One of the more unusual viewing habits of the students of Legacy is the interest that several of them have in WWE. They seem blissfully unaware of the “fake” and “staged” nature of such wrestling, something I have recognized since childhood. Apparently the students here, like my neighbors in Central Florida, have a taste for the ritualized theater of violence that is professional wrestling. I suppose it might have been impossible to tell the young people I grew up around, just as it would be difficult to tell my students, that they are fans of theater.
And yet it must be recognized that professional wrestling is theater, even if of a particularly lowbrow kind. For one, it is very stagy, being performed in a ring (or, if one is a mixed martial artist in a real fight, in an Octagon). Besides the literal matter of the stage,the staginess is emphasized by the very simplistic actions that take place, like the exaggerated emotions of Greek theater so that the audience may sense the hubris or suffering of the fighters. Their costumes are also over-the-top, very theatrical.
One of the often ignored but particularly theatrical aspects of professional wrestling is the “storyline” of feuds, as well as the ritualistic insults that provoke conflicts between wrestlers to provide a justification of their hostility. Another ritualistic aspect of the theater is the simplistic division into “heroes” and “villains,” based on predetermined (i.e. scripted) concerns by the promoters.
This does not implying any way that the professional wrestlers themselves are unworthy performers. Far from it. To engage in such scripted action requires considerable fitness as well as at least rudimentary acting ability. It is not a coincidence that Brock Lesnar has been a successful MMA fighter, nor that Andre “The Giant,” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have been effective actors. They know their craft well, and that craft includes both acting as well as athleticism. Nonetheless, it is theater.
Nor do the similarities stop there. Like Broadway shows, wrestling events (whether professional wrestling or MMA) as well as boxing events are judged by their gate receipts. If a storyline fails to catch on, whether as a wrestling one or a play, it is canceled and consigned to oblivion. Just never let them tell you that they they are uninterested in theater, because they are if they cheer on Samoan Joe or CM Punk or any of their associates. After all, theater has many forms, and it does not have to be recognized as such either. Moiliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman did not recognize that he had been speaking prose all of his life, and he probably would not have recognized that he was in a play either.