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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Fourth Wall

Last night, Donna and I went to a play reading. It was the first or second time it was done in public, and the goal was to allow the playwright to hear his work and get a little audience feedback. Believe me, it's an event that at best is traumatic.

Of course, I'll preserve the piece's anonymity. After the reading, there's time in which the audience shares observations with the playwright.

This was not a terrible play. Believe me, I've spent untold hours listening to inartistic drool while tracing with my tongue on my front teeth "kill me." This wasn't good by any means, but it certainly wasn't a suicide-aid.

However, the central character delivered his first line directly to the audience. NO!

Who am I supposed to be that this guy is talking to me? In Hal Holbrook's magnificent MARK TWAIN TONIGHT, Twain was lecturing an audience (of which I was part). That's organic and therefore acceptable.

In this piece, this initial audience-addressing character even acknowledged us as "the audience." I suppose at least this is frank.

The thing is: I don't need to be or want to be reminded of the fact that I'm a guy in an audience, in a theatre, witnessing make-believe. I want to be a fly-on-the-wall.

Theatre allows you to go to places and witness things that would otherwise be impossible to access. It allows your to lose yourself. This becomes increasingly difficult when not only the central character but nearly all of them use direct address and by doing so remind you that this is just a play. There is no real vulnerability, because these are just a bunch of artists who will ultimately step out of costume and make-up. No harm, no foul.

The voluntary suspension of disbelief is what a good audience member tries to bring to the play. This is something that shouldn't be peevishly withheld. On the other hand, it's something difficult to achieve. It demands the participation and encouragement on the part of the theatre artists.

I think that breaking the fourth wall is largely the easy way out. Of course, someone will cite Shakespeare as someone who often does so. True. But we must remember that genius trumps everything. According to the theatrical saw, WAITING FOR GODOT is a play in which nothing happens. Twice! Would another playwright be advised to try to pull-off something like this? Hardly. But genius is sui generis and self-defining.

The "wright" part of "playwright" suggests a mastery of craft (as in "cabinet wright"). A playwright is part artist and just as much artisan. Part of what we try to do is through the deft use of subtext, inner-monologue, and physical action bring to life the heart and soul of the characters. It leads the audience to discoveries and allows the audience members the opportunity to make discoveries by themselves.

It's easy to recite the inner-life. It also creates a cheap intimacy. "Hey, he's talking to me. Of course, I care about him." Real intimacy with a character happens when you share his or her humanity.

These moment of heart-felt and intimate acknowledgement are the very grist for the drama that should drive the action. Don't allow it to be the easily achieved rhapsodizing that feels good to the playwright (ah! the sound of my voice!) but at best is far too easy and at worst tears the drama out of the play's heart.
 

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1 Comments:

Blogger PRobin5478 said...

Breaking the fourth wall is an easy way out for a playwright, perhaps.

But so is the soliloquy for Shakespeare. If Will S. were a really good playwight, he'd have shown us Hamlet's inner life in a scene, not in just some unrealistic mouthing-off to the audience -- for sympathy.

I say, if it works, it works. I've seen good plays that broke the fourth wall and bad plays that did it.

As George Abbott said, "Forget Art: does it work?"

August 5, 2008 at 5:29 PM  

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