Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fourth Wall

I just learned about drama's "fourth wall."  It is one of those things you are only semi-aware of, but makes you pause and think about it when you know it actually has a name.

The fourth wall is the invisible wall that divides the characters from the audience.  If the fourth wall was actually built in, spectators would not be able to see what the performers were doing.  The reason for this imaginary wall is that the actors should not acknowledge the audience is watching them.  It would destroy the illusion to show the audience the actors are aware of their presence.

In Ferris Bueller's Day Off,  Ferris breaks the fourth wall when he looks into audience through the camera lens to explain how to fake illness and when he tells everyone to go home after the credits are over.

This is a very old trope.  The fourth wall was frequently broken in Elizabethan and Restoration drama.  Actors in Shakespeare's day would run through the audience chasing other actors and even joke with the audience. They would even ask a spectator to hold a prop in an attempt to hide it.

Performers in Ancient Greek theater broke it often as well, which may be when the fourth wall was invented - or may be even before.

Did you know that there is a "fifth wall?" 


  1. No, I didn't know. According to Wikipedia:

    The term "fifth wall" has been used as an extension of the fourth wall concept to refer to the "invisible wall between critics or readers and theatre practitioners."[8] This conception led to a series of workshops at the Globe Theatre in 2004 designed to help break the fifth wall.[9] The term has also been used to refer to "that semi-porous membrane that stands between individual audience members during a shared experience."[10] In media, the television set has been described metaphorically as a fifth wall because of how it allows a person to see beyond the traditional four walls of a room.[11][12] In shadow theatre the term "fifth wall" has been used to describe the screen onto which images are projected.[13]

    1. I did not know about the fifth wall either until I started investigating the fourth. Thanks for your explanation that will help me understand more about all these walls.

    2. Ah Charly. You vat of wisdom, you. Thank you for answering my question. :)

  2. That's true! When I am sitting in my seat, few things break the illusion more than someone in the audience doing something distracting. We want to be alone with the performance in order to believe it is truly real.