Flirting with the fourth wall

I’ve been seeing a lot of popular culture recently that flirts with the fourth wall. Many of the lines that actors speak, supposedly in the “reality” on-screen, serve the double meeting of shouting out to the audience “Hey, we know you’re there.”

It’s a technique often employed in “Dr. Who.” In fact, the British are masters at this game. When Americans try it, the results are often clunky and heavy-handed. But the Brits, at their best, have a subtle way with light-hearted banter that allows a kind of translucent meta-awareness to seep through, without quite violating the fourth wall.

When I see this, it reminds me that the fiction of any performance is always a lie in service of a greater truth. Clearly the actors up on stage are not the people they are pretending to be. And clearly they are not even speaking lines that came from their own head.

And yet we go along with this charade because we know that the actor, the director and the playwright have something to say, and we know that the cloak of fiction is required to say it.

After all, we would not want Frank Langella, in the middle of a performance, to step up to the footlights and announce “Hey, I’m not really King Lear. And I didn’t even come up with the words I’ve been speaking. They were written by some guy who’s been dead for four hundred years. Just wanted all you nice people out there to know that, in the spirit of honesty.”

The contract between performer and audience, between truth and fiction, is a very delicate one. The stage is a magic circle, and what is outside of that circle is just as important as what is inside. A character’s occasional flirtation with the fourth wall allows a writer to remind us just how fragile and wonderful this contract truly is.

4 Responses to “Flirting with the fourth wall”

  1. Antonio says:

    You may well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

  2. admin says:

    Ah, that’s brilliant! :-) :-) :-)

  3. PhilH says:

    I suggest you watch some of Miranda, a popular sitcom here in the UK, about a semi-factual character who is a bit posh and rather clumsy. She uses the style of a French farce; everything gets ridiculous quite rapidly and the audience are entreated as Miranda’s private friend; only she talks or looks at the camera, much like she is telling us a story and occasionally diverts from being the character to giving us narrative. This is particularly effective with double-entendres and other private jokes; she lets the audience make up the joke and then admonishes them for being ‘naughty’. This is sufficiently regular that at times an unnoticed double-entendre is raised simply by repeating the admonishment, at which point the audience realises the implied joke.

    It’s all very clever, but it hinges on the audience being a willing consort to Miranda, which we are because she’s lovable. Stephen Fry (I think) once pointed out that American comedians are cast as heros; they are always smarter than everyone else, they save the day with a sharp one-liner, and the audience is in parts in awe of them and desirous to be them. British comedians, by contrast, embody failures. They are a bit stupid, or fat, or daft, and instead of wishing we were like them, they acknowledge what we are already like; Miranda falls over when she is trying to make a sweeping exit because that is what we all do; we try to be dramatic and that’s when it goes wrong.

    The list of such characters is endless; Mr Bean is selfish and an idiot, Blackadder is arrogant, unfriendly and short-sighted, Miranda is daft and gets everything wrong. The vicar of Dibley is lovely but gets over-excited and pessimistic and gives in to her impulses too easily. Bill Bailey is childlike in his fascinations, fixations and confusion. In Only Fools And Horses, Rodney is foolish, melodramatic and blinkered, while Del Boy is over-confident, brash and has an inferiority complex. It’s there even in books; Arthur Dent is nerdy and prickly and flustered, Marvin is always right, and always patient, but acutely negative and depressive.

    When we laugh, it is not so much at the joke but at ourselves, and that can only be done if the comedian is there with us, sharing our pain. A comedian that laughs at us is just the school bully again. This is not us laughing at the comedian, in general; when we laugh at Phoebe’s dippy behaviour in Friends, we are laughing at her for being so stupid, not acknowledging it in ourselves.

    Perhaps this is some part of a difference between the American and British flirtations with the fourth wall; if the setup is almost that I am the comedian or his confidante, then the asides are like a private thought. If the setup is that the comedian is a hero, he is lowered, de-pedestalled by letting me in on his ungaurded thoughts. Bond never laughs at himself; he is supposed to embody competence. How could Bond say ‘aren’t I silly!’, having put the wrong arm in his sleeve? How could Charlie Sheen turn to the camera and help you question his intelligence and wit?

  4. admin says:

    You are never going to convince me that Basil Fawlty is more sympathetic than Ralph Kramden.

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