I recently saw a production of a modern one-act opera that I will not name, lest I put my own operatic career in jeopardy. One of the things I found very distasteful about it was that it frequently broke the Fourth Wall — the theater expression for addressing the audience directly, when an actor breaks the invisible line between performer and viewer and dispels the illusion that the viewer is buying into. The reason I found this very problematic in the opera is that it became a poor substitute for truly engaging the viewers in an organic way by drawing them into the interactions of the characters on stage. The characters did not act together much, but spoke at the audience, and therefore I was turned off. It felt like they were delivering lectures about their circumstances to the audience rather than letting us see for themselves. In other words, the classic literary cliché of they did not show, but tell.
This raises an important question: when is it helpful to break the Fourth Wall? When is it useful or engaging?
There are numerous examples of when it is successful. One rather nonsensical example, but an extremely strong one, is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Ferris frequently addresses the audience with his opinions, explanations for his schemes, and even ends the film by shooing us away. Why does it work? Because Ferris is filling us in with little details, backstory, or comments that we would not get otherwise. Since the film is set in real time, moving linearly into the future, with no flashbacks, we want to know a little bit more than what we see on the screen. Also, the film is about Ferris, and in his point of view, so he is our narrator and our guide. What happens between the characters confirms Ferris’s opinions; when he breaks the Fourth Wall, it is also placed very strategically. Contrast this with the breaking of the fourth wall in Ingmar Bergman’s stunning film “Autumn Sonata.” it is extremely distracting that Viktor has to narrate the story to us, it is overkill. The acting between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman is so moving the film should simply speak for itself.
In literature, especially literature from earlier centuries, the narrator frequently addresses the reader. Who can forget the classic line “Reader, I married him” from Jane Eyre? This slightly self-conscious breaking of the Fourth Wall engages us because it analyzes our sympathies with Jane. She has confided in us and taken us on a journey with her lifelong struggle, and she wants to deliver her good news to us directly. It is slightly meta-fictive, calling attention to itself as metafiction does, though metafiction would not truly exist as a genre till a century later.
We do often indeed see an indirect sort of Fourth Wall-breaking in theater and opera, and there are numerous examples. Internal monologues are often delivered to the audience, as are arias, such as “Hai già vinta la causa” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The angry, cuckolded Count Almaviva is singing with no one else onstage, but we the audience are there to listen. Here, it works to break the Fourth Wall, for the Count is telling us how he feels and what he wants to do. We are his sole confidantes for his supposed vendetta. This information is secret, for he would not dare reveal his romantic/sexual humiliation to any others in the opera, for it would shatter his pride. Granted, it is ultimately the director’s choice as to whether the Count will address the audience directly, but it is a very good choice to do so. The same goes for Shakespeare. Hamlet can potentially address us audience members in “To be, or not to be…” Granted, in both situations, with this indirect breaking of the Fourth Wall, an equally impactful effect can be felt as the performer does not make direct eye contact with single members of the audience as would happen in a true breaking of the Fourth Wall.
Where we see the Fourth Wall broken the most in our modern performance arts is in standup comedy. Many comedians choose to engage members of the audience, heckling them, asking them questions, and drawing comedic fodder from them on the spot. But even so, the comedian must still maintain a continuity of the theatrical illusion that s/he is presenting; s/he must remain in charge. Finally, one of the funniest uses of breaking the Fourth Wall in comedy was on the television program “Three’s Company.” Certainly not highbrow, and undoubtedly formulaic, cartoony, but vastly entertaining and well done. We buy into the illusion of the hapless roommates and their romantic adventures, misunderstandings, and comedic crises. Anything to disturb this would call attention to itself and the artifice of such an absurd show. However, the screen presence of rubber-faced actor Norman Fell (as Stanley Roper) turning to the camera with a slightly lunatic grin after making wisecracks about his wife Helen is a hilarious use of breaking the Fourth Wall. It only heightens the humor and adds to the absurdity of the show, and gives and gives a roundedness to the cranky character whom we dislike as much as “the kids” upstairs.
When used properly, we love it when the Fourth Wall is broken because it makes us feel like we are conspiring with or allied with the character on stage to get us more involved in the story.