NOTE: This is something I wrote almost five years ago. I'm quite fond of it, so I'm adding it here.
About 10 years ago, I had a conversation with one of the great avant garde theatre directors of all time, Anne Bogart. (Hoo boy, not a great way to start a pro wrestling blog post, eh? Better insert a cool photo.)
Anne asserted that great theatre has seven elements to which it tends rather well. Good theatre tends to not quite all of them, and mediocre theatre can really only focus on one or two.
I’ve since come to apply this list of elements (or qualifications, if you will) to all sorts of art, especially performance art, and now, to analyzing pro wrestling. (What can I say? Directing plays is my hammer, so everything with an audience looks like a nail.)
The most compelling matches, I’d say, excel at all seven elements.
Here’s the list so far, in no particular order.
THE SEVEN ELEMENTS
2. …stay tuned…
3. …stay tuned…
4. …stay tuned…
5. …stay tuned…
6. …stay tuned…
7. …stay tuned…
Let’s start with ritual.
List some pro wrestling rituals.
– Entrances with music and pyro and choreographed moves
– yelling Woo! when someone gets hit by a particularly harsh knife-edged chop
– holding up signs
– yelling “Holy shit!” after an amazing spot
– Hulk Hogan shaking his finger at a guy before punching him the face, usually followed by the big boot and a leg drop
– Randy Orton flopping over like a fish (okay a snake, if you insist) as a set-up for the RKO
– shouting “and millions” at the right time when The Rock is talking
– singing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” when someone gets fired
– chanting “Thank you, Edge” when Edge is retiring
– staged contract signings that end in chaos
– “America the Beautiful” at Wrestlemania
– shaking hands (or not) before an ROH match
– the “Tale of the Tape”
– Triple H and his sledgehammer fetish
– smashing a dude through the Spanish announce table
– Elimination Chamber, Money in the Bank, Hell in a Cell, Royal Rumble, etc. etc.
– squash matches
– Let’s go Cena! Cena sucks!
That’s a lot of rituals.
That’s a rather abbreviated list, but it illustrates pretty well that wrasslin’s got a lot of habits, a ton of patterns, a lot of well-observed, timeless traditions. In fact it’s safe to say our wrestling enjoyment would be destroyed without them.
Ritual in arts can take a couple of different forms. There are the rituals of the forms themselves, like curtain calls. There are also rituals that can be used in the shows. I once directed a play that mimicked the form of a church service. The familiar form helped the audience understand what was going on.
Ritual in real-life.
Speaking of church, need we list the important rituals in real life? Birthday cakes, weddings, Rumspringa, bris, etc. etc. etc. Rituals helps us understand life, they help us mark special occasions, they help us to transition from one stage to the next. They tell us what to do, and they elicit the appropriate emotions. (Think about the way people cry at weddings even when they’re really bored. The ritual itself speaks to something deep in our psyches.) Randy’s snake-flopping routine rarely fails to rally the crowd, eve during a lackluster match. We (or at least his fans) are hard-wired in a really Pavlovian way to expect an awesome RKO and respond with well-tuned enthusiasm.
What’s going on?
Rituals tell us what’s going on. (Oh, he’s gonna do his finisher now. Oh, somebody’s gonna do a run-in. There’s the three-count!) They’re part of the accepted narrative of the matches. Entrances happen first, we meet the participants, we find out what kind of mood they’re in, we find out about any special rules. The rituals helps us know when the climax of the match is coming, so we can stand on our chairs at the right time. And matches end with an opportunity to applaud the performers, get a little catharsis, and release all our built-up tension.
Equally important for story-telling reasons is that rituals set-up a structure of expectations that can then be broken. When Hogan enacts the holy ritual of shaking his finger, punching the Rock three times in the face, and following it up with a boot to the face and a big leg-drop, we fully expect a three-count. So, HOLY CRAP when the Rock kicks out. (One of my favorite moments of their great Wrestlemania X8 match.) When Edge’s music plays and he doesn’t run around and wave his arms at the audience, instead marching with a very serious face straight to the ring, you know he means business. Or how bout Triple H going through Undertaker’s own ritual, (Wrestlemania 27) right down to the extruding tongue. A brilliant variation on Big Evil’s glorious rites. If HHH had won, it would have been a great way to do it.
Perhaps most importantly, rituals allow us to participate, something that’s vitally important in performance arts that involve an audience. (My sign is on TV! I love it when we yell “Woo” together!) Most of the list up there involves crowd participation. It’s something that wrestling does really, really well. Far better than, for instance, the theatre. (I gotta tell you, I’d kill to have people yelling “holy shit” after a particularly awesome monologue or scene change.) And wrestling fans glom on to every opportunity to be a part of the match, whether it’s because they’re hoping to be on TV, or just cause they enjoy being part of the living breathing entity called “the crowd.”
You bought it.
Rituals give us a reason to be there, because we’re accustomed to them and so we’re willing to pay money for them. Plenty of Catholics profess to loving the rituals even more than the message. Going back to that Hogan/Rock match at WMX8 – imagine what a thrill it must have been for all the people who got to be a part of the experience of cheering Hogan like a babyface after the match. Hogan cups his hand to his ear and leans over the ropes and that’s all it takes for the 20,000 people on that side to connect with their childhood memories and go crazy. They might not have put words to it, but you gotta know that’s exactly what they came for.