Life Theatre: Breaking the Sixth Wall

When we go to the theatre, both cast and audience know it’s theatre and know their separate roles. Occasionally, however, an actor will acknowledge the audience – which is called breaking the fourth wall; ie, smashing the glass in front of the stage through which the voyeuristic audience is gazing into the actors’ private world. There are many varieties of such interaction, ranging from the full-on participation of pantomime to a simple glance at the camera in film or TV.

Dramaturges of the C21 will now also refer to a fifth wall – ie, the wall between critics writing about a performance or even the wall between audience members able to (potentially) communicate with each other in real time regarding their thespian experience.

But I would suggest that there is yet another wall – a sixth wall which is the wall between ourselves and other individuals in the real world. For, as Shakespeare suggested, is not the world a stage and all of us merely players who come and go as our parts require? Do we not (sometimes) seem to watch ourselves from another vantage – playing out our lives as both actors and observers?

I have always been very conscious of what I call “life theatre”. I frequently find myself in little vignettes ripe with context or rippling with repartee. There are billions of examples I could use but here’s just one (which happened over 20 years ago):

A friend of mine was having an affair.

I was the only person in whom she’d confided (which was both an honour and a burden). The homme fatale was known to my friend’s husband and was an occasional visitor (with his wife) to my friend’s house.

Soon after the affair commenced my friend threw a large party and the homme fatale was in attendance. My friend advised her paramour that she had told me of their dalliance (because she just had to tell someone) so when I arrived that night I was collared at the door and led into the bedroom…where I was introduced to the homme.

We nodded, guardedly, both of us probably wondering why our mutual friend had wanted us to acknowledge the reality of their illicit liaison.

Later in the night (which was one of those amazing balmy nights that only a Sydney summer can produce) I found myself sitting at a table outside with seven or eight people including the friend’s husband and the homme fatale. As a drama merchant from way back, I couldn’t help myself… I drew the conversation around to infidelity in marriage and very quickly the homme and I were throwing barbs at each other – reflecting on one level the ordinary moral debate on staying true to the past versus how you might feel right now – but on another level the drama playing out between he and I, vying for (very) different aspects of our friend’s affection.

At the time, I couldn’t help but think: this ought to be a movie! This ought to be recorded for all time because it was just spectacular drama – both of us rising to the occasion and throwing thunderbolts at each other as our unwitting audience cheered our every word.

Just imagine how it would have gone down if I’d broken the sixth wall and said to those listening: “He’s only saying that because he’s trying to subtly justify the fact that he’s fucking our hostess!”

A different kind of drama would swiftly have ensued, but of course…I kept my mouth shut.

Thing is though, I am an author. Back then, I was unpublished so not to be taken seriously. But now I have several books on the shelves and have been read by tens of thousands. People ought to know that when they interact with me, they might be giving me ideas for scenes and characters.

Which leads to an important ethical question… What are the rules for authors living in the real world and brushing up against characters with foibles we might want to use?

Am I obliged to issue warnings – especially to dickheads with alarming opinions – that I am an author and they are giving me A-grade material?

In all seriousness, I wonder whether authors should be issued with special badges that we can wear behind our lapels and flash at appropriate moments in social situations. Our various interlocutors might then cease their rabid support of far right (or far left) causes; refrain from trying to sell me something; or desist in their evil attempt to apply neuro-linguistic programming techniques to change my mind or get into my pants.

It would also be a really good circuit breaker to smash down the sixth wall between all who are merely players in the seven acts of their lives.

As for my friend in the story above? Did she leave her husband and run off with the homme fatale? I could take the moral high ground and say: none of your business…

Or I could be an author and say: watch out for my next novel!


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