Breaking the Fourth Wall

In theater, actors have three walls surrounding them (back, left, and right of the stage). The “fourth wall” is open and in fact non-existent–it’s the one between them and the audience. The actors act as if this wall is closed, as they do not acknowledge the audience. Sometimes modern drama deviates from this convention–especially Berthold Brecht and his famous Verfremdungseffekt (“alienation effect”). Brecht created an effect where the audience gets “seen” by the actors on stage, and this “breaking of the fourth wall” (really a version of irony) became famous. I bring this up today because Disney rides have differing reactions to this fourth wall. Most of them keep the fourth wall in place. But some of them break the fourth wall, so this provides a useful way to distinguish between park attractions.

Let’s start with rides that keep the fourth wall in place. This is most of them. Think Pirates of the Caribbean and Spaceship Earth–these characters never know you are there. They never look at you directly or talk to you. They keep the fourth wall intact, and we are sterile, invisible observers of the action.

This is not true throughout Walt Disney World. Consider the simple example of parades, especially the Move it! Shake it! Celebrate it! parade at the Magic Kingdom, which not only addresses the audience, but insists they play along with the dances. Less extreme might be the example of it’s a small world, where the dolls sing *to you*, as if there is no reason to sing if you are not there (this is not true of Pirates of the Caribbean, which seems to imply that the exact dialogue we are hearing would occur whether we are there or not).

Let’s think next about the classic dark rides. From Mr. Toad to Snow White, the idea originally was that we, the audience, WAS the title character. Thus, the action of the ride happens *to* us. We don’t just witness it; we live it. This permeates many other modern rides, from Body Wars and Star Tours to Rock ‘n Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror. It is, in fact, the majority of the rides.

But there are even more complicated scenarios. The Haunted Mansion is perhaps the most complicated. In some scenes, the viewer is entirely ancillary. We just watch the action unfold, as if it would happen without us present. But in other scenes, we are an integral part of the action–think about the Hitchhiking Ghosts, for instance (this was true in both the original version and the newer digital version). We are part of the storyline here. In some ways, the bringing of us into the storyline is what marks the show as “over”, as we are made a permanent part of the Mansion and that elusive 1,000th ghost.

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The newest rides – think Toy Story Mania – are all ABOUT you, the visitor. There’s no chance the action would be happening without you; YOU are the reason for the action in the first place. This is true of Buzz Lightyear as well, and perhaps signals where the company goes next.

The “fourth wall” has been breached. And it’s unlikely that we’ll ever return to a period when it’s back in place again.

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