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.