Any Classics student having a sordid affair with etymology will have mused upon the fact that, whilst the word “audience” comes from the Latin audientia, meaning the act of listening, most people go to the theatre and talk about the play that they have “seen”. When I went the see Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Oxford Playhouse last year, we staggered out into the cold night air raving not about the dialogue (although it had been a vibrant, feisty, and “fuck”-filled translation), but about the evening’s spectacular visual effects.

A moment which remains with me in the accumulating archive of pretentious-yet transcendental moments of Oxford theatre, occurred when a criss-cross of black bands, which created a goldfish bowl effect across the front of the stage, sprang spectacularly away. We were left gazing at the raw, unrestricted
scene of the play with no barriers dividing Us from Them.

As well as causing most of the audience to anxiously check their medicine cabinets for statins out of fear of a heart attack, this moment reminded us all of the disconcerting fact that up until that moment we had been lulled into a false suspension of our disbelief – forgetting the play’s nature as a fiction.

As with the myth of Father Christmas, past a certain point no one thought the play was real, but we were willing to put that aside for the evening. What we did not want was for some artsy director (in this case, Blanche McIntyre), to come rip down the stockings, eat the mince pies, and remind us that the whole thing was a construction. We were all a bit taken aback by the sudden disappearance of The Fourth Wall. 

The back of the theatre and the two wings are three separate “walls” and the fourth wall is, as Denis Diderot coined, an imaginary gap between audience and actors. On one side is fiction and the other, reality, complete with rustling sweet wrappers, fumbling couples, and the snores of a deliberately unimpressed rival actor.

There are numerous examples of plays which break the fourth wall completely: pantomimes in which troubled characters call on the help of small and enthused fans from the front row do exactly that. Children are apparently the perfect audience for a reassuring break-down of the fourth wall.

A play I saw in Edinburgh aimed at children, The Handmade Tales, was made up of a series of short stories framed by the actors speaking to the audience, ending up encouraging them to go away and make up their own story. This was the fourth wall at its most reassuring and least alienating level.

My experience of The Seagull was all the more unusual because it reminded us of the fourth wall but then refused to do anything about it. No actors spoke to us; they never even spared us a glance. The characters were nearly all actors,
aspiring actors, or authors, so we never really escaped a kind of meta-theatricality. The walls of illusion only tumbled down when the
black threads across the stage snapped.

Oddly, the fourth wall is so frequently broken in literature that it seems to be far less of “thing”. Apparently we’re all cool with narrators addressing us directly; the infamous Jane Eyre line, “reader, I married him”, would be one of many examples of a character staring at us in the eyes.

Some films employ the fourth wall in an equally soothing way. When the husky tones of Hugh Grant explain that he lives in the flat “with the blue door”, his character is temporarily suspending the illusions of fiction by acknowledging
the audience, as he drifts mournfully around Notting Hill pulling celebrities.Of course he actually he is a celebrity so this is Richard Curtis’ ironic little joke, “it’s like his real life from the other side!”

So next time you make eye contact with an actor, you’ll know the name for it. Though sadly, being vaguely aware of the theory behind the theatre won’t make you any less susceptible to the potential heart attacks that these actors delight in imposing.