Monday, April 20, 2015

The Fourth Wall: "Little Does She Know..."

When you are seated in a theater, waiting for that magical moment when the lights dim, the curtain opens, and the transformation begins where you see a setting, possibly with characters in place or doing things, you have taken on a part of the magic of drama.  You are at once an eavesdropper, outside the events, yet able to see them, and you are inside, checking out the props to see if they are real and offer any clues.

You are separated by an imaginary barrier called "the fourth wall," the boundary between you and character.  Even though you have imagined touching, you are not supposed to.  Nor, to extend the doctrine of fairness, can the characters show any awareness of you.  To do so, the tradition goes, is to spoil the entire illusion of story.  

A good part of the illusion, to give an extreme example of it, would be you in some high school auditorium, watching a performance of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.  You may have seen several other performances of each play, may, in fact, have seen them at The Globe Theater.  No matter.  For the moment, you are seeing the "real" characters, bringing the "real" story to life.

The Fourth wall applies as well to filmed versions of dramas.  You are watching the story, the characters are in a figurative sense trapped behind the fourth wall of film or the digital medium, its invisibility allowing you, as audience, to establish a chemistry with the characters as they ply the labyrinth of the story.

On occasion, you'll see a play or film in which one or more characters breaks the fourth wall, making direct contact you as audience.  The Stage Manager, a character in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, breaks the fourth wall, in his way drawing himself even closer to us and at the same time strengthening the possible metaphor that life is a play.

Woody Allen has a character in a film break the fourth wall by stepping right out of the film to make contact with someone in the audience.  Kevin Spacey, in the current TV drama House of Cards, with some frequency breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to us,in some cases even to the point of telling us what he will do next.

These examples and others like them are done with some deliberation on the part of the author, where some effect or narrative style wins the battle of the convention of the inviolate nature of the fourth wall.

There is a similar convention in fiction.  Samuel Richardson and Daniel DeFoe, who may be argued to be among the first of the English novelists, soon realized they trod a narrow cusp in their narratives, which were first considered to be accounts of actual events--see Pamela, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe.  Their authors had other technical matters, more related to actual places and events, to concern themselves with than any aspect of fourth wall.  

Both were born in the later 1600s, staying at least through the first third of the 1700s,  A third writer of that time, Henry Fielding, came along in the early 1700s.  Unlike DeFoe and Richardson, he openly employed trespass of the fourth wall, which is to say he was one of the first of the print medium story tellers who had no qualms about addressing the reader, often to great comic effect.

Another writer who came along a few years after Fielding, Laurence Sterne, expanded on breaking the fourth wall in his most famous work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,in such mischievous and appealing ways that his influence may still be felt among twenty-first century writers.

Examples of fourth well trespass are easily found in the nineteenth century author, Henry James, even while he was in the process of pushing narrative to allow the reader access to the inner psychology and subconscious of his characters.  The twentieth century author, Aldous Huxley, bears some comparison with Henry Fielding in his frequent, often mordant addresses to the reader.

You believe the contemporary reader is not so much resistant to being spoken to as selective of the source.  The modern reader, you believe, is more likely to believe information coming from a character than an author.  Even unreliable narrators are given greater leeway than the author, however reliable she or he might sound.

The more accomplished among producing authors today are spoken of for such traits as their lyricism, their mordant wit, their pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and their ability to keep us well concentrated on story in spite of potential anomalies.  They are also spoken of in relation to their optimism or pessimism, but it is rare for an author to be thought of as reliable or unreliable, even though she or he may bring forth any number of characters whose reliability is open to question.

You are as reliable as the characters living within you.

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