Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Episode 202: Fourth Wall



This week Shauna and Dan delve into the phrase, "Fourth Wall". Whether it's Deadpool, Jim Halpert, or Zack Morris, breaking that Fourth Wall is part of performance art. Bonus: Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Don Gruffo, and Light bulbs.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 202: Fourth Wall
Record Date: July 28, 2023
Air Date: August 2, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever been enjoying a movie, book, or play and suddenly one of the fictional characters you have been immersed with decides to talk directly to you, the observer? When that happens, the creator has decided to break the fourth wall. And that fourth wall is the subject of today’s episode.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the fourth wall is:

The proscenium opening through which the audience sees the performance.
End Quote

I know I’d heard the word before, but I could not for the life of me remember what the proscenium was. So here you go. The proscenium is the part of the stage in front of the curtain. It is short for proscenium arch, referring to the arch or frame surrounding the open part of the 3-walled stage.

So the fourth wall is traditionally you, the audience, watching through the missing wall into the world being acted on stage. And now the fourth wall stands in for the barrier between the characters and you as the observer/reader in TV, film, books, and more.

I found a few places attributing this phrase to Denis Diderot.
The only citation that anyone listed to support this theory was through Wikipedia to J.A. Cuddons Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. I went to that book and pulled the only semi-relevant quote I could find from the 4th edition, which references Diderot’s 1772 work Ceci N’est pas un conte.  Which in english means, This is Not A Story. This may seem familiar to you if you have studied surrealist art, as Rene Magritte has a 1929 work called The Treachery of Images. The work shows a pipe, like one might smoke. Below it, Magritte painted, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe"
French for "This is not a pipe." The painting is not a pipe but instead an image of a pipe.

This work by Diderot predates that painting by 150 years. I’ll read from Cuddons Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory about Diderot’s book. It:

… anticipates by two centuries some recent theory of nar-
ratology, reception theory and reader-response theory. He
introduces into the story (which he claims at the beginning is not a,
story) a listener, a character whose role is more or less that of the
End Quote
Cuddon, J. A. (2012). Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.

Which sounds like a fourth wall is being employed, but Diderot doesn’t use the phrase fourth wall. So while he may have introduced the concept in the mid to late 1700s, it does not appear that he originated the phrase.

The first attestation of the actual phrase “fourth wall” I could find is in the 1807 work by Leigh Hunt titled Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres. This excerpt is from his review of one Mr. Bannister.

No actor enters so well into the spirit of his audience as well as his author, for he engages your attention immediately by seeming to care nothing about you; the stage appears to be his own, of which the audience compose the fourth wall: if they clap for him, he does not stand still to enjoy their applause; he continues the action, if he cannot continue the dialogue;
End Quote

Here’s an example from 1861. This out of the New York Dispatch, 19 Jan 1861. It is from an uncredited article about Luzio, a comic singer. The author mentioned how Luzio would turn his back to the audience which elicited hisses and boos from them. In one scene, Luzio is playing the character Don Gruffo and moves around the stage searching for the nail to hang his hat on. His back is to the audience most of that time.

Finally he finds the nail and there deposits the hat. The public then saw the object of his by-play, and pleased at the wit and the persistence that he showed, they applauded the common sense which proved that the fourth wall, which would have enabled him to keep front face, was occupied by themselves, and that the public in the auditorium had nothing to do with the movements of Don Gruffo, who ought to act in his own chamber as he pleased, without thinking he was overlooked by others.
End Quote

We find our phrase at the turn of the century In an editorial called, In Defense of Ibsen’s Women. This is out of the San Francisco Call, 2 May 1909, out of California USA and is talking about the play Hedda Gabler.

Henrik Ibsen did more than tear down the fourth wall. He uncovered the human soul. Not only does he exhibit the outward scene; he exhibits the truth.
End Quote

This editorial was written by Alla Nazimova, who performed the title character of the play. Nazimova is credited in the book The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy as originating the phrase “sewing circle” to refer to the lesbian and bisexual social network of women writers and actresses of the early 1900s. She was one of the few popular women who was open about being bisexual.
Harbin, Billy J.; Marra, Kim; Schanke, Robert A., eds. (2005). The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy

Here is an article out of The Sun, New York, 7 Oct 1917. It is titled What He Does With A Fourth Wall in His New Play.

The evolution of stagecraft has failed through the years to solve the problem of a complete illusion in the reproduction of interiors. Beautiful rooms have been planned and artificially executed, but the hand of the artist has always been arrested on its way to perfect realism at the fourth wall. The achievement of it in any way whatsoever has presented to the producer a problem apparently as difficult of solution as perpetual motion of the fourth dimension…

…The fourth wall is obviously impossible because where it should be is the front of the stage and beyond that the audience. To build the natural fourth wall of the stage room would mean to shut from the view of the auditor the action of the play.
End Quote

He goes on to talk about how the new play lines up occupied chairs with their backs to the audience while other people in the action keep continuously within the line of the suggested fourth wall. It is briefly employed, but apparently successful in the eyes of the author of the piece.

Here’s a play by A.A. Milne called The Fourth Wall. Yes, the same A.A. Milne with a son named Christopher Robin and who wrote Winnie the Pooh. The Fourth Wall was first performed in 1928. Here is an article talking about the play being performed many years later at a grammar school. This is from the Surrey Mirror, out of Surrey, England, 16 Feb 1940.

The action of the play takes place in Arthur Ludgrove’s private sitting-room at Heron Place, in Sussex, through the “fourth wall” of which the audience saw what happened. The story is cleverly written, and although the method of murder is not infallible and the means of detection decidedly unlikely, the audience was compelled to overlook these considerations having regard to the entertaining character of the play and the pleasing acting.
End Quote

One more, this one talking about the Nelson family of radio and TV fame in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The titular parents and their two sons David and Ricky made up the family.

This article is called Life in a Goldfish Bowl and it was featured in the Evening Star out of Washington, DC, 8 May 1960.

Few American families have grown up with less privacy than the Nelsons. The Fourth wall in their home is the TV screen in the living room of millions of Americans.
End Quote.

I read that article and was like, is this guy being metaphorical? But no,I very quickly learned they were a real-life family. Like that really was mom and dad and their sons. It ran 10 years as a radio program, then moved to 14 seasons on TV. It was the longest running live-action sitcom in the United States until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia broke that mark in 2021.

Let’s move onto some more modern takes on this phrase, but first a quick word of thanks to our sponsors.

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Modern Uses

I want to open up with an interesting article on the Fourth Wall from

A very common fictional concept is that the characters are unaware of the fact that they are characters in somebody else's work of fiction.

This separation between the characters' world and the audience is the Fourth Wall — named for the imaginary wall at the front of a stage play beyond which the actors are (usually) not supposed to cross. It's an Omnipresent Trope, because the separation of fiction and audience helps preserve the latter's Willing Suspension of Disbelief: The fictional characters treat their story as Real Life, and the audience interprets it the same way. See Three-Wall Set for the production implications of this concept; for example, The Couch often directly faces the Fourth Wall. The exploration and subversion of the Fourth Wall is a common trait of Post Modernism.
End Quote   

They go on to provide many phrases in the TV/Film world that relate to Fourth Wall. We’ll explore a bunch of them in the behind the scenes video available to Patrons at any level at

Here are a few:

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Characters talking directly to the audience through the wall of the set that's missing because the audience or camera are there, but is still assumed to exist. Also used more broadly to mean acknowledging that their world is a fiction and they are performers within it.

Found Footage Films: Putting the camera on the character's side of the fourth wall.

Exploiting the Fourth Wall: Using the fourth wall for practical reasons.

Acknowledging aspects of the fiction without quite being aware of it, such as saying things like "If this were a movie".
End Quote

1979 Book
The Fourth Wall is a mystery novel by Barbara Paul, originally published in 1979. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher,

Sylvia Markey sits in her dressing room, holding her cat’s head in her hands. Just the head—the body is nowhere to be found. This gruesome act of violence was committed just a few minutes before curtain, and Sylvia has no time to grieve. She collects herself, and gets ready to perform. She makes it halfway through the second act before her nerves get the best of her, and she vomits onstage. As the run continues, so does the sabotage, and the unknown troublemaker attacks actors, vandalizes the set, and hurls acid at one of the designers. To playwright Abigail James, the meaning is clear: Someone is trying to murder her play.

The police do all they can, but it will take someone who understands theater to unravel the mystery. This is a matter of revenge—and Abigail will settle it backstage.
End Quote

2012 Book
Breaking the Fourth Wall: Direct Address in the Cinema is a book about film by Tom Brown, originally published in 2013. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher, Edinburgh University Press.

What happens when fictional characters acknowledge our 'presence' as film spectators? By virtue of its eccentricity and surprising frequency as a filmic device, direct address enables us to ask some fundamental questions of film theory, history and criticism and tackle, head-on, assumptions about the cinema as a medium. Brown provides a broad understanding of the role of direct address within fiction cinema, with focused analysis of its role in certain strands of avant-garde or experimental cinema, on the one hand, and popular genre traditions (musicals and comedies) on the other.
End Quote

2019 Article
Here is a blog from Lindsay Jones titled, Breaking the Fourth Wall: Mockumentaries. This is dated 25 October 2019.

Michael makes a “that’s what she said” joke or says something weird, the camera pans to Jim, and he gives one of his signature bemused smiles.

This is a recurring joke format found on NBC’s The Office. Jim stands in for the viewer, providing a subdued but amused reaction to Michael’s antics. What makes this style of joke so unique to The Office is that Jim stares directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall. It’s almost if he’s looking right at the viewer as if to say, “You see this guy?”. This creates a common link between the viewer and the character, creating a more personal connection than a viewer might have to characters in other types of TV shows.

In The Office, the existence of a documentary crew is front and center. The documentary is a named part of the story, making it central to the plot. Characters often speak right to the camera in “talking head” interviews, and the use of camera pans is utilized to give the show an authentic documentary feel.

While The Office may be the most popular and well-known mockumentary, it’s not the only one. Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family are also popular comedies that take on the mockumentary format, but it is less explicit. While they use many of the same joke styles and camera techniques, there is no mention of a documentary crew like in The Office. Therefore, viewers are still connected to characters and the sense of reality is preserved, but the link between the style of the show and its content is less obvious.
End Quote

I felt like that was a great stand in for talking about mockumentaries without having to focus on any one specific film or show. Especially since I don’t really like the mockumentary format. It’s too cringy for me.

2020 Short Film
Next up is a short film called The Fourth Wall. It was written and directed by Kelsey Bollig and stars Jean-Marc Barr, Jacqueline Bell, and Lizzie Brochere. Here is the synopsis from the writer on

ChloƩ is a serious actress who's spent her life on the stages of Paris. The result? She has been chipped down into a product of the scrutiny and unfair politics that infest the entertainment industry. Doomed to star in one last performance of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' ChloƩ fights for her moment in the spotlight amongst the self-serving newcomers with whom she is forced to share the stage with. How far will she go to be the star of the show?
End Quote

Wrap Up
I do tend to enjoy works that break the fourth wall. It seems like you need to either break the fourth wall a lot, or rarely break it at all. There is no in between. And works that break it a lot are usually satirical comedy or sarcastic comedy. And I like works that make me laugh while I’m feeling the other feelings. I imagine if life is just a simulation we are all part of, then someday I might get to be the one who breaks the fourth wall, and I think that would be pretty cool.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked out Patrons, what color temperature of lightbulbs do you have the most of at home?

Daylight and Cool light seemed to win the most votes of the options presented, but honestly the option that got the most votes was “I have no idea”.

I get that. I never paid attention until recently because someone commented how each of my light bulbs was a different color. And as many of you know, I have an altered perception of color, so I had to start looking at my light bulbs when I buy them. I have daylight in the kitchen, bathrooms, and overhead in the bedrooms. I have soft white in the lamps in bedrooms. I haven't replaced the lamps in the living room recently, so I'm not sure what is in there.

Emily has an answer that I love:

My spouse has a strong opinion on this and I defer to them and couldn’t say what we use. (Shrug)
End Quote


Mary says:

I have mostly cool white when it comes to bulbs, but I like bright light so I’m really doing that for others. They typically dim them anyway.  I have the LEDs that look like tiny fluorescent lights.  <My husband> claims that we could do surgery with as much light as they provide. He insisted on removing half of them.
End Quote

I prefer the cooler-toned bulbs or the ones closer to natural light. If I could, everything would just be lit by natural sunlight. The color makes a difference in how everything in a space looks and feels. But as an artist and graphic designer… I think caring about color is just par for the course.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.


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