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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chapter 4 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity - Meditations on playwriting

I know it's all bollocks but... Suspension of Disbelief

"Perhaps the conspiracy world is an updated version of ancient myths, where monsters and the gods of Olympus and Valhalla have been replaced by aliens and the Illuminati of Washington and Buckingham Palace."  Thom Burnett in the Conspiracy Encyclopaedia using the German term Verschwörungsmythos meaning "Conspiracy Myth"

But all this about conspiracy theories, hoaxes, scams, year zero and kittens is still not the weirdest thing.  Or even the most frightening.  It is, rather, the casual, deliberate way we all as writers originate and promulgate these untruths.  We deliberately set out to mislead the peoples of the world with lies and deceptions. We create myths and untruths and spew them out willy nilly with no thought to the consequences of our irresponsible and reckless behaviour.  We collude with the hoaxers with lies and deliberate sleight of the pen.  We set out to create worlds that do not exist and the more we can deceive our audiences, the closer we can approach verisimilitude, the more gleeful we are.

I love Science Fiction and I love the way it can consider the what-ifs of the world in a controlled and entertaining way.  But somehow you get the impression that there are people out there who believe, not only that this could be the future but that it actually is the present.  So you get Star Trek fans learning Klingon and, wait for it, people registering their religious beliefs as Jedi or, maddest of all, Scientologist.  OK, if you're doing it in a Santa Claus sort of tongue in cheek way, but, no, these folk are serious.  I mean Scientology is a pyramid selling scheme.  How can you worship a pyramid selling scheme?

I have first-hand knowledge of Scientology so I can explain my reaction.  I was travelling by train down Italy and happened to share a compartment with a young Swedish guy.  He was affable and easy going but for some reason he felt compelled to show me the contents of his suitcase.  It was literally stuffed full of bank notes.  He happily explained how he had sold everything he owned and was taking the cash to join a group in Corfu, the then headquarters of the Scientology movement.  I knew nothing about Scientology and he persuaded me to meet up with him on the island and he would show me round.  As it turned out the headquarters was a large rusting hulk moored in the harbour.  The acolytes, having handed over all their worldly possessions were living and eating in communal dormitories in fairly Spartan conditions.  Nothing strange there.  There was any number of weird cults living communal lives at that time.  Except that the “Clears” the officers or priests or whatever they were, seemed to have a high old time frequenting the bars and taverns of the town and the founder of the cult, the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was living further down the quayside in a large white motor yacht draped with bikini-clad lovelies. Cognitive dissonance on the grandest of grandiose scales. I declined the opportunity to throw in my lot with them.

And the same applies to the Nigerian Princess scam and other hoaxes.  Apparently the far-fetched nature of the narrative is designed to eliminate all but the most gullible.  The scammers want to weed out anyone who might cause trouble but for the poor unfortunate who falls for the scheme they will be drawn gradually into a web of intrigue.  Once you have parted with your details or even the thousand dollars the Princess needs to pay bribes you are hooked and you will put aside your doubts because you are now afraid of losing your first investment or even from fear that you will be made to look stupid by not following up on the deal. The deeper in we get, the more we earnestly believe and the harder it is for rational thinking to apply.

But let’s not judge these people too harshly; after all cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two or more entirely contradictory beliefs at once, is the basis of all art.  And theatre could not function without it.  Here we call it Suspension of Disbelief.


I was enjoying a programme called Mystery Maps on television some time ago (I do occasionally get to watch TV) in which the presenter Ben Shephard mentioned the role of "Suspension of disbelief" in people who see ghosts or witness UFOs and suppose them to be aliens. Their readiness to believe is heightened by being in a suitably spooky environment such as a dark wood and, having recently seen a film about aliens, even the most innocent of sightings of a light will be interpreted as something other worldly. In other words, they have been primed to believe what they are about to experience and so they do. The term "Suspension of disbelief" was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 as a necessary condition for any narrative be it film, novel, play or even just a nursery tale. When we engage with a narrative we have to disregard the fact that we are actually only seeing flickering images on a screen or reading some very abridged description of the world, or even that we are hearing something utterly preposterous.  In the theatre world suspension of disbelief is our stock in trade; audience members are required to believe that this is not a stage but the battlements of a Danish castle, that this person is not an actor but is Hamlet Prince of Denmark, that he is experiencing genuine emotions not that he is just reciting lines of text.  Some people find suspension of disbelief a tricky idea and for them the whole narrative structure becomes a puzzle, but for the vast majority of people it is a perfectly natural process.  From my experience, I would go as far as to say it is an inherent capacity in the human make up.

 For some reason most of us have been gifted with this strange ability to believe two quite contradictory things at once.  The truth of what we see does not obliterate our deep held interior belief.  In the same way we can be deceived by our eyes when we know perfectly well that what we are seeing is an illusion.

I was directing a quite serious version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It was written by a very clever playwright, Jem Barnes and the recollection of what happened during one particular scene still astonishes me to this day.  In the particular scene I am thinking of, Doctor Frankenstein is in his laboratory.  He has just animated the creature which is still lying on the experiment table.  Suddenly, there is a knock at the door.  Not wanting anyone to see this abomination, the Doctor covers the creature with a sheet before going to open the door. It is his old friend Henry Clerval who wants to know what Frankenstein is up to.  Frankenstein is loath to tell him.  Eventually, in frustration, Clerval goes to the table and snatches up the sheet but the creature has now vanished. At this point there was always a gasp from the audience and after the show people would ask how the disappearance was engineered.

Here's how it worked.  We were a small company of four actors and so everyone had to play several parts. In order that these changes of character didn't appear comical, they were done in full view of the audience. No clever lighting effects, just actors changing roles.  In this scene the same actor was playing the creature and Clerval.  He was lying on the table when Frankenstein covered him with a sheet. There is a knock at the door. The actor then stands up 
in full view of the audience, replaces the sheet and walks round the set to enter from the other side as Clerval.  It is then he who crosses to the table and shows astonishment when there is nothing there.  The point is that the audience became so used to the convention of role swapping that somehow they edited it out of their consciousness.  They genuinely had not seen what happened in front of their eyes. They had immersed themselves in the story and their suspension of disbelief was total.

In other words the audience had chosen to follow the artificial narrative and disregard the patent, obvious truth that the actor had just walked from one place to another.  It seems that there is a parallel effect at work with sightings of UFOs and ghosts.  We see what we choose to see or what our brain tells us to see at that time in that place. It is still a genuine experience; we really have seen a ghost but the reality is that of a narrative not of the measurable everyday world.  And that’s enough of a reasonable explanation as far as I'm concerned. And that's from someone who has seen a ghost in a theatre.  But that's another story altogether.

Have you seen video of the way a hunter hunts on the savannahs of Africa?  How he stops, sniffs the air, touches the ground where his prey has passed.  Using his hands in delicate movements to trace the tracks. Making the shape of the animal with his arms, thinking himself into the animal itself.  Connecting with it so that even as the creature gains ground and surges ahead, our hunter knows where it will have gone, which way it will have turned in the scrub. He breathes as the animal breathes. He attunes himself to the animal so that even out of sight, he knows when the creature is flagging and wishes for the end. For the duration of the hunt he enters an ecstatic state in which he becomes the quarry so much so that, when, at last, the creature falls, the hunter mourns him as a brother, strokes him, and thanks him for giving up his breath to him.  The theatre of the hunt is no sciolous posturing but a genuine transformation of the self into a second reality where the outcome is that of winning food and providing life for the tribe for another few days.

There is no leap of imagination required to see how this hunting theatre transfers to a re-enactment of the hunt to those at home, and to an abstracted performance ritual that demonstrates the technique to young hunters and welds the spirits of the hunters and prey into one to guarantee future success.  The theatre of the hunt shows us how our theatre can be as central to the understanding of our lives how the adoption of character needs to be as total and believed as that of the hunter and his prey.

Somehow suspension of disbelief is a social act that enables us to share experiences and even to have views in common.  It’s a sort of mechanism that enables us to pass information to each other in a short hand way, automatically editing out the elements that are not germane to the exposition. To leap from this place to that without having to explain the long and tedious journey in between.  At the same time, we have an instinct to believe what we are told.  Somebody arriving in our village in obvious terror saying he is being chased by a pack of wolves is liable to be given the benefit of the doubt unless we have time to check out his story.  In this case we don’t.  His terror communicates itself into the rest of us and we all take appropriate action.

Where this becomes interesting is when there is no pack of wolves and our man is lying to us.  If we know he is lying, we can ignore him.  But sometimes we can go on acting as if there are wolves even when we know full well there are not.  We may do this because we want to rehearse what we would do when the wolves come.  We may enjoy the sensation of fear and want to repeat it.  We may be remembering a past event.  It may have become a ritual we carry out on a Sunday morning for fun.  Whatever the case we enjoy the game of “let’s pretend” so much so that it is built into our makeup.

Later on, I’ll talk about how this even affects the way we talk to each other and actually find ourselves saying things we don’t in any way believe.

We conspire with each other in following a narrative, setting aside our differences and perceptions of the world around.  We agree to follow the lead of the narrator or story-teller.  The narrator becomes a shamen with magic powers. We put our trust in her and allow ourselves to follow her footsteps.

So the two conditions for suspension of disbelief are firstly a carefully crafted lie, a wholly believable narrative perpetrated by the story-teller and secondly a willingness of the watchers to participate.  They must see the need for this hoax and to dive into it wholeheartedly.  As a great writer once said: “we should strive for authenticity in emotion and credibility in performance.”  And if they didn’t, they should have done.

All children play “Let’s pretend” and it’s quite clearly a way of learning about the world and coming to terms with it through experiment and rehearsal.  In children it’s called “play”.  It can also be called “lying”. Apparently we lose the ability to play as we get older but for most of us it’s still buried there waiting for some excuse for expression.  Hence the rise of computer games, virtual reality creations and tipsy dressing up nights.  It’s not that we actually lose the ability to pretend, rather that we acquire more and more ways of blocking it out. It gets overtaken by the reality of day to day existence and lost to the necessity of engaging with the world at work and only occasionally creeping out when we spend precious minutes at our desk daydreaming.  For some people the urge to play and pretend remains so strong that it becomes subverted into actual conflict with the real world hence the conspiracy theories and so on. The children’s play-lying can become pathological in adults. The necessity of floating off to a less engaged level can fuel drink and drug escapes. Theatre is the natural place to express this necessary desire for play to stop it becoming pathological.

If reality is constructed in our brains from the electro-chemical messages delivered from the senses, then belief in that constructed world grows as our knowledge of it grows and reinforces what we perceive already.  Thus as we get older it is more difficult to dislodge belief.  But what if something occurs to challenge this world view?  Science is doing this all the time and bit by bit our reality shifts to accommodate the new information.  But sometimes that new reality is too swift, too dramatic.  We cannot handle that but perhaps we want still to explore that new idea.  So suspension of disbelief comes into play.  We know and believe this world but we put it on hold temporarily whilst we come to terms with the other.  And for many people that results in the situation exactly analogous to that of The White Queen.

Theatre is the ultimate virtual reality simulation.  For this version of let’s pretend we have living and breathing actors only a few feet away from us performing a fantasy version of the real world.  It’s up to us as playwrights to give that fantasy experience depth and consistency.  To lure the audience in to our vision of the world so completely that they will willingly but thoughtfully journey with us to the end.

The pre-condition for this suspension of disbelief is that we trust the narrator.  We trust that they have made the journey before and that they know the twists and turns in the path that would otherwise baulk us.

So do we have any responsibility for the tricks we play on our unsuspecting audiences?  Does Ayn Rand have any responsibility for the practical demise of Western democracy or L. Ron Hubbard for the vast sums of money extracted from his unwitting followers?  What responsibility do I have for the nonsense I write?  I suppose I could say that I am unlikely ever to have the sort of mass world-wide following of these two.  My words are generally heard by folks who have some idea of me and what I’m getting at.  In other words, I could say that I have no intention to defraud or misrepresent.  I want to generate discussion and debate with my world of what-ifs and perhapses but not to send people out to form a new religion.  But that’s a rather mealy mouthed way of saying that I have no responsibility for my words once they have left my computer screen.  And after all I want a complete immersion from my audiences.  I want them to come as close to inhabiting my world as their disbelief will allow because that is how they will understand my ideas fully.  I want them to go away with this possible reality running through them as though they had actually experienced it.  But I am also wanting them to wake from it as though from a lucid dream and to be able to question it.  One of the other differences is that both Rand and Hubbard set out to extend their ideas beyond their fiction into the real world.  Hubbard was instrumental in actually setting up his religion (whether he believed it himself is another matter).  Rand did believe in what she wrote and actually promoted it as a real world philosophy.  But then she was a very troubled person and the confusion between reality and fiction became blurred in her own mind.

Writers have a responsibility to embrace audiences and to challenge them at the same time.  And we should remember that the power of theatre lies in its bringing people together rather than creating divisions because the essence of theatre is in collaboration and negotiation.

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