- Performance and Professional Wrestling ed. by Broderick Chow, Eero Laine, Claire Warden
Over the past two decades I have routinely taught that professional wrestling is a kind of theatre. It contains all the elements of theatre: there are performers sharing space with the audience, a script (that is focused primarily on physical conflict), and it is not an act of religious worship. Unlike actual sporting events, the end of each match is pre-determined. Yet wrestling is as different from theatre as it is from other similarly allied arts such as opera, ballet, and circus. The characters, emotions, and storylines of professional wrestling are, to use the name of one of the more popular World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) television broadcasts: RAW. Subtlety is not often valued, and very little of the activity reads as a fine art to outside observers. Editor Eero Laine provides a similar description when he notes that the “business of professional wrestling is the business of theatre,” offering a compelling justification that links wrestling to the study of theatre (39). This volume is successful in its establishment of a framework to study performance and professional wrestling as subjects suitable for scholarly discourse.
The conventional wisdom is that scholarly analysis of this supposedly lowbrow and populist entertainment is rare, so Performance and Professional Wrestling, edited by Broderick Chow, Eero Laine, and Claire Warden, is a necessary and welcome addition for both university libraries and theatre classrooms. This lack of scholarship is apparent even after a journey through the volume’s bibliography, which successfully captures the limited breadth and depth of previous scholarly examinations of professional wrestling. The notion of wrestling as a kind of theatrical performance is thoroughly explored in the seventeen essays collected here, which are focused around issues of Audience, Circulation, Lucha, Gender, Queerness, Bodies, and Race. The volume is framed by both a thorough, contextualizing introduction of the subject by the three editors, and a superb epilogue by Sharon Mazer. Mazer’s contribution is particularly valuable, as her Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle was clearly a strong influence on the collection. The editors’ obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for the field are apparent in the introduction, and carry over into their individual essays, each of which is a highlight in the larger collection.
Performance and Professional Wrestling is an intellectually sophisticated collection, and numerous theatre and performance theorists are successfully invoked and explicated throughout the essays, such as Roland Barthes, whose writings on wrestling in the 1950s are foundational to a performative understanding of the activity. Numerous well-known theorists such as Auslander, Baudrillard, Butler, Brecht, Conquergood, and Puchner are also cited in the collection. Even more impressive and useful than these theoretical underpinnings is the volume’s focus on [End Page 111] the content of the shows and the personalities that drive them, with deep analysis of these aspects in each of the essays. Dozens of notable wrestlers and events from a variety of nations and decades are featured throughout the collection, revealing a deep and multifaceted view of the history of professional wrestling. The overall quality of the scholarship is exemplary throughout the anthology, but two essays in particular stand out.
One of these is co-editor Eero Laine’s “Stadium-Sized Theatre: WWE and the World of Professional Wrestling,” wherein the author examines how characters, storylines, and fan reactions are shaped and manipulated in a global business paradigm that is centered on live events that capture a huge Pay-Per-View audience. Laine follows the story of popular everyman wrestler Daniel Bryan, demonstrating how his real-life promotional push and subsequent rejection by management was mirrored in plot storylines that stretched out over months. Laine reveals how even “legitimate” fan protests at a televised Chicago show about executive decisions were co-opted by the WWE into their storylines, and his study provides penetrating insights into the complex dynamics that exist between fans, talent, management, and investors. Like a perceptive theatre critic, Laine digs into the motivations and reactions of both spectators and performers.
Another exemplary essay is...