The Impact of Breaking the Fourth Wall in Different Mediums
The fourth wall is a term that has been used throughout the film, TV and theatrical world for a long time. The fourth wall is about “an imaginary wall that separates the audience from the action” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021). Actors don’t acknowledge the presence of the audience; it is as if they don’t exist. However, it is starting to become more common for characters to speak to the audience. This essay aims to discover the impact of characters breaking the fourth wall and how it differs in theatre, film and TV.
Breaking the fourth wall starting off as a term, most used in theatre. It is commonly associated with Bertolt Brecht and his Epic Theatre. Brecht demanded “a critical response from the spectator” (Allain and Harvie, 2014, p.36). He wanted his audience to question what they were watching and apply it to society. He wasn’t striving for naturalistic theatre, where actors never break the fourth wall. The way most people associate with breaking the fourth wall is direct address. This is where characters would break out of the scene and speak to the audience directly.
By having the character speak to the audience it provides “a very particular gesture towards intimacy with that audience” (Brown, 2012, p.13). The audience feel more involved with the character and a relationship is created between the audience and character. The performance becomes more personal, and the audience feel more involved. By using direct address, it provides the opportunity for the character to give the audience more information. These can be thoughts and feelings that they are thinking/feeling in the moment. These can also be thoughts that they won’t express to the other characters. Breaking the fourth wall is used in a range of different theatre styles, such as Brecht and Shakespearean Theatre. In theatre the impact on breaking the fourth wall invites the audience in and gets them more immersed and involved in the performance. The actors can respond to the audience and get a reaction out them.
While breaking the fourth wall may have started in theatre it has moved into film and TV. During the silent films era, Charlie Chaplin can be seen breaking the fourth wall in his films. Breaking the fourth wall is different in film compared to theatre. The major difference is that with theatre there is a live audience present with the live actors. Whereas with film, it is a pre-recorded performance and a live audience. Thus, the actors can’t be certain how the audience will respond. They can’t interact in the same way that they would be able to during a theatrical performance. Breaking the fourth wall in a film creates a new relationship, different to the theatre relationship.
A prime example of breaking the fourth wall in film is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Right from the beginning, the character Ferris Bueller is “talking to the audience like they’re his best friends” (Rodriguez and Strassberg, 2019). Throughout the film, this character will stop what he is doing and speak to the camera, as if he is talking to us. The difference between breaking the wall in theatre compared to film, is that Ferris may be talking to us but as the audience we can’t respond. This is due to the fact he won’t hear us, even if we did respond. However, it does provide a greater insight into the character. We get to understand what he is thinking in these moments he decides to share his thought with us.
More and more TV series are now following in the foots of theatre and film and the main protagonist is breaking the fourth wall. Just like with film, the audience can’t respond when they do speak to us. Although, there is more content to watch with a TV series compared to a film. The audience then develops a deeper relationship with the character that speaks out to us. There are two examples of this being successfully done, Miranda (2009-2015) and Fleabag (2016-2019).
When it comes to TV series, breaking the fourth wall, by speech or a look is “rare and intimate” (Lawson, 2010). We are used to people speaking to us such as news reporters but when it comes to scripted TV series it is seen as different. This is due to the creators of the world trying to make us buy into the world they have created. Thus, if a character breaks the fourth wall, that could break the audience out of the illusion that was created. Yet, in Miranda (2009-2015) and Fleabag (2016-2019), both female protagonists use this as a chance for the audience to learn something more about their character. In Miranda (2009-2015), stories and true feelings are shown, for a comedic effect. While in Fleabag (2016-2019) it is used for comedic effect and sometimes for us to see the truth. This may cause an emotional reaction.
Breaking the fourth wall by direct address isn’t always well received and wasn’t completely enjoyed when Fleabag (2016-2019) was first shown. This may be since the direct address used wasn’t always for comedic effect like in Miranda (2009-2015). The direct address used in TV isn’t always the character speaking out, it can be a glance at the camera. It can be unclear what role the audience play when direct address is used. Within Miranda (2009-2015), she acknowledges the audience when she speaks to them as ‘chums’, her word for friends. While in Fleabag (2016-2019) we aren’t sure what our relationship is to her until the therapist scene in series 2, episode 2. Right from the first episode “Fleabag’s gaze at the viewer right from the start of the show indicates our constant presence alongside her” (Gibbon and Whiteley, 2021, p.121). This can be interpreted that the audience is part of her psyche, a constant presence in Fleabag’s life. It isn’t until the therapist scene where “Fleabag’s admission to the therapist causes viewers to reinterpret their role” (Gibbon and Whiteley, 2021, p.121). The audience suddenly become Fleabag’s friend, her imaginary friend. As a result, the relationship instantly changes. Yet, without breaking the fourth wall, this intimacy and relationship wouldn’t be able to be achieved.
Hence, breaking the fourth wall, which started in theatre has made its way into TV and film. It is seen with actors speaking the audience. This creates a relationship with the audience and the character. While a sense of trust is created between both parties. With the examples used, it is seen that breaking the fourth wall is effective in getting the audience more involved. In theatre it is easier because both the actors and audience are present in the same space at the same time. Although with theatre not everyone may feel like they are being spoken to, because the actor can’t look at every single person in the room. Therefore, breaking the fourth wall in film and TV creates a more personal relationship. Yet this relationship can take longer to establish.
Allain, P. and Harvie, J. (2014) The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance. Routledge: New York.
Brown, T. (2012) Breaking the Fourth Wall. Edinburgh University Press Ltd: Cheshire.
Cambridge Dictionary. (2021) Fourth Wall. Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fourth-wall (Accessed: 3rd September 2021).
Gibbons, A. and Whiteley, S. (2021) ‘Do worlds have (fourth) walls? A Text World Theory approach to direct address in Fleabag’. Language and Literature. 30(2). pp. 105-126. DOI: 10.1177/0963947020983202.
Lawson, M. (2010) Miranda cracks the television screen. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2010/dec/02/tv-matters-miranda-television (Accessed: 3rd September 2021).
Rodriguez, B. and Strassberg, R. (2019) 14 Films That Famously Break the Fourth Wall. Backstage. Available at: https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/films-famously-break-fourth-wall-12051/ (Accessed: 3rd September 2021).
Miranda. (2009-2015) BBC. Directed by Juliet May Mandie. Written by Miranda Hart.
Ferris Bueller’s Day off. (1986). Directed by John Hughes. Los Angeles. Produced by John Huges and Tom Jacobson.
Fleabag. (2016-2019) BBC. Directed by Harry Bradbeer. Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.