Fourth wall

Specifically in a proscenium theater, the term fourth wall applies to the imaginary invisible wall at the front of the stage in a theater through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play. In an arena theater, or theater-in-the-round, all four walls are in effect "fourth walls." One also speaks of a fourth wall in fictional realms, in literature, movies, television, radio, comic books, and other forms of entertainment.

The term "breaking the fourth wall" is used in film, theater, television, and literary works; it refers to a character directly addressing an audience, or actively acknowledging (through breaking character or through dialogue) that the characters and action going on is not real.

The sudden breaking of the fourth wall is often employed for humorous effect, although opinions differ widely as to how "humorous" this is. Some regard breaking the fourth wall suddenly so jarring that it actually detracts from a story's humor. However, when employed consistently throughout a story for narrative effect, it is usually (and arguably, paradoxically) incorporated into the audience's normal suspension of disbelief.

Examples of breaking the fourth wall include the following:



  • In Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot, the knights break the Fourth Wall by addressing the audience with reasons justifying their murder of Thomas Becket.
  • In ancient Greek comedy, the chorus would sometimes address the audience and give them reasons to give the play first prize. An example is Aristophanes' The Birds, in which the chorus of birds threaten to defecate on the heads of audience members if they vote for another play.
  • Many of the plays of William Shakespeare have characters that will occassionally address the audience. In some cases, a chorus exists in the performance to do the same thing. Most of his plays also end with an epilogue in which one of the lead characters will make some final comments on the play or make requests of the audience.
  • In William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes, the character Holmes is supposed to be sealed in a box. He taps the walls of the "box", including the fourth wall, where sound effects are supplied offstage to indicate the solidity of this imaginary wall.
  • Bertolt Brecht's alienation, or Verfremdungseffekt, was intended to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a show, with the idea that their response would be more thoughtful.
  • In Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, the fourth wall is not even there to be broken down. Some actors are getting ready for rehearsal when six characters whose author has died, leaving them incomplete, enter the room. The director decides to include the characters in the play they are rehearsing and soon all the lines between fiction and reality have disappeared.
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is another example of a performance where the fourth wall is virtually nonexistent. The actors (who play themselves rather than specific characters) address the audience throughout the entire play, and audience is directly involved in the show at certain points.
  • At the end of Branislav Nusic's The Cabinet Minister's Wife, the protagonist orders the audience to get out so that they would not watch her misery.
  • In A.R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall, a quartet of characters deal with housewife Peggy's obsession with a blank wall in her house, slowly being drawn into a series of theater clichés as the furniture and action on the stage become more and more directed to the supposed fourth wall.

Radio and television

  • The Pirandello play was parodied in a Goon Show episode entitled "Six Charlies in Search of an Author", in which the characters seize the typewriter from one another to write in miraculous escapes, suddenly acquired weapons, descriptions of their own bravery, and the like. All of the Goon Show plots alternated between honoring the fourth wall and breaking it.
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Once More With Feeling, during a scene where both Xander and Anya are describing singing a song the night before, Anya can be heard describing feeling as though she were being watched, "like there were three walls and not a fourth wall..."
  • The character of Lorne in the series Angel would play the part of a narrator, taken to an extreme in the episode "Spin the Bottle" when the whole episode was told from his point of view to a bar (complete with hecklers). At one point his character, supposed to be unconscious, wakes to address the bar and complain about other characters arguing; he also jumps around to correct errors in the narrative, and returns from an advert break in the show to suggest that "those were some exciting products". At the end the camera zooms out to reveal that the bar is in fact empty.
  • In the television show It's Garry Shandling's Show, the fourth wall was virtually nonexistent with Garry Shandling repeatedly addressing the audience during the show.
  • A number of police and detective series broke the fourth wall briefly in order to better involve the audience in the episodes. Examples include early seasons of the 1962-1969 series, The Saint, Decoy and the mid-1970s series, Ellery Queen. In the case of Ellery Queen, the fourth wall was broken to allow the titular character to directly invite the audience to help solve the mystery (a gimmick held over from the radio version of the series).
  • On the teen show Saved by the Bell, Zack Morris frequently addressed the camera, especially during the beginning of the episode. He also had the ability to freeze the action of a scene by yelling "time out!", where only he talked and moved as he explained to the audience his current predicament. Action is "unfrozen" once he yelled "time in!"
  • Frankie Muniz's character, Malcolm, on the FOX show Malcolm in the Middle routinely addresses the audience to explain his point-of-view. The actions of the other characters continue in the background, but they are not aware of the breaking of the fourth wall.
  • In every episode of the BBC House of Cards trilogy, the main character, Chief Whip / Prime Minister Francis Urquhard (played by Ian Richardson), frequently breaks the "fourth wall" addressing the viewer directly as if talking to a life-long political ally, giving the viewer an immediate insight into Urquhard's next moves in his plans to crush his opponents. It is not only a great effect, it also ensures that the viewer doesn't lose track of Urquhard's many intrigues.
  • Frankie Howard, in the 1960's BBC TV series Up Pompeii always addressed the audience at the start ("The Prologue") and end of the episode and frequently throughout the course of the episode. He almost always turned to the audience and delivered his punchlines directly to them. He did the same thing in the 1969 film of the series. Frankie made comments directly to the audience in almost every film he ever made.
  • The 100th episode of Stargate SG-1, titled "Wormhole X-Treme!", is largely set behind the scenes of a TV sci-fi show that bears a remarkable resemblance to Stargate SG-1 itself (in the story, this is because it is created by an alien with repressed memories of the "real" Stargate program). The script includes numerous instances of characters commenting on the show-within-the-show that can also be taken as commentary on Stargate SG-1 itself. The fourth wall is broken directly during the closing section when actor Christian Bocher delivers a monologue which begins "I'm Christian Bocher" and goes on to explain the relationship of his character in the episode to the character of Dr Daniel Jackson, mentioning not only Michael Shanks who plays Dr Jackson in the series but also James Spader who played the character in the movie on which the series was based. To add to the confusion, in this sequence Bocher and the other guest stars are actually playing fictionalised versions of themselves (though the factual information he gives about the series is all true).


  • In J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Peter Pan encourages the good little children who believe in fairies—in particular, the people reading the story right there and then—to help make Tinkerbell better after she drinks Peter's glass of poisoned milk. The scene is derived from audience participation in the original stage version, which has roots in pantomime.
  • In the online comic Drowtales, the reader is the invisible friend of one of the characters.
  • Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events breaks the fourth wall frequently, as the author addresses the reader, telling them to skip over particularly gloomy parts or stop reading the book altogether. The author also includes himself as a character in the plot, following after the protagonists and chronicling their adventures. The same happens in the 2004 movie adaptation.
  • Michael Ende's novel The Neverending Story is initially about a boy reading a fantasy novel, also called The Neverending Story. The characters in the inner novel gradually learn about their fictional nature and about the identity of the reader in the framing story, who himself becomes an active participant in the fantasy world. The film based on the novel takes this a stage further and as we see the young child (who is portrayed reading the novel and imagining the action that is then portrayed in the film) the voice-over of one of the characters in the novel says that they "are aware that someone is watching our adventures, just as the one watching us are themselves watched by others" (i.e. the audiences in the film theatre).
  • In the final two books of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower, the author (Stephen King) is a character in the novel, and near the end of the last book warns the audience not to read any further if they fear unhappy endings.


  • Some of the first popularized breaking of the fourth wall in cinema was courtesy of Groucho Marx, of the Marx Brothers, in films such as the 1929 film The Cocoanuts and the 1930 film Animal Crackers.
  • In the opening scenes of Mary Poppins, Bert gives the audience a guided tour of Cherry Tree Lane. He later addresses the audience as "art lovers" when he is doing his work as a screever.
  • In the mockumentary Man Bites Dog the characters alternate between talking to the audience of the documentary they are producing and the audience watching the film.
  • In Annie Hall, Woody Allen breaks the wall by asking the audience direct questions. He has been often quoted in interviews as portraying this as homage to Groucho Marx.
  • In many animated cartoons, the cartoon characters will suddenly start talking directly to the audience, or encountering a break or tear in the film that the cartoon is being projected upon, or many other ways to remind the audience that they are watching an animated cartoon. Animation director Tex Avery was a pioneer of breaking the fourth wall, and his cartoons often stated, "In a cartoon, you can do anything!"
  • In Tom Jones, various characters break off in the middle of a scene to look into the camera and address the audience.
  • In Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris guides the audience throughout the movie.
  • In High Fidelity, Rob Gordon (John Cusack) discusses his thoughts concerning the events of the story directly with the audience. At one point he is talking to the camera while in bed with a sleeping woman; he whispers and checks to see if his talking is waking her up.
  • In The Sum of Us, a character who is unable to speak occasionally addresses the audience directly, e.g. to complain, ironically, about the condition that stops him from speaking, saying 'the trouble with having a stroke is the people that treat you like a fuckwit afterwards'.
  • In Airplane!, an '80s spoof comedy, Elaine Dickinson tells Ted Striker, referring to their broken relationship: "I can't live with a man I don't respect", and after she goes, Ted turns looking to the audience and says "What a pisser!". This film makes extensive use of camera addressing, enhancing a tendency to the comedy of absurd in cinema.
  • In 24 Hour Party People, Tony Wilson talks to the audience throughout the film, and in one scene talks about a scene that was deleted out of the final cut, making note of the fact that it will be on the DVD.
  • In Funny Games by Michael Haneke one of the villains winks at the camera and adresses the audience by asking it questions like "We're not up to feature film length yet. Is that enough? But you want a real ending, with plausible plot development don't you?" He also actively changes the continuity by rewinding the movie using a remote control.

Interactive entertainment

  • A number of games break the fourth wall if the player doesn't perform any action for a set period of time. For example, in the Resident Evil series, the character of Jill Valentine will impatiently tap her foot if she stays in one spot for too long. In some games, the character will say something like "I don't have all day," while other characters may yawn or fiddle with their weapon. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the first game with this feature, which was also followed up on by the Earthworm Jim series, among several others.
  • The whole premise of the computer game Omikron is to break the 4th wall. According to the game, the player character is actually the player himself or herself, whose soul has been sucked into the game world by the game, where it exists as a ghost-like entity capable of possessing the game's characters. Defeat in the game world means losing your soul in the real world (although, in reality, you can always reload from a saved game).
  • In the Konami game Metal Gear Solid, the character of Psycho Mantis is able to read your mind by reading the input of the player's controller - which can be avoided by swapping controller ports - and also by making comments about other Konami games saved on your memory card.

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