Isherwood’s complaint, or: One slight problem with natural’ theater

Should actors address the audience?

5 minute read
Chekhov's three sisters talk to each other, but....
Chekhov's three sisters talk to each other, but....
The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood recently decried the spread of "direct address"— in which actors speak directly to the audience rather than to each other.

"Direct address," Isherwood complains, "has become the kudzu of new playwriting, running wild across the contemporary landscape and threatening to strangle any and all other dramaturgical devices." (See "Stop talking to me," Oct. 21.)

Isherwood then proceeds to list all the historical periods in which direct address has been used: the Greeks, of course. And Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. Beckett, obviously. And Wilder and Brecht and Churchill and Albee...


That's a lot of important playwrights, not to mention a lot of historical ground. "Direct address" isn't so much a new and invasive species, devastating a delicately balanced ecosystem. It's a foundational cornerstone of 3,000 years of drama.

Three thousand years… At what point does a technique stop becoming a gimmick, and starts to just become a regular part of the ecosystem?

"It's come to the point," Isherwood insists, "that I'm almost disarmed if I make it through a whole play in which the "'fourth wall' isn't regularly if not relentlessly breached."

An idea whose time has gone

The fourth wall concept presumes that the best theater would be "naturalistic"— a style in which ordinary things are presented as naturally as possible. Behind that fourth wall the artist is a completely transparent lens through which the play is expressed, so that there is no time when the characters, as Isherwood puts it, "call attention to the artifice of the enterprise, reminding us that we're at the theater watching a writer's commentary on human experience, not the thing itself."

But the "fourth wall" isn't a timeless dramatic concept either; on the contrary, it's a theatrical idea whose time has come and gone. The term wasn't coined until the late 18th Century (by the philosopher Denis Diderot) and wasn't popularized until the mid-19th. As Isherwood rightly points out, by the early to mid- 20th Century, playwrights like Beckett, Albee and Brecht were already tired of it. (He probably should have mentioned O'Neill, whose Strange Interludes was a purposeful thumbing-of-the-nose to Naturalism.)

So, how can it be that a few centuries is long enough to establish the "fourth wall" as a dramatic standard, but 3,000 years isn't long enough to ensconce "direct address" as an essential element?

In fact, Naturalism was a failed phase of theater, abandoned almost as soon as it was invented (relatively speaking)— specifically, about the time that artists realized that film was infinitely more suited to realistic expression.

It doesn't take much exploration into the history of theater to realize that the audience is willing to give up a lot more than just a "fourth wall." The willing suspension of disbelief is indeed sufficient to let an audience accept that they're looking right into the Prozorovs' living room in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. But that same suspension of disbelief permits so much more: sets made from paper, time and space out of joint, one actor playing a hundred characters. What a waste of a genre to suggest that theater should forsake the whole imaginative realm of which theater is actually capable.

Take Chekhov— please

What, then, is Isherwood's theatrical ideal? Isherwood calls Chekhov "arguably the greatest modern playwright." In that case, let's take a look at The Three Sisters, which probably represents the apex of Naturalism, since it's a play with even less happening in it than in The Cherry Orchard.

In the very first scene, Chekhov wants to convey some information to the audience: He wants us to know that the sisters' father has been dead for a year, that he had been a general in the army, that the Prozorovs had lived formerly in Moscow, and that this whole scenario has been fairly depressing for Olga. How does he transmit this information?

Now, a playwright unconcerned with the fourth wall could just have the character tell the audience about it. Why not? It's the audience that doesn't know, and why should anyone pretend that they do?

Chekhov, though, is writing Naturalism, and Naturalism requires that the playwright pretend that the audience doesn't exist, so he can't do that. Instead, he has Olga explain all of this information, for no apparent reason, to her sister, who must know it already anyway. The only saving grace of Olga's dry, pointless and largely unmotivated monologue is that it's in the first scene, so at least it doesn't disrupt the (non-) action later on.

This is exactly the kind of sloppy, structural clumsiness that Isherwood claims modern playwrights are using direct address to cover up— the sin of a failure to adequately assimilate exposition into the story.

Nostalgic affection?

Isherwood fears that "direct address" causes playwrights to forgo integrating exposition. But addressing the audience directly acknowledges that they're the ones who don't know what's happening. Chekhov's preference— to reveal this information by having one person explain it to someone who already knows it— makes even less sense. It's clear that Naturalism, as the "standard form" of theater, doesn't really solve the problem at all—not if the greatest Naturalist of them all couldn't manage it.

Isherwood's complaint doesn't actually have anything to do with direct address at all; it has to do with bad writing. Maybe Isherwood secretly harbors a nostalgic affection for the Naturalist form. That would be pretty peculiar, since the style hit its peak in 1900. And if it is the case, he deserves sympathy, since there's no way the theater is going back to it.♦

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