Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Fourth Wallisms (2018-04-30)
Screen grab of Dr. McCoy from the original ST episode "Journey to Babel" courtesy of memory alpha
, april 2018
"The fourth wall" being the now familiar conceit that actors engaged in a drama do so within a more or less virtual box with one invisible or absent wall through which the audience watches them. This idea is quite a commonplace now, to the point that it is easy to find web pages full of examples in comic books, television shows, movies, and the usually understood original source, the theatre. No one seems inclined to acknowledge that ordinary novels and stories, let alone non-fiction of various types rampantly breaks the fourth wall. For some reason it is egregiously present in children's fiction, when an author is unable to respect their young audience enough not to slap them in the face with something to the effect of, "This isn't real, you know." Children get that, they are some of the best and sharpest critics of fourth wall breakage you will ever meet. When done well of course, breaking the fourth wall can be brilliant and funny. I'm not sure if it could be serious and sad, although I don't doubt that it has been attempted. The trouble with it is that breaking the fourth wall, whether subtle or obvious, succeeds or fails purely on the actor's delivery. Their success may be a matter of audience taste, so arguing about it is probably not worth the time.
Part of what brought all this to mind was reading the early pages of Susanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key. Langer is best known for her studies of philosophy and its intersection with art, which led her to recount her childhood experience of a performance of Peter Pan. She noted that she enjoyed the performance, until the actor playing Peter turned to the audience and inveighed them to shout that they believed in fairies in order to save Tinker Bell's life. Langer found this profoundly disturbing, we might say now that it threw her out of the story. Until that moment, she was working under the assumption that this was "ordinary theatre" and far too young to know about Berthold Brecht. This isn't about suspension of disbelief, nobody believes a play is literally real. So what went awry here?
I think it has to do specifically with modern expectations of the audience, and the particular ways in which the camera is deployed and used not just to manipulate what the audience sees, but how they see it. Langer's childhood falls firmly into the early television era, so she is an early example of our present common experience of learning and experiencing multiple dialects of visual depiction. In the "modern" era, the audience is positioned in a manner very similar to that imagined in many cultures for a deity. Outside, able to see and hear everything that is important, uninvolved, with nothing to gain or lose from the experience, except maybe entertainment. Performances directed at children are most likely to strain this because they so often include explicit "teaching moments." Not a bad thing per se, but like fourth wall breaks, highly dependent on their delivery for effectiveness without being insulting or annoying. So the trouble with the performance Langer saw was that it violated that convention, or finally did so clumsily enough that rather than enjoying it, she felt that it spoiled the play. She did note that plenty of children merrily shouted they believed in fairies and were fine with it, so again, this is not a zero sum game. Fourth wall breaking is risky.
As I thought this over, it occurred to me to wonder whether the usual "origins of theatre" story in mainstream western culture, the one that says the ancient greeks invented it pretty much on their own and then everybody else eventually adapted it via them but mostly the romans, whether "the fourth wall" was a thing for the ancient greeks. The contributors to the 1992 anthology Nothing to Do with Dionysos? draw out a multitude of features of ancient greek theatre and its social context that can be reconstructed from written and archaeological records. For example, in ancient athens, women weren't supposed to be in the audience anymore than they were on stage, and a significant portion of that audience was the young men deemed to have recently come of age. The chorus, which famously comments on what is happening in the main play interacted with the main characters, and spoke directly to the audience in both comic and tragic plays. Even in translation, there seems to be an expectation of some form of audience participation, and not just the "oohs and ahs" today more associated with the circus.
Much later of course, we get to read about the "groundlings" of elizabethan era theatre, who since they were expected to stand and couldn't expect to be able to see and hear everything as well the more well-heeled members of the audience, saw no reason not to be pointed and interventionist when they felt the play was going badly. Over time this sort of behaviour became more and more frowned upon as theatre was gentrified and separated into new categories like "theatre proper" versus vaudeville, or for that matter, circus and wild west shows. All of which suggests that "the fourth wall" is perhaps surprisingly new, reflecting a greater desire to control audience experience and response. And in the end, that may be the real problem with breaking the fourth wall. If done badly, it makes the playwright and/or producer into a sort of intrusive puppet-master, rather than a co-creator of a hopefully moving and pleasurable experience.