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  • “Queer Music-Hall Sport”: All-In Wrestling and Modernist Fakery
  • Claire Warden (bio)

In 1932 a Manchester Guardian journalist spent the evening at the Victoria Palace theater in London. The evening’s entertainment came in the form of a wrestling match between two strongmen of the music hall and a self-proclaimed All-In team consisting of a man named Frank Oakley alongside the mysterious “Black Devil”:

The challenges have been hanging in the air, and the hand-clapping at the first bouts was thin and calm. At times the laughter is worthy of an Aldwych farce. The introductory parade of big, hairy men of several nationalities, some heavily plastered, is impressive enough. The announcer assures us pleadingly that one wrestler had his nose smashed on Monday and another was seriously hurt.1

The journalist gave his piece the titillating title “All-In Wrestling: Queer Music-Hall Sport: A Bloodless Orgy” and concluded it by criticizing “all-in wrestling in its bloodless exaggeration” (“All-In Wrestling,” 4). His explanation, one of the earliest expositions of All-In wrestling, produces a confused picture. While the physicality of the wrestlers and the warnings of the announcer suggest a dangerous combat sport, the journalist’s reflections and tone undermine this reading, describing instead a sort of theatrical entertainment. His awkward portmanteau term “Music-Hall Sport” alludes to a liminal form that defies easy definition.

This article uses this review as a catalyst for the examination of All-In wrestling as a germane aspect of British modernist culture in an internationalist context. But, more than this, it uses All-In to uncover a broader series of unpredictable borders between the fake and the real, the parodic and the authentic, the distasteful [End Page 147] sham and the respectable “truth.” In his introduction to the co-edited collection Incredible Modernism: Literature, Trust and Deception, John Attridge claims cultural modernism is “characterized by a concern with the question of trust, and especially with how trust, like ‘human character,’ might be said to have changed, and even to have entered a period of crisis.”2 In a modernist world defined by unknowns, distrust, and even fakery, All-In wrestling stands as a unique, liminal form contributing to and reflecting this broader modernist context.

Precarity of Authenticity and the History of Modernist Wrestling

Matt Houlbrook’s book Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook uses the story of a single historical figure to make much broader definitional claims about modernism. Lucas, confidence trickster and fabricator, is emblematic, Houlbrook suggests, of far-reaching anxieties in a modernist society in which “[c]onfidence and authenticity were increasingly prominent yet precarious values.”3 Houlbrook points here to a profound modernist paradox. On the one hand, the rise of modern media alongside the increasing theatricality of the twentieth century meant “new or more pressing conflicts emerged around who or what could be properly known” (Prince of Tricksters, 4). On the other, photography and scientific advancement seemed to provide a greater sense of accurate mimeticism or factuality than ever before. Émile Zola, one of the founders of artistic naturalism, for example, predicted a future for theater with a “public enthusiastically in favor of the truth” rather than the conventional trappings of the stage.4 This troubling emergence of the fake appeared in multiple ways in a global artistic context: Attridge, for example, sees it in the questioning of authorial sincerity which witnessed a “stirring up of the volatile borderland between fact and fiction” (“Modernism,” 13). Leonard Diepeveen, considering Chicago’s International Exhibition of Modern Art (1913), invents the term “mock modernism” to describe the parodies and hoaxes of modernist art.5 Neil Bartlett, reflecting on the case of Oscar Wilde, understands his 1895 arrest through notions of forgery.6 Modernism, for all its scientific progress and earnest search for artistic truth, seems to be largely defined by misunderstanding, instability, and travesty: “How could the ‘authentic’ be identified amid such flux?” asks Houlbrook; as his analysis goes on to demonstrate, such a question is seemingly unresolvable in the modern world (Prince of Tricksters, 4).

All-In wrestling, I suggest, can be actively read through this modernist precarity of authenticity...


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pp. 147-164
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