The Fourth Wall

Robert Mills

The fourth wall is a term that I became familiar with early on in my media studies and is one of my favourites. Traditionally, it refers to the imaginary fourth wall at the front of a theatre stage, where there is of course a back wall and two side walls. The first known use of this term is in 1807 so it’s hardly a new concept.¬†Actors are not meant to cross this boundary and acknowledge that there are people beyond the wall, the audience.

Breaking the fourth wall is fairly common. An actor might acknowledge the audience or speak directly down the camera, addressing people. This happens a lot in sitcoms. Bottom is one example and Miranda and Scrubs more recently. Pantos and other media targeted at children practically knock the fourth wall down. It happens in films too. Norman Bates looks directly at the camera right at the end of Psycho.

Here’s a nice little video about the history of breaking the fourth wall in films:

On the web we don’t have walls but we should always be considering the audience. Who is sat there watching, using, interacting? What are their needs and goals? Whether a theatre production, television programme, feature length film or digital experience, there’s always a fourth wall that we need to keep in mind.

Image from The Everett Collection