The long history of actors breaking the fourth wall and communicating directly with their audience dates back to Ancient Greek amphitheaters and the Globe in 17th-century London. William Shakespeare frequently used soliloquies and asides to play up the tension between those on stage and the audience as a way to deepen the theatrical experience.
It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that dramatists conceived of specific language to describe the invisible line separating the actors and the crowd. In the centuries since, the concept of the “fourth wall” has been a gift to playwrights looking to bend, experiment with, and break from the norm. Film and TV followed suit and have embraced this ability to directly communicate with the viewer.
Read on to find out what the fourth wall is, how to break it, and why it continues to be a popular creative choice.
Historians largely credit French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot with coining the term "fourth wall" in 1758 to describe the invisible line that exists between performers and the audience. If a stage set consists of a room with two sides and a back structure, the fourth wall is the invisible line that exists behind the proscenium arch of the theater space. It’s the transparent barrier that ensures the audience sees everything while the characters are unaware they are being watched.
Father of modern acting Konstantin Stanislavsky described the ability to live in the imagined world on stage as “public solitude.” This is the process of acting as if you are in private even though there is an audience present. Doing so maintains the invisible line that creates the fourth wall and allows the audience to suspend their disbelief. As an actor, you ignore the audience so that everything that unfolds is kept within the world of the play. In TV and film, the fourth wall swaps out the proscenium for the camera that figuratively separates the viewer from the actor.
“Ferris Bueller's Day Off” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Penetrating the invisible line between the world of the performance and the spectator breaks the fourth wall. In doing so, you draw attention to the fictional aspect of the setting, whether on stage or screen (this can also occur in video games).
Your character may break the fourth wall to refer to the fictional world of the play or address a specific point to the audience. Doing so defies conventions of naturalism and realism, drawing awareness to the fact there is an audience watching these events unfold. In TV or film, you may break the fourth wall with a simple glance to the camera or an entire speech addressed to the audience at home. Either way, this form of direct discourse puts you in dialogue with people who aren’t part of the world your character inhabits.
Turning and speaking directly to the audience in a play, television, or movie is one way to step over the invisible line to connect with the audience. Making and even holding eye contact with the lens is enough to break the fourth wall in film or TV.
When filmmaking was in its infancy during the silent movie era, the fourth wall was already being broken. Director Arthur Berthelet’s 1918 biographical drama “Men Who Have Made Love to Me” is reportedly one of the first documented instances of a character—here played by Mary MacClane—directly addressing the audience. Long before John Krasinski as Jim Halpert in “The Office” stared deadpan into the camera, Oliver Hardy regularly used this technique in movies with Stan Laurel to gain a laugh—and sympathy.
Audience participation is another method of breaking the fourth wall. An active relationship between actors and patrons can include an interactive or immersive component that defies the fourth wall. “The Mystery of Edward Drood” is a Tony Award–winning musical that asks the audience to help solve a murder with multiple suspects; “What the Constitution Means to Me” sets up a debate that the spectators then cast a vote on; and “Sleep No More” takes a haunted funhouse approach to “Macbeth.” Rather than asking the audience to be passive observers, interactive theatrical experiences give them an active role that impacts the outcome of the narrative.
Film, TV, and theater across a spectrum of genres are all capable of breaking the fourth wall, and the motivation for doing so varies. Breaking it can elevate or assist the following:
Intimacy: Speaking directly to the audience adds a level of insight and vulnerability—it sparks an immediate connection beyond the world of the story. It can make the audience feel more sympathetic or empathetic to your character’s plight. For an example, look to John Cusack's monologue in "High Fidelity."
Comedy: The audience can elevate the joke if they are in on it. Wisecracks, a punchline, or referring to specific conventions (such as advertising) in a knowing or ironic manner gain more laughs. Quick reactions directed toward the camera while the other characters are in the dark also injects levity, a technique used perfectly throughout "Fleabag."
Information: Extra details always help the story unfold. Briefly stepping outside the world of the performance can break down complicated language in layman’s terms while bringing in more comedy or intimate elements, like in Adam McKay's "The Big Short."
Horror: Comedy may be the showcase for breaking the fourth wall, but scary material also taps into this technique to provoke an unnerving effect that lingers long after the credits have rolled. For a chilling example, see the above moment from "Funny Games."