Thursday, March 23, 2006

On the Fourth Wall

An anonymous reader in my comments blog responded to my post below entitled "A Lesson from Classical Music," in which I suggest, if not the complete abandonment, then at least a de-emphasis on fourth wall plays and an increased prominence for direct communication with the audience. The reader wrote:

"This is a big, bold, dangerous statement about theatre, and a tremendously important one. On the one hand, I agree completely and am starving for the kind of visceral experience we all want theatre to provide. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that a traditional, fourth-wall play can't make that kind of connection. Some of my favorite experiences in the theatre have been plays in which the actors never broke the fourth wall but still found a way to connect with the audience. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater."

I agree that there are certain things that fourth-wall plays do quite well, and I certainly wouldn't argue with the idea that there are powerful fourth-wall plays. Some of my favorite plays are fourth wall plays. But when photography was invented, painting changed because another medium was able to do better what it had been doing up until that point. Realistic painting did not disappear, but it was de-emphasized over the years. I think the same might be true of theatre: film and television are much better are ignoring the audience than a play could ever be (and they're also better at realism than is theatre as well, and that could connect to the posts I've been reading lately about lyricism in the theatre).

Since film and television have become the dominant form of popular entertainment, and the economics of theatre are starting to have a pretty awful effect on theatre's ability to continue breathing, I think it might be a good idea if we started focusing on what theatre can do that film can't. You know -- a market niche. There seems to be general agreement that theatre's "liveness" is something distinctive: the performers and the audience share the same space and time. Which might lead me to consider why we would want to continue to pretend they aren't there. I am not advocating that actors "stoop down to wink at you," as Lucas Krech rather crankily suggests. But up until the mid-1800s, it was pretty much standard that at least one character would communicate directly with the audience through asides, soliloquies, prologues and epilogues, songs (cf Brecht), chorus speeches, or narrative. Over the course of 2400 years of theatre history, these techniques were the norms, not the exceptions. And some contemporary playwrights have begun re-exploring this as well.

I am not suggesting a law -- Theatre Ideas is not the new French Academy -- but I am suggesting that if we are at all concerned about the continuing marginalization of the theatre within our culture, we might want to examine some of our basic assumptions. The fourth wall is one such assumption.

So Josh Costello, these are a few of the things I mean when I suggest we write plays that allow "the circulation of energy between performer and spectator to occur." As I mentioned above, poetic language, metaphor, and abstraction are also things we might think about, since film and television can also do realism much better than the theatre. But that's for another time, or another blog.

14 comments:

Josh Costello said...

Well, I agree with all of that!

In my accidentally-anonymous comment, I didn't make myself all that clear. The aspect of your post I consider especially bold and dangerous is the full-out articulation of the idea that someone might be getting essentially the same experience from a DVD as from a play. If that's true, of course theater is going to decline. Or put it the other way around: the reason theatre is so marginalized is that most people most of the time probably do have a better time watching a DVD at home than going to see a play.

As theatre artists, we have to do better. I think everyone who makes theatre believes that theatre has the potential to give an experience that's more than worth the added effort of getting your ass off the couch and into the theatre by 8 o'clock. Anything we can do to reach that potential -- getting more training, letting go of ego and vanity, seeing more of each others' work, finding new and exciting ways to strengthen and emphasize the visceral connection between actors and audience -- is absolutely vital.

Myrhaf said...

I think it's ironic that you're calling for more poetic language at the same time that Jill Dolan and several commenters complain about Shakespeare's poetry.

Scott Walters said...

It is ironic, although I think Dolan is complaining specifically about Shakespeare's poetic language, which she finds archaic. I think poetic language using today's vernacular would find favor with Dolan -- an examination of the performance artists she appreciates, for instance, would indicate an appreciation of poetic language.

Scott Walters said...

It is ironic, although I think Dolan is complaining specifically about Shakespeare's poetic language, which she finds archaic. I think poetic language using today's vernacular would find favor with Dolan -- an examination of the performance artists she appreciates, for instance, would indicate an appreciation of poetic language.

Andrew said...

I think this is a topic that theater people should have in their minds all the time--what is that makes theater theater? What is special and unique about what we do? Film and television have liberated theater from having to represent the world in exact detail--that's what they do best. What theater does best is to engage a group of people, performers and spectators, in a common experience of imagination. There is a collaboration with the audience that's impossible on film. And while that's true no matter whether or not actors speak to the crowd, asides and soliloquies and narration are all excellent tools for forging that link between the people on stage and the people in front of it. I remember reading in an interview with Simon McBurney of Complicite something about how almost all of their plays begin with an actor speaking to the audience. That's a company that's unquestionably theatrical, and you can feel, watching their plays, a link with them and even with the other people around you. There is that feeling that, no matter how often they perform that play, you've been a part of a singular, unique, and unrepeatable experience. Only live performance can create that.

Lucas Krech said...

If you plan to continue making publicly disparaging comments about me would you at least provide a link so that your readers can see who this cranky non-thinking jerk is? In academic writing you site your sources. In blogging Nettiquette you link to people, even if you are insulting them.

Here are three options:
Blogger
Journal
Portfolio

Alison Croggon said...

i posted something yesterday about how the demolishing of the fourth wall was a cliche here around 20 years ago...so it was all the rage to rush out inot the audience and break eggs in their handbags or sit on their laps or whatever. But blogger glitched and it vanished into the ether. Not that it matters... but I'll post my two cents worth, for the hell of it.

Like any convention, the fourth wall is not in itself good or bad; its virtues and vices exist in the particularities of its usage. I've been pierced to the heart by traditonal pros arch performances, and left cold by others that claim to break through to new immediacies: and vice versa. But, you know, when even the Putnam Spelling Bee takes no notice of the "fourth wall" convention, I wonder how radical it is to suggest breaking it...

George Hunka said...

This is just personal taste, of course, but I find this "breaking of the fourth wall" a kind of desperation, an attempt to physically connect with the audience because the content itself fails to do so. This is not always the case, but crank that I am, if I want physical contact in the theater I will turn to the person next to me.

In my short (so far) career as a critic for a major daily newspaper in New York, I've already seen several shows that try to break this fourth wall, from serious drama to raucous farce, and I've noticed something quite odd: though my seats are regularly down front and on the aisle, I have never been directly approached by any of the actors in the midst of this effort to make this contact, though I'm a tempting target for the effort. And I think it's because they know I'm a critic, and that if I don't care for this sort of thing, I'll likely be discomforted by the intrusion, more likely to issue a less-than-glowing review. It's not at all true, necessarily. But funny that they don't have this concern for the personal space of the rest of the audience members.

Scott Walters said...

George and all -- I think you're misinterpreting the concept of breaking the fourth wall -- it isn't about invading personal space. Hamlet doesn't invade our personal space when he does his soliloquies, but he does acknowledge our presence; the Chorus of a Greek play didn't invade our personal space, but it talked directly to us; the characters in a Restoration didn't invade our personal space when they did their asides and their prologues, but they acknowledged that we were there. I couldn't agree with you more, George: I don't want actors in my lap -- I lived through the 60s and 70s once, and that was enough.

Alison Croggon said...

My comment disappeared again! - .from now on it's text edit all the way...

I am curious to know when the conventions you're speaking of disappeared, Scott: I see new plays all the time that employ them, so I'm not sure they ever went away. Or is this "fourth wall" a characteristic of contemporary American theatre? There are all those plays that derive their tropes from television naturalism, and yes, they're all very dull, but there are so many counter-examples in even the most mainstream theatre. The direct address of the audience occurs in all 20C monologues, of which there are a fair number, and is part of the language of theatrical convention - a couple of classic examples are when Didi and Gogo refer to the "swamp" in Waiting for Godot, or when Mike and Les refuse to confide in each other because they can hear "the breathing of a hundred souls" in Berkoff's East. And so on and so on...

George Hunka said...

In American drama this is true as well. In O'Neill's Strange Interlude the characters frequently spoke in asides (and if Groucho Marx's parody in Animal Crackers is to be trusted, many of these were directed to the audience -- come to think of it, so were most of Groucho's jokes, parody or not, breaking the fourth wall in the theater, the screen at the moviehouse); Tom speaks to the audience in Glass Menagerie; Quentin in After the Fall ... now I think of it, the playwrights who kept that fourth wall there were quite few. Ibsen in his prose plays did, but Brand and Peer Gynt have many soliloquies. So I'm not sure how much that fourth wall is really a convention in 20th century theater.

Freeman said...

One thing I think is interesting about this is that Scott (if I'm understanding correctly) is taking a sort of new take on the concept of the Fourth Wall. Which is the invasion of space.

Usually, we mean the Fourth Wall is that invisible wall between the audience and the actors. On some level, simply giving the appearance of talking to them, he's suggesting, isn't truly BREAKING the wall. More like talking at it.

Now, I think that there should almost be a different term for what Scott's talking about here.

Scott Walters said...

Wait! Wait! No! Matt, I am saying the opposite. I am definitely not in favor of the invasion of personal space by actors. What I am talking about is the overt recognition of the presence of the audience by the characters. This can take the form of soliloquies addressed to the audience, asides, narrative, songs addressed to the audience, Chorus speeches.

George and Alison are right -- that there HAS been some of this in 20th century American theatre, and it is a trend that continues to gain momentum. Yes, Miller and Williams did it in a few (very few) plays, Wilder did it (and then, unfortunately, bailed out of theatre in frustration). Anyway, my point was not to take to task playwrights, but rather to emphasize what most acknowledge as being something that differentiates theatre from film and television.

Some other things that I also think theatre does better than film and TV: metaphor, stylization, and heightened language.

MattJ said...

Scott I agree!! Theatre can do a lot with its own conventions that tv and film cannot do, for sure.

I will say, though, that as George and Allison have pointed out, it's not a new idea really. Brecht, at the beginning and middle of the 20th century, is credited as the pioneer of "breaking the fourth wall," and it is constantly used. Especially in the crazy Schechner stuff of the 60's like Dionysus in '69 and other environmental theatre.

But I agree. One thing that gets in the way is actor training. I am being trained in acting pedagogy right now and we have actors spend a considerable amount of time doing a "4th wall prep" and taking it in Uta Hagen style and visualizing the particulars of that wall. Because the training assumes realism, er, naturalism, er, whatever.

An intereting thing to bring up in the light of this is Barba's "Extra-Daily" activities which stress an anthropology of the theatre with kabuki, noh, kathakali, and other forms of acting which specifically live outside of the constricutres of daily life. I like "Extra-daily" rather than "stylized" because it points more to the form and function of the power of theatre work outside of the 4th wall and "daily" activities.

Theatre is and can be a lot of things, but it is not "daily."