Fourth wall  

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"If you don't like the sea, if you don't like the mountains, if you don't like the city ... go fuck yourself!"

--Breathless (1960)

"Whether you compose or act, never think of the spectator's existence"--"De la poésie dramatique" (1758) by Denis Diderot

"All delicious scenes of love, friendship, charity, generosity, outpourings of the heart take place at the ends of the earth"--Pensées détachées sur la peinture (1776) by Denis Diderot

"What a crowd of people are assembled here! Everyone seems to be my thief. I see no one who does not rouse suspicion in me. Ha! what are they speaking of there? Of him who stole my money? What noise is that up yonder? Is it my thief who is there? For pity's sake, if you know anything of my thief, I beseech you to tell me. Is he hiding there among you?"--Harpagon addressing the audience and breaking the fourth wall in The Miser (1668) by Molière

"Direct address adopted by novelists themselves - the rhetoric of "dear reader," "gentle reader"."--The Reading Lesson (1998) by Patrick Brantlinger

"Most noble damsels, for whose solace I have addressed myself to so long a labour, I have now, methinketh, with the aid of the Divine favour, (vouchsafed me, as I deem, for your pious prayers and not for my proper merits,) throughly accomplished that which I engaged."--The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio

"The reader will be pleased to remember, that, at the beginning of the second book of this history, we gave him a hint of our intention to pass over several large periods of time, in which nothing happened worthy of being recorded in a chronicle of this kind."--The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding

"Are they to be discovered in the shoulder-shrugging gentlemen who gesticulate according to pattern, and one and all make all their points by addressing the audience, and breaking down the celebrated “fourth wall,""--The Theatre (1886) by Clement Scott

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

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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" (1758) and in "Pensées détachées sur la peinture" (1776); 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 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.

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 cinema

One of the earliest recorded breakings of the fourth wall in serious cinema was in Mary MacLane's 1918 silent film Men Who Have Made Love to Me, in which the enigmatic authoress – who portrays herself – interrupts the vignettes onscreen to address the audience directly.

Oliver Hardy often broke the fourth wall in his films with Stan Laurel, when he would stare directly at the camera to seek sympathy from viewers. Groucho Marx spoke directly to the audience in Animal Crackers (1930), and Horse Feathers (1932), in the latter film advising them to "go out to the lobby" during Chico Marx's piano interlude. 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 repeatedly in his movie Annie Hall (1977), 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." His 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo features the breaking of the fourth wall as a central plot point.

The fourth wall was used as an integral part of the plot structure and to demonstrate the character played by Michael Caine, in his eponymous breakout role in the 1966 film Alfie, who frequently spoke to the audience to explain the thinking and motivation of the womanizing young man, speaking directly to the camera, narrating and justifying his actions, his words often contrasting with his actions.

Jerry Lewis wrote in his 1971 book The Total Filmmaker, "Some film-makers believe you should never have an actor look directly into the camera. They maintain it makes the audience uneasy, and interrupts the screen story. I think that is nonsense, and usually I have my actors, in a single, look direct into the camera at least once in a film, if a point is to be served." Martin and Lewis look directly at the audience in You're Never Too Young (1955), and Lewis and co-star Stella Stevens each look directly into the camera several times in The Nutty Professor (1963), and Lewis' character holds a pantomime conversation with the audience in The Disorderly Orderly (1964). The final scene of The Patsy (1964) is famous for revealing to the audience the movie as a movie, and Lewis as actor/director.

In Medium Cool (1969), a gas grenade goes off very close to the camera, and a shout is heard: "Look out, Haskell, it's real!". This is a reference to the film's director/cameraman, Haskell Wexler. In the film's last shot, the camera pans and zooms in - on Wexler, pointing his camera at the camera.

In the 1986 teen film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the titular character breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.

Eddie Murphy makes two brief, wordless glances at the camera in Trading Places. Near the end of Nobody's Fool, Tiffany Haddish breaks the fourth wall by declaring that the film is not over and then proceeding to ruin a wedding ceremony.

In The Railway Children the entire cast breaks the fourth wall and performs a curtain call as the credits roll. The camera moves slowly along a railway track towards a train that is decked in flags, in front of which all of the cast is assembled, waving and cheering to the camera. At the start of the credit sequence, a voice can be heard shouting "Thank you, Mr. Forbes" to acknowledge producer Bryan Forbes. In the end, Bobbie Waterbury (Jenny Agutter) holds up a small slate on which "The End" is written in chalk.

In Mr. Bean's Holiday the entire cast, together with massed extras, break the fourth wall while joining in singing "La Mer" by Charles Trenet, accompanied by a recording by the song's writer.

Leonardo DiCaprio repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street directed by Martin Scorsese.

The movies Deadpool and Deadpool 2 are specifically known for the main character Deadpool, played by Ryan Reynolds, consistently breaking the fourth wall.

In Star Trek, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last movie depicting the original cast, ends with the cast looking and smiling at the camera, breaking the fourth wall.

Funny Games has Paul and Peter repeatedly breaking the fourth wall by turning around and winking at the camera, talking to the audience by saying they are probably rooting for the family, addressing the film isn't at its feature runtime and smiling at the camera at the end of the film.

The 2022 Persuasion film was criticized for its modernization take on the classic 1817 Jane Austen novel by having the main protagonist Anne Elliot (played by Dakota Johnson) constantly breaking the fourth wall by interacting with the audience.

In video games

See Breaking the fourth wall in video games.

In literature

The method of breaking the fourth wall in literature is a metalepsis (the transgression of narrative levels), which is a technique often used in metafiction. The metafiction genre occurs when a character within a literary work acknowledges the reality that they are in fact a fictitious being. The use of the fourth wall in literature can be traced back as far as The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote. Northanger Abbey is a late modern era example. However, it was popularized in the early 20th century during the Post-Modern literary movement. Artists like Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse and Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions used the genre to question the accepted knowledge and sources of the culture. The use of metafiction or breaking the fourth wall in literature varies from that on stage in that the experience is not communal but personal to the reader and develops a self-consciousness within the character/reader relationship that works to build trust and expand thought. This does not involve an acknowledgment of a character's fictive nature. Breaking the fourth wall in literature is not always metafiction. Modern examples of breaking the fourth wall include Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota, and William Goldman's The Princess Bride.

In theatre

The fourth wall did not exist as a concept for much of dramatic history. Classical plays from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance have frequent direct addresses to the audience such as asides and soliloquies.

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 comic 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 Tinker Bell ("If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!"). Many of Shakespeare's plays use this technique for comic effect.

In Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), the fourth wall is not even there to be broken down. Some actors are getting ready for rehearsal when six characters whose author has died, leaving them incomplete, enter the room. The director decides to include the characters in the play they are rehearsing and soon all the lines between fiction and reality have disappeared.

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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