Literary and Theatrical Magic: Suspension of Disbelief and Resilience

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September 18, 2015 by katmcdaniel

We all spend time with illusions: books, movies, television, theatre. Does the ability to suspend disbelief contribute to human resilience?

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice, God or Merman © Bev Sykes with CCLicense

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin in The Big Voice, God or Merman
© Bev Sykes with CCLicense

In the theatre we often speak of the suspension of disbelief, the willingness to temporarily accept an illusion as truth. The term was coined in 1817 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was actually speaking of literature. Coleridge felt that, if an author created “human interest and a semblance of reality”, then the audience would respond with a desire to believe the narrative presented, even if it was implausible. An audience willing to suspend their normal everyday world is able to enter a new world created for them, losing touch with their own physicality and allowing themselves to feel as if the events described or enacted are truly happening. The greater the skill of the creator, the more enticing the spell.

Books, along with stage and screen works, exude a magic that gives the human spirit release and escape from reality. But is it only a breather, a moment of frivolity, before we return to normal life or is there something more practical happening?

Charlton Heston in The Ten Coomandments

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments

Our favorite stories inspire strong feelings and are able to reach us when we fail to connect with real life. These illusions can shape our worldview by showing us things we might not otherwise see and by encouraging us to imagine a world in which things we take for granted are not established fact. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they may also delete uncomfortable truths and confirm our prejudices. In much the same way a child role plays situations with dolls, we are invited to play out a scenario that does not immediately alter the world around us, but allows us to practice and build our responses to life. We are presented with situations that we will never encounter in our reality and are able to build empathy or hatred for both imaginary and actual beings, beings we may never meet face to face.

We desperately need a place to explore ourselves and dream out loud. This magic place is well established in the literary and theatrical arts, although, by nature, it is never completely free from manipulation and propaganda. The space cannot be completely controlled or it loses its magic, but we do have some control over how we respond to the things brought to life there. The greatest good it contains may be the realization that there are other interpretations of life apart from our own.

Here is a montage called Making Magic by David Anderson. By partnering images of famous directors and actors creating illusion with spoken quotes from films he explores the potential movies have for inspiring us and creating empathy. What powerful enchantment!

Video via David Anderson on Vimeo


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