Fourth wall  

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Great Train Robbery, the shooter is aiming at the audience.
Great Train Robbery, the shooter is aiming at the audience.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
See metafiction, theatrical conceit and rhetorical device.

The fourth wall is the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play. The idea of the fourth wall was made explicit by philosopher and critic Denis Diderot (in "De la poésie dramatique" and in the "Pensées détachées sur la peinture") and spread in 19th-century theatre with the advent of theatrical realism, which extended the idea to the imaginary boundary between any fictional work and its audience.

Speaking directly to or otherwise acknowledging the audience through the camera in a film or television program, or through this imaginary wall in a play, is referred to as "breaking the fourth wall" and is considered a technique of metafiction, as it penetrates the boundaries normally set up by works of fiction. This should not be confused with the aside or the soliloquy, dramatic devices often used by playwrights where the character on stage is delivering an inner monologue, giving the audience insight into his or her thoughts. The Fourth wall is also used for comedic purposes.


Origin and meaning

The term "fourth wall" stems from the absence of a fourth wall on a three-walled set where the audience is viewing the production. The audience is supposed to assume there is a "fourth wall" present, even though it physically is not there. This is widely noticeable on various television programs, such as situational comedies, but the term originated in theatre, where conventional three-walled stage sets provide a more obvious "fourth wall".

The meaning of the term "fourth wall" has been adapted to refer to the boundary between the fiction and the audience. "Fourth wall" is part of the suspension of disbelief between a fictional work and an audience. The audience will usually passively accept the presence of the fourth wall without giving it any direct thought, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events. It is the invisible barrier between realities.

The presence of a fourth wall is one of the best established conventions of fiction and as such has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic effect. This is known as "breaking the fourth wall". For instance, in A.R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall, a quartet of characters deal with housewife Peggy's obsession with a blank wall in her house, slowly being drawn into a series of theatre clichés as the furniture and action on the stage become more and more directed to the supposed fourth wall.

Besides theatre and television, the term has been adopted by other media, such as cinema, comics, and more recently, video games.

Breaking the fourth wall

The term "breaking the fourth wall" in theatre generally means when a character is showing his/her awareness of the audience. The term originated from Bertolt Brecht's theory of "epic theatre" that he developed from (and in contrast to) Konstantin Stanislavski's drama theory. Most often, the fourth wall is broken through a character directly addressing the audience; an example is the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, who speaks to the audience. A similar effect can be achieved by breaking character, through dialogue, or by the characters interacting with objects outside the context of the work (e.g. a character is handed a prop by a stage hand).

Various artists have used this jarring effect to make a point, as it forces an audience to see the fiction in a new light and to watch it less passively. Bertolt Brecht was known for deliberately breaking the fourth wall to encourage his audience to think more critically about what they were watching, referred to as Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect").

The sudden breaking of the fourth wall is often employed for comical effect, as a sort of visual non-sequitur; the unexpected breaking from normal conventions of narrative fiction can surprise the audience and create humor. A very early example of this occurs in Francis Beaumont's play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which contains three characters who are purportedly part of the audience. They interrupt the prologue and demand to be consulted on the plot, ordering a number of sudden (and usually extremely awkward) changes throughout the play, with comic results.

A common traditional theatrical production which makes frequent use of 'breaking the fourth wall' is the British pantomime.

Such exploitation of an audience's familiarity with the conventions of fiction is a key element in many works defined as post-modern, which dismantle established rules of fiction. Works which break or directly refer to the fourth wall often utilize other post-modern devices such as meta-reference or breaking character.

In the early days of "talkies", the Marx Brothers' stage-to-screen productions often broke this barrier. In their 1932 film Horse Feathers, for example, when Chico sits down at a piano to begin a musical interlude, Groucho turns to the camera and deadpans "I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over."

By the 1940s, breaking the fourth wall was accepted in popular culture, as evident in the appealing "Road to..." movies with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Hope or Crosby often addressed the audience with a wisecrack, letting them in on the joke or with an irreverent comment about the film's producers.

A compromise to the concept often occurs in improvisational theatre, in which the audience is asked to interact with the players to some extent, such as by voting on a resolution to a mystery. In that case, the audience members are treated as if they were witnesses to the action in the play, effectively becoming "actors" rather than being a true "fourth wall." This is a major tenet of Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed.

It is arguable that this technique was first employed in the modern sense (i.e., not in which an actor merely makes a clarifying aside to the audience, or clever implied self-references are made, but rather when the fourth wall is demolished to the point that there no longer remains any significant division between performance and audience, with drama joining reality or the exact opposite depending on one's perspective) in the sensational 1921 premiere of Pirandello's play Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), wherein six ordinary people come to the rehearsal of a play to demand that their stories be told as part of the performance. This type of fourth wall breaking is also used in "The Aliens Are Coming! The Aliens Are Coming!" where at one point it is impossible to tell what is real and what is not in the play, as the aliens end up everywhere. The fourth wall was broken twice in the 2008 movie Funny Games by Michael Haneke.

The fourth wall is sometimes included as part of the narrative, when a character discovers that they are part of a fiction and 'breaks the fourth wall' to make contact with their audience, as seen in films like Tom Jones, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1963, Woody Allen's Annie Hall (with Marshall McLuhan) and The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy novels. Also, it is broken both by Peter Pan and Captain Hook in the 1954 musical of Peter Pan. George Burns commonly broke the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience in his 1950s TV comedy show.

In the stage version of the hit musical Oliver!, the fourth wall is broken when Nancy and Bill Sikes, who are supposed to be dead at the end of the show, join the entire cast in singing the final medley of three songs from the show. This was not done in the film version.

In Sir Laurence Olivier's film Richard III (1955), Olivier as Richard off camera addresses the film audience directly.

In these situations however, the 'fourth wall' that the character breaks remains part of the overall narrative and the wall between the real audience and the fiction remains intact. These sorts of stories do not actually break the fourth wall in the strictest sense, but are more properly referred to as metafiction, or fiction that refers to the conventions of fiction. The television series Titus, which ran from 2000-2002, employed a similar technique; lead character Christopher Titus directly addressed the audience in a black-and-white "neutral space", which he used for narrating the events in the show's "Live Story".

It can be intentional as well as some television series involve a character telling the audience important factors, such as gun violence in schools, help people with certain kinds of diseases, and death in immediate family, and to help people with other problems as well.

A good example of this type of metafiction can be found in the film Stranger Than Fiction, in which Will Ferrell's character Harold is able to hear the voice of the film's narrator. His attempts to discover the identity of this woman, aware of every action he takes, becomes the plot of the film.

Mel Brooks frequently breaks the fourth wall in his movies for comedic effect. The climax of Blazing Saddles features the characters crashing into the set of "another" production. In Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the characters review the script of the movie during the archery competition scene. Spaceballs features several examples including reviewing the script, a character hitting a camera, and viewing a copy of the movie on an "instant cassette" that was released "before the movie [was] finished."

This technique is also used in comic strips; for example, Calvin and Hobbes "spoke" to the readers in a few strips. The Marvel Comics character Deadpool is also known to speak to the reader and even refer to his nature as a comic book character, much to the confusion of others around him. She-Hulk is another Marvel Comics character that is seen tearing through pages and advertisements, and even addressing the writer of the storyline. Characters in the comic strip Pearls Before Swine have discussed their own strip and other comic strips, and the author, Stephan Pastis, has appeared as a character.

Some webcomics frequently break the wall, and the online Crossover Wars collaborations between various webcomic artists contain an entire plot arc entitled "WCA Hunt," which involved webcomic awareness spreading throughout the internet, resulting in fourth walls breaking in normally self-contained comics. [1]

The television series Moonlighting, Clarissa Explains It All, Saved By The Bell, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Weekenders made extensive use of breaking the fourth wall.

The fourth wall is also often broken in both the traditional Commedia Dell'arte style or modern reincarnations of such kinds of plays, such as Pippin. Usually, the cast of players is looking to the audience for advice or support. This device is also common in many popular television comedy series, such as Magnum, P.I., Boston Legal, The Mighty Boosh, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Guy, The Bernie Mac Show, Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide, Malcolm in the Middle, 30 Rock, Oz, Drake & Josh, Saved by the Bell and Hustle where characters use 'knowing' and comical looks toward the audience or sometimes even speak directly to camera. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a popular example of this.

The fourth wall is frequently broken in cartoons, often in very imaginative ways difficult or impossible with live actors. Perhaps one of the most humorous is to "fight the iris", i.e, right before the picture ends and while the image gradually is diminished by a contracting circle, a character uses his hands or body to force the "eye" open in order to injerject a wry comment or complaint. (Often the iris seems to stretch and go out of shape like pliant rubber during this stunt.) Often this technique is combined with physical comedy, e.g. having the iris snap back into shape and painfully pinch the person's nose or finger for their trouble. Another variation is having them appear onscreen after the iris is closed, walking or running over a solid black background. Warner Bros. directors like Bob McKimson and Tex Avery used the gag to good effect in the forties and fifties, and many modern cartoon directors have adapted it.

Additionally in traditional British Pantomime the audience is encouraged and expected to interact with the cast in breaking the fourth wall by booing the villains, who will often respond, cheering the heroes, who will often thank the audience, and by providing hints to the characters as to what to do next. e.g. shouting 'he's behind you' when the villain is sneaking up on the hero, or 'She's in the cellar' when the Prince Charming is searching for Cinderella who has been locked in the basement by the Ugly Sisters.

In video games

See Breaking the fourth wall in video games.

In art


The metaphor of the fourth wall has been used by the actor Sir Ian McKellen with regard to the work of the painter L. S. Lowry:

"Lowry... stood across the road from his subjects and observed. Often enough there are a number of individuals in a crowd peering back at him. They invite us momentarily into their world, like characters on a stage sometimes do, breaking the fourth-wall illusion..."

McKellen justifies this application of the theatre term to Lowry's art by explaining that "Lowry’s mid-air viewpoint is like a view from the dress circle", looking down as if to a stage. And, McKellen argues, Lowry "often marks the limits of the street scene with curbstones or a pavement that feel like the edge of the stage where the footlights illuminate the action."


As can be seen from the numerous examples above, breaking the fourth wall has become quite common in modern visual arts, but it is not without its critics. Used sparingly and appropriately it can be quite startling to an audience immersed in the suspension of disbelief. But by over-use it is in danger of becoming almost conventional, especially in TV and film comedy; such that no-one is remotely surprised when an actor or actress turns to camera to deliver a slick aside to the audience.

Unless being used for comic effect, breaking the fourth wall can be annoying and distracting to the audience, and create plot holes by interrupting the natural flow of the dramatic narrative. For example, in a video game (or film), narrative continuity could be broken if a character begins talking to the player/viewer without contributing to the theme of the game. However, it can work if the character is giving "catch-up" information about previous episodes; and such techniques can be used to build atmosphere and tension, or fill in the characters' backstory. This is most commonly used in episodic genres, especially anime.

Commentary by characters can occasionally be effective even in straight drama, such as when a first-person narrator frames the main dramatic presentation with an introduction and conclusion delivered direct to camera, and perhaps interjects commentary at key points in the storyline (for instance, American Beauty). In this context it could almost be seen as a return to earlier theatrical conventions of prologue and epilogue. This technique needs to be used very selectively, since it tends to slow the pace, and can be seen as somewhat ponderous if not done for good reasons. And since such pieces are often delivered "front of curtain" (in the studio, or in the narrator's oak-panelled study, or as a disembodied voice-over) and hence separated from the world inhabited by the drama, it is arguable whether or not they constitute breaking the fourth wall at all.

Breaking the fourth wall is historically considered highly controversial in the professional wrestling business where the wrestlers breach the imaginary storyline known as "kayfabe" and communicate real life behind the scenes events directly to the audience. The most notable examples of breaking kayfabe are the Madison Square Garden curtain call of 1995, the Mike Tyson-Stone Cold Steve Austin storyline of 1998, Vince McMahon's disclosure of the Chris Benoit double-murder suicide in 2007, and Triple H kissing Stephanie McMahon to reveal their marriage at the RAW 15th anniversary show on 12/10/07. Kayfabe was breached so much in 2007 that it is no longer so taboo and is now more of a technique to induce ratings or reinvent the storylines that suspend disbelief.

Technical limitations

Although breaking of the fourth wall is usually deliberate, the technical constraints of filmmaking, or the impracticality of refilming a complicated scene, can sometimes inadvertently break the wall by "reminding" the audience that they are watching a film:

  • Lens Flare.
  • Something splashing on the lens, such as water or mud or blood, such as the effects used in "Saving Private Ryan", and more recently, Tim Burton's adaptation of "Sweeney Todd".
  • A hand or other object appearing distorted due to being too close to the camera (if not done purposely for visual effect).
  • The apparent backwards-motion of rotating wheels on a fast-moving car or carriage, due to the stroboscopic effect.
  • An object or a person bumping into the lens.
  • Shadows and mirrors' reflections of the camera or cameraman.
  • The boom microphone appearing at the top of the picture, as in "Elizabethtown".

The above kinds of anomalies, if blatantly obvious and distracting, are sometimes considered "bloopers". However, in some cases they are inserted deliberately to add "realism" because audiences have come to expect to see them. A shot that lacks these flaws can call attention to itself as not being rooted in the physical world, making it look even more false than a physical-world shot with a flaw. "Babylon 5", "Firefly" and the re-imagined series of "Battlestar Galactica" contain many examples in CGI sequences, such as lens flares, cameras shaking when a starship passes close, or the camera being hit by debris after a ship blows up, even though neither the camera nor the spaceships actually exist. Such fourth wall shenanigans can also be used for comic effect, such as an episode of "Arrested Development" where the families' lawyer suggests that a mole might be listening in on the Bluth Company, the boom microphone is clearly visible at the top of the screen.

Most modern computer and video games featuring advanced graphics also feature lens flares when the camera is facing the sun.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Fourth wall" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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