These may include: the direct address of the audience (especially in soliloquies, asides, prologues, and epilogues); expression of an awareness of the presence of the audience (whether they are addressed directly or not); an acknowledgement of the fact that the people performing are actors (and not actually the characters they are playing); an element whose meaning depends on the difference between the represented time and place of the drama (the fictional world) and the time and place of its theatrical presentation (the reality of the theatre event); plays-within-plays (or masques, spectacles, or other forms of performance within the drama); references to acting, theatre, dramatic writing, spectatorship, and the frequently employed metaphor according to which "all the world's a stage" (Theatrum mundi); scenes involving eavesdropping or other situations in which one or several characters observe another or others, such that the former relate to the behaviour of the latter as if it were a staged performance for their benefit.
Metatheatre in the history of drama
Greece and Rome
Metatheatricality has been a dimension of drama ever since its invention in the theatre of classical Greece 2,500 years ago. Ancient Greek comedy in particular made frequent use of it (though examples can also be found in tragedy).
Early modern theatre
In early modern English theatre, characters often adopt a downstage position in close contact with the audience and comment on the actions of others sarcastically or critically, while the other actors assume the convention that the first remains unheard and unseen while so doing. Following the work of Robert Weimann and others, theatre studies uses the terms locus and platea (relating to "location" and "place", borrowed from medieval theatre) to describe this performance effect—the locus is localised within the drama such that its characters are absorbed in its fiction and unaware of the presence of the audience; while the platea is a neutral space in close contact with the spectators that exists on the boundary between the fiction and the audience's reality.
When the defeated Cleopatra, performed by a boy player in act five of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, fears her humiliation in the theatres of Rome in plays staged to ridicule her, she says: "And I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness in the posture of a whore". While the actor is not necessarily engaged at this point in the direct address of the audience, the reality of the male performer beneath the female character is openly, and comically, acknowledged (qualifying in important ways, supported further in the scene and the play as a whole, the tragic act of her imminent suicide). Metatheatricality of this kind is found in most plays of that period.
Hamlet: [...] My lord, you played once i'th'university, you say.
Polonius: That I did my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet: And what did you enact?
Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i'th'Capitol. Brutus killed me.
Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.— Hamlet (3.2.95-100).
If the only significance of this exchange lay in its reference to characters within another play, it might be called a metadramatic (or "intertextual") moment. Within its original performance context, however, there is a more specific, metatheatrical reference. Historians assume that Hamlet and Polonius were played by the same actors who had played the roles mentioned in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar a year or two earlier on the same stage. Apart from the dramatic linking of the character of Hamlet with the murderer Brutus (foreshadowing Hamlet's murder of Polonius later in the play), the audience's awareness of the identities of the actors and their previous roles is comically referenced.
The fourth wall
In the modern era, the rise of realism and naturalism lead to the development a performance convention known as the "fourth wall". The metaphor suggests a relationship to the mise-en-scène behind a proscenium arch. When a scene is set indoors and three of the walls of its room are presented onstage, the "fourth" of them would run along the line dividing the room from the auditorium (technically called the "proscenium"). The fourth wall is thus an invisible, imagined wall that separates the actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. In this sense, the "fourth wall" is a convention of acting, rather than of set design. It can be created regardless of the presence of any actual walls in the set, or the physical arrangement of the theatre building or performance space, or the actors' distance from or proximity to the audience.
"Breaking the fourth wall" is any instance in which this performance convention, having been adopted more generally in the drama, is disregarded. The temporary suspension of the convention in this way draws attention to its use in the rest of the performance. This act of drawing attention to a play's performance conventions is metatheatrical.
A similar effect of metareference is achieved when the performance convention of avoiding direct contact with the camera, generally used by actors in a television drama or film, is temporarily suspended. The phrase "breaking the fourth wall" is used to describe such effects in those media.
Instances of metatheatricality other than "breaking the fourth wall" occur in plays by many of the realist playwrights, including Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov. As with modernism more generally, metareference in the form of metatheatricality comes to play a far more central and significant role in the modernist theatre, particularly in the work of Bertolt Brecht, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Luigi Pirandello, Samuel Beckett, and many others.
Origin of the term
The term "metatheatre" was coined by Lionel Abel in 1963 and has since entered common critical usage. Abel described metatheatre as reflecting comedy and tragedy, at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. Abel relates it to the character of Don Quixote, whom he considers to be the prototypical, metatheatrical, self-referring character. Don Quixote looks for situations of which he wants to be a part, not waiting for life to oblige, but replacing reality with imagination when the world is lacking in his desires. The character is aware of his own theatricality.
- Edwards (1985, 5).
- Abel 2003, p. 172.
- Abel 2003, p. 139
- Abel, Lionel. Metatheatre: a new view of dramatic form. Hill and Wang, 1963.
- Abel, Lionel. Tragedy and Metatheatre: Essays on Dramatic Form. New York: Holmes y Meier Publishers, 2003.
- Edwards, Philip. 1985. Introduction. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare. The New Cambridge Shakespeare Ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-71. ISBN 0-521-29366-9.
- Hornby, Richard. 1986. Drama, Metadrama, and Perception. London: Cranbury; Mississauga: Associated University Press.
- Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-3506-2.