THE WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF


Image from Moving Water, a work in progress by the Serious Play Theater Ensemble.


What happened to the "willing suspension of disbelief" that Coleridge defined as essential to the audience's experience of a play (or any art form)? As long as a work of art remains true to the verisimilitude it creates within itself it should be no problem. It's only when it takes an unbelievable turn--usually bad writing, e.g.; where a "script doctor" has forced an improbable happy ending or made a poor artistic choice--that we smell a rat. But mostly we agree, up front, to believe what we're watching or reading in order to have a fulfilling experience of it. We know it is a film, play or novel, but we want to participate in the narrative as if it's the truth. The rise of theory has undermined this pleasure by picking at some ideological imperfection. We say Ophelia is a simp, or Katherine in Taming of the Shrew is counter to what feminists believe. We don't believe Shakespeare knew anything about Moors (he didn't, but Othello is no less moving) and we observe that Bohemia does not have a seacoast. It also applies to life, I think. We either want to trust, to believe people are good and they wish us well; or we do not and go about our lives distrusting and imputing motives everywhere.


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