So I mentioned a while back that I’ve been following the new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Since Christmas we’ve seen the start of the story arc with Lydia and George Wickham, which is climaxing this week with the revelation of a sex tape. I’d been wondering for a while what the writers would do to substitute for the two running away to London, and fans had been dreading Lydia getting pregnant. I guess this is a reasonable modern equivalent of the old living out of wedlock, fallen woman situation and it’s an interesting storyline development. (Update: The link was live for a while with a countdown, while the girls’ father and Darcy hunt down Wickham but then was obviously taken off-line)
I found myself thinking “what’s going to happen when Lydia finds out, especially since the “audience” will tell her and it made me realise how much I’d come to accept the removal of the fourth wall as a natural occurrence. These are “real” people to a large degree, interacting with the audience via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube accounts (and others) and it’s interesting to watch the interactions. Over the past month Lydia has had people repeatedly tell her that George is a bastard, with her denying that it’s true and telling is how much she loves him. Earlier we saw people tell Lizzie that Darcy was a great guy while she flatly refused to concede any truth to that.
A couple of weeks ago, Bernie Su (one of the head writers) wrote about breaking the fourth wall in response to a fracas in the fan community about writers and actors interacting with fans. While there’s a few issues there about perceived arrogance and badly judged humour, I find the whole discussion quite interesting for the removal of barriers between all participants in the creative endeavour. As Bernie states, and as should be obvious from the interactions I mentioned above, writers in particular need to know what conversations are happening between the audience and the characters so that they can tailor the character’s responses. If Lizzie or any of the other characters is made aware of something, that has to have an impact on how they behave in the future, and writers and actors have to be prepared for the updated situation.
Fans shouldn’t image that the fourth wall is broken in only one way (although I would argue that subsequent interactions between writers/actors and fans is a fifth wall). Fans, characters, writers and actors are now all closer in a way that surpasses conventions and book signings etc., especially in an age where all but the characters have been active participants on Tumblr et. al. for years; adding characters to that mix makes it all much more interesting. What fans say can change the story (to some extent) and the writers can nudge the audience towards new possibilities for how they can interact with the characters.
The only potential issue I have with all this is the potential for spoilers. I think that breaking the fourth wall would work best when people aren’t aware of the inevitable outcome. People who have read the book (in this case) can make demands on characters based on forthcoming plot points, and ruin the surprise for members of the audience who aren’t familiar with the text. As writers and actors you presumably just have to pretend such interactions didn’t happen and risk alienating members of your audience – although arguably spoiler-posters are trolls for whom ostracisation is the best policy. I guess the audience has to be a willing participant in maintaining the magic of the story for the whole – sort of like parents taking children to the pantomime. While the story may be old to you, some of the joy in experiencing it for the first time can be gained at second-hand through the eyes of others for whom it’s all new.