Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Acting Up

act--the noun, not the verb. An orchestrated and contrived performance given by one or more persons, intended to define reality while pursuing some agenda; hence the judgmental, a class act, meaning a person or group whose behavior suggests quality and substantial grace of approach; or a step beyond, a tough act to follow, meaning an extraordinary performance, or getting one's act together, suggesting an orchestrated routine of behavior intended to produce a desired effect.. A component of a stage play, an act contains one or more scenes in which character simultaneously pursue agendas and through their actions reveal relevant individual traits. The act is the thematic framework in which story is set in motion, then advanced as the characters, attempting to be true to their intentions, confront opposition, reversal, and surprise.

Although meant originally as a theatrical segment, the act is a useful reminder to the short story writer and novelist as a check list of events that have happened, that should have happened, the might happen, and are being actively hoped for. An act is a larger Petri dish of smaller segments, scenes, which have some temporal or thematic hierarchy. Many short stories are readily transformed into a one-act play. Many longer novels are reduced to the equivalent of a short story before being transformed into a motion picture. (William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, is an example of the transformation from a number of acts on its way to becoming a motion picture.)

Instructive examples of acts: act one, scene two of Richard III by William Shakespeare sets forth characters and their agendas in immediate and irresistible motion. Act one, scene one of St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw quickly establishes a political climate, introduces the background of an as-yet unseen major character, all the while evoking the ambiance of a time in the distant past. Act one, scene one of Entertaining Mr. Sloan by Joe Orton presents an immediate agenda which foreshadows a bold, arresting conclusion, ironic in its Solomon-like logic.

As a verb, act connotes individuals who assume or take on agendas, attitudes, and entire modes of behavior that are not necessarily their own. In most stories, this acting is apparent to the reader if not the other characters, thus forming a double bind with irony; the author has conspired with the reader at the expense of the characters to produce this effect.

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