I don’t think much about [death], but in a certain stage in your life it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.’ I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.
From ‘I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors’ by Nick Paton Walsh (The Observer: Oct 13, 2001)
The posting of Leonard Cohen’s Third Act – The Must-Read You Want It Darker Album Review brought to mind the “third act” quotation featured above in this entry first published Apr 24, 2013 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. But, there is more to the story.
I thought this an appropriately pithy expression to warrant its publication as a “Words By Leonard Cohen” post, and as I am wont to do, checked the source.
And I indeed found several references to that quotation, but, oddly, every example, save one, bundled the epigram itself, Tennessee Williams, and Leonard Cohen.
It turns out that the original quotation is actually worded a bit differently:
Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.
And, It also turns out that the source of the quote is significantly different; it was produced by Truman Capote rather than Tennessee Williams.
But pointing out a mistake made by Leonard Cohen – while great fun – is not my primary mission.
Even at my most pedantic, I find it difficult to view attributing a clever remark made by Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams a signal of the end of civilization as we know it.1
The remarkable thing, it seems to me, is that none of the interviewers or their publications checked the source of the quote.
Cohen, who is known for repeating successful phrases and anecdotes in interviews, has, true to form, used the third act line with other interviewers:
“Tennessee Williams had this famous quote: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act,'” says Cohen, flicking an ash off the table. “And I’m at the beginning of the third act. The end of the third act — nobody has a handle on that one. But the beginning — there is a certain relief for me here. It is palpable.”
A Happy Man by Mireille Silcott. Saturday Night, Canada: September 15, 2001
I remember something Tennessee Williams said about life being a fairly well-written play except for the third act. By this point in my life, we have the experience of the first two acts, but we haven’t really encountered what is in store in the third.
Leonard Cohen returns to music by Robert Hilburn. Chicago Tribune: October 18, 2001
Even worse, this has become a popular quote writers have recycled, misattribution intact, into articles about the Canadian singer-songwriter.
Asked about death a few years old, Bono’s favourite poet answered with a wisdom that suggested that perhaps he was descended from the Kohanim after all. “I don’t think much about [death],” Laughing Lenny said, ” but, in a certain stage in your life, it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.’ I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.”
The godfather of gloom lightens up for third act by Barry Egan. Independent.ie: March 23, 2008
In 2001, you said to the Observer that you were at a stage of your life you refer to as the third act. You quoted Tennessee Williams saying: “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act.” You were 67 when you said that, you’re 74 now – does that ring more or less true for you still?
‘I’m blessed with a certain amnesia’ by Jian Ghomeshi. The Guardian: 9 July 2009
The same line is also quoted in, among many others, the following pieces:
- Leonard Cohen: his wit, warmth and wisdom. The Telegraph: 14 Jun 2008
- The Rock& Roll Hall of Fame welcomes a renewed Leonard Cohen by Nate DeMontigny. Precious Metal: March 10, 2008
- Leonard Cohen. World Tour. Europe, USA. Through 13 November 2009, Las Vegas. Another Travel Guide
- The Color Orange and My First Cousin Jesse: Rediscovering Family by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring. Huffington Post: March 7, 2013.
Still worse, the exact line as misquoted by Leonard Cohen and credited to Tennessee Williams, has almost certainly been lifted from a Cohen interview and been used in an article about Michael Jackson.2
So, now you know Truman Capote is responsible for “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act,” that, as far as I can determine, Tennessee Williams did not come up with his famous quote “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act,'” that Leonard Cohen makes the occasional error, and, that, apparently, one can’t rely on interviewers and publications to check the information they receive before presenting it to the reader.
Credit Due Department: Photo by Maarten Massa
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Sept 23, 2016.