All the World’s a Stage: 8 Theatrical Terms

Fourth Wall

The term fourth wall is used to describe the theatrical concept of an imaginary wall between actors and audience members. It is associated with a naturalist style of theater that gained prominence in the 1800s in which the actors were to behave as authentically as possible in their imagined environment and ignore the audience. The practice of breaking the fourth wall, that is, when actors directly address or acknowledge their audience during a performance, has gained popularity over the last century.

Deus ex Machina

Translating from New Latin to literally “god from a machine,” the term deus ex machina comes from a method of resolution in ancient Greek and Roman theater in which a god was introduced into a play to resolve the entanglements of the plot. Today it is used more broadly to refer to any artificial or improbable device that resolves the difficulties of a plot.

Histrionic

A good word for the drama queens in your life, histrionic means “overly dramatic in behavior or speech.” More broadly, histrionic means “related to actors or acting.” The plural histrionics is a noun meaning “dramatic representation” or “behavior or speech for effect.” Both stem from the Latin histriō meaning “actor.”

Farceur

A farceur is a satiric writer, director or actor. It can also be used outside of showbiz to refer to a joker or a roguish person. Farceur comes from term farce, as in “a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character.” It appears this sense is a metaphorical extension of an earlier sense of farce, “to stuff; cram.”

Deuteragonist

Where would Batman be without Robin? The protagonist may get all the glory, but often he or she wouldn’t get very far without a trusty deuteragonist. This term from the stages of ancient Greece means “the actor next in importance to the protagonist.” It comes from the Greek deúteros meaning “second” and agōnistḗs meaning “contestant.”

Ingenue

An ingenue is a young actress who frequently plays the part of a naive, wholesome, and unworldly girl. The term is also used to describe that sort of character in theater and film. Ingenue comes from the Latin ingenuus, meaning “native, honorable, frank.”

Ad Lib

While used widely today to refer to any improvisations in music, theatre, or speech, ad lib carried slightly different associations when it first entered English. Stemming from the Latin ad libitum, ad lib’s earliest senses were “at one's pleasure; without restriction” and “freely; as needed; without stint.” It has been used in music to indicate that a musical part is optional since the mid-1700s.

Boffo

Boffo, sometimes boffola or boff, is a showbiz slang term referring to a box-office hit or a punchline that elicits hearty laughter. Boffo is also used as an adjective meaning, more broadly, “highly effective or successful.” While boffo’s origins aren’t entirely clear, it may come from the Italian “buffo,” which is a back formation of the Italian term for “buffoon” and which means “comedic actor or singer.”

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