Suspension of “disbelief” is an essential feature of theatre

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Suspension of “disbelief” is an essential feature of theatre and arts.  It requires abandonment or modification of the objective mode of knowing to enjoy the artistic aspect of the theater and to appreciate the relativity and nuances of its discourse and narrative which may otherwise not exactly fall under the ambit of natural science.  And just like any art form, theatre requires an emotional way of knowing, that is, to engage the phenomena before the audience with its senses rather than with an unbelieving and critical mind.

At the onset, theatre, may be in conflict with natural science.  Theatre, being a place of performance or a performance of a performance of a theatrical work (Northern University, 2017), or could be the popular cinema, is an artistic narrative of a story that is rendered through the interplay of various mediums (i.e. light, sound, dialogue, costume). “Art” is related to the Latin word “ars” which meant art, skill, or craft (Marder, 2017) as its meaning imply, may not immediately coincide with science as it is not exact and factually objective.   Theatre expresses and or evokes emotion, reflects on society and the world in general where it could involve a fictional story that requires a suspension of disbelief whose purpose is to provide a transcendental experience and understanding about relative truths which may take out us out from our rationality and may not necessarily practical and useful.  Natural science on the other hand or the system of “system of acquiring knowledge through observation and the experimental testing of hypotheses” using scientific method” to obtain and analyze empirical evidences to support the reasoning process (Helmenstine, 2017).  The objective, factual, empirical and quantifiable nature of natural science may appear to in conflict in appreciating theatrical performances but such is not necessary the case.  There are aspects of science and theatre where the nature of their appreciation of knowledge intersects that they may actually be related than in conflict with each other.


Ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues (Santa Clara University, nd).

Theater also deals with ethics and in many ways also deal with aesthetics.  Unlike aesthetics where it deals mainly on the attractiveness and pleasing quality of the visual narrative, ethics deals mainly on the set of ideas, relationships, responsibilities and on resolving moral and ethical dilemmas.  Thus, ethics is contained mainly in the content of a theatre whereas aesthetics deal mainly on how the content can be portrayed in a manner that would be pleasing to the audience.  Such, while aesthetics deals on light, set, sound, costumes and other aspects of the physical narrative of the play, ethics deal mainly on moral knowledge as the characters of a play tackle or engage in moral or ethical discourse.  This is particularly true in morality plays where the plot tries to resolve a certain ethical and moral dilemma.    In this context, the scientific approach can be applied to a certain degree due to the presence of moral facts, objective ethical laws and applicable standards of right and wrong.  For example, there are various ethical lenses which could be used in play such as deontology ethics, categorical imperative, utilitarianism, or virtue ethics (Thomson, 1995) all of which are valid standards of resolving correctness of the moral or ethical discourse of a play.  It attests that genuine ethical knowledge cannot be obtained through reason alone and that we need to suspend our disbelief in determining if our moral acts are absolutely right or wrong.

Natural science

The case however, is different in applying natural science to theatre.  Natural science deals with the objective and factual world where it deals mainly in the scientific method of knowing.  Unlike in aesthetics where one engages the senses to be able to enjoy a play, natural science looks for causal explanation to the events or narratives in the play looking for objective truth.  And if indeed if one finds a semblance of objective truth, science will test its validity by through quantification and will always look at certain phenomena with a critical mind.  Here, disbelief and skepticism is the norm where it cannot be abandoned as it will betray the scientific method of knowing.  Thus, it can be said, suspension of disbelief is not possible in a scientific framework and thus, would render one unappreciative of the artistic nuances of the art present in a theatrical play.

The remedy for science to become appreciative and useful in the world of art and aesthetics is to modify its parameters of knowing.  Instead of limiting itself to objective truth, it should also entertain the subjective truth present in a theatrical play which could be resolved by established ethical standards that are acceptable to the scientific mind.  For example, in the play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, instead of dismissing the impossibility of the young Hamlet talking to the ghost of his father, one may accept it and instead understand that such method was employed to induce the moral dilemmas that beset the young Hamlet.  This way, natural science becomes compatible with aesthetics.

The relation of Natural Science and the suspension of disbelief

At the onset, natural science and the suspension of disbelief may appear to be contradiction in terms as suspension of disbelief is tantamount to the abandonment of skepticism which is inherent in scientific method.  That one needs to verify, test, and validate whatever phenomena is at hand and that it should not be taken at its face value and therefore is incompatible with suspension of disbelief.  But as earlier stated, such is not necessary the case.  The scope of natural science can be expanded to make natural science compatible and even complement the suspension of disbelief in the arts and theatre to enhance the aesthetic experience of its audience.  Through natural science’s adherence to reason and standards of objectivity, it can check the validity of the logic of the narrative of the theatre which would tremendously improve the soundness of its plot.  Natural science and its allied branches such as physics, chemistry and even engineering is also applicable to the enhancement of disbelief through the proper use technology.  The optimization of resources in a production set is also a province of scientific methods as it deals mainly with the efficient allocation of resources.

Natural Science and the suspension of disbelief in theater

Unlike in natural science where it deals mainly with factual facts and rational knowledge and correspondingly, interpret them according solely with reason, the theater deals mainly with transcendental experience.  Transcendental experience is to rise above the known and rationale world towards the dimension of disbelief with the purpose of producing an aesthetic experience where it can only be achieved with the suspension of disbelief.  It would be difficult, if not impossible to appreciate theatrical plays if one will solely use the logical, rationale, and scientific mind.  Probably one can understand the flow and logic of the play but could not appreciate the artistic nuance and thematic underpinnings that made a play an enjoyable experience.  The experience may even be the opposite as the purely rationale and scientific mind may even reject the premises and narratives of a theatrical play as a non-sense.  But they do not have to be mutually exclusive.  If natural science can reconcile the notion that there is an emotional way of knowing, that is, of using empathy that makes us human, then it would not have any problem with the suspension of disbelief.  Being such, natural science could accept that there are several ways of knowing and one of it is emotional knowing which is a valid way of knowing in the same manner that skepticism and critical thinking is valued by science as one of its reliable methods of objective knowing.

Suspension of disbelief allows us to transcend where our senses become free to fully engage as it is unfettered by the rigidity of natural science.  By transcendence, it meant rising above and out of our rationality and objectivity to entertain the relative and the beautiful as part of truth telling.  And truth assumes more meanings when one entertains the idea of suspending disbelief to include not just those that are validated and supported by empirical evidence, but also those dilemmas that are resolved by the ethical discourse in the narrative of a theatre.  Natural science has no or refuses to entertain gray area where the art and correspondingly its theatre, could play with it and is comfortable in showing its many angles and make it a part of its interesting discourse that does not only entertain, amuse, awe, and inspire but also teaches its audience about certain truths it wishes to convey.


In conclusion, one now can see that art and natural science can actually intersect with theatre if only it will modify or expand its parameters of knowing and appreciating.  After all, knowledge is not only confined and acquired with a critical mind.  Our senses can also perceive it and that learning can be transcendental just like in the art and not necessarily objective and fact base.  In the same vein, the appreciation of truth need not be confined to those supported by empirical evidence as provided by the scientific method but could also be the truth that is resolved by the use of ethical standards.  Truth need not be evaluated under the inquiring lens of objective and quantifying science whose parameters is practicality and utility but could also be appreciated and learned through the discourse and narrative of the theatrical art.  After all, the purpose of the theatre is not solely to entertain, but also to awe, amuse, engage, transcend, and to teach moral and ethical dilemmas that are difficult to resolve under the exactness of the method of natural science.

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  1. Helmenstine, P. A. (n.d.). Scientific Method Definition. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from
  2. Marder, L. (n.d.). What Is “Art” Anyway? Retrieved November 08, 2017, from
  3. Thomson, J.A.K. (1995). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Penguin Classics.
  4. University, S. C. (n.d.). What is Ethics? Retrieved November 08, 2017, from
  5. What is Theatre? (n.d.). Retrieved November 08, 2017, from
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