The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. From the 16th century onwards, the rise of illusionism in staging practices, which culminated in the realism and naturalism of the theatre of the 19th century, led to the development of the fourth wall concept.
The metaphor suggests a relationship to the mise-en-scène behind a proscenium arch. When a scene is set indoors and three of the walls of its room are presented onstage, in what is known as a box set, the "fourth" of them would run along the line (technically called the "proscenium") dividing the room from the auditorium. The "fourth wall", though, is a convention of acting, rather than of set design. The actors ignore the audience, focus their attention exclusively on the dramatic world, and remain absorbed in its fiction, in a state that the theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski called "public solitude" (the ability to behave as one would in private, despite, in actuality, being watched intently while so doing, or to be 'alone in public'). In this way, the fourth wall can be created regardless of the presence of any actual walls in the set, or the physical arrangement of the theatre building or performance space, or the actors' distance from or proximity to the audience.
"Breaking the fourth wall" is any instance in which this performance convention, having been adopted more generally in the drama, is violated. This can be done through either directly referencing the audience or the work they are in, or referencing their fictionality. The temporary suspension of the convention in this way draws attention to its use in the rest of the performance. This act of drawing attention to a play's performance conventions is metatheatrical. A similar effect of metareference is achieved when the performance convention of avoiding direct contact with the camera, generally used by actors in a television drama or film, is temporarily suspended. The phrase "breaking the fourth wall" is used to describe such effects in those media. Breaking the fourth wall is also possible in other media, such as video games and books.
History of the convention
The concept is usually attributed to the philosopher, critic and dramatist Denis Diderot. The term itself was used by Molière.
The presence of the fourth wall is an established convention of modern realistic theatre, which has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic or comedic effect when a boundary is "broken", when an actor or character addresses the audience directly. Breaking the fourth wall is common in pantomime and children's theatre where, for example, a character might ask the children for help, as when Peter Pan appeals to the audience to applaud in an effort to revive the fading Tinkerbell ("If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!"). One play that uses the fourth wall extensively for comedic effect is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).
The acceptance of the transparency of the fourth wall is part of the suspension of disbelief between a work of fiction and an audience, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events. Critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible scrim that forever separates the audience from the stage".
Oliver Hardy was probably the first to break the fourth wall, in his movies with Stan Laurel, by staring at the camera to seek comprehension from the viewers. Groucho Marx spoke directly to the audience in "Animal Crackers", 1930, and "Horse Feathers", 1932. Comedy films by Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker frequently broke the fourth wall, such that with these films, "the fourth wall is so flimsy and so frequently shattered that it might as well not exist", according to The A.V. Club. Woody Allen broke the fourth wall several times in his movie Annie Hall, as he explained, "because I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly and confront them." The John Hughes movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off is another well-known fourth-wall-breaking movie. Bueller, played by Matthew Broderick, often turns to the camera and breaks character to tell his thought process or explain his reasoning. In the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, the characters literally break the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is an integral part of the ending of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 film The Holy Mountain. More recent examples include the 2016 film Deadpool, in which it is used as a comedic device between the main character and the audience.
On television, breaking the fourth wall is rare, though it has been done throughout the history of the medium. George Burns did it numerous times on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show he starred in with his real-life wife Gracie Allen from 1950 to 1958. It's Garry Shandling's Show and Mrs. Brown's Boys both have their title character walking between sets mid-scene, and the latter occasionally shows characters retaking fluffed lines.
Another television character who regularly breaks the fourth wall is Francis Urquhart in the British TV drama series House of Cards, To Play the King and The Final Cut. Urquhart addresses the audience several times during each episode, giving the viewer comments on his own actions on the show. The same technique is also used, though less frequently, in the American adaptation of House of Cards by main character Frank Underwood.
The convention of breaking the fourth wall is often seen on mockumentary sitcoms, including The Office. Mockumentary shows which break the fourth wall poke fun at the documentary genre with the intention of increasing the satiric tone of the show. Characters in The Office directly speak to the audience during interview sequences. Characters are removed from the rest of the group to speak and reflect on their experiences. When this occurs, the rules of impersonal documentary are shattered. The person behind the camera, the interviewer, is also referenced when the characters gaze and speak straight to the camera. The interviewer, however, is only indirectly spoken to and remains hidden. This technique, when used in shows with complex genres, serves to heighten the comedic tone of the show while also proving that the camera itself is far from a passive onlooker.
The Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the book series of the same name written by Daniel Handler under the pen name Lemony Snicket, incorporates some of the narrative elements from the books by having Lemony Snickets as a narrator character (played by Patrick Warburton) speaking directly to the television viewer that frequently breaks the fourth wall to explain various literary wordplay that was included in the books.
In video games
By the interactive nature of video games and the more than common presence of UI elements on screen, nearly all video games break the fourth wall unintentionally by asking for the player's participation. Other methods that break this illusion including having the character direction addressing the player, having a self-aware character that recognizes they are in a video game, or having secret or bonus content set outside the game's narrative that breaks the fourth wall. Defining what truly breaks the fourth wall in the video game medium thus becomes difficult.
Steven Conway, writing for Gamasutra, suggest that for video games, one should look to examples that cross the so-called "magic circle" of the typical or expected interactions a player has with a video game, as to determine the nature of a fourth-wall break. Many purported examples of breaking the fourth wall, Conway argues, are instead really expansions of the magic circle to encompass the player and drawing them more into the narrative and creating a greater suspension of disbelief, rather than breaking the illusion of the video game. A noted example of this is Evidence: The Last Ritual, in which some puzzles within the game relies on the player looking at their real-life email and browsing web sites outside of the game to obtain information for moving forward. Others games might expand the magic circle to include the hardware the game is played on: X-Men for the Mega Drive/Genesis required players to reset their game console at a certain point to reset the X-Men's in-game Hazard Room, while Metal Gear Solid asked the player to put the DualShock controller on their neck to simulate a back massage being given in-game.
In this scope, Conway argues that true fourth-wall breaks in video games are those that require crossing the magic circle to break the illusion. Such examples include the idle animation of Sonic the Hedgehog in his games where the on-screen character would look to the player and tap his foot impatiently if left alone for a while, and one level of Max Payne has the eponymous character come to the realization they are in a video game, and narrate what the player sees as part of the UI. Eternal Darkness, which included a sanity meter, would simulate various common computer glitches to the player as the sanity meter drained, including the Blue Screen of Death.