Professional Wrestling: The Modern Day Morality Play


When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds the power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” Roland Barthes, “Mythologies”, 1957.

#SpeakingOut has revealed an ugly and indelible mark on the otherwise wonderful technicolour dreamcoat known as professional wrestling. Hundreds of cases of abuse, harassment and assault were uncovered in June of 2020, leading to a wave of reprisals, ended careers, legal action, and the remnants of an industry that needs to do better. Indeed, professional wrestling, for how much of an emotional thrill ride and as tightly dramatic and athletic as it is, deserves much better than the industry that encases it. The modern day morality play where good overcomes evil, the business is a maelstrom of bright colours, incandescent actors, and inch-perfect choreography.

It’s just that the Arts Council don’t think so, as seen in the recently published cross-party report into British professional wrestling.

“I do not dispute the creative or artistic elements of wrestling, however I’m afraid that it does not fall within our supported artforms, and wrestling promotions would therefore not be eligible to apply for any of our funding streams.”

An unwanted bastard child, a clear heir to both the thrones of sport and theatre that neither monarchy wants to claim. Why shouldn’t they?

What is art, primarily? The soulless dictionary definition underpins it as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. The more pertinent part of the argument comes in the last two words that Google dispense, “emotional power”. You’re more than titled to disagree, but I have always personally merited art on the basis of “can it make me feel something”, and on that basis, professional wrestling snugly nestles itself within. Any “who’s who” list of the most emotional or well-told moments in professional wrestling, such as Miss Elizabeth reunited with her estranged husband Randy Savage, Kevin Owens betraying long-time partner Chris Jericho, or Hulk Hogan rescinding a lifetime vow of squeaky clean heroism to become the cool villain for the 90s all inspired emotion. Do not take my word for it. Listen to the audience; their anger, disappointment, their jubilance, tears for the good times and the bad. This is a public manipulated, and ready to be manipulated, to feel, and to do so at full volume and at full passion. That’s art.

So what’s stopping everyone else? Is it the so-called savagery of professional wrestling? The idea that something based on violence could never be beautiful? Firstly, the long-vaunted nature of boxing as “the sweet science” – a reputation totally justified – disproves that, just as centuries of martial arts have. Combat is beautiful and balletic, and professional wrestling choreographs that up to 11. In its simplest distilled form, professional wrestling has much in common with ballroom dancing. Two people work together to tell a story without words – subtext is king – and do so with precise athletic maneuvres executed with the precision and panache of that of an ice skater.

Is it snide classism? Let’s not pretend that art, for years and years and years has had a problem through the lens of looking down its nose at the uneducated, tired, and poor. Even now, bids to celebrate and uplift black or working class poets can come across as condescending, a very conscious form of othering by a medium rooted in deeply pervasive classist thinking and ways. Of course, we’re starting to unthink our prejudices against so-called lesser mediums; television is no longer “tainted”, although hip-hop music is treated in a mollifying way even though some of the most interesting things to happen to spoken meter over the last decade have arguably come from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Nonetheless, professional wrestling is still treated as though it has a stink around it, and this treatment is wholly unjustified.

Is it the idea of pretending to be something you’re not? What is art if not a performance? Theatre is this in a most literal sense, but think of any beautiful poem, novel, painting – transformative works that create opportunities for escapism, voyeurism, the raw and sensual act of living vicariously through someone else, being someone else. That’s what wrestling offers – the opportunity to both live through massive characters, or as part of a massive unit of energy with 50, 300, 2,000, 90,000 other people, one evening at a time.

Is it the melodrama? Professional wrestling has, with many a side-eye, been referred to as a “soap opera with spandex”. The prevailing stereotype is that wrestling is populated by overmuscular men who are not terribly eloquent, however this is not always the case, and the true magic happens in the product as a whole, not the more questionable interviews. What about Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” tirade against Ric Flair where in the course of four minutes, he relates himself to the average man, and likens the greed and inequality that ran rampant in America at that time at the hands of the one-percenter class to Flair, a free spending elite? Four minutes. Some “real artists” cannot get that across in four hours.

Dusty Rhodes, “Hard Times”, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, 1985. YouTube: WWE.

What about CM Punk’s speech towards the end of his ROH run in 2005, where, having just signed a contract to move up to the WWE, used the goodwill generated over the last year in his portrayal as a heroic character and turns it on its head with cutting elegance underpinned with references to Aesop; those who were prepared to see off Punk with a fond farewell were furious, manipulated expertly by the writing. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, after years of a bitterly-fought blood feud, capped off the 2001 promotional tour of their rivalry not by throwing fists, but by singing country standards like “Delta Dawn” and “The Gambler” to each other, laced with icy barbs and an unbelievably tense underbeat to the confrontation. John “Bradshaw” Layfield, reinvented and reimagined as a hyper-conservative Texan who legitimately appeared as a figurehead on Fox News, caused riots in El Paso as he terrorised the hero, the Mexican-American man of the people, Eddie Guerrero. These moments are indelible, not because they’re necessarily intricately written, or even written at all – improv is at the heart of all parts of professional wrestling, making it even more impressive – but because we still feel those moments to this day. I can still recall the distinct excitements, the furies, the happinesses, the hushed silences, and the jubilations from each of these moments hitting their narrative logical end. Technically beautiful, but personally electrifying. I felt the electricity then and will continue to feel it until the day I stop breathing.

Vince McMahon’s global spectacle, WrestleMania, is this weekend. It is, if nothing else, a cross-section of a very American celebration of life where the ultimate overcoming of evil occurs at the ultimate event of the financial year. Celebrities will appear, the Raymond James arena will be as full as possible, and the pyrotechnics will damn near tear a hole in the ozone. These are just smoke and mirrors; an in. The real joy is talented people trying to make us feel something on a grand stage, that electricity flowing back and forth, sustaining life and creating memories. All the world’s a stage, but no theatre is greater than that of the squared circle, and the view from there is nothing short of incredible.

“To those who believe in the beauty of professional wrestling, nothing needs to be said. For those who don’t appreciate wrestling, nothing could be said to change their minds.” – Vince McMahon

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