fourth wall


the space between performer and audience

STATISTICS

IN THE PRESS

“ ‘House of Cards’ Star Kevin Spacey Once Revealed He Was Addressing Donald Trump While Breaking the FOURTH WALL.”

Amanda Harding - Headline in ShowBiz CheatSheet (12 January 2021)

Did you
know?

fourth wall
noun phrase

- the space which separates a performer or performance from an audience

- an imaginary wall that separates the audience from the action of a stage play or film, which is said to be broken when an actor talks directly to the audience or starts talking as themselves rather than as their character

- an imaginary wall that keeps performers from recognizing or directly addressing their audience

Oxford Languages / Cambridge Dictionary / Merriam-Webster


ORIGIN OF PHRASE

The “fourth wall” is a performance convention in which an invisible, imaginary wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this wall, the convention assumes the actors act as if they cannot.

The other three walls are the back wall of the stage and the two sides (the wings).

From the 16th century onward, 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” by the philosopher, critic and dramatist Denis Diderot in 1758.



THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FOURTH WALL

The fourth wall exists regardless of the presence of any actual walls in the set, the physical arrangement of the theatre building or performance space, or the actors’ proximity to the audience.

Actors are expected to perform as if the audience doesn’t exist, focussing their attention exclusively on the dramatic world, and remaining absorbed in its fiction. It’s a state Konstantin Stanislavski called “public solitude” (the ability to behave as one would in private, despite, in actuality, being watched intently while so doing).

In practice however, performers often feed off the energy of the audience and modulate their performance around the collective response, for instance in pacing the action around outbursts of audience laughter.

(adapted from Wiki)


BREAKING-THE-FOURTH-WALL

The fourth wall is broken when an actor talks directly to the audience or starts talking as themselves rather than as their character. Few productions employ this technique because it’s difficult and controversial. However, when done well it can be very powerful, as in the Netflix political drama ‘House of Cards’, where script writers often had Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) addressing the viewer directly. With a drama so filled with lies, murder, cover-ups, and intrigues, breaking the fourth wall made viewers feel like they were Frank Underwood’s confidant and privy to his innermost thoughts.

Other famous examples of ‘fourth-wall-breaking’ have been Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Mel Brooks (Spaceballs), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street).


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