Old Stagers

The ‘fourth wall’ refers to the invisible divide between actors and audience in realistic theatre, sealing the acting space off from the auditorium. The convention of the illusion of reality is upheld by this transparent ‘wall.’ ‘Breaking the 4th wall’ is the term used when actors on stage speak directly to the audience, or break the illusion of reality, by commenting on the fact that they are in a play. For hundreds of years the 4th wall has been an unspoken assumption underlying almost all forms of theatre. So imagine what would happen if one man treated this mighty barrier with all the respect accorded to a cockney in a rural French village, poorly enunciating the phrase ‘Parlez-vous l’Anglais?’Of course, we’re accustomed to the 4th wall being broken in prologues, epilogues and the like, but playwright Brecht’s systematic destruction of it, in his Epic Theatre, is downright shocking. There is a world of difference between being asked for ‘the help of your good hands’ by Prospero and being aggressively questioned, ‘What do YOU think’ at the end of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan. Whereas Shakespeare’s epilogue to The Tempest neatly wraps things up, and keeps the drama very firmly on stage, Brecht’s epilogue causes the drama to encroach uncomfortably on our own reality. On one memorable occasion, I was nudged in the ribs and told ‘Cor, what a bastard!’ by one actor during the monologue of another. This discomfort is just what Brecht strove for; his theatre was politically motivated and he aimed to force the issues in his plays into the audience’s world-view – sending the plays into the world beyond the theatre.

To equate the universe of the play with the real world, he invited the audience through the 4th wall. His actors took on the role of storytellers, rather than actually pretending to be their characters. In that sense, Brecht closed the distance between actor and audience. In real life there is no audience that sits outside the action, waiting to be addressed (unless you are mad, a tabloid celebrity, or both), so breaking the 4th wall distances the audience from the action, as they acknowledge that the drama is not real. Brecht actively encouraged this with what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (I like the translation ‘making strange effect’, because Epic Theatre is very, very strange): familiar events portrayed in an unfamiliar way. Brecht saw this distance as necessary to the audience’s ability to take in the political messages of his plays. So, Brecht establishes a new demarcation between actor and audience, even as he destroys the old one. In a Brechtian fashion, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions on this: What do YOU think?By Ryan Hocking