Metafiction is a form of metatheatre – it’s probably not a term you’ve come across all that often. However, it’s one of the oldest plot devices (usually used for comic effect) with roots in ancient Greek theatre. We still used it today and there was a great example of metafiction in last week’s episode of Doctor Who (World Enough and Time) but more on that later in the post.
What is Metafiction?
Metafiction is a modern take on metatheatre which is defined as drawing attention to the fact that a piece of fiction (in the original case a play but in this case a TV show, film or book) is just that – fiction. It can be almost anything and as mentioned above it is used for comedic effect. In ancient Greece, metatheatre usually came in the form of the actor turning to directly address the audience, make reference to the presence of an audience, or makle a reference to them acting out a part. It’s never really died out – if anything it has expanded to include metadrama and a more inclusive form in metafiction. Now, it’s in plays, books, films and on TV too.
Examples of Metafiction
The expansion of the world of literature, television and film has made us all much more aware of metatheatre/metafiction as a plot device. Most examples I can think of are either in comedy or include a comic interlude in a piece of drama. When handled well it can be extremely memorable. Here are some of my favourite modern day examples of metatheatre/metafiction.
The self-titled sitcom series of Miranda Hart used perhaps one of the simplest and oldest forms of metatheatre/metafiction. The show would always start in the form of a video diary where she summed up what happened recently. But the true metatheatre/metafiction was in the times that Miranda would turn directly to the camera during the episode and say something like “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” This is classic Ancient Greek metatheatre.
There are two great examples in this early 1990s film and both feature the genie. In the first, the genie explained that he’d had a number of masters who promised to set him free and then failed to do so. When Aladdin said “I’ll do it, I’ll set you free!” the genie transformed into Pinocchio complete with the long nose (see video below from around the 1:30 mark). This is a reference to Disney having made both films. Pinocchio was written in Italy in the 1880s; in contrast, the original One Thousand and One Nights in which the story of Aladdin originally appears predates that by 200 years and comes from the Middle East.
The second instance of metatheatre/metafiction in Aladdin is later on in the film when Aladdin has become a prince jut as he always wanted. The genie drops several hints about his promise to set him free with the third wish. He produces the script – amusingly a book with the word Aladdin written on it and says “psst, your line is: I’m going to free the genie.”
Doctor Who: Word Enough and Time
Missy has been superb in her portrayal as the first female incarnation of The Master. Gender swapping the characters was a bit risky and people have strong feelings about whether or not The Doctor should ever become a woman. That said, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that Michelle Gomez has been anything less than brilliant in the role. Her quick wit and sharp delivery have defined the character. The script writers have not been above metfiction though. In this brilliant scene, Missy refers to Bill and Nardole as “My disposables – Exposition and Comic Relief” – a nod to sidekick tropes inside and outside of Doctor Who.
The Woman in Black (Stage Play)
One of the scariest ghost stories ever to exist on a stage actually has some funny moments although this could be one of those instances where the metafiction is not necessarily used for comedy (one instance did illicit a few chuckles). The play opens with an older man – we later discover he is Arther Kipps – walking onto the stage and reading a script. After about a minute of this quiet and passionless recital, a voice from the back of the theatre exclaims “Speak up, please!” is this part of the play or is it a heckler? It’s actually the former because after another failed start the second actor leaves the auditorium and enters the stage. Using the theatre as a prop is arguably a form of metatheatre, so is the second instance a few minutes later when the actor playing the theatre director says to the older Arthur Kipps to “imagine that these empty seats before you have an audience in them”. A light joke that raised a few chuckles.
Now it’s over to you. What are your favourite examples of metatheatre or metafiction?