(Contributed by Ben)
‘The fourth wall’ is an idea in the theatre. There are three real walls – one behind the actors, and two on either side. And then there is the imaginary ‘fourth wall’, the wall between the actors and the audience. Normally the characters in a stage play pretend they can’t see the audience. But if they ever turn to face the public, and speak directly to them, they are ‘breaking the fourth wall’.
This happens in a lot of plays. Characters in Shakespeare’s plays sometimes talk directly to the audience, and ‘break the fourth wall’. At the end of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, characters address the audience directly, and tell them to clap their hands to make everything OK: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends’.
The same thing happens in the traditional play ‘Peter Pan’. Peter, the magical hero, turns to the audience and says ‘Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!’. The audience need to clap their hands to save the fairy, Tinkerbell. Again, the ‘fourth wall’ is broken. In some ways, it makes it obvious that we are watching a play (not real life), but it also makes the audience feel closer to the characters.
There’s is a tradition of children’s theatre in the UK, called ‘Pantomime’. In pantos, many characters talk to the audience, and they expect the audience to talk back. The viewers shout ‘boo!’ and ‘hiss’ when the villain comes on stage, and if a character says ‘oh no it isn’t’, the audience all shout ‘oh yes it is’.
Breaking the ‘fourth wall’ is also used in TV and movies. For example, there was a British TV series in 1990 called ‘House of Cards’. It was about an evil politician, who committed many crimes so he could become Prime Minister. Sometimes, especially at the end of episodes, he would turn to the camera and ‘break the fourth wall’. He told the viewers his plans. He made us feel involved in his crimes, as if they were our crimes too. He was a truly horrible person, but the audience liked him because he treated them like friends, or ‘conspirators’, people who join together in an evil plot.
I really enjoy this sort of theatre and TV. When I go to see a play, I find it a bit disappointing when actors pretend they can’t see the audience. It’s like they’re missing one of the best ‘tricks’ of the theatre. It’s wonderfully exciting to feel included.