Views of Reality from Stagecraft, Science, and ‘Nowhere’
“Before the house lies an apron, curving beyond the forestage into the orchestra. This forward area serves as the back yard as well as the locale of all Willy’s imaginings and of his city scenes. Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping ‘through’ a wall on to the forestage.”
These words form part of the opening stage directions in – as may be apparent from that first name, Willy (Loman) – Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman (Miller, 1949, p. 7). It is a work that features a number of flashbacks, with the same stage-props being re-reused for depicting different locations and moments. Miller seems to also hint here at the possibility – when they “step through a wall” – of the characters leaving the bounds of the stage and melding into the world of the audience.
We then have the last scene of the 2018 movie Vice where that possibility becomes a reality, if not physically at least virtually. Christian Bale (who plays the former US Vice President Dick Cheney) turns to the camera and delivers a strong monologue describing his philosophy and justifying his actions to those in the cinema. This is one of many examples of the piercing of the dramaturgical convention called the “fourth wall” which refers to the invisible or implicit boundary that separates the actor from the spectators in the performing arts. It derives its usage, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us, from the proscenium theatre from ancient Greek where three of the sides would be bounded by walls or physical barriers and the fourth one signified the imagined separation between the stage and the “real world” of the audience.
This translucent fourth wall could hence be considered virtually equivalent to the other three opaque physical walls that separate the stage from the environment external to it. But as the scene from Vice tells us, this may not always hold true. In other words, such fourth walls may not always clearly separate imaginary worlds from real ones. To show how this is possible, I will in this essay cite first a few other instances where this failure of the fourth wall is not only apparent to a greater extent but alludes furthermore to a more fundamental way in which the transgression of the bounds between imagination and reality is experienced. I argue secondly that this blurring of lines compels us to also redefine what we mean by reality as we become more self-reflective and as our belief systems change.
Thirdly (and as a corollary to our changing understanding of the world), it is possible additionally that reality – at least as we understand it – is contingent upon our viewpoints and where we are positioned with respect to events. Moreover, there is perhaps more than one version of what we take to be reality, as attested to by some thinkers ranging from scientists to the literati, including, of course, Einstein. These ideas are explored in the last two sections of this essay.
Questioning the fourth wall
Another – perhaps less direct but knottier – way the rules of the fourth wall can be slighted is for the playwright or author to allude to multiple and interlinked fictions or worlds in their work. This is usually more common in literature, maybe because it is easier to implement in that medium compared to, say, the physical theatre. A rather recent case in point is Philip Roth’s novel Exit Ghost where the narrator Nathan Zuckerman keeps referring, as the narrative progresses, to a play called “He and She” that he is writing about his infatuation for a younger woman who is also a facsimile of another character in Roth’s book. And, in a similar vein, Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is about an author who is scripting an allegory about the Holocaust using animal characters.
Such a literary device involving frames within frames – and where a work of the imagination attempts to examine with irony its relationship with the putatively external world – is (although identified as a feature of “post-modernism”) not just a recent phenomenon, though. In the early part of the 20th century, for instance, Luigi Pirandello wrote a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author about a bunch of actors who arrive for rehearsals for a play to find that it doesn’t exist. The actors then refuse to leave and begin improvising another play instead. And, as we will see, there are examples from further back from history too.
Besides actors speaking to the (figurative or real) camera or authors nesting multiple fictions into each other, there is another manner in which the sanctity of the figurative fourth wall can be questioned. This is when a work of the imagination evinces self-reflexivity, when it subverts the bounds of art in mocking or challenging its own antecedents – nay, ontology even. This is also when a writer like Cervantes, as Jorge Luis Borges observed, “takes pleasure in confusing the objective and the subjective, the world of the reader and the world of the book” (Borges, 1962, p. 229). To illustrate this notion, Borges cites a few instances from “the Quixote”, including how one of the books the priest and the barber in the story come across in Don Quixote’s library is Galatea by Cervantes himself. The barber has the temerity to further claim that he is in fact a “friend of the author [but] does not admire him very much…”
There are of course similar conflations of the worlds of the reader, the book and the author in epics from further afield and much more ancient. A.K. Ramanujan, the Indian poet and philologist, offers an instance of this from the Hindu epic the Ramayana (c. 7th to 3rd centuries BCE) in which Valmiki, the author of the epic, shelters Sita the exiled wife of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and recites to Sita and her children the chronicle that he (Valmiki) has composed. Later when the children recapitulate the tale to Rama, “the hero hears his own story,” as Ramanujan notes, can “see himself become a story” (Ramanujan, 1989, p. 204). (Borges also refers to this example from the Ramayana calling it an “artifice analogous to Cervantes’s, and even more astounding…” (Borges, 1962, p. 230)). As Ramanujan adds, in the other famous Hindu epic the Mahabharata (of comparative vintage to the Ramayana), the composer of the chronicle Vyasa is likewise a character in the narrative. He is a grandfather of the two feuding families, and, Ramanujan points out, makes several appearances in the Mahabharata (Ramanujan, 1989, p. 204).
We notice – when we revert to the contemporary milieu – there is a similar and increasing readiness to move away from the strictures of the fourth wall and into more immersive and participatory experiences. Dan Rebellato, a playwright and lecturer in theatre at Royal Holloway University of London instances (in his theatre blog in The Guardian) some similar concepts that have prevailed from older times, such as theatre-in-the-round, traverse, promenade and street theatre and which attest to this phenomenon. Besides, it is now commonplace for performers in stage musicals to appear every now and then in the aisles, mix with the audience and then traipse their way back to the stage.
These movements seem more and more to be reflected in our current desire to live our lives on social media as well, where we are disposed more and more to invite mere acquaintances – or even strangers – into our lives, our esoteric domains, leading to a willing blurring of the private and the public. (We may add that the rise and popularity of reality TV is perhaps another expression of this tendency – albeit abridged, as in this case we are not actually washing our own linen in public but merely relishing watching others conducting their lives out in the open.)
The fourth wall and definitions of reality
These developments, I believe, are not merely symptomatic of current social shifts but signify deeper-rooted modifications to our belief systems and a yearning to reappraise our relationships with the wider world. Our breaching the fourth wall in art, literature – and in social media – suggests further that we, as a society, are becoming more self-reflexive in conceivably a subliminal quest to reformulate the borders separating reality from fiction.
While highlighting instances of similar self-reflexivity from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Ramanujan talks about how different “generic texts like these epics” represent different “provinces of reality” (Ramanujan, 1989, p. 207-8). Ramanujan explains:
“The realities of the civilization are expressed in a spectrum of forms, [and] where one complements, contradicts, reflects, and refracts another, we have to take them together to make sense of the civilization and catch a glimpse of the complex whole. Each has to be read in the light of others, as each is defined by the presence of others in the memory of both poet and audience…”
The commentators and readers of these narratives were, Ramanujan feels, quite aware of their intertextual nature. They were conscious of the fact that “texts do not come in historical order,” as Ramanujan elucidates, “but form ‘a simultaneous order’, where every new text within a series confirms yet alters the whole order ever so slightly, and not always so slightly” (Ramanujan, 1989, p. 190).
Above observations by Ramanujan were apparently in the context of Indian literary and epistemological frameworks. Would he have applied those reflections to a more “global” setting as well? While this is a difficult question to address definitively there are good reasons to suspect that he may have done so. For instance, his remark that the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s “dialogism” – especially its ideas regarding the complementarity and ongoing dialogue between works of literature and their authors – supports the above speculation. What is further pertinent is Ramanujan’s citing this observation from Bakhtin that among Dostoevsky’s heroes
“Every thought. . . senses itself to be from the very beginning a rejoinder in an unfinished dialogue. Such thought is not impelled, towards a well-rounded, finalized, systematically monologic whole. It lives a tense life on the borders of someone else’s consciousness” (Ramanujan, 1989, 208).
The “unfinished dialogue” that Bakhtin describes calls to mind, in its turn, Jorge Luis Borges’s idea that Robert Browning’s poem “Fears and Scruples” prophesied the work of Franz Kafka “but our reading of Kafka noticeably refines and diverts our reading of the poem… The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Borges, 2001, p. 365). When we refer to something from the past as “Kafkaesque” we reshape our idea of the past by colouring it with this notion. However, if Kafka hadn’t written anything, we would not today be using the term “Kafkaesque.” (In a footnote to his observation, Borges refers also to T.S. Eliot’s similar thought that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (Eliot, 1967, p. 45).)
The greatness of Dostoevsky (whose writing Bakhtin used to illustrate his ideas on interconnectedness in literature) and other writers of his ilk lies then in their ability to explain how we use our subjective inner world to connect with – and to “reflect and refract,” to paraphrase Ramanujan – other minds past and present. We are reminded of these connections – and conversations between multiple worlds – when in the performing arts (as in literature) an author uses techniques such as dialogue and monologue (and the occasional rupturing of the fourth wall).
One writer who brilliantly transformed virtually the whole of dramaturgy into such a metaphor for conjunctions and thereby illuminated the borders (and nexus) between imagination and reality was the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman. We get an understanding of how Goffman arrived at this alchemy when we examine how he defined (or redefined even) terms from stagecraft. Goffman begins with making a crucial differentiation between the ‘front’ and ‘backstage’ in a theatre and that is a marking off which is very apposite to our current discussion of the fourth wall. The ‘front’ refers to “that part of the individual’s performance which [defines] the situation for [the audience].” Front is denoted by “the expressive equipment of a standard kind… employed by the individual during his performance” (Goffman, 1984, p. 32). A ‘backstage’ in contrast “may be defined as a place relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course.” The backstage is where the actors can unwind, criticise the audience and their own actions. Lastly, there is another term that Goffman talks about, and which is closely allied to the fourth wall in terms of its functionality: it is the “social establishment”. It denotes “any place surrounded by fixed barriers to perception in which a particular kind of activity regularly takes place” (Goffman, 1984, p. 231). A ‘performance’ is then summed up by Goffman as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants” (Goffman, 1984, p. 26).
As William Shakespeare famously put it, we are all players on a stage. We are reminded of this yet again when Goffman refers to the following observation from the American sociologist, Robert Ezra Park about the origin of “roles”: “It is probably no mere historical accident that the word ‘person’, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is… a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere… playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves” (as cited in Goffman, 1984, p. 30). And when we visualise Goffman’s definitions as a metonymy for life – especially our “performances” where the audience too can be performers in their “role” of influencing the show – we realise that Goffman is in fact offering some exceedingly acute philosophical observations concerning our social interactions and behaviour beneath the mask of his deceptively workmanlike definitions of dramaturgical terms.
What Goffman implies additionally is a reversal of sorts or a repositioning of the fourth wall. With Goffman, the backstage is where reality is. When we are in the front stage, we are all pretenders. It is in the backstage where we let our guards down, take off the sackcloth, rid ourselves of the oils, paints and ashes – and Park’s “masks”. This is more so because the audience that “constitutes the third party to the interaction” on the stage, on the other side of the fourth wall and are supposedly “essential” for the performance would, Goffman contends, “if the performance be real… not be there” (Goffman, 1984, p. 9). The fourth wall becomes supernumerary when “in real life… the part that one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience.”
Thomas Carlyle too expressed a similar idea when he observed (as paraphrased by Jorge Luis Borges) that “the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written” (as cited in Borges, 1962, p. 231). We could therefore be actors one moment, and authors the next. This then makes us wonder: if the fourth wall – whose avowed function is to separate reality from fiction – proves to be superfluous (or not so efficacious), then does reality depend more on our viewpoint and is contingent upon where the actors are situated? Or, alternatively, could there be more than one version of reality?
Fourth walls and extra dimensions
Towards the end of Isaac Asimov’s Foundations Edge, Dom (an inhabitant of Planet Gaia) calls attention – while speculating about the existence of an infinite number of universes and their multiple realities – to a fable in which humans could freeze all these universes and “step out of time… examine the endless strands of potential reality” (Asimov, 1984, p. 368) and step into one of their choosing. This group of humans were asked to also pick a reality that would be most suitable for them. Eventually they found a universe (so the fable says) that included Earth, a planet with a suitable ecological system and the capability to develop an intelligent species and technologies. These humans – who were once beyond time and hence called the “Eternals” – froze the events on this particular universe as “Reality” (note the capital R) and commenced living in it.
What Dom does not tell us explicitly is that from that moment on time began to run anew and they were “Eternals” no more. There is the further possibility that the reality the Eternals chose may not have been a “complete” one. It may have, for instance, missed (or misplaced) a dimension or two – in a way not dissimilar to the world of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland – and could consequently be prey to being termed chimerical by those outside such a universe. But, for those who are not such “outsiders” – us humans in our little corner of the cosmos, for instance – the reality available to them is sufficient to satisfy their quotidian demands, with no imperatives to comprehend all the other “strands of potential reality” that Asimov’s Dom alludes to.
Did the Flatlanders miss anything by not knowing that there are worlds external to them with “extra” dimensions to spare? Would they have gained an evolutionary competitive advantage if they perchance had that knowledge? Perhaps not, some scientists argue. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at University of California at Irvine, contends that the idea that an accurate perception of reality gives us such an advantage is a misunderstanding of a “fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions… how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction.” Hoffman supports this idea with a mathematical proof that shows that “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness.” There is a link, according to Hoffman, between such evolutionary imperatives, our perceptions and the nature of reality. As my perceptions keep me alive, I need to take them seriously, as Hoffman acknowledges. If I see something that might be a snake, I better not pick it up. It is however a “logical flaw,” Hoffman adds, “to think that if we have to take it [these perceptions, symbols] seriously, we also have to take it literally.”
We see here an interaction between the mathematical structure of the world on the one side and conscious agents with their (even if at times flawed) perceptions on the other. Donald Hoffman’s standpoint appears to acknowledge that no one – and that includes scientists – can claim to have the last word when it comes to explaining what this world is all about and our place – or ‘role’ as Goffman may have preferred – in it. But the dialectics persist none the less.
There is a reference to these discords and dogmas in a paper – about the “dual nature of reality” – presented at the Indian Institute for Advanced Study in 2012 by Anthony Sudbury, professor of mathematics at the University of York. While referring to a 1930 meeting between two Nobel Prize winners from apparently different domains – Albert Einstein and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Sudbery observes that they “personified the division between two broad classes of attitude toward the world” (Sudbery, 2012, p. 3). One was, Sudbery explains, “matter-based, centred on an external world in which human beings form a small part, and emphasising the ‘thinginess’ of things; the other mind-based, centred on human experience and emphasising human creativity and imagination.”
Sudbery stresses that these two attitudes however “are not necessarily antagonistic… [or] contradictory.” Science often dismisses outright our intuitive beliefs as an illusion. We have the misapprehension that the sun goes around the earth. We believe in the solidity of stones, the passage of time, free will (Sudbery, 2012, p. 13). But these are not mere illusions. According to Sudbery, “Einstein taught us that we are free to adopt a frame of reference” (where the sun goes around the earth) if it helps us navigate everyday life. This does not mean of course that such a non-Copernican notion is physically true. As Sudbery asserts, “solidity does not mean that matter occupies a mathematical continuum, free will does not mean we [can] interrupt the laws of physics.”
But both the laws of physics and our belief systems are needed for us to arrive at a more complete picture of reality. And there is no dichotomy either between the two views of the world. Conflicts between these two views arise however when science’s objective interpretations collide with our undeniably vivid subjective experience of the world. These problems take centre-stage moreover when we try to switch between – as Thomas Nagel put it – from a “view from now here” to a “view from nowhere” (cited in Sudbery, 2012, p. 14).
Nagel recognised (Sudbery adds) the force of science’s conclusions but rejects the temptation to dismiss subjective experience as a fantasy. Furthermore, speaking of the subjective viewpoint and objective ones is, as Nagel writes, “just shorthand” (Nagel, 1979, p. 206). There are not even such categories, Nagel emphasises: it is instead a “polarity” (like the two poles of a magnet on a single piece of iron). Nagel explains the behaviour of this polarity as follows:
“From here the direction of movement toward greater objectivity involves, first, abstraction from the individual’s specific, spatial, temporal, and personal position in the world, then from the features that distinguish from other humans, then… away from the narrow range of a human scale in space, time, and quantity, toward a conception of the world which as far as possible is not the view from anywhere within it… The distinction between subjective and objective is relative.”
And this polarity is contingent upon our “frame of reference” which is, in Sudbery’s view, an element of relativistic thinking.
The performing fleas revisited
When an actor like Kenneth Branagh is on stage portraying Hamlet, we are conscious of several factors: Branagh is a thespian who is trying to convey to us what Hamlet would have thought and spoken, how he would have acted and reacted. We are aware also that Hamlet is a fictional character – based on a person who may or may not have existed – that Shakespeare came up with. We are all the while cognisant too that this actor depicting the protagonist of Shakespeare’s work of fiction is as much a living being as us the members of the audience.
We are thus able to look upon Branagh – and his “performance,” not ignoring its Goffmanian connotations – at several levels, using different “frames of reference” à la Einstein via Sudbery. We employ in addition unacknowledged “fourth walls” to keep apart in our minds the Prince and the player, to differentiate our diverse points of view and to alternate as needed between Nagel’s “view from nowhere” with “views from now here”.
But things can get murkier – and our reference points underpinning reality muddled – particularly when we encounter self-reflexivity and other similar artifices being jumbled in with the hitherto “common sense” or “logical” progression of the play. Take for instance the play within play enacted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play is called The Murder of Gonzago (which Hamlet requests the players to perform in Act 2,Scene 2) and he intends to use it as a ruse to confirm his suspicions that the King indeed murdered Hamlet’s father. He vows that when the play proceeds “I’ll observe his [the King’s] looks; I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench, I know my course.”
But then Hamlet decides to make it even more explicit that his intention in staging the play is to identify and trap his father’s murderer and wants to direct the attention of some of the other actors (that is, the characters in the play called Hamlet who are his audience) to this objective. With this in mind, Hamlet announces to the King, in Act 3, Scene 2, that the play is in fact to be called The Mousetrap. This heaps further confusion upon this melding of worlds in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet of the author, the characters and the readers/spectators.
What we encounter in instances like this is effectively a multiplicity of fourth walls that prevail at different “provinces of reality” as Ramanujan put it. These provinces encompass our minds (as we saw earlier) and also the worlds we encounter (or compose). As for the latter, there is, to begin with, the one that keeps apart the audience from the players in Hamlet. Then there is the one that comes between the King, his retinue, the Queen and Hamlet and from the players who are enacting The Murder of Gonzago (or The Mousetrap or what you will). A sense of reality applies moreover to each of these microcosms and would apparently feel logical for their respective inhabitants. For this reality comes of necessity with its own rubrics that determine and influence what people in those miniature worlds believe in and to facilitate how they live and communicate rationally (subject to the limits of that specific domain) with each other.
Given this, is there yet another “fourth wall” that separates us – the audience watching Hamlet the play – from others (such as God or, if you prefer, similarly powerful, omniscient inhabitants of an ecosystem external to us with perhaps a resemblance to Asimov’s “Eternals”) who may be watching us players entertaining them?
The possibility that reality may come in several guises (to use another term from stagecraft) is allied furthermore to the question of whether we inhabit a computer simulation where we live like – as Voltaire may have described it – “toys in the hands of destiny” and where “everything is governed by immutable laws… everything is prearranged” (as cited in Prigogine & Stengers, 1984, p. 257). But we are reluctant to concede such a scenario because it makes our lives appear so insignificant. To some such propositions may seem irrational and implausible. Others, including some scientists, have argued against this idea mainly on the basis that the laws of physics (akin to Voltaire’s “immutable laws”) do not permit it. (See for example a blogpost by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder for a recent overview of these arguments.)
Nonetheless, is it “rational” – for it is rationality that is assumed to underpin most of our arguments against a universe contained in a simulation – to refuse to recognise both of Nagel’s “polarities” and contend that the only true reality is the matter-based one? Is there a risk by doing so that we may find ourselves in a position akin to Edwin Abbott’s Flatlanders who were reluctant to accept that there could be more than the one or two dimensions they were used to?
And talking of dimensions (and other similar possibilities), there are nowadays increasing discussions in well-respected scientific circles of the potential for there being more than the four dimensions we humans are used to. As the Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll avers, there may be many more dimensions that we are not aware of or have at least not yet fully understood. He cites the wetness of water to elucidate the epistemic impediments we encounter when trying to understand physical phenomena. While we feel that water is wet, no individual molecule possesses that quality. The wetness comes into being only when a bunch of water molecules get together. Similarly, Carroll argues, “space emerges from more basic things at the quantum level,” which implies the potential for the existence of more dimensions.
We may consequently find that we could be wrong in assigning any special significance – or inviolability – to some of the constraints we impose on the frameworks of reality. If so, maybe “fourth walls” too are, by the same token, as numerous as dimensions in physics and, what’s more, we may never get to comprehend them completely.
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Borges, J.L. (1962). Labyrinths. Camberwell, Australia: Penguin Books.
Borges, J.L. (2001). The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986. (E. Allen et al, Trans.). London: Penguin Group (Original work published 1991).
Eliot, T.S. (1967). The sacred wood: essays on poetry and criticism. London: Methuen (Original work published 1950).
Goffman, E. (1984). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Group (Original work published 1959).
Miller, A. (1949). Death of a Salesman. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984) Order out of Chaos: Man’s new dialogue with nature. London: Fontana Paperbacks.
Ramanujan, A.K. (1989) Where Mirrors Are Windows: Toward an Anthology of Reflections. History of Religions, (28/3). 187-216.
Sudbery, A. (2012). Einstein and Tagore, Newton and Blake, Everett and Bohr: the dual nature of reality, at https://arxiv.org/abs/1205.1479v1 [physics.hist-ph].