Piercing the Wall

I watch the girl on stage. The spotlight is away from her, the cues which direct our attention direct it elsewhere. She is now a prop, a frame. She shifts posture slightly every half-minute. Clearly, the way she sits – weight on her one wrist, feigning watching TV – is uncomfortable. Her shifts of posture belie the steadiness of intent with which she watches. She is consciously unconscious. When I look closer I can see the faintest glimpses of the thoughts that are hers, running along behind the facade of a girl watching.

Then it dawns on me: the middle distance into which she stares, is me. Row D, Seats 16 & 17. Front, Centre. Best seats in the house. Right in her line of vision. I’m pretty sure she can’t see me, but maybe she can. She is certainly looking straight at me: the girl I’ve been staring at. I shift uncomfortably.

The believability of drama operates on the audiences’ acceptance of ‘the 4th wall’, the transparent line of demarcation between the dramatic world and the viewer. We are invited to view the stage as though it were a room within another world. A room in which the 4th Wall has been rendered transparent for the viewers/audience, but not for the characters in the drama. We sit behind this wall, in a ‘no-space’ outside their world. We are The Watchers, disembodied spirits of judgement.

With the advent of television, this transparent line solidified and became glass: hard.television It was always morally dubious to speak of watching as a form of recreation: those who seriously considered it, didn’t. With television, however, watching became an obsession. In 2007 (the most recent year for which we have data) Australian watched an average of 21:46hrs per week. Americans are clocking over 35hrs p/w in 2010. Other than formal employment (which is generally performed under some form of necessity), our dominant form of engagement with the world is watching. We are watchers.

Sometimes we forget that the solidification of the 4th Wall in TV watching also came at the expense of vision. The ‘vision’ of television is one way, the 4th Wall of TV is not as transparent as that of the theatre. It is mono-vision. We watch without the possibility of being watched.

The suspension of disbelief required by the 4th Wall, the essential consent that an audience must give in order to appreciate dramatic art, also has a hidden correlative. It’s a suspension of belief, the belief that we can be seen, the suspension of belief that we are present in any form other than as watcher, judge. The difficulty and beauty of theatre is partially generated by the fact that the audience is constantly working with the actors to generate these twin suspensions. Beyond the suspense of plot is the essential suspense of acting and submitting to being acted upon. Television is a more forgiving medium, acting can be edited and the suspension of belief is relaxed because our presence is mediated through a hard screen. The watchers are genuinely hidden. But this hiddenness makes us more voyeuristic, we push up against the glass: seeking to come closer, to grasp the insides of the actors, to see them uncovered. Our hiddenness, our safety behind the glass, makes us lustful and cruel. All television tends toward pornography.

In our lazy viewing we forget that we are engaged in a suspension of belief. We watch so often that this fiction becomes part of our normal framework for engaging the world. We become so used to operating purely as watchers, as those whose presence is hidden, who cannot be acted upon, that we forget who we were before the theatre. We are not ‘not there’. We are not hidden, we are only watchers for a short time because we have convinced/paid some actors to let us be their gods.

But the actors can see you. Even behind your one-way, glassy screens, in your dark and private room. The 4th Wall is a fiction. The drama will come to you.

After this I looked, and there in heaven was an open door. The first voice that I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” (Revelation 4:1 HCSB)

image by dhammza

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2 thoughts on “Piercing the Wall

  1. thanks. You should read some Brecht. I wonder if television could ever provoke the audience to action in the way Brecht tried to.
    How do we combat the passivity essential to TV?

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    1. I wonder if the problem is not passivity as much as the sense of being untouchable. The myth that our watching isn't also an action with effects and liable to judgement.

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