Keynotes and Keyholds: Narrative, and Shakespeare the Wrestling Promoter (Christian, Alberto Del Rio, Undertaker, El Generico…)

Narrative, and Shakespeare the Wrestling Promoter

Of the utmost importance in any form of storytelling, be it film, theatre or novel, is (and the literarily savvy amongst you will be aware that I am generalising somewhat here) a strong grasp of the narrative building blocks which form the basis of storytelling itself. There are roughly, and at the most fundamental, four of these building blocks upon which a solid plot can be built:

1) The Hero

2) The Problem

3) The Quest to Overcome

4) The Resolution.

These elements are storytelling at its most basic. In practice, they work a little like this: Our Hero, let’s call him Chris (see what I did there?) is thirsty (Problem), so fixes himself a nice cup of tea (Quest) and sips gratefully, his thirst quenched (Resolution). Simple, right? To Chris, of course, the small success is very welcome, because WWE still won’t return his calls (Problem), but I digress… Once these foundations are in place, whole worlds of narrative development become available to the intrepid storyteller, who, depending on the direction that he or she wishes to take, can then build upon some or all of those four elements to varying degrees for varying results, adding new layers of depth. Usually this will involve fleshing out the Hero, or introducing different Heroes with different or conflicting motivations. Whatever direction stories take, however, they can generally all be reduced back down to those four original elements.

I begin with this brief introduction on narrative constriction for the simple reason that in professional wrestling we have one of the most powerful and effective mediums for storytelling that exists today. This is in no small part due to its basis in physicality: the easiest stories to empathise with are those which deal in some way with fundamental human nature, and few things speak to our primal inner being more than human conflict – our tendency towards which has governed our history since the beginning of time. Without lapsing too much into waffly dictums of transcendent humanity, then, whether one is a creationist who looks to Cain and Abel for the first example of murder, or a subscriber to evolutionary science, with its notion of a developed “fight or flight” instinct (another loose generalisation, forgive me), one cannot deny that conflict, and our reaction to conflict, has long influenced our development as a species. Conflict, then, is something that humans from all walks of life understand on an innate, unconscious level. Furthermore, in the pseudo-sport that is professional wrestling, where characters and gimmicks are the order of the day and the match results are predetermined, it is incredibly simple to tell powerful stories. And the more effective a story, the more viewers it draws in, and the more money it makes.

I’ll hopefully come back to a fuller discussion of different kinds of story in pro wrestling in a later column (the diligent among you may have noticed how I seem to add to my “to do” list on a weekly basis… I hope you’re keeping track, because I don’t seem to be), but this week, let’s start with wrestling storytelling 101: How stories in wrestling ‘work’.

Professional wrestling, as mentioned above, is all about storytelling. The same can be said for other forms of entertainment, of course – novels, films, theatre, computer games, and sports.  The advantage that professional wrestling has over other forms of entertainment that rely on driven storytelling – even those that evolve around conflict such as fictitious action movies or competition-oriented MMA fights – is that in professional wrestling the narrative comes in two distinct but related forms: the story behind the match, and the story of the match. MMA bouts, of course, certainly have a “tale of the tape” for every match-up, and the fights themselves tells stories all of their own, but in a sport where garnering wins (understandably) is more important than producing a great story, audiences can be left unsatisfied by fights that end in dull split decisions. From a different perspective, if football (soccer, that is) were booked like professional wrestling, there’d be a heck of a lot less 0-0 draws. The crucial difference between the stories of competitive sports and pro wrestling is that everything in the latter is entirely controllable, which makes for a reliability and consistency that should, in theory, produce consistently great stories that satisfy the audience. The tales told in wrestling may be stand-alone competitive bouts (i.e. the average exhibition match on Impact or Raw), or – and this, as all promoters know, is where the money is – long-term rivalries between characters that build up to a logical conclusion.

Given that pro wrestling rivalries consist of stories with clearly-defined characters, motivations, and chapters in the form of matches and promotional interviews, the soap operas of WWE and similar companies, if produced correctly, perform an incredibly tricky feat by simultaneously rewarding long-term viewers and creating something immediately accessible to newcomers or sporadic viewers. The simplest and most common way in wrestling of making sure that this is the case is by making the Quest stage of the overarching rivalry a single match which, like El Generico vs Kevin Steen at Final Battle 2010 or Undertaker vs Edge at Summerslam 2008, tells a story in and of itself while also reproducing the entire rivalry in microcosm. This Quest will ideally lead to a Resolution which marries both strands of narrative together again.

Let’s have a look at a recent example, then, in which the match and feud have been built to complement one another in the manner outlined above. I say “built to”, although as we are all aware, WWE has been a little tight-fisted with satisfying resolutions of late…

Christian (Hero) wants the World Heavyweight Championship which has eluded him for his entire career (Problem). In order to get what he wants, he must compete in a ladder match (Quest) against the devious Alberto Del Rio (Obstacle), who put him on the shelf for a few months the previous year. Winning the ladder match will give him his revenge AND the World Championship (Resolution).

And now here’s how the story might play out at Extreme Rules next Sunday:

The veteran fan favourite Christian (Hero) must defeat the opportunistic newcomer Alberto Del Rio by climbing a ladder and retrieving the belt (Problem). Christian sets about using his experience to conquer Del Rio and win the match (Quest). Alberto, however, targets Christian’s pectoral muscle which, the commentators remind us, was severely damaged last year. This makes it harder for Christian to gain the upper hand (Obstacle). Eventually, after an exciting series of events which result in Christian gaining the upper hand, our hero finally retrieves the belt, winning the match (Resolution #1) and achieving both the elusive World Championship and his revenge (Resolution #2).

(Of course, it’s as likely as not that this particular prediction will come true… Although if Del Rio wins, the formula – albeit a dark mirror in which the villain becomes the hero – will remain intact: instead of Christian’s hunt for career justification, the story could just as easily be Del Rio’s hunt for his “destiny.”)

You see, then, how very simple it is to concoct a pro wrestling story as long as one has a firm grasp of the basics. As the above example demonstrates, the very format of professional wrestling is a storytelling tool unmatched in its elegance.

So where does William Shakespeare come in? Well, wrestling was a recognised national sport in Shakespeare’s England, and different counties (think of them as wrestling territories, if you like) advocated different forms of grapple-based combat with varying rules. In Lancashire, for example, it was perfectly legal to “show the toe” and matches could be won by pinning an opponent’s shoulders and hip to the floor (kick), while in Cornwall kicking was illegal but matches did not finish until one combatant was left unable to compete. Wherever one wrestled, it was very real, and very brutal. Weight divisions did not exist, and broken bones, torn flesh and dislocated jaws were all part of the fun and games. Wrestlers went back to work the next day as if nothing had happened. The English are tough like that.

And yet for all of its prevalence in English culture, very rarely does wrestling occur in drama from the period. This is where, depending on your personal tastes, it either gets really interesting or it doesn’t. You see, Shakespeare’s works, while sparse when it comes to grappling arts, abound with conflict in many different forms, as well as a vast quantity of fighting talk. Who can forget Prince Hamlet’s violent exchange with Laertes, which would not feel too out of place in a particularly good episode of Raw?

[T]ake thy fingers from my throat,

Sir: though I am not splentive and rash,

Yet I have something in me dangerous,

Which let thy wiseness fear: away thy hand! (5.1.214-217)

Amid all of the smack talk, swordfights, and assaults that occur throughout Shakespeare’s work, however, actual wrestling DOES in fact occur as an integral part of the story of one of his most famous comedies. Not only does the scene in question demand a staged fight, but furthermore, the bout is used expertly in order to further a primary plot in a manner which encapsulates perfectly the ideas expressed in this column.

I will leave you this week, then, with these lines from As You Like It (c. 1600), featuring Oliver (the Heenan-esque conniving villain), and Charles the wrestler (the strong-but-simple Brodus Clay-like figure, who Oliver tricks into doing his dirty work). Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you William Shakespeare’s first true wrestling promo. See what elements of it you can recognise…

 

CHARLES

I am given, sir, secretly to understand
that your younger brother Orlando hath a disposition
to come in disguised against me to try a fall.
To-morrow, sir, I wrestle for my credit; and he that
escapes me without some broken limb shall acquit him
well.
Your brother is but young and tender; and,
for your love, I would be loath to foil him, as I
must, for my own honour, if he come in.

[…]

OLIVER

[…] I’ll tell thee, Charles:
[Orlando] is the stubbornest young fellow of France, full
of ambition, an envious emulator of every man’s
good parts, a secret and villanous contriver against
me his natural brother: therefore use thy
discretion; I had as lief thou didst break his neck
as his finger.
And thou wert best look to’t; for if
thou dost him any slight disgrace or if he do not
mightily grace himself on thee, he will practise
against thee by poison, entrap thee by some
treacherous device and never leave thee till he
hath ta’en thy life
…

I assure thee, and almost with tears I speak
it, there is not one so young and so villanous this
day living.

CHARLES

I am heartily glad I came hither to you. If he come
to-morrow, I’ll give him his payment: if ever he go
alone again, I’ll never wrestle for prize more: and
so God keep your worship!

OLIVER

Farewell, good Charles.

Exit CHARLES

Now will I stir this gamester: I hope I shall see
an end of him; for my soul, yet I know not why,
hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle, never
schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of
all sorts enchantingly beloved, and indeed so much
in the heart of the world […]

that I am altogether
misprised: but it shall not be so long; this
wrestler shall clear all.
(1.1.82-111)

Any of that seem familiar? We’ll have a look at what Shakespeare does, and its practical relevance to wrestling today next week – see you then!

 

Class dismissed.

 

*Extra Credit*

1) As always, your feedback is welcomed. This week has been a change of pace for sure, but I hope you enjoyed.

2) Did anyone see Jarrett and Angle’s powerbomb botch at Lockdown? It’s a miracle that Kurt wasn’t killed. I was genuinely terrified for a few brief seconds. In hindsight, however, far more scary is how quickly Kurt got back up… How many painkillers must that man be on to not notice that he nearly broke his neck after a sixteen-foot fall onto his head? Please, Kurt, do an Edge: call it a day. For your own safety.

3) Daniel Bryan on Smackdown is undoubtedly the best thing for him. Not only will he be able to have longer, better matches, but it also means that when he eventually confronts Miz for a world title (and I’m holding out faith that it will happen somewhere down the line), it will be epic.

4) Pray tell – why was Mark Henry’s transfer to the Blue Brand a big deal on the live Raw, but Sheamus’ draft to Smackdown was kept an afterthought on the jabronified Supplemental Draft on wwe.com?

5) If you haven’t done so already, I heartily recommend that you check out Steven Gepp’s The View From Down Here this week. The chap tackles some remarkably similar themes to those in this column – specifically the place of wrestling as an art form. Gepp’s  intelligent comparison between pro wrestling and the equally cartoon world of professional dance is as refreshing a take on the subject matter as it gets. See what you think.

 

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