The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” which is generally defined as the intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic. Many works of fiction – be it in drama, television, cinema, or text – demand that the partaker of such fiction be willing to exercise this practice or else the entertainment at hand would seem silly and too unrealistic to be taken seriously.
Last Saturday in the juxtaposition of a theatrical performance of To Kill a Mockingbird five hours after a mass shooting in a Buffalo supermarket, I learned that, whereas such suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary in the theater, in real life, it may get you killed.
This lesson was driven home when, shortly after the play resumed following intermission, the imaginary fourth wall came crashing to the stage, landing between a cast of terrified actors subsumed by their roles and a confused audience in the thrall of their suspension of disbelief. I’ll never forget the transformation on the face of the actor Richard Thomas, playing the lead role of Atticus Finch, as he broke character and feared for his actual life.
The theatrical version of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin, has been met with rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences since it debuted on Broadway in 2018. Although the novel was published in 1960 and set in the thirties, the play’s themes of prejudice, racism, and bigotry have resonated loudly with modern playgoers as America continues to struggle with how to expiate itself for its original sin, a sin that many on the extreme right – unlike the play itself – would simply prefer to sweep under the rug by denying its lingering infection of our culture rather than face atonement.
On Saturday night, in the Connor Palace Theater in Cleveland, in the midst of a highly-charged courtroom scene, the play screeched to a halt, and the actors became the audience as something out-of-the-ordinary occurred in the orchestra seating section. A patron called out something that sounded like “fight” or “knife.” I’m not sure. As my seat was in the balcony and my view of whatever was occurring below was obstructed, it was unclear for a moment if the commotion was a part of the play or something menacing. I could only interpret the actors’ facial reactions to what they were witnessing and then watch as they dropped character and fled in a panic offstage in all directions.
Remember, this was all occurring during an epidemic of mass shootings in this country and only five hours after the racially-motivated gunning down of unarmed and innocent grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York, a mere three hours’ drive from where I sat, during the performance of a drama that calls America onto the carpet for its systemic racism. Maybe it was my own prejudice towards right wing extremists coming to the fore, but I turned to my wife and mouthed, “MAGA.” I had immediately assumed that someone sympathetic to white supremacist ideologies had taken offense at the play’s anti-racist theme and was, at the least, going to protest the play’s message, or, at the worst, they were intent on causing a mass casualty event.
After an agonizing ten minutes or so, a bodiless voice announced that what had occurred was just some sort of medical emergency and the play would resume once the actors and audience had the opportunity to compose themselves and return to the fantasy world of theater.
In retrospect, it strikes me as both telling and sad that such massacres have become so common that my first thought went there, yet in real time, my reaction was to sit where I was. Neither I nor many of those in the balcony thought to flee for their lives. A mass shooting of theatergoers seemed to make no sense; however, neither does the mass shooting of first graders, high school students, country concertgoers, churchgoers, or shoppers make any fucking sense.
One reason for this hesitancy to run is that we had no idea what we may have been running into and, unlike those unfortunate ones below, we were relatively safe from attack. It’s only as I write this, however, that I’ve remembered the 2015 massacre inside a Parisian theater during a rock concert in which 130 attendees were killed. With the exit doors chained shut by the terrorists, no one in the Bataclan Theater that night was safe regardless of their seating assignment.
My other takeaway from that night’s false alarm is that my “suspension of disbelief” could have got me killed. Lost in its throes while watching a play and despite all of the atrocities and senseless mass killings that seem to take place constantly in the “real world” outside of the theater, such events still naively strike me as illogical. Therefore, I don’t run when a character appears on stage with a weapon, but nor did I think to run or to even accept the notion that someone in the audience, in the school, in the church, or in the grocery store could be weaponized and my life in danger.
It’s a frightening America we’ve created. An America in which one’s suspension of disbelief may just cost you your life. In the words of Don Henley, “Offer up your best defense // But this is the end of the innocence.”
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