The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. From the 16th century onwards, the rise of illusionism in staging practices, which culminated in the realism and naturalism of the theatre of the 19th century, led to the development of the fourth wall concept.
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, in what is known as a box set, the "fourth" of them would run along the line (technically called the "proscenium") dividing the room from the auditorium. The "fourth wall", though, is a theatrical convention, rather than of set design. The actors ignore the audience, focus their attention exclusively on the dramatic world, and remain absorbed in its fiction, in a state that the theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski called "public solitude" (the ability to behave as one would in private, despite, in actuality, being watched intently while so doing, or to be 'alone in public'). In this way, the fourth wall exists 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 violated. This can be done through either directly referencing the audience, the play as a play, or the characters' fictionality. 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. Breaking the fourth wall is also possible in other media, such as video games and books.
History of the convention
The presence of the fourth wall is an established convention of modern realistic theatre, which has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic or comedic effect when a boundary is "broken", when an actor or character addresses the audience directly. Breaking the fourth wall is common in pantomime and children's theatre where, for example, a character might ask the children for help, as when Peter Pan appeals to the audience to applaud in an effort to revive the fading Tinkerbell ("If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!"). Many Shakespearian plays use this technique for comedic effect.
The acceptance of the transparency of the fourth wall is part of the suspension of disbelief between a work of fiction and an audience, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events. Critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible scrim that forever separates the audience from the stage".
Oliver Hardy was probably the first to break the fourth wall, in his movies with Stan Laurel, by staring at the camera to seek comprehension from the viewers. Groucho Marx spoke directly to the audience in "Animal Crackers", 1930, and "Horse Feathers", 1932. Comedy films by Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker frequently broke the fourth wall, such that with these films, "the fourth wall is so flimsy and so frequently shattered that it might as well not exist", according to The A.V. Club. Woody Allen broke the fourth wall several times in his movie Annie Hall, as he explained, "because I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly and confront them." The John Hughes movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off is another well-known fourth-wall-breaking movie. Bueller, played by Matthew Broderick, often turns to the camera and breaks character to tell his thought process or explain his reasoning. In the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, the characters literally break the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is an integral part of the ending of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 film The Holy Mountain. A more recent example is the 2016 film Deadpool, in which it is used as a comedic device between the main character and the audience.
On television, breaking the fourth wall has been done throughout the history of the medium. George Burns did it numerous times on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show he starred in with his real-life wife Gracie Allen from 1950 to 1958. It's Garry Shandling's Show and Mrs. Brown's Boys both have their title character walking between sets mid-scene, and the latter occasionally shows characters retaking fluffed lines.
Another television character who regularly breaks the fourth wall is Francis Urquhart in the British TV drama series House of Cards, To Play the King and The Final Cut. Urquhart addresses the audience several times during each episode, giving the viewer comments on his own actions on the show. The same technique is also used, though less frequently, in the American adaptation of House of Cards by main character Frank Underwood. The main character in Clarissa Explains It All addressed the audience at least once each episode.
In 1965, the Doctor Who story "The Daleks' Masterplan" included an episode broadcast on Christmas Day (individually named "The Feast of Steven"). In the closing moments the Doctor turned to camera to wish a Very Merry Christmas to all of you at home.
The 2001–2006 Fox sitcom The Bernie Mac Show had the lead character Bernie Mac breaking the fourth wall talking to "America". The convention of breaking the fourth wall is often seen on mockumentary sitcoms, including The Office. Mockumentary shows which break the fourth wall poke fun at the documentary genre with the intention of increasing the satiric tone of the show. Characters in The Office directly speak to the audience during interview sequences. Characters are removed from the rest of the group to speak and reflect on their experiences. When this occurs, the rules of impersonal documentary are shattered. The person behind the camera, the interviewer, is also referenced when the characters gaze and speak straight to the camera. The interviewer, however, is only indirectly spoken to and remains hidden. This technique, when used in shows with complex genres, serves to heighten the comedic tone of the show while also proving that the camera itself is far from a passive onlooker.
Several Nick Jr. shows such as Blue's Clues, and Team Umizoomi had characters talking to the child watching the show and encouraging him/her to participate in the story, some shows used a child viewer voice calling the answer while some shows didn't use a voice at all, some of their shows though, such as the shows they distribute from Nelvana Limited, don't use the fourth wall breaks.
The Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the book series of the same name written by Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket, incorporates some of the narrative elements from the books by having Lemony Snickets as a narrator character (played by Patrick Warburton) speaking directly to the television viewer that frequently breaks the fourth wall to explain various literary wordplay that was included in the books.
In video games
Given their interactive nature, nearly all video games break the fourth wall by asking for the player's participation. But beyond the obvious ways in which video games break the fourth wall (e.g. by having UI elements on screen, etc.), there are several other ways that games have done this. These can include having the character face the direction of the player/screen, having a self-aware character that recognizes that they are in a video game, or having secret or bonus content set outside the game's narrative that can either extend the game world (such as with the use of false documents) or provide "behind the scenes" type content. But since video games are inherently much more interactive than traditional films and literature, defining what truly breaks the fourth wall in the video game medium becomes difficult.
Steven Conway, writing for Gamasutra, suggests that in video games, many purported examples of breaking the fourth wall are actually better understood as relocations of the fourth wall or expansions of the "magic circle" (the fictional game world) to encompass the player. This is in contrast to traditional fourth wall breaks, which break the audience's illusion, or suspension of disbelief, by acknowledging them directly. Conway argues that this expansion of the magic circle in video games actually serves to more fully immerse a player into the fictional world rather than take the viewer out of the fictional world, as is more common in traditional fourth wall breaks. An example of this expansion of the magic circle can be found in the game Evidence: The Last Ritual, in which the player receives an in-game email at their real life email address and must visit out-of-game websites to solve some of the puzzles in the game. Other games may expand the magic circle to include the game's hardware. For example, X-Men for the Mega Drive/Genesis required players to reset their game console at a certain point to reset the X-Men's in-game Hazard Room, while Metal Gear Solid asked the player to put the DualShock controller on their neck to simulate a back massage being given in-game.
Other examples include the idle animation of Sonic the Hedgehog in his games where the on-screen character would look to the player and tap his foot impatiently if left alone for a while, and one level of Max Payne has the eponymous character come to the realization they are in a video game, and narrate what the player sees as part of the UI. Eternal Darkness, which included a sanity meter, would simulate various common computer glitches to the player as the sanity meter drained, including the Blue Screen of Death. Another example of a game breaking the fourth wall is The Stanley Parable, which has the narrator constantly reminding the main character, Stanley, that he is in a game which the narrator created. At one point in the game, the narrator acknowledges that a human is controlling Stanley. Some of the early Tomb Raider video games also had lead character Lara Croft speak directly to the player. In the tutorial "Croft Manor" levels she directly explains the controls to the player. She also ends Tomb Raider 2 by saying (while about to undress) "Don't you think you've seen enough?" to the camera, before shooting her shotgun towards the "fourth wall", starting the credits.
- Bell, Elizabeth S. (2008). Theories of Performance. Sage. p. 203. ISBN 978-1-4129-2637-9.
- Wallis, Mick; Shepherd, Simon (1998). Studying plays. Arnold. p. 214. ISBN 0-340-73156-7.
- Gray, Paul. "Stanislavski and America: a critical chronology." The Tulane Drama Review 9.2 (1964): 21-60.
- Cuddon, J. A. (2012). Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-32600-8.
- Mangan, Michael (2013). The Drama, Theatre and Performance Companion. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 172. ISBN 978-1-137-01552-5.
- Abelman, Robert (1998). Reaching a critical mass: a critical analysis of television entertainment. L. Erlbaum Associates. pp. 8–11. ISBN 0-8058-2199-6.
- "Study Guide: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" (PDF). p. 10. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
When the fourth wall is kicked down, as it is in this show, we have to expect that sometimes the unexpected will occur.
- Canby, Vincent (28 June 1987), "Film view: sex can spoil the scene", New York Times, p. A.17, retrieved 3 July 2007
- Blevins, Joe (1 March 2016). "This supercut breaks cinema's fabled fourth wall hundreds of times". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 19 August 2016.
- Björkman, Stig (1995) . Woody Allen on Woody Allen. London: Faber and Faber. p. 77. ISBN 0-571-17335-7.
- "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show Cast". TVGuide.com. Retrieved 2015-04-09.
- Dessau, Bruce (1 March 2011). "Mrs Brown's Boys: mainstream comedy for the middle-aged". The Guardian.
- Cartmell, Deborah (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge University Press. p. 244. ISBN 0521614864.
- Macaulay, Scott (24 April 2013). "Breaking the Fourth Wall Supercut". Filmmaker. Retrieved 5 July 2013.
- Savorelli, Antonio. Beyond Sitcom: New Directions in American Television Comedy. North Carolina: McFarland, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7864-5992-6
- Lawler, Kelly (13 January 2017). "How Netflix's 'Series of Unfortunate Events' outshines the 2004 film". USA Today. Retrieved 13 January 2017.
- Conway, Steven (22 July 2009). "A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games". Gamasutra. Retrieved 23 January 2017.