- Wrestling in Britain: Sporting Entertainments, Celebrity and Audiences by Benjamin Litherland
Benjamin Litherland’s book is an interesting and detailed analysis on how professional wrestling evolved in Great Britain through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in connection with changing social and historical circumstances. The history of this practice and the particular position it has occupied in British popular culture are explored in its multiple intersections with the fields of sport, theater, entertainment, audiences, and the media.
Studying professional wrestling, Litherland states, can help overcome rigid categorizations that place wrestling outside sporting practice and instead as a subfield of entertainment. However, the mediatic nature of contemporary sports has shown that the boundaries between sport and entertainment, amateurism and consumerism, and “the field” and “the stage” (22) have never been as set and clear as some analysis might suggest. On the contrary, categories frequently overlap, and stating that professional “wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, London: Vintage Press, 2000, 15) tells more about [End Page 92] the way social fields have been historically created than about the position of professional wrestling in this panorama.
As Litherland states in the introduction, his work is informed by transdisciplinary references coming from different scholarly traditions, including history, cultural studies, sociology, and media studies. Making use of this heterogeneous knowledge, chapter 1 examines the various localized wrestling styles existent in preindustrial Britain and how they resisted the contingent process of production and standardization of the “sporting field” in the eighteenth century. The author notices the lack and potentially misleading nature of some early sources in the history of professional wrestling. He then analyzes the structuring of the “sporting field” and the “amateur ideals” during the second half of the nineteenth century. In this context, Litherland observes how professional wrestling, lacking a centralized sporting body, “developed in a slightly different direction to that of other sports” (43). In fact, it continued to be performed according to different rules and with different purposes, including entertainment and profit.
Wrestling matches were indeed still hosted in circuses and music halls at the turn of the twentieth century. The second chapter offers a detailed account of how “professional wrestling had become an outright performed spectacle” by the 1920s and 1930s (54). In fact, legitimate wrestling competitions were usually disappointing for audiences, being too short, too long, or too technical. Both promoters and wrestlers, therefore, progressively decided to fix wrestling contests, aiming to maximize their “dramatic effect.” For the same reason, they produced and enacted, through wrestling, “narratives grounded in moralistic and melodramatic characters, often featuring excessive violence” (68). Consecutively, prearranged “all-in” wrestling contests become “immensely popular with urban, working-class audiences” (68).
The variety of these audiences and the origins of their passion for professional wrestling are analyzed in chapter 3, where Litherland also examines the opposite voices—police, councils, sporting bodies, journalists, and so on—who advocated against wrestling. In fact, wrestling contests offered a particular kind of spectacle, in which specific, contested forms of pleasure were displayed, including performative violence, the exhibition of the bodies, subversions of gender, and the parody of the dominant values that were simultaneously contributing to establishing the sporting field.
Chapter 4 describes how narratives of wrestling and wrestlers have been progressively arranged around the opposite caricatural characters of “blue-eyes” (babyfaces) and “villains.” Such a dichotomy was performed by wrestling’s “celebrities” following a “melodramatic mode” (115) that eventually defined “the moral structure of wrestling” (114). Litherland rightly analyzes this process in close connection with the broader growth of “celebrity culture” in British popular culture.
In the final chapter, Litherland examines the influences of commercial television on the fields of both wrestling and sports in the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, while wrestling became Joint Promotions’s most popular sporting program in the 1960s and 1970s, it was due to commercial television that sports became more and more entertaining spectacles in the 1980s. In this way, the sporting field progressively moved closer to the tastes, pleasures, and values...