Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘helter skelter’

The Fourth Wall

Posted by Admin on November 11, 2013

Thanks to philosopher, writer and art critic, Denis Diderot (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) the concept of the fourth wall became an integral part of 19th-century theater thanks to the growing realism in theater productions. The fourth wall put forth the idea that there was an imaginary boundary between fictional stage presentations and the audience. More and more often, breaking the fourth wall is happening in comic books and video games. Or as Russ Buchanan wrote, the fourth wallrepresents the willing suspension of disbelief and frame of mind that casts the audience as passive observers of the actors, who carry out the action pretending nobody’s watching.”

In other words, acknowledgement of the audience, or speaking directly to the audience is known as breaking the fourth wall. It’s not an aside. It’s not a soliloquy. It’s a break in the otherwise contained pseudo-reality happening on stage, in film, in comic books and in video games where the actor interacts directly with the audience.  In the movie “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” Matthew Broderick’s character, Ferris, breaks the fourth wall repeatedly as he addresses the audience throughout the movie.

On September 8, 2013 the South Wales Echo published a short article under “News, Opinion and Commentary” entitled, “TV Times Past.” The show in questions from TV times past was Moonlighting which ran from 1986 to 1989 and starred Cybill Shepherd and a young Bruce Willis just starting out in the industry. The article included this bit midway through the article:

Take, for example, the smouldering on-screen chemistry between Willis and co-star Cybill Shepherd, the wise-cracking scripts and such groundbreaking innovations as having characters break the fourth wall by talking into the camera to the folks at home.

In the Entertainment section of the Bryan Times on March 31, 1976, the editor chose to run with the story by UPI Television Writer, Joan Hanauer’s story entitled, “Helter Skelter Adapted From Manson Murders.” Her story spoke about the upcoming two-part CBS made-for-television movie which she labeled as the epitome of actuality drama.

The acting is uniformly excellent: George DiCenzo plays Bugliosi as a dedicated prosecutor, and who at times must speak directly to the audience, a novelty for many actors accustomed to the “fourth wall” concept of theater, in which the audience is presumed to be watching the action through an invisible or removed “fourth wall.”

Mention of the “fourth wall” is difficult to find in publications prior to the latter part of the 20th century. So how do we know that the term existed prior to this date? We know this thanks to the book by Denis Diderot entitled «Discours sur la poesie dramatique» and published in 1758 where he writes about theater, stating to the actors: “Imagine on the border between the scene and the spectators a big wall. Play as if the curtain was never opened.”

It became a favorite of Realist and Naturalist plays, as the play kept the audience safely concealed behind the fourth wall while at the same time, acknowledging them only when needed.

The concept was adapted by French actor, theatre manager, film director, author, and critic, André Antoine (31 January 1858 – 19 october 1943) for his naturalistic plays at the Théâtre Libre (founded in 1887). Unsure as to which wall was to be the fourth wall, he would have his sets built with all four walls and only decide afterwards which of the four walls was, indeed, the fourth wall … the one that needed to be removed from the scene.

Truth be told, however, technically the fourth wall has always been a part of staged performance art going back to Ancient Greece and beyond. It’s just that Denis Diderot formulated the concept and described it in more concrete wording.  But the fact that the word was used between italics in the 1976 newspaper review of the made-for-television movie, “Helter Skelter” indicates that the expression was a relatively new one for reporters and journalists at least.  As such, Idiomation pegs its use to the generation before and 1950.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Helter Skelter

Posted by Admin on December 30, 2010

The phrase helter skelter means that something happens very quickly but in a disorganized and confused way.  The phrase has existed since long before Charles Manson or the Beatles used the phrase. 

In fact, on November 18, 1922 the Evening Post newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand ran an article about a very successful revue that read in part:

Helter-Skelter” was an apt name for the entertainment planned and presented last night at the Concert Chamber in aid of the Mayor’s City Improvement Fund by Mr. Pat Ward, who had gathered around him apt exponents of mirth and music. 

Almost a decade earlier, on September 14, 1914, the Poverty Bay Herald in New Zealand published a news story about WWI.  The headline read:

HELTER SKELTER RETREAT CONTINUES: British and French Vigorously pursuing five days incessant Fighting – Evidences of German Rout and Demoralisation

In the previous century, Bentley’s Miscellany authored by W. Harrison Ainsworth, Esq., and published in 1841, contained the following passage:

Mr. Rasp promised to comply, and moreover to set forth his friend’s military prowess to the best advantage.

“I think,” said he, “your division stormed the Press-yard, and captured the whipping-post, during the Loyal Aldersgate Street Volunteer campaigning in 1805.”

“Right, brother Ralph,” replied the comical coffin-maker, “and when the Finsbury awkward squad routed your left wing in the City Road, and you all ran helter-skelter into the boiled buttock of beef shop in the Old Bailey, we valiant sharp-shooters protected your flank, and covered your inglorious retreat!”  And he entertained the company with this appropriate recitation.

A little over a century before that, in 1731, Irish poet Jonathan Swift wrote “Helter Skelter” which is also known as “The Hue And Cry After The Attorneys Upon Their Riding The Circuit.”

Thomas Nashe made good use of the phrase helter skelter in his ‘Four Letters Confuted’ published in 1592:

Helter skelter, feare no colours, course him, trounce him.

In the end, E. Cobham Brewer wrote in his book, “The Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of Difficult Words”  that helter skelter is an Old English phrase that means “in tumultuous confusion.”   Old English is defined as English used up until the middle of the twelfth century or about 1160.  While the book itself was published in 1870, Brewer was a fastidious researcher therefore identifying the earliest known date for the phrase helter skelter to Old English was not done without great effort and fact-checking on Brewer’s part.

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »