The fourth wall is the most prevalent and powerful technique invented in modern theatre dating right back to the 18th century. The fourth wall is an imaginary, invisible wall that stretches along the front of the stage separating the actors from the audience. In this way the actors are able to interact with each other in utter privacy while being in full view of the audience. This simple idea completely changed the way actors, writers, directors and audiences approached theatre and more recently cinema. Stanislavski called it ‘public solitude’ the ability to behave as one would in private, while actually being in public. The fourth wall also gives actors an extraordinary tool to convey their thoughts and feelings to an audience, while remaining in that state of public solitude.
Shakespeare and playwrights of his time, flirted with a fourth wall. In some plays it is highly prevalent, in others less so. Some characters like the Porter in Macbeth or Puck in a Midsummers Nights Dream would speak directly to the audience, ‘breaking’ the fourth wall. Other times, like scenes between Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet for example would be performed with a fourth wall right on up. It wasn’t coined as a concept until the philosopher, critic and dramatist Denis Diderot put his finger on it in the 18th century and it was a revolutionary idea.
See before the fourth wall really came into vogue, the vast majority of plays were pantomimes or melodramas, by the 19th century the tropes and stories told in this style were exceptionally predictable and they were everywhere! The acting style was highly presentational, characters would talk directly to the audience and ask for their assistance (‘Where is the villain? Can you see him? – He’s behind you! Or ‘clap to bring Tinkerbell back to life’ etc) the idea was totally set on fantasy and entertainment, not reflecting the audience’s life back to them.
Eugene Scribe, a french playwright came out with the concept of the ‘Well Made Play’ in 1825, he wrote over 400 melodramas in this style which were very popular. The story depends upon a key piece of information kept from some characters, but known to others (and to the audience) with the suspense building until finally the hero wins out. Although our style of acting is now a lot more naturalistic in comparison to Scribe’s day, the plot structure he developed continues to be a popular one.
Out of all this predictability and over the top acting styles, naturalism and eventually realism came to prominence with writers like Anton Chekov and Henrik Ibsen in the late 1800s as a rebellion against the melodramatic style of the day. This is where the fourth wall really starts to get its due. These writers wanted to portray real life as it was for the people who were coming to the theatre at the time. That is upper-middle class Swedish and Russian family life. The fourth wall meant the audience got to peer in and observe the trials and tribulations of people just like them, living and interacting in the same way they did each day. This would become the norm for theatre and eventually film and television for decades to come!
Breaking the fourth wall
This idea can get bandied around a lot, but breaking the fourth wall can be an extremely powerful tool when used correctly. The first time I remember seeing it was in the 80’s classic film Wayne’s World starring a very young Mike Myers. The title character Wayne and occasionally his friend Garth talk straight down the barrel of the camera, to us the audience. They comment on what is happening or what they think about the other characters. This is also what you see on most YouTube videos, where the host or character looks to connect with an audience they cannot see on the other side of the lens.
Additionally, the phenomenal Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the truly extraordinary Fleabag (you haven’t seen it yet? Stop reading this article, go watch it and come back. Seriously. Go now!) does it to perfection in the play and the TV show. A little eyebrow raise here, a smirk there and we the audience feel completely part of her world and her terrible decisions. This technique does need to be used correctly by competent writers however, if done poorly it can have the opposite effect. I am not going to put any productions on blast here, but you will know it when you see it.
Using the fourth wall in your acting
So now you understand what the fourth wall is and a little about the history of it, how can you use it in your acting? Well here is what we know, the audience and you are both pretending the other isn’t there however we all know that we are. So how can you use the fourth wall to your advantage as an actor. Firstly, geography putting images of places in your imagination or in your characters text in specific sports on the fourth wall gives the audience a sense of place, it also lets us see you properly. As an example, if you are playing Brutus, contemplating the murder of Caesar in Julius Caesar when you talk about Caesar, pick a specific spot on the fourth wall and place him there in your imagination, maybe his palace is high on the hill in that direction.
When you talk about Caesar, have a really clear image in your head of what he looks like, what his palace looks like, use your imagination to project those images onto the fourth wall while you speak about them. Phenomenally, if you invest in that work, it will be clear to the audience as well. Make sure your images in specific places on the fourth wall and do not swap them around, at least initially in your career, this will make it nice and clear for the audience who you and talking about and where in relation to you they are.
Also bring in the natural world, the sun, the moon, the trees, your character’s environment. If you imagine it specifically and project it out onto the fourth wall the audience will become drawn into your world. Don’t lose your scene partner in all this imagination work however, keep it grounded and keep it real!
There you have it, the fourth wall unpacked! Hopefully you found that useful! If you have any other questions about it or would like to practice using the fourth wall and join a great community while doing it, why not sign up for the StageMilk Scene Club below!