from the ‘slings and arrows’ of ‘outrageous fortune’ by his death and is recognized by all as a hero…’goodnight, sweet prince.’ Now that Hamlet’s ‘play’ has reached its conclusion, his character’s ‘hour upon the stage’ ended, he is free from all uncertainty, royal court subterfuge and guilt.

With the truth in hand, how do you suppose he will begin life on the other side of the Styx? This is the beginning of what I propose is the third act of every human’s life-story, but for Hamlet, what comes next would require Shakespeare to write a sequel. It is where the analogy I employ for this article breaks down, but when Shakespeare is quilling the script, I’m sure as the far shore of the Styx not going to argue. As for the great Dane, having left all that he had known and possessed on our side of ‘the river,’ his mission complete, he would continue seeking the truth, including the good he had known: his murdered father, his life’s love, Ophelia; to undo the mistakes he had made in life, and to find the life and fulfillment he never had.

For all souls, human or not, death is our life-story’s climax, but it is not the end of our life-story. The resolution of all our life-story’s plot and subplots is accomplished with more alacrity than the windup of accounts in an instalment of the Godfather; only there’s no end to the circle we’re on, so we just keep going around and around.

The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king. In Hamlet’s immortal words the entire point of the story is revealed to us: one’s hour upon the stage is a process of self-discovery and revelation. At the end of the ‘hour,’ it is our conscience which has been caught‒and our true heart which is revealed.

Upon exiting our death’s bed, we exist in a state that is fully knowable; to ourselves and to all other souls. By virtue of our ‘hour upon the stage,’ our spirit is completely exposed‒to us, to all other souls, and to our creator. Our creator, the playwright’s playwright, has set it up this way because it is the only way to know our intrinsic quality. The soil you happen to be growing out of plays a huge role in the ‘quality’ of the fruit you produce, but the fruit can belie the tree’s quality because a poor tree in good soil might produce acceptable fruit without even having to try; whereas a good tree in impoverished soil can only produce ‘acceptable’ fruit after much struggle. It is therefore not the size or sweetness of the fruit that is the proper measure of a particular tree’s quality-how can they be? It is rather whether the tree is true to Nature’s and god’s purpose, and this is accomplished simply by trying to produce good fruit. Hamlet, were he a real person, would back me up on this when I say there is no other way to know ourselves or others truly but to watch their story unfold and see how we respond.

When our time comes and our hour is concluded, we too exit the stage. We ditch our bodies since we have no more need of them than actors do of their costumes post-performance. We have no more need of our bodies ‘offstage’ than we do our umbilical cord after leaving our mother’s womb. It is not the beginning or the end of anything, save for our time upon the stage, during which our afterlife’s trajectory is determined. For Hamlet, his play within a play revealed the truth to him, as the play written by Shakespeare revealed to the playgoer the truth about Hamlet.

Good night, sweet prince.

We have come home. We’re back to where we started out from…ready for the sequel…