Suspending Disbelief: Inspired by Disney’s The Lion King.

Hello everyone. Welcome to another #theorythursday. Last week I discussed nouns in my #backtobasics series so check it out if you haven’t already. Today I am talking about the idea of suspending one’s disbelief so let’s dive in.

If you follow me on Instagram (@katelovesliterature), then you will have seen that on Tuesday evening I went to see The Lion King in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for the second time.

I’ve written a blog post already about going to see this fantastic musical which you can find in my Theatre Trip category if you are interested in reading my thoughts on the show. I jumped at the chance to see the musical again as it is so incredible and I think I enjoyed it even more the second time around.

I study English Literature and I am also a drama student so I was really blown away by the staging of this piece. I think it is a testament to the amount of talent, passion, creativity, and skill that goes into creating a piece of theatre. As I was watching the show again, I became inspired to write about the idea of suspending one’s disbelief because I think that The Lion King musical adaptation really invites audiences to suspend their disbelief and go on a journey with the characters onstage.

What does “suspending your disbelief” mean?

The easiest way I can think of explaining this concept is to say that the idea of suspending one’s disbelief means that as an audience member, we willingly decide to believe in something that is not logical. We allow ourselves to believe that something that should be impossible is possible, we don’t question magic or fantasy, we just accept it because doing so allows us to enjoy the piece.

In a piece like The Lion King, audiences are asked to suspend their disbelief because we are asked to look at these actors who are standing on a stage and accept that they are lions. The Lion King is an immersive work of art. The use of masks, puppetry, scenery, and costumes creates the landscape of the jungle onstage. I love that we can see the actor’s faces beneath the lion masks, I love that we can see the actors working with the puppets, I love that we can see the ensemble wearing costumes that represent different parts of the set, and as the show goes on, we begin to embrace it. We don’t say “it’s a man playing Simba.”, we just say “there’s Simba.” It’s beautiful, and it’s highly theatrical, but the show’s success proves that audiences don’t need things to be spelled out for them, we can accept that we are watching a story about animals. We are willing to suspend our disbelief. It does not matter that we can see the man operating the puppet, that only adds to the magic, it does not take away from it.

If audiences were unable to suspend their disbelief, if we always said “but, it’s not really a lion.”, then shows like The Lion King would not be successful. Shows like Wicked wouldn’t be successful. This idea does not only apply to stage musicals, I could talk about many movies too where the notion of being able to suspend one’s disbelief is crucial to the plot. Recently I went to see Spider-Man: No Way Home, and I haven’t discussed it yet as I can’t discuss themes without including some spoilers, but superhero movies are a great example of movies that depend on audiences suspending their disbelief because if we said “but a boy can’t actually swing across buildings” then the entire premise falls apart. We are told that Spider-Man gets his powers because of a radioactive spider bite and in order to enjoy the rest of the story, we accept this fact without question. I’ve spoken about The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl many times but I have always loved the moment when Barbossa tells Elizabeth that she “best start believing in ghost stories. You’re in one.” I have always felt that this line could be interpreted as being directed at the audience too. Barbossa is telling us that, like Elizabeth, we best accept that ghosts are real because if we kept nitpicking and saying “but ghosts aren’t real” then that movie would fall apart too as one of the key plot points is that Barbossa and his ghostly crew must break the curse, and if we refuse to believe in ghosts then this plot point becomes pointless.

Why is it important to understand the concept of suspending one’s disbelief?

Well I think it is important to understand the concept of suspending one’s disbelief because if one sat down to think about it, many movies depend on the audience doing so. I’ve mentioned a few examples above and I’m sure I could list shows, movies, and series if I wanted to, but so many things rely on suspending our disbelief because doing so allows us to understand and enjoy the piece.

This has been Theory Thursday. I hope you enjoyed it. I will say again that if you get the chance to see The Lion King, don’t miss it. It is utterly brilliant.

Happy Friday Eve.

Kate xo.

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