Every once in a while a play or television program will intentionally break the fourth wall in order to make certain characters come to life. A stage used for a play or tv show is set up with three wall, the fourth having been removed so an audience can view. There is an unspoken agreement between the actors and directors and the audience that there is an imaginary fourth wall there. This produces the effect that we are witnessing reality – events that would take place in private, concealed within those four walls.
The conscious decisions by screenwriters and directors to knock down the imaginary fourth wall brings the play out of simulation and into reality. The play Wit, which we read in my Identity and Difference in American Literature class, does just this. The protagonist, Dr. Vivian Bearing, acknowledges the play as a dramatic construction as she speaks directly to the audience at several points throughout the play which details her battle with cancer. The creator of the play, Margaret Edson, decided to break the barrier between play and audience, so that the fate of Vivian would be impossible to ignore for the audience. Bringing Vivian to life in that way created a larger effect for the audience. It made her more real than the expressed dramatization of her cancer struggle.
Luigi Pirandello went beyond breaking the fourth wall in his play Six Characters in Search of an Author. In this play, Pirandello breaks the fifth wall. The play within the play is acknowledged to be a dramatic construction, but the actors of that play are confronted with characters that have come to life. In Pirandello’s play, the fourth wall – the wall between the performers and the audience – remains in tact, but the fifth wall – the wall between the performers and their characters – is shattered.
It is something that we, the audience, agrees to ignore: the fact that the characters are just characters being simulated by real people. Six Characters in Search of an Author forces the audience to recognize the simulation and thereby question who is more “real:” the character or the actor? The actor exists as a full person outside of the play. The characters exist as a the completely realized essence of who they were meant to be. Who do you think is more real?
Either way, the decision to break walls – whether they be of the fourth or the fifth kind – is a playwright’s way to force the audience to consider what is real.