Think of a live performance stage as having four invisible walls that box in the action area.  When performer then “breaks the fourth wall” that means there is a direct interaction with the audience by shattering the pretend “wall” that invisibly stands between the live space and the perceivers.


I am against breaking the fourth wall in every example ever written, created or staged.

Breaking the fourth wall is an emotional swindle and an intellectual mendacity consciously applied to force audience interest through clingery instead of tension building.

When a performer breaks the fourth wall to basically narrate a story to an audience — the audience isn’t being drawn into the plot — the audience is being falsely made part of the spectacle and, in the Aristotelian process, that live performance can never have a satisfying or cathartic end.

When live performers address a live audience, the sacred and magical necessity of observation and imitation are destroyed, and the drama is doomed to fail.

Instead of drawing the audience into the live drama on stage with persuasive conflict and irrevocable change — the audience is directly addressed — and the process of exploration and unification of purpose is no longer possible as the audience becomes part of the live stage.

If you want an immediate, but false, connection with an audience, then breaking the fourth wall is an effective cheat and a crutch.

If, however, you want to craft the best possible performance, you will leave the fourth wall intact — the audience always prefers to watch the action from behind the safety of
that agreed barrier — and audiences are more willing to open their public joys and their private demons for introspection if that necessary wall of privacy is left intact without a false shattering.

12 Comments

  1. I hear that, David. When someone breaks the fourth wall you know that you’re watching something that doesn’t particularly take itself seriously. That’s why it is almost expected when you are at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (or even the People’s Improv Theatre — I went to two different performances there with my bears and they “coincidentally” mentioned bears in both performances…)

  2. That’s a good example, Gordon. It does change the experience in dramatic ways when the wall is broken.
    “Our Town” famously breaks the fourth wall with the narrator — audiences have come to think they enjoy the broken wall, but that’s only because they don’t know any better.
    I still consider wall busting a dramatic cheat that is just too obvious and cloying to be effective drama.
    “Malcom in the Middle” is a middling TV example of the broken wall narrative, too… totally insufferable!

  3. I think I’m getting confused. Is suspending disbelief the same as breaking the fourth wall? Do we react when the wall is broken or is just the performing breaking enough to ruin the experience?

  4. It can be confusing, Anne. Disbelief and the fourth wall are different ideas, though they are related to the cohesion of the performance. Most people don’t mind breaking the fourth wall, but they don’t realize they are cheating themselves out of a better performance if the wall remains intact.

  5. The last Woody Allen film had wall breaking — but everyone kept wondering whom the character was addressing and saying he was delusional for talking to an ‘audience’ that wasn’t really there! That was actually quite funny.

  6. Thank you for provoking the discusssion.

    In clown performance the 4th wall does not exist and this can lead to much catharsis, by way of shared presence, spontaneity of impulse, and laughter.

    This article, though thoughtful, presents a view that is one-sided and so 50% limited.

    There is no ‘better’ or more effective style (with/without 4th wall). It all depends on what you hope to achieve with the piece you’re performing.
    Either can be used as crutches, or to expound the voice and movement of our true, radical nature.
    🙂

    1. I can’t imagine your comment is serious, but if it is, I will ask you this:

      “Did you really think I was writing about clowns?”

      I also wasn’t writing about street corner musicians or stand-up comedians.

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