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Before the Fourth Wall

Danny Ferman as the Cavaliere di Ripafratta and Melanie Wilson as Mirandolina in the Michigan Classical Repertory Theatre production of Carlo Goldini's "The Mistress of the Inn." Photo by Robert Bethune


December, 2002

The concept of the "fourth wall" appears in critical writings about the theater at least as early as 1758, when Denis Diderot, one of the Encyclopedists, wrote, "When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen." This remarkably obtuse and theatrically ignorant concept has done more damage to the theater than virtually any other sentence anyone has ever written about the art, and continues to do its deadly work to this day.

It goes to show what too much education can do. The dramatic technique of the classic theater, even, or perhaps especially, of Diderot’s own time, includes any number of devices which demonstrate a most felicitous disregard for any such idea as his. Soliloquy, aside, chorus, prologue, epilogue, verse–the list goes on. All of them have the particularly delightful effect of placing the performer and the character firmly in the theater with the audience, breathing the same air, living in the same space, sharing the same experience.

Take the aside, for example. In that wonderful scene from The Mistress of the Inn (La Locandiera) in which Goldoni portrays Mirandolina’s first attempt to seduce the Cavaliere di Ripafratta, Mirandolina turns directly to the audience:

Mirandolina (Aside, as she puts down the linens.) (Wow, he’s a tough one. I may not get anywhere with him!)

Cavaliere (Aside.) (An idiot would listen to her pretty words, believe everything she says, and down he goes!)

Goldoni uses asides like this throughout the play. In every case, there’s a subtle and rewarding shift in the performance; for a moment, we are being addressed by someone who is, at the same time, a character in the play and a person speaking to us from the stage. In today’s theater and film, we talk all the time about the actor becoming the character; here, we have the character becoming the actor. I’m presently directing the play, and I’m encouraging the actors to make the most of that transformation; to allow themselves to interact in both personae, as actors and as characters; to use that shift of persona in and out of the scene as they do each aside.

The effect is immediate and very striking. We are in the theater with the actors and the characters as well. They’re having fun; we’re having fun; they’re sharing the fun with us in a direct and immediate way. We come to anticipate those moments and look forward to them, and they keep us on our toes and alive to all the nuances of the story.

Modern theater doesn’t do that much. Since 1758, we’ve gotten more and more hung up on creating a superficial, mostly visual, resemblance to reality. It doesn’t do us any good, but like addicts to a drug, we go on doing it. Oh, we make lots of loud noises, we even stage formal revolts, like teenagers rebelling against some parental stricture. Over and over again, we hear how this playwright or that theater is breaking free of illusion, breaking through the fourth wall, reaching out to the audience, creating alienation effects, on and on and on. But, like good teenagers, we’re usually home more or less around curfew time anyway.

Young people eventually learn to live their own lives, independent of their parents. Theater needs to do the same thing. We’ve had all these self-conscious rebellions, but we haven’t simply started doing things differently, not as some self-conscious act of rebellion, but simply as a matter of course. As long as you’re walking around in a sandwich board that says, "Rebel against realism!" realism still has you by the throat, or perhaps more intimate parts of the anatomy; it’s when you just go do theater that really is based on the live presence of the actor that you finally shuck off the old ways and go with the new.

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