Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Breasking the Fourth Wall and Chewing Some Scenery

The fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the characters in a play and the audience.  If used to good effect, the fourth wall helps both the players and the audience in their collaborative effort to insure the drama being performed is in fact real.

Often in the early scenes of a live performance, when a major actor appears on stage for the first time, the audience will applaud.  However slight a move to acknowledge and thank the audience on the part of the actor is a breaking of the fourth wall.  The effect of the actor in the process of portraying a character, nevertheless acknowledging the appreciation of the audience is a contradiction in logic and process.

You've been in one theater or another when the applause effect ripples from the audience.  The skilled actor will wait until curtain call to acknowledge the audience.  Until then, the fiction maintains, the players are real people, performing with no awareness of, much less reference to the audience.

And yet.  The fourth wall has been broken almost from the get-go of performance drama.  Certain of the Greek dramatists wrote the activity into the script.  Shakespeare with some regularity had his characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience, and the venerable melodramas of late nineteenth- and early twentieth century plays had as a beloved feature the villain, addressing the audience with the famed line, "Little does she know--" a splendid revelation of hidden agenda.

In more modern times yet, in fact in absolute contemporaneous use, the well-regarded television series, House of Cards, features the character of Frank Underwood, following the paths of treachery to his goal as Richard III did before him.  The Underwood character has frequent occasion to break the fourth wall.  And yet.  

We are neither dismayed nor surprised.  How does it happen?  Is it merely the ability of the actor, Kevin Spacey (which is considerable)?  Is it the writing skills of Beau Wilmont?  Is it the direction?  Is it a combination of all these?

The equivalent of the fourth wall in printed fiction is the omniscient point of view. Among the contemporary writers most associated with the successful use of omniscient is the Irish writer, William Trevor Cox, known to millions of readers as William Trevor.  In the same manner Kevin Spacey can get away with breaking the fourth wall, William Trevor can be seen in any of his many short stories or novels to use omniscient.  In fact, he makes the use of omniscient seem so simple, so easy to control, that an entire generation of emerging writers and students has come forth to try the effect, saying in so many words, "If Trevor can do it, why can't I"?

If birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh, why can't I?

Because, you tell those to whom you can tell things, you are not Trevor.

You certainly know the frustration, the eagerness, the impatience.  There were writers such as Trevor in orbit about you when you were younger, making all of storytelling seem so simple, so clear that you scarcely equated the seeming ease with technique.  Thus were you lured into the writing life the way many an addict was lured into drugs or booze or sex or gambling:  Because it seemed so easy, you believed you could do it, too.

When you began your parallel course of reading and writing, the author played a greater role in storytelling.  Your studies took you back into the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, where the writer frequently broke the fourth wall to reassure the reader or lecture the reader or in some way supply the reader with information.  You came upon masterful writers, the then equivalents of Kevin Spacey, who could break the written equivalent of the fourth wall with observations that were little more than stage directions.

When you finished your edits on his penultimate novel, The Last Boat to Cadiz, your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, said you'd worked the wonders of magic on it.  All you'd done was remove the kinds of stage direction writing he'd learned from the writers and teachers of his generation.

What storytelling comes down to is a special blend of voice and technique.  Today, August 27, 2014, the author doesn't tell the story.  The characters demonstrate it, act it out as though they were real persons, caught in real moments of real time.  She was impatient.  Un unh.  Try, She tapped her foot, increasing the tempo after a few moments.

You want to break the fourth wall?  Okay; no problem.  All you need is a character with as much agenda as Richard III, portrayed in modern dress as Frank Underwood, by an actor as intuitive and classy as Kevin Spacey.

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