No one thinks it’s real, the action up there on stage – except maybe small children at Hansel and Gretel or Peter Pan. Macbeth and Hamlet don’t really die, Blanche doesn’t actually go mad, Hedda doesn’t shoot herself, and Curly and Laurie don’t really live together happily ever after. And yet…. We go along for the ride, letting our imaginations and emotions yield to the experience: the willing suspension of disbelief.
Whenever we watch a play or movie or television show, it kicks in, letting us be someone other than ourselves or be someplace where we’d normally not be. When we read a novel, story, poem, or piece of nonfiction, if the work is well done, the willing suspension of disbelief takes over, transporting us to the Dust Bowl, 1925 Manhattan, Victorian London, the freezing Gulag, or a nineteenth century whaler -- unless something clumsy in the execution reminds us that it’s all fake, not real, at all, and that we’ve been suckered in again.
It’s not easy to build that bridge of plausibility and trust. There are no shortcuts. Talent alone can’t do it. Tricks don’t count. Cleverness isn’t enough. A Dr. Seuss landscape of careening arches wobbling on disjointed columns of broken rocks may be fun, but we never believe in it for an instant.
There’s a story about Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the married couple who acted together on stage for decades and were famous for their naturalistic style, perfected with almost endless practice and rehearsals, even to overlapping dialogue that seemed completely real no matter how many times they played the roles. During one performance, in the middle of a scene, a phone on stage rang at the wrong time. Calmly, as if it was part of the play, Lynn Fontanne crossed the stage, picked up the receiver, listened, and then with a smile held it out to Alfred Lunt. “It’s for you,” she said.
The story never includes what he did at that point. The story is famous because it was probably the only time when the suspension of disbelief in one of their productions was broken.
The Wizard of Oz exposed: It doesn’t take much to jar us, to remind us that it’s all make believe, a game. Sometimes, that might be part of the fun – as with Dr. Seuss – but if we’re closing in on Moby Dick, we don’t want the telephone to suddenly ring. If we’re starting to believe in the Wizard of Oz and to trust him, we don’t want the curtain pulled back to reveal that he’s a grinning, fast-talking fake.
Rough edges are okay, even good, from time to time. Life has rough edges. Sometimes, very rough. But they must work without shattering our suspension of disbelief. If we say that the actor “chewed the scenery” or the actress overwhelmed us with her grace and beauty, maybe something was wrong. What about the politician, the newscaster, the political “pundit,” or the “expert” commentator? In the drama of real life, pretense goes only so far. When reality hits the fan, the mess splatters over all of us.
In literature, in drama, in any entertainment, I want to experience the moment without distraction, be there, a partner, my imagination and emotions allowed to be part of the process. Make me laugh, make me squirm, make me afraid, make me cry, make me think, make me wonder, but engage me. And in real life, in the comedy and drama of politics, this is even more true. I want to be able to forget my doubts, go beyond disbelief, to the truth.
All I ask is: Let me trust you.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, Published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Texas A & M Consortium, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.