The Twilight Zone Wiki
Real world.png This article is written from the
Real world point of view

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. 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 sitcom), it is called "breaking the fourth wall."

Origin and Meaning

The term was made explicit by Denis Diderot,[1] and spread in nineteenth century theatre with the advent of theatrical realism. Critic Vincent Canby described it in 1987 as "that invisible screen that forever separates the audience from the stage."[2] Another among early practitioners of this method (now referred to as the "Fourth Wall") is Thornton Wilder & his 1937 play "Our Town".

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. 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 "fourth wall". 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.The presence of a fourth wall is one of the best established conventions of fiction and as such has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic or comedic effect. This is known as "breaking the fourth wall". For instance, in Puckoon, Spike talks to the author multiple times. Spike also at one stage in the book, looks to see what page the reader is on. Besides theatre and cinema, the term has been adopted by other media, such as television, comics, and more recently, video games. Though some table-top roleplaying games do allow for breaking the fourth wall, these are usually beer and pretzel type games.

Breaking the Fourth Wall


"Breaking the fourth wall" refers to a situation in which a character reveals his or her awareness of the audience. This can also be called metatheatre. The technique has been used for millennia: it was standard practice in Greek comedy.

For instance, at one point in the Greek playwright Aristophanes' play Peace, the hero Trygaeus (who is being lifted into the air by a crane situated offstage) tells the crane-handler to be more careful. The fourth wall didn't actually exist in Greek theatre; even in tragedies many characters spoke directly to the audience, aware of their existence. Most often, the fourth wall is broken by having a character directly address the audience (one example is the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, in which three of the "audience" members ask questions that are part of the script and are responded to by the Stage Manager). A similar effect can be achieved by having characters interact with objects outside the context of the work (e.g., a character is handed a prop by a stage hand). Productions of William Shakespeare's plays, which frequently feature asides and soliloquies which the characters in question presumably speak only to themselves, sometimes present the dialogue as being delivered directly to the audience. In Sir Laurence Olivier's 1955 film adaptation of Richard III, Olivier addresses the audience directly, a ground breaking technique in film.

A notable case of Shakespeare breaking the fourth wall is the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Puck suggests to the audience that they pretend, should they have disliked the play they just saw, that the entire production was only a dream. Sometimes, an actor in a play may physically penetrate the fourth wall. For example, in plays that involve sword (or other melee) fights, such as Romeo and Juliet, fighters may go into the audience. The reasons for doing this are plentiful, but the most obvious reason is that it helps draw the audience into the play. Various artists have used this jarring effect to make a point, as it forces an audience to see the fiction in a new light and to watch it less passively. Bertolt Brecht was known for deliberately breaking the fourth wall to encourage his audience to think more critically about what they were watching, referred to as Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect"). Breaking the fourth wall is often employed for comic effect, as a sort of visual non-sequitur; the unexpected departure from normal narrative conventions is often surprising and creates humor. A very early example of this occurs in Francis Beaumont's play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which contains three characters who are purportedly part of the audience. They frequently interrupt the performance and demand to be consulted on the plot, ordering a number of sudden (and usually extremely awkward) changes throughout the play, with often comical results. Such exploitation of an audience's familiarity with the conventions of fiction is a key element in many works defined as post-modern, which dismantle established rules of fiction. Works which break or directly refer to the fourth wall often utilize other post-modern devices such as meta-reference or breaking character.

Modern Film

The technique was arguably first employed in the modern sense in the sensational 1921 premiere of Pirandello's play Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) (compare with the (TZ1) episode "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"), wherein six ordinary people come to the rehearsal of a play to demand that their stories be told as part of the performance.

Instances of breaking the fourth wall is a tool that can be employed to great comedic effect (perhaps typified by Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers, and Hal Roach regulars Laurel and Hardy), and numerous comedies use the feature:

  • Horse Feathers (1932)
  • Road to Bali (1952)
  • Tom Jones (1963)
  • Blazing Saddes (1973)
  • Animal House (1978)
  • A Christmas Story (1983)
  • The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
  • Spaceballs (1987)
  • Casual Sex? (1988)
  • Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993)
  • The Truman Show (1998)
  • Scary Movie (2000)
  • Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Aside from comedies, the effect has been used in such films as Last Action Hero (1993) and Funny Games (1997).


George Burns commonly addressed the audience in his 1950s TV comedy show, and sometimes even watched it on TV in another room.[3]

Monty Python's Flying Circus often broke the fourth wall with characters speaking to the audience, asking about their lines or commenting on the content of the sketch. The character 'The Colonel' repeatedly stopped sketches because he thought they were too silly and The Spanish Inquistion remark on the movement of the end credits when they are trying to get to court.

The fourth wall is frequently broken in cartoons, often in ways difficult or impossible with live actors. Perhaps one of the most humorous is to "fight the iris": right before the picture ends and while the image is diminished by a contracting circle, a character forces the "eye" open to interject a wry comment or complaint. The character may appear onscreen after the iris is closed, walking or running over a solid black background. The award-winning cartoon Duck Amuck breaks the fourth-wall for the entire running-time, with Daffy Duck arguing with the off-screen animator (Bugs Bunny) throughout the cartoon.


The fourth wall has also been broken in literature such as The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov,[4] Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, Travelling People by B.S. Johnson, Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, which has the author inserting himself into the story and discussing the possible endings he was considering, thus causing the reader to wonder which ending he would choose. It can be intentional; some television series involve a character telling the audience important facts, such as citing statistics on gun violence in schools, helping people with certain kinds of diseases, coping with death in the immediate family, and so on.


Comics can occasionally break the fourth wall, as Marvel Comics characters Deadpool[5] and She-Hulk[6] have demonstrated at times that are aware of being comic book characters. In the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, Stan Lee's style of writing regularly broke the fourth wall when writing captions and narration. The regulars of the Marvel Bullpen, such as Fred Hembeck[7], also made appearances as themselves in the comics, often to deliver narrative comments to the readers.[8]

DC Comics also showed instances of the fourth wall being broken. The Joker often addresses the comic reader and has even at times forced his way out of the comic frames to do things such as help turn the page.[9] In DC Comics' Animal Man series, the lead character comes to the realization that he is in the comic and that we, as the readers are the ones behind all of the terrible events ruining his life. He also later seeks out the series' creator, Grant Morrison, who becomes —or is— a character in the book he is writing. [10]

The Twilight Zone

The narrators of the various series consistently break the fourth wall, most obviously in the portrayals by Rod Serling and Forrest Whitaker, whom speak directly into the camera, at the audience. This occurrence is less common with other characters, although the TV Repairman does shoot us a smirk at the end of an episode. (TZ1: "What's in the Box")

Another debatable instance may occur in the (TZ1) episode "A World of His Own". In this instance, one of the characters, Gregory West, clearly acknowledges the usually obscured Rod as existing in his presence, first by interrupting his closing narration and then by apparently removing the Narrator from the scene. In this way, the Narrator acts as a portal connecting us directly to The Twilight Zone.


  1. "The Fourth Wall and the Third Space" by John Stevenson, creator or Playback Theatre.
  2. "Film view: sex can spoil the scene;" (review). Canby, Vincent. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Jun 28, 1987. pg. A.17. ProQuest ISSN: 03624331 ProQuest document ID: 956621781 (subscription). retrieved July 3, 2007
  3. "At work with Garry Shandling; Late-Night TV, Ever More Unreal;" [Biography]. Weinraub, Bernard, New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Dec 10, 1992. pg. C.1. Proquest ISSN: 03624331 ProQuest document ID: 965497661 retrieved July 3, 2007.
  4. [1]
  5. Wikipedia. "Deadpool." Revision: 2009-05-05. Retrieved: 2009-05-05.
  6. Comic Book Resources. "Pipeline 3-31-2009." 2009-03-31. Retrieved: 2009-05-05.
  7. "[ Fred Sez]." Retrieved: 2009-05-05.
  8. Wikipedia. "List of comics creators appearing in comics." Revision: 2009-02-26. Retrieved: 2009-05-05.
  9. "[ The Joker]." Retrieved: 2009-05-05.
  10. The Continuity Pages. "[ Animal Man: Grant Morrison Era (1988-1990)." 2003-11-03. Retrieved: 2009-05-05.
  • Wikipedia. "Fourth Wall." Revision: 2009-04-26. Retrieved: 2009-04-26.