Shakespeare In The Ring: Professional Wrestling as an Art

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Here’s a hot take that you’ve probably never considered, wouldn’t even have occurred to you, as it didn’t me initially: professional wrestling is an artform. Now that you’re done scoffing, laughing and have gotten your comments out of the way, let’s delve into this. Once again, professional wrestling is an artform. 

Now, hear me out on this. I’m serious, stop laughing! 

Back in 2016, in a response to a random Twitter account antagonizing wrestling fans online about wrestling being “fake”, WWE Superstar Xavier Woods posted a picture of a Notes App message on his own account, discussing how professional wrestling is one of the last forms of theater in the round. “The crowd is watching men and women tell stories through physicality with an audience in a 360 degree setting. Artists use paint to create art on a canvas, and we use our fists and feet to create art on a canvas. It’s art.” Wood’s response to this was so monumental and well received that even Rolling Stone covered it on their site.

I remember seeing him post this and watching the reactions to the tweet go down in real time; I basically live on Twitter, so I observed with glee, cackling at the user getting what we now call ratio’d. Schadenfreude aside, his answer stuck in my mind. As an appreciator of the arts as a whole, this was an idea that had never occurred to me. But it resonated deeply.

I can see you still rolling your eyes. However, what you need to remember is that while Shakespere is now revered in literature, in his day, his beginning work was considered low brow, bawdy. Much like how professional wrestling is considered still now, even after it hit it’s popularity peak and mainstream crossover in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s. And it was popular! Think back on how often you’d hear people quote The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin growing up. Or how everyone, even people who never watched WWE, still knows who Hulk Hogan is.  

With wrestling, you have all those elements: the drama and grandeur, the over-the-top theatricality. In a conversation back in October with Chicago based professional wrestler Mateo Valentine, he made an astute observation. “Comparing the two, the purpose of both will always be the same: telling a story whether it’s non-verbal/physical or verbal/emotional…We have to use theatricality whether we notice it or not. It’s the suspension of disbelief that we get from theatre AND pro wrestling and not from film and T.V. in which we are watching REAL people in front of us go through a journey that the audience member is witnessing.”

Fellow Columbia College Chicago alumni Matthew Rehwoldt, better known as former WWE talent Aiden English, gave a more elaborate answer, drawing from his background as a trained actor and wrestler. “It’s theater in the round, right down to literally the [entrance] ramp in the middle is the proscenium leading out to the stage that is rounded and then surrounded by people…it’s a little bit different in the sense that we have a little bit more freedom to improvise and create what’s going on out there. That’s where it evolves from theater.”

There is a phrase both wrestlers and fans love to say, “Wrestling is everything”. Typically, we fans will say it because of how ardent we are in our love for the sport (and it is considered a combat sport). But there is also more truth in that statement then I think most wrestling fans realize, as well…I’ll admit most aren’t the brightest crayon in the box. But we’re more insightful than we realize. 

Once again, cue our esteemed alumni to give more context to the phrase. “Wrestling reflects every other form of entertainment. We’ve gone from television, movies, comic books, video games, superheroes, stunt work, again getting classic Shakespearean theater and stuff like that. So I think wrestling is kind of a mirror to society and entertainment as a whole, in which we turn it on its head in our own little weird physical form in that way. It’s one of the few forms of true, pure interactive theater that I can think is kind of left as everything is gone very digital.”

A few years ago, Netflix debuted a show called G.L.O.W., which was based on an actual wrestling promotion called GLOW, an acronym for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. There was a line in the third episode, “The Wrath of Kuntar”, that stands out. 

“I’m the patron of the arts. And wrestling is an art, despite my mother’s opinion, which is wrong.”

Wrestling is an art. An misunderstood artform, but still art. But what medium doesn’t have pieces that are misunderstood? Take some time to get to know the art and appreciate it.

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