Friday, March 2, 2007

Professional Wrestling as Theatre

My name is david everard and I have been teaching a Fine Arts course out here at the University of Victoria (UVic) for the last few years - F.A. 335: Popular Culture/Professional Wrestling as Theatre. It is based on my M.A. thesis "Wrestling Dell'Arte: Professional Wrestling as Theatre" (UVic: 2002).

I believe that the dramatic end of pro-wrestling is based on a number of historical theatrical antecedents: ancient Greek comedy, medieval farce, the commedia dell arte, the well-made-play and melodrama, among others. While this may seem obvious to most of you, to the best of my knowledge, it had not been proven from the discipline of the theatrical arts before.

Sam has asked if I could give a lecture to his class in May based on my work in the area. So, with any luck, and the blessings of the passport gods, I shall see you on the afternoon of May 2 (and hopefully, a game at Fenway Park that evening)! In the meantime, I shall continue to contribute to the blog as both a reader and a writer!

~ see you at the turnbuckle ~


"There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre"

~ Roland Barthes ~


Sam Ford said...

Hey David! Great to hear from you, and welcome to the blog. Look forward to any insights you might have along the way. And we're gearing up for May 02 as well. Feel free to contribute to the conversation as often as you'd like.


david everard said...

Thanks Sam! It should be a no-holds barred, falls count anywhere good time! Let me know if I can do anything for you in the meantime!

Say, are you doing anything on the role of the referee? If not perhaps I could blog a theory or two on the subject?

Sam Ford said...

David, I'd love for you to. We're not doing anything explicitly on the role of the referee.

Rob said...

Hi, nice to have you in the class!

I'm very curious to know more details about the second paragraph of your introduction.

Something I wrote about earlier in the blog ("The Nature of The Sport") questioned the methodology a bit of how most people writing about wrestling examined the question of where wrestling fell on the spectrums of "sport" and "entertainment".

Traditionally, it seems that most people looked at wrestling as an ancient sport with great traditions that was then slowly transformed into a form of mass entertainment that may or may not be a sport.

One idea that I had was that perhaps wrestling started as something to fulfill the human desire for a certain kind of very physicalized and personalized drama and entertainment, which the sport only exists to accomodate, and so the transformation of wrestling into mass entertainment isn't so much a change in the direction of wrestling, but rather wrestling getting closer to what it has always tried to be.

Now, that was a bit long-winded, but I'm curious to know what you mean when you say that wrestling has historical antecedents in theater.

Are you looking at older traditions of wrestling as having grown out of the theater (which might be interesting to compare to what I'm suggesting), or are you looking mainly at contemporary wrestling, or...?

I'm very curious!

david everard said...

Hi Rob,

Sorry about the delay in getting back to you - I'm kind of technologically challenged and wasn't too sure how this system worked!

So, lets start at the beginning. Wrestling was probably the first basic training exercise in combat/warfare. It is also one of the earliest forms of play known to humanity - and even animals 'wrestle'!

The 1st written description of a wrestling match in western literature comes from Homer (Funeral games/chapter 23 of the Iliad). Here he describes a match between two heroes (or baby-faces, if you will) which ends in a draw. That way neither loses face in front of the other troops!

Now we have a beginning, wrestling as a functional 'sport' and a middle, wrestling as a scripted 'sport', but when and where do these meet in order to become a functionally scripted commercial enterprise?

If you haven't already looked at the historical lineage of pro-wrestling, you might want to start with the Hackenschimdt - Gotch matches and the backlash they received from both the press and public after it got out that the last match was not on the up and up.

Remember, matches back then had the potential of lasting up to 6 hours - sometimes without a winner being declared!

After the Hack/Gotch debacle wrestling needed to get the fans back in the stands!

Enter the Gold Dust Trio: Billy Sandow, Toots Mondt and Strangler Lewis! Mondt came up with the idea of scripting matches, imposing time limits and also introduced the localized feud!

From here the wrestling 'trusts' were born and pro-rassling became a commodified form of entertainment. In doing so it strived to access and maintain an audience in the same manner as the commercial theatre or sports like baseball and football do!

Pro-wrestling works because we are willing to suspend 'reality' the same way as we do when we visit the theatre - you know Hamlet's not really dead, but you'll 'buy into' it for the moment!

In its day pro-wrestling gave you a mini-drama of good and evil in the form of a physicalized debate. And we jeered or cheered depending on how we felt about the characters.

Is wrestling trying to go back to what it once was? I think that depends on weather or not it puts bums in seats!

Always remember, its a business and it will do whatever it has to to remain economically functionible! For further insights on this idea, I highly recommend Lou Thesz' book "Hooker"

I try to approach profesional wrestling as a hybrid of sport, wrestling and theatre, because they are so closely aligned with each other.

What do you think?



"if there's no audience/there just ain't no show"

~ Chilliwack/Raino ~

david everard said...


As for where I'm coming from methodologically, in regards to wrestling using theatrical antecedents, I'd rather save that for the lecture!

But, if you look at anything long enough, patterns emerge. Once you figure out the foundation something is built on, it becomes easier to see what fundamnental elements make up its base.

Houses can look different, but without a system to support the windows and walls, its nothing more than a lean-to.

Wrestling started out as a legitimate sport, but over time it became a business. Same house, different windows!

Over time, many new additions were tried and discarded as the promoters attempted to keep the attrraction economically stable.

Some of the best additions, known to the promoters or not, came from the world of the theatre. Dramatic tension, pre-determined plots, stereotypical characters, the eternal struggle of good over evil. These all became building blocks in the commodification of pro-wrestling.

Sharon Mazer touches on it, but dismisses it because its not "legitimate" theatre. Interestlying, she does she give any operational definition of the term legitimate theatre either!

Roland Barthes had the right idea by connecting it to the Commedia, but that was not his road to travel so he left it for others to explore.

Many others have tested the water, but we are still waiting for someone to take the plunge and commit to the idea fully and completely.

Want to go for a swim?