Audience Forbearance and the Fourth Wall

Posted: March 4, 2011 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , ,

I have been reading William Goldman’s The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. You may remember Goldman as the author of such films as The Princess Bride or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the script doctor for many, many more. In 1968, he saw every show during the Broadway season, talked to critics, directors, actors, writers, ushers, ticket sellers. He had a study commissioned to see why people go to the theater. Goldman knows what he’s doing, and for as crabby and sarcastic and bitchy he is about his material, it’s plain that he has enormous affection for Broadway, and for the theater in general.

There’s a lot in this book that isn’t really particularly useful, anymore. The box office and budget numbers, for instance, must be adjusted for inflation since 1968. At the time, Goldman’s study showed that fully a third of Broadway audiences were out-of-towners; I suspect that this number is even higher now. And, of course, the mechanics of the Broadway theater industry are peculiar to Broadway, and don’t really apply in places like Philadelphia.

But there is one thing that remains as true fifty or so years later, and that is dramaturgy.

I mean for real dramaturgy, by the way: nuts-and-bolts dramaturgy, Lessing’s Hamburg dramaturgy: the practical, structural construction of a play. The book is filled with juicy, useful bits – if I were teaching a class on dramaturgy or script-writing, I’d probably use this as my central text. There was one particular part that caught my interest (probably because I was reading about it ten minutes ago), and that’s when he talks about Hair.

Hair is a hippy-love-rock musical, I don’t know if you’ve seen it. There’s little in the way of plot or character, the songs are lyrically kind of clunky. The play pretty successful; as Goldman points out, there are naked penises in it, and that was a pretty draw for the ladies from Scarsdale. When it moved to Broadway, it became a kind of safe vehicle that tourists could use to see what hippies were really like.
In the midst, though, of talking about many of the problems that the show had with regards to it amateurishness, Goldman mentions that he was talking, in the back of the theater, to an actor before the actor was about to go on. And he says that it’s impossible to hate a show that’s loose enough for you to talk to the actors backstage.

This, I think, is a pretty interesting point. It goes back to what I was saying about the purpose of the Chorus in Henry V: not as a narrator, but as a direct liaison to the audience, and a kind of apologist for the play. We generally presume that “the suspension of disbelief” is a necessary element to make a play work, and even plays that violate the fourth wall (this is the wall that separates the Source of the universe from this is the wall that the actors pretend exists between themselves and the audience) often don’t actually violate it. They just shape it oddly, so that they can run out into the audience. Or else, they create an imaginary audience that serves as an intermediary buffer between them and the real audience – a kind of a fifth wall, really.

What I mean is, an actor who turns out and speaks “to the audience” is, technically, violating the fourth wall by refusing to pretend that the pretend room that he’s in has another pretend obstruction. In fact, that actor is typically not actually speaking to the audience. He is speaking in the direction of the audience, so we might say that he is speaking towards the audience. But he rarely expects the audience to reply, or to be in any other wise engaged with him beyond the particular and typical responsibilities of an audience.

What is that audience engagement, really? When Peter Brook, in The Empty Space talks about the three kinds of theater, one of the ones he describes is “The Rough Theater” – what we might call “amateurish” theater. Dirty, sloppy, sets thrown together, actors occasionally seeming like they’re at a loss. And still it’s an enjoyable time; as Goldman says about Hair, whenever the script slows down, the actors jump around energetically and ask for the audience’s forbearance.

The other two kinds of theater that Brook describes are “The Holy Theater”, in which the audience participates primarily by watching, and they are, I guess, spiritually moved by what they see; and also “Deadly Theater”. Brook uses “deadly” in the British sense, to mean “deadly dull” – all of which boils down to this: you can either bring your audience closer to God, or you can have a good time with them, or you can do a shitty job. That’s it, those are your choices.

The Rough Theater, I think, works on the essential principle that “having a good time with your friends is an inherently desirable activity.” That is: fun is an end. If I have ten dollars in my pocket, and several ways in which to spend it, “on something fun” is definitely going to be near the top of my list. And if I’ve spent ten dollars on your play, it’s because I want to have a good time. Ostensibly, all you have to do is let me.

I saw production of the Aquila Theater Company’s version of The Wasps. It was sloppy, amateurish. The actors were good, but the sets and props were clearly just crap that they’d found in a dumpster. Someone had a water pistol. It was full of ridiculous songs. It was also hilarious – some of the best minutes I’ve ever spent in a theater. Why?

Well, let me see if I can get to my point here. When you sit down to do a play, you’ve got to decide what kind of play you want to do. If we take it as a given that you don’t want to bore the shit out of your audience, you’ve basically got two choices: offer them a transcendent experience, or offer them a good time.

With this new context, we start to see why the Fourth Wall is essentially superfluous in most theater, and, in some ways, actually kind of damaging. If you’re doing a play with the intention of showing your audience a good time, then the only things you want in your play are things that directly support showing the audience a good time. Movies, of course, have to have a Fourth Wall, because they’re already done by the time that you get there. But the theater doesn’t, and the theater’s ability to reach right out and engage with the audience – and by “engage with the audience”, I don’t mean “talking towards them” but actually trying to make friends with them. Occasionally discarding the notion of “in character”, or of any and every other element and pretense that composes the traditional theater, to genuinely connect with the people who’ve come to see the show.

They are, after all, not here to find out whether or not Oscar and Felix are going to finally get along. They’re just here to have a good time.

  1. deb says:

    But by “have a good time,” do you necessarily mean, “have a FUN time?” As in funny fun? Because if “fun,” “holy,” or “deadly,” are my only choices, everything I do that isn’t spiritual or hilarious must therefore be deadly. Which, now that I think of it, might actually be true.

    But if we’re going to keep a fairly narrow definition of “holy” (as Brook meant it), then anything short of that transcendent experience that Brook and, say, the Greeks were after, domestic dramas, for example, or the now-ever-popular “dramedy,” are pretty much out. Unless “fun” is expanded to include “an enjoyable experience being in the theatre even though the play is sad and there’s nothing to laugh at,” for example.

    Realism. Naturalism. Bah.

  2. braak says:

    I’m willing to grant “enjoyable,” but also okay with giving up domestic dramedies. So.

  3. Dramedies seem destined for television, as they require passive attention spans, no interaction, and are mildly humorous–while still having a plot. (For some reason TV and film comedies seemed to have stopped having plots.) Personally, I love this idea. Though it requires a willing and energetic audience, moreso than you even get at most live music shows. I don’t know if “the audience” would understand how to react to someone asking them to react. A few of improv/comedy shows I’ve gone to ask for this, but wind up getting people terrified of any interaction (me).

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    A play can also pull an audience in by initially seeming like merely goofy, casual fun, only to flip upon itself and offer a profound and touching revelation. This can be a very moving experience, partly because its so unexpected – the audience, relaxed, “lets their guard down”, leaving themselves open to a more reflexive, emotional interpretation of the performance than an intellectual one: They’ve become more invested in feeling than thought. It’s “bait and switch” done with kindness and for the sake of an entertaining and memorable theater experience. The audience believed they were getting one thing – and they did – but with their forgiveness over a small trick, they also get something even better (not suitable for a murder-mystery matinee, with heavy audience inclusion; emotional investment over a focus on dissecting information, would lead to the play ending before it began).

    I think of “Much Ado About Nothing” as a good example of this. The audience is invited into the story as if guests to a party. Everyone is just having a blast, with some arbitrary plot conflicts thrown in. The title even implies a laid-back, party vibe. But while the audience has invested in the energy of the play and interest in its plot, they’re not prepared for the exposure of unexpected intimacy between Beatrice and Benedick, a deep love that grew from a very sportsman-like friendship; behind all the whip-quick funny stuff and silly exchanges, something very tender and personal was brewing. Although the audience witnesses clearly romantic and sexual tension between the characters, from early in the play, they probably didn’t expect how deeply the love between them had grown and how quiet they’d choose to remain about their feelings, to everyone – including the audience – until late in the play. Yes, Beatrice also demands revenge around the time they declare their love to eachother, but the point is that it moves from outgoing wit, party-time comedy and a play teetering on the brink of farce, to one that quietly says something touching about love and loyalty.

  5. David Alger says:

    Rough Theater – that would be improv comedy. That is actually the title of one of our shows. I think the image of the theater and the art seem create an expectation in the audience as to what the show should be…

  6. braak says:

    I’m not sure that it is, though. The Aquila show definitely had a script, and they definitely were mostly working with lines that they all new. And, I have to say, as a theater viewer, I very rarely enjoy wholly improvisational comedy. While I think improv comedy does fall into the category of “Rough Theater”, I think it’s really an extreme version of an approach to theater that just includes a high degree of flexibility…due, I suppose, to some essential imprecision.

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