An exploration of a unique meta-technique used in theatres, movies and even books.
A heated argument between a man and his wife is unfolding and you cannot veer your eyes away from them. You’re sitting on your couch, at home, watching this drama on TV. The man’s wife storms out on him, the man (Frank) looks right at the camera and snaps at you: “What’re you lookin’ at?” If you haven’t seen the show before, that moment really leaves an impact on you. That was two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in the American Political Drama “House of Cards”, and by talking straight to you, his character “Frank” broke the 4th wall.
So what does the “4th wall” means? It is a theatrical term used by the famous playwright Molière but it is said to be attributed to the French Philosopher Denis Diderot. Most theatre stages have three physical walls, the fourth wall is the imaginary and transparent one through which the audience beholds the production. Characters on theatre stages, in movies, TV shows or even in books or comics are confined within these three-wall environments. You, the viewer or reader, basically eavesdrop on them and follow what they do. The characters are in complete oblivion and are not aware of the audience, thus they do not speak to them. They are also not aware that they are in this production.
While it has been considered a taboo to break the 4th wall, this imaginary wall was infiltrated and challenged more aggressively in the 20th century. Writers started to let their characters be aware of what’s outside the box. Speaking to the audience is one way of breaking the 4th wall, but there are many others ways it could be done. Anytime the character seems to be aware he’s in a production, he is breaking that wall. Great examples of this are in movies such as “Fight Club”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Blazing Saddles” and “Spaceballs”.
“Breaking the fourth wall” is often confused with “Soliloquy”, which is a technique used in plays whereby the character is letting the audience know his inner thoughts and feelings. While he’s not really talking to any other character in the play, he is not talking directly to the audience either. One of the most famous soliloquies is Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be…” from Hamlet. The word “Soliloquy” comes from Latin: Solo, which means to oneself, and Loquor meaning “I talk”.
On the show “House of Cards”, Mr. Underwood does this every now and then, where he will speak to the camera. Some might think that by speaking straight to the camera, the illusion of this world will be broken or that the viewer’s immersion in the story will be disrupted. If done correctly and utilized in a clever way, the opposite happens. Viewers feel more involved as if they are a part of this world. Breaking the 4th wall on this show serves a purpose, where you feel like you’re part of Frank’s schemes and scandals as he goes about climbing the political ladder to the top. You the viewer will feel like an accomplice to all his devious plans and ensuing crimes. The funny thing is that when Frank is speaking to us, the other characters are not aware of him breaking the 4th wall.