Breaking the Fourth Wall: A Brief History of the Narrative Technique

Breaking the Fourth Wall magically connects the audience and the protagonist. Trace its history from Ancient Theater to modern TV and cinema.

Nov 13, 2023By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication

breaking the fourth wall


The fourth wall is a mystical, supernatural wall that doesn’t exist. It’s an imaginary surface that separates the world of the film from the real world that we are living in. At the same time, it is transparent so that the viewers can follow the story undisturbed and opaque for the actors who are unaware of the existence of the audience. The first official definition of the fourth wall was given in the not-so-distant 1987 by the famous theater critic Vincent Canby, who called it that invisible scrim that forever separates the audience from the stage.


Breaking the Fourth Wall as a Technique

pair theatre stage audience actors fourth wall
Illustration of the fourth wall on the stage. Source: Explorefcg; next to Illustration of the fourth wall in the theatre. Source: Kaleigh Moore


In theater, the fourth wall exists in the space where the stage comes to an end and the audience begins. The other three walls are to the left, right, and back of the stage. Correspondingly, in television and film productions, the fourth wall exists right in front of the screen.


Rules are meant to be broken; after all, that’s what happens to walls sometimes. In the theater, as well as in the cinema, the breaking of the 4th wall undoubtedly gives another dimension to the story. Directors use this special plot device with a desire to involve the viewer emotionally with the flow of a scene by enhancing the dramatic or comedic element of the story. With this unique technique, the actors fixate their look on the audience and address the audience directly by raising concerns or making a comment on the development of the plot.


When the 4th wall is finally broken, it means that characters have realized their fictional nature, which makes the breaking of the wall one of the most special techniques in film. While most cinematic storytelling techniques aim to make us forget that we’re watching a movie, the breaking of the fourth wall does the exact opposite. It actually leads the audience deeper into the character’s psyche and thoughts. As a result, this technique seems like a deep secret that is shared with the viewers. It creates a dynamic bond between the character and the audience.

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Breaking the fourth wall as a storytelling cinematic technique centers on several key elements. It is characterized by its consistent and standardized use of humor, honesty, bravery, and the immediacy with which it engages the audience. Nowadays, breaking the fourth wall has become another universal plot device. Timing is everything. This is the crucial factor that elevates ordinary lines to extraordinary magical cinematic moments.


5th  Century BCE:  Chorus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Ancient Tragedies 

ancient greek theatre fourth wall
The Hearst Greek Theatre by John Galen Howard, n.d. Source: Wikimedia


In ancient Greek tragedies, comedies, or other satirical plays, there is an original narrative meant to help the audience understand the performance’s flow. The inclusion of a chorus was a trademark of the narrative axis in every Ancient tragedy. The chorus, in the form of a homogenous group, used to comment on the dramatic action with a coordinated voice.


The chorus could be characterized as the ultimate spectator capable of conveying a lyrical or even musical expression of feelings and reflections to the real spectator. The aim of the chorus was to lead the audience to contemplation and deep inner research. Furthermore, the chorus showed the audience what the main characters could not say out loud. These things include hidden secrets, fears, and jaded thoughts of the characters. In addition, there were also cases where the chorus used to offer a magical awakening to the characters of the tragedy when they needed it the most.


Historians consider Sophocles the superior tragic poet in terms of his writing skills and his ability to emotionally affect the audience. On the other hand, the caustic narrative and humorous applications of the chorus as a plot device by Aristophanes in his work Frogs is considered particularly innovative.


16th  Century: Shakespeare

william shakespeare paint fourth wall
Shakespeare’s Portairt by James Faed the Elder. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


In his comedies, Shakespeare created a multi-layered narrative that engaged the audience. At certain points in his writing work, Shakespeare focused on the distinction between reality and fantasy. This becomes noticeable when characters begin to directly address the audience by communicating their thoughts and feelings. The viewers automatically feel like they are a part of the play, the boundaries start getting blurry and as a result, a bridge of trust is built.


An example of this particular idea is seen in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Snug the Joiner addresses the audience directly and creates an interactive relationship during his speech by shaking the audience’s hands at the beginning before the 1st scene of Act I. This interactive trick often accompanies Shakespearean comedy and serves as an entertaining and comical element to the plot.


17th  Century: Moliere

moliere paint fourth wall
Molière’s Portrait by Etienne Ficquet, after Coypel, circa 1750-1790, Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


Last but not least, Moliere was a master of comedy and he used the technique to emphasize the comic elements of his plays. It is generally thought that Moliere was the one who invented the Breaking the 4th wall technique in the form that exists today. Moliere drew a massive part of his inspiration from the traditions of the Ancient Greek Theatre and Roman Theatre. He strongly believed that these old narratives were the foundation of theatre and that the playwright’s job was to harness narrative techniques while honoring their value and adapting them to modern times.


1910-20: Silent Cinema

charlie chaplin frame breaking the fourth wall
Charlie Chaplin. Source: POV Magazine


One of the first ever recorded breaking of the fourth wall in cinema happened in Mary MacLane’s silent film Men Who Have Made Love to Me (1918). The enigmatic protagonist interrupts the flow of the film on the screen and addresses the audience directly. In silent cinema, the breaking of the fourth wall has been used many times by the one and only, Charlie Chaplin.


1940s: Cartoons: Bugs Bunny as the Ultimate Superstar 

Bugs Bunny in a Looney Tunes Cartoon show, 1997 via Newsday


On television, the fourth wall was repeatedly and regularly broken by the famous Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes cartoon shows. The protagonist, Bugs Bunny, addresses the audience or even the narrator of the story by evoking an intimate relationship with his fans. The breaking of the 4th wall became the hero’s trademark and an important element of his personality that was based on his humor and confidence.


1970s: Romance and Identity: Annie Hall

annie hall woody allen breaking the fourth wall
Annie Hall by Woody Allen, 1977. Source: GreatFilmBlog.


Woody Allen felt the need to make repeated use of the breaking-the-fourth-wall technique in Annie Hall (1977). This is one of the most popular movies where the technique helps drive the plot forward. Woody Allen even said: Because I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly and confront them.


Breaking the Fourth Wall Today: Presentation of a Strong Personality

francis underwood house of cards frame fourth wall
Frame from House of Cards by Beau Willimon, 2013. Source: Distinct Chatter; next to frame from The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese, 2013. Source: Mediaindia


In a more recent film history, the breaking of the fourth wall was successfully used in Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCaprio creates a special bond with the audience right from the first scene. The personality of the central character charms the audience with humor, immediacy, directness, and persuasion, making every viewer a participant. The director employed this narrative technique to clearly and pleasingly showcase the depth of the main character’s personality. That’s how Martin Scorsese presented the protagonist’s perception, his way of thinking, and his way of handling every situation. The technique was used in a similar way in the famous TV series, The House of Cards. Looking directly at the viewer, the main character of Frank Underwood unfolds the elements of his character, without the use of any filter, only with raw honesty.

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By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.