- The Oral Poetics of Professional Wrestling, or Laying the Smackdown on Homer
Since its development in the first half of the twentieth century, Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s theory of “composition in performance” has been central to the study of oral poetry (J. M. Foley 1998:ix-x). This theory and others based on it have been used in the analysis of poetic traditions like those of the West African griots, the Viking skalds, and, most famously, the ancient Greek epics.1 However, scholars have rarely applied Parry-Lord theory to material other than oral poetry, with the notable exceptions of musical forms like jazz, African drumming, and freestyle rap.2 Parry and Lord themselves, on the other hand, referred to the works they catalogued as performances, making it possible to use their ideas beyond poetry and music. The usefulness of Parry-Lord theory in studies of different poetic traditions tempted me to view other genres of performance from this perspective. In this paper I offer up one such genre for analysis—professional wrestling—and show that interpreting the tropes of wrestling through the lens of composition in performance provides information that, in return, can help with analysis of materials more commonly addressed by this theory.
Before beginning this effort, it will be useful to identify the qualities that a work must possess to be considered a “composition in performance,” in order to see if professional wrestling qualifies. The first, and probably most important and straightforward, criterion is that, as Lord (1960:13) says, “the moment of composition is the performance.” This disqualifies art forms like theater and ballet, works typically planned in advance and containing words and/or actions that must be performed at precise times and following a precise order. Second, while works composed in composition are created and performed at the same time, they are not invented extemporaneously. The subject and structure of works composed in performance are known in advance, unlike in pure improvisation, and certain key elements are fixed;3 for example, no version of Hector’s battle with Achilles can end with Hector as the victor. This distinguishes works composed in performance from purely improvised pieces.4 Third, works composed in performance utilize an identifiable series of traditional techniques and stock elements to enable them to construct successfully their performance, most famously the formulae of oral poetry.5 Parry-Lord theory is only applicable to genres which have all these qualities.
Now that we have the general qualities a work must have to be considered “composed in performance,” we can turn to professional wrestling to see if it qualifies. However, for the sake of the (presumably many) scholars unfamiliar with professional wrestling, it may be helpful to provide a brief overview of the genre and its history.6 The entertainment medium we now call professional wrestling or pro wrestling started out in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century as an honest-to-goodness athletic competition, or at least as honest as athletic competitions were when coming from the world of carnivals and traveling shows.7 While outcomes were sometimes fixed (as was and sadly is also the case in boxing and other “legitimate” sports), the combatants were trained athletes, participating in a sport that combined elements of a wide variety of grappling forms from across Europe and North America.8 That said, in both the true competitions of early twentieth-century arenas and the carnival attractions offering locals the chance to win cash prizes by defeating these combatants, spectacle was central to professional wrestling’s economic success.9 At carnivals a planted grappler, dressed as a regular attendee, would often defeat or hold his own against the showcased wrestler in order to convince young men that they could do the same.10 In true contests boasts about a given grappler’s talents and accolades, and the nefarious or unworthy nature of his opponent, would inevitably be published before major bouts, whether or not such boasts were actually made.11 Unfortunately, these efforts to excite audiences about wrestling spectacles were often undone by the fact that the sport itself was simply not exciting, with matches often going on for interminable hours...