Don’t Talk to Me, I’m Too Busy Watching You Act!

by James Haro

(First, just to get it out of the way. You’re thinking it, I’m thinking it and we’ll just be distracted unless we just address it upfront. So here goes….Happy Star Wars Day! May the Fourth be with you all! Alright, back to business.)

Hey YOU! Out there. Yes you. You’re at a computer right now. OR you’re on a mobile device. You’re certainly not reading this on paper, or in the sky. You’re looking at a screen. You probably have eyes. You’re probably literate. Yes, you…

So that was me trying to break the fourth wall on a blog. Did it work? I don’t know, I don’t think I did it quite right. Then again, I don’t know how many walls there actually are in regards to the internet. Let’s see, there are fire walls, pay-walls, Wall.com (of course, there is), the 1,230,000,000 results for “wall” on Google, but that’s just me being thorough. Really I think there is only one wall that matters for the purpose of my point here, the screen. That’s what  separates your mind and my thoughts. And really its less of a wall and more of a window, one window through which information is transmitted. But there  is separation, and it’s at once a concrete and abstract one.

So what is that “fourth wall” spoken so much about of in theatre? As I understand it, it’s a not-so-ancient invention which acts as a barrier between performer and audience. Actors pretend they’re not being watched and the audience is given license to merely observe, not having to worry about being approached by strangers in costume as if it were Halloween. Now, people have their preferences as far as their theatre experience goes. One preference in particular puts me and my lady at odds when seating is general. When the venue is small I like to sit up front, first row if It can. I want to be in it. My girl Monet, not so much. The way I see it, if a play does a poor job of pulling me into their world when I’m a few feet away from it, there is something wrong with the play, and I try to test this when I can. I don’t go to the theatre to just watch, I want to be involved, invested, spit on, squirted with fake blood, what have you. That’s the reality of the stage, there is no screen, there is no wall. Just air and imagination. Nothing to protect you, it’s all right there.

So when I came across a Charles Isherwood rant from last October about his dislike for the “Direct Address” device in theatre I knew I had something to write about this week. Here’s the link for it in case you’d like to have a crack at ol’ Chuck’s musings.

His discontent derives from that necessary and pesky component of story telling called exposition.” For those who may not know, exposition is the process of giving the audience information about the characters and the circumstances which make up the world of a story. Typically, if a story is being told well you won’t even know you’re being given exposition, you’ll just gradually come to understand everything without it being forced upon you. Chuck argues that the use of Direct Address, or “breaking the fourth wall,” is mostly used these days in plays by lazy playwrights who can’t deliver exposition properly (in his terms). According to him:

“Direct address, as it is called in the trade, has become the kudzu of new playwriting, running wild across the contemporary landscape and threatening to strangle any and all other dramaturgical devices.” 

Now granted, this guy sees a lot more plays than I do (understatement of the day) and he must have insight about this that I don’t. Otherwise sign me up to be a NY Times theatre critic. All the same, I’ll concede the point that it’s running wild across blah blah blah. I couldn’t tell you otherwise. He goes on and speaks on why these playwrights are at fault :

“They (the characters) spout lyrical tangents describing their impressions or zoom into dazzling riffs that reveal the playwright’s comic gifts. They seem to be doing anything, in short, but talking to each other, which is to say exchanging dialogue, once the standard format of modern drama.”

He does qualify his argument stating that Direct Address is as old as the invention of western theatre and that masters such as Shakespeare, Wilder, and Williams have implemented the device in their plays as well, effectively. However, I suppose he feels younger playwrights are getting away with something they shouldn’t be able to do. He continues:

“Conflict, that key ingredient in drama, is hard to come by when the characters in a play refuse to engage with one another.”

How about conflict in oneself? The need to sort things out personally, or to the audience. I certainly talk to myself, I even fake conversations with myself, planning out or imagining how a scenario might play out. It’s not hard to conceive then that a character on stage might do the same when they are alone, and what’s more, I get to witness it! Kind of cool, right? Like being let in on a private moment, a character not bound by other social pressures, just with themselves, being themselves, or pretending to be someone else for their-self. Yet, as I mentioned, Isherwood’s grander point is this:

“…the device can also be used simply to cover up a multitude of playwriting sins. If you can’t figure out how to naturally impart important information, well, just have somebody step forward and fill us in.”

Alright, he has a point, but then his beef isn’t really with Direct Address is it? It’s with it’s misuse, and of course, that makes sense. For example, laugh-tracks are sometimes used in horribly unfunny TV shows to hide the fact that they’re as bad as they are. Most times if I come a across a modern comedy with a laugh track inserted I avoid it like the plague, really just anything on CBS and TBS, the “BS” is there for a reason. However, laugh-tracks in Seinfeld (Seinfeld again) never bothered me, probably because I was laughing right along with it, or over it. When used liberally and effectively the device is fine, it was for older sitcoms anyway, and the problem is with those that abuse it now. The exact same goes for Direct Address. So really, when it comes down to it, Chuck’s big point is, “bad playwrights should stop being so bad.” How insightful. NY Times, I’ll be sending my resume immediately! (cue laugh-track)

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com  and produces/co-hosts the podcast ANGRY PATRONS RADIO.

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