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 convention of acting, 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 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 violated, this can be through either directly referencing the audience or the work they are in or referencing their 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 clap for Tinkerbell. One play that uses the fourth wall extensively for comedic effect is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).
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 "Horse Feathers", 1932. Comedy films by Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker frequently broke the fourth wall with characters speaking or reacting to the audience so frequently 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 also 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. More recent examples include 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 is rare, though it 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 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. The technique of breaking the fourth wall which is seen 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.
A novel form of the fourth wall was in an episode of the UK TV series "Heartbeat", when the wide-boy character, sitting in a café, said he was investing in the insurance of the Torrey Canyon. The sound was heard of plates' being dropped and smashed. The Torrey Canyon sank in one of the biggest environmental disasters. The main character repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in the BBC series Fleabag.
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