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The fourth wall refers to the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play.[1][2] The term also applies to the boundary between any fictional setting and its audience. When this boundary is "broken" (for example by an actor speaking to the audience directly through the camera in a television program or film), it is called "breaking the fourth wall."[1][3]

The term was made explicit by Denis Diderot and spread in nineteenth century theatre with the advent of theatrical realism.[4] The critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible screen that forever separates the audience from the stage."[5]

The term "fourth wall" stems from the absence of a fourth wall on a three-walled set where the audience is viewing the production. The audience is supposed to assume there is a "fourth wall" present, even though it physically is not there.[2] This is widely noticeable on various television programs, such as sitcoms, but the term originated in theatre, where conventional three-walled stage sets provide a more obvious place for the "fourth wall".[3] The term "fourth wall" has been adapted to refer to the boundary between the fiction and the audience. "Fourth wall" is part of the suspension of disbelief between a fictional work and an audience. The audience will accept the presence of the fourth wall without giving it any direct thought, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events.[2] The presence of a fourth wall is an established convention of fiction and drama, this has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic or comedic effect. This is known as "breaking the fourth wall". Breaking the fourth wall reveals to the audience that the characters know they are fictional.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Bell, Elizabeth (2008). Theories of Performance. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4129-2638-6. OCLC 166387386. [page needed]
  2. ^ a b c Wallis, Mick; Shepherd, Simon (1998). Studying plays. London: Arnold. ISBN 978-0-340-73156-7. [page needed]
  3. ^ a b Abelman, Robert (1998). Reaching a critical mass: a critical analysis of television entertainment. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 8-11. ISBN 978-0-8058-2199-4. [verification needed]
  4. ^ Stevenson, John (Spring 1995). "The Fourth Wall And The Third Space". Centre for Playback Theatre. Retrieved on May 4, 2009. 
  5. ^ Canby, Vincent (June 28, 1987). "Film view: sex can spoil the scene". The New York Times. Retrieved on May 4, 2009. 


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

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Alternative spellings


fourth wall

fourth walls

fourth wall (plural fourth walls)

  1. (performing arts, idiomatic) The imaginary invisible wall at the front of the stage in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play.
    • 1916, "Second Thoughts on First Nights," New York Times, 20 Feb., p. X7,
      This is a flat, unnecessary, and strangely disturbing denial of the fourth-wall convention, that unwritten agreement between playwright and playgoer whereby you think of yourself at the theatre as a privileged, exonerated, comfortably seated eavesdropper.
    • 2005, Philip Kennicott, "Our Aura of Security, Shattered Like Glass," Washington Post, 31 Aug., p. C01,
      There's been a convention in the theater world to think of the division between audience and spectacle as a fourth wall, a wall that the playwright tries to eliminate through the force of his drama.
  2. (by extension) The boundary between the fiction and the audience.
    • 1999, Orson Scott Card,
      Even though you, the author, may be maintaining a fourth wall between your characters and your readers, he, the narrator, is not keeping that fourth wall between himself and the audience he thinks he's telling the story to.
    • 2003, Robert Keith Sawyer, Improvised Dialogues: Emergence and Creativity in Conversation, page 107
      The fourth wall is the imaginary barrier between the stage and the audience, and the phrase is a metaphor for the dramatic frame.
    • 2003, Cathy Haase, Acting for Film, page 92
      As actors, we are still looking out into the imaginary fourth wall. The difference is that in film, the fourth wall is no longer fixed;
    • 2004, Diana Fuss, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms that Shaped Them, page 207
      ... removes the fourth wall of the nineteenth-century novel and, in doing so, eliminates the border between a fictional inside and a nonfictional outside.
    • 2005, Chris Crawford, Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, page 208
      I've saved the worst for last. The crudest scheme is to drop the fourth wall and advise players as to actions that are inhibiting

Derived terms

  • fourth wall joke
  • break the fourth wall


Citable sentences

Up to date as of December 29, 2010

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