The “fourth wall” is a technical device used by actors. It works in the following way: Actors choose a spot in the back of the theater, internalize it, and move on with the action, bypassing the potential interference of the audience’s gaze. The fourth wall aims to strengthen the illusion that what takes place onstage is private, shielded from the impinging randomness of the external world. Reality is put on hold in order to create and sustain theatrical intimacy. The only reality that counts is the reality of the script.
The power of the script may elicit strong effects in the performers or spectators. In ancient Greece, it is said that the power of Sophocles’ tragedies could induce premature labor in pregnant women. An intermission or break in the action may be sufficient to restore a balance between fantasy and reality. The playwright Bertold Brecht recommended a device to bring down the fourth wall that he called “the estrangement effect.” In the middle of an emotionally charged scene, he directed his actors to alert the audience against confusing the world onstage with the world off stage. He directed actors to interrupt the production, face the audience, and simple state: “This is fiction. Don’t take it for reality.”
Analogous to a theater production, the psychoanalytic frame also relies on a fourth wall. Psychoanalysis is conducted within walls that foster regression and minimize the interference of the outside world. The fourth wall in psychoanalysis is the one that closes the space to make it private and prevent it from being contaminated by an excess of reality. It is the fourth wall that keeps the ordinary world out. Analysands at the end of the session, like theater goers during an intermission, may experience themselves moved back to the mundane. The analytic frame delineates a space where the psyche and external world come into contact, a place where the psychoanalytic project might be safe on one hand and at risk of being disrupted on the other. The frame is like a wall that carries disavowed aspects of analyst or analysand.
In psychoanalysis, analysts and analysands co-create and produce “theatre” scripts represented in the analytic arena. The analytic dyad evolves in scenarios where theater of the mind and/or theater of the body (neurotic, psychotic, psychosomatic) may be performed (McDougall, 1989). Not unlike actors in training who are expected to sustain and manage the fourth wall, analysts build fourth wall versions to prevent the analytic space from being disrupted by the external world. The aim is to foster regression and the development of transference. An imaginary fourth wall keeps the analytic dyad secluded (if not protected) from the weight of external reality and its disruptive potential.
Whatever assurance this fourth wall may provide to the analytic dyad, life’s unexpected intrusions — whether political, social, or catastrophic upheavals — invariably enter the analytic stage, challenging the stability of the fourth wall, and often tearing it down. When suddenly the external world leaks into the sacrosanct domain of a session, it is bound to produce what the literary theorist Ronald Barthes has called “the reality effect.” It is equivalent to a disruption in the middle of a theater performance — a cell phone ringing or a theater patron suffering a heart attack during the second act.
The fourth wall came down in many analyses during the aftermath of our last election.
No analyst can anticipate and prevent the analytic setting from the reality effect. When actors trained under the Stanislavsky method find themselves in the midst of a sudden eruption during a performance, they incorporate that reality into the plot so, as the saying goes, the show may go on. What about analysts? How can they hold on to the transference-countertransference paradigm and the vicissitudes of the inner world when external reality becomes toxic to the process? How does one proceed when the fourth wall is coming down? Under the best circumstances, analysts are expected to mobilize their own creativity at a moment’s notice, hoping that, in confronting the unexpected, spontaneous interventions may do the job often reserved for complex interpretations. At the same time, when an analytic fourth wall unexpectedly comes down, the urge to replace it may seduce the analytic dyad into working within a bubble of denial and negation.
But might there be instances in psychoanalytic treatment when the removal of the fourth wall may be necessary?
At the 2017 International Psychoanalytic Association Congress held in Buenos Aires, a poignant comment made by an esteemed colleague stirred in me a need to explore the aftermath of the coming down of the fourth wall in analytic treatment. It became apparent that analysts from diverse countries and orientations were hesitant to share the responses they had when facing intrusions of the unexpected. The reticence came from the feelings of shame resulting from violating the classical frame, from a sense that they were betraying the canons of their training and their supervisors’ wisdom. Questions were raised as to whether there are times when analysts must forgo interpretations that attempt to link the present to the past and delve into the present distress emanating from real or fake news.
Rather than devalue these topics that defy traditional ways of thinking about the analytic frame, perhaps analysts can facilitate an opening to think together about the unexpected, bringing down the wall. Might not analysts and analysands together reflect upon ongoing, devastating news of school massacres, children separated from their parents, and the unrelenting push to build real walls?
Following the last election, several analysands could only speak about the results. For their analysts to interpret their fear of aggression, father conflict, or narcissism would have been the equivalent of sealing the space with a fourth wall. The sense of despair or hopelessness many analysands felt were not just scenes from a private theater but a shared reality that enveloped the analytic dyad.
A telling anecdote that involves Freud, provided by Gampel, an Israeli analyst, may serve as illustration. During the years leading to World War II, news censorship was prevalent in Vienna. Residents had no access to real news (fake news is not an original American invention). Freud, like most Viennese citizens, was starving for neutral or more objective accounts of what was going on in the political scene. He had the good fortune of treating wealthy individuals, many of them staff of foreign embassies. One analysand used to bring him newspapers from England and other countries. The story goes that on one occasion, after his patient handed him a newspaper, Freud scanned the front page, reading aloud the devastating heading. With tears pouring out of his eyes, he said, “What will happen to our children?” The patient, moved by Freud’s unusual emotional reaction, asked the master whether he would like to talk about the situation. Allegedly, Freud replied, “Let’s go back to our work.” In my lingo, he restored the fourth wall.
Freud, caught by the sudden, fresh news of the day, under the impact of the estrangement effect, allowed the fourth wall to collapse for an instant only to restore it soon after. He responded to his patient as a real “other” but wouldn’t engage with this “other,” retreating instead to his technique — the analytic fourth wall. One may speculate that he most likely went back to free-floating attention, perhaps identifying with his patient’s neurotic distress.
I wonder if this kind of refuge in technique precluded the possibility of relating at a level that may have altered the binary nature of power dynamics. Talking about the social-political and historical events that affect both analyst and analysand may have allowed a shift from a relation based on power to one based on mutuality. Revisiting the theater metaphor, Freud was obviously unwilling to follow the Stanislavsky method, which would have allowed him to either improvise or engage creatively with his analysand at a moment’s notice.
It is interesting to note, in Freud’s writing, a paradox between the narrative of his theoretical and technical contributions, and the way he actually practiced psychoanalysis. Peter Gay points out that “in his papers on technique Freud allowed himself not a hint of escapades” (1988, p. 303). Gay alludes to the idea that, in his consulting room, the working Freud permitted himself many “escapades” from the recommendations he prescribed in his technique papers. (Freud may have been a closeted fourth wall breaker!)
Analysts and analysands partake of multiple worlds that tend to overlap. Thus, it is relevant to consider clinical practice in relation to analysts’ and patients’ everyday lives — social and political violence, prejudice, and the opinions that develop in the process of inhabiting social places. Overall, American psychoanalysts had — up to 9/11 — neglected to address the presence of sociopolitical realities in the analytic situation. One may regard this past neglect as the confluence of multiple factors: the operation of culturally reinforced sanitized versions of the American dream, denial and negation, and the priority given to the internal world. However, to escape the effect of reality seems impossible in today’s world.
At some point, the fourth wall comes down. ■
- Isaac Tylim, PsyD, FIPA, is an IPTAR Fellow, IPA training and supervising analyst, member of the Argentina Psychoanalytic Association, and a clinical professor, training analyst and consultant at NYU’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, where he co-founded the Trauma and Disaster Specialization Program. For the last five years, he has been involved in the theatrical dramatization of Freud and Ferenczi’s thirty-year correspondence, which is being presented internationally. He is a co-editor of Reconsidering the Moveable Frame in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2018) and maintains a multilingual private practice in New York City.
- Photograph by MCML-XXXIII