Even approaching The Arches in Glasgow on the day of the performance, I was almost completely unsure of what exactly it was about to see. I expected wrestling, knowing that Rob Drummond had undertaken the notable sacrifice of training to be a wrestler for five months for the performance. I also knew, however, that Rob Drummond is, in fact, a playwright. Wrestling undoubtedly deserves credit as an art-form, but I had niggling worries that what I was about to see would be an un-required attempt to legitimise wrestling as theatre, and would feature lots of dogmatic theorising that would culminate in an unfair and patronising conclusion that theatre could, in fact, be lowered to the wrestling ring.
The start of the show is not encouraging, the stage is dressed in the aesthetics of wrestling: colourful lights, metalic surfaces, even a big screen, but the first speaker, “Damo” O’Conor, the head trainer for the Scottish Wrestling Alliance, seems to fall in to the trap of theorising the innate humanity that is symbolised in wrestling – something that is true, but needs no explanation. This was my immediate reaction, but in retrospect, I realise that this was an essential part of the show. Not only is it an establishing segment, letting the audience know that Damo is a good (face) authority figure, but as Drummond says almost instantly and rather glibly upon taking the stage, nothing presented by the show can really be trusted as absolute truth. It is only looking back that it becomes clear where all the pieces fit together, and again, it retrospect, it seems that the entire show until the culmination of the wrestling match was in kayfabe. Drummond doesn’t theorise to show that wrestling can be a dramatic art, he uses the unique conventions of the wrestling art-form to make that fact apparent as the show progresses.
Drummond”s lengthy monologue seems at first to be a slightly soppy hard-luck story. He speaks of the personal flaws he feels he has developed because, as a child, he missed his ‘fight window’, and how, ever since, he has been a victim oh his own humiliating cowardice, always being unable of standing up for himself. Looking at this in the context of the entire show, however, it becomes clear that far from being a slightly disappointing appraisal of the effect of wrestling on his life, Drummond’s monologue is in fact a promo, it is storytelling, it is wrestling. The Rob Drummond on stage isn’t Rob Drummond the playwright, it is Rob Drummond the babyface wrestler, and he is laying the foundations for his archetypal heroic story, that of the hero overcoming his inner-demons to overcome his obstacles.
All the while, Drummond speaks of wrestlers as more literal heroes. Comparing the somewhat weedy picture of himself in training to an almost unattainable paragon of heroic virtue in Bret Hart. But what is clear from his stories of personal ineptitude is that far from being distant to people like himself, the in-ring stories that wrestlers play out are just as relatable to fans as anything that can be shown in any other art form; as Barthes said in his essay, The World of Wrestling, “it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolph or Andromaque.” This is best shown in the often melancholic yet comic stories Drummond tells, commentated by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon, in which he is often accompanied by his small, comforting figure of Bret Hart. The stories Drummond tells of being repeatedly confronted and beaten up by consummate heel “James” do not, in fact, resemble the glossy, almost other-worldly setting of professional wrestling, but the inner-turmoil and the confrontations between good and evil, between innocence and experience that Drummond describes are reminiscent of the same dynamics in pro-wrestling. Earlier on, Damo mentions how wrestling originated as a folk sport, and it is clear from these stories that far from being distant and other-worldly, the stories told in the wrestling ring function more as a folk art form that can resonate with something inside everyone.
Everything up until now has been part of the show, and so is the next segment where “The Antagonist” James Tyler confronts Drummond on stage. Everything about this man characterises him as the ‘heel’, not only does his nickname point to his dramatic stock-type as “The Antagonist” but he shares a name with Drummond’s perpetual antagoniser, “James.” Tyler tells Drummond that ‘the time for talk is over’, but that statement itself shows that wrestling is not just some transient form of physical entertainment, but is instead reliant on the ‘talking’ that is necessary for storytelling. Tyler goes on to do his job, and antagonises Drummond to the point where he is willing, for the first time in his life, to stand up for himself. It is not serendipity that this moment happens right then and there, and it certainly isn’t serendipity that there is a ring behind the stage, which is dramatically revealed after Tyler accepts Drummond’s challenge to a wrestling match. This is pure drama, but of a specific kind to the art form of pro-wrestling, and Tyler’s abrupt entrance to the stage is simply another part of the story being told. “James” is the obstacle for our hero to overcome.
Pro-wrestling has it’s own conventions of oral storytelling, but it also has it’s own very unique conventions of storytelling in the ring. When the characters, as wrestlers, are introduced, every detail, even down to the different colours of the lighting, continues to characterise them and prescribe to the audience how they ought to react. Drummond is out first after a recap of his babyface back-story before Tyler comes to meet him, accompanied by a suitably antagonistic visual presentation and much darker, red lighting.
The match is turned in to a tag team match, partly to add further moral gravitas to either side, and partly, i’m sure, so that Drummond doesn’t have to carry a full match on his own. It is here where the early establisher pays off and Damo comes to join Drummond and add further weight to the virtue of his quest. I wasn’t expecting a heck of a lot from Drummond, but he really surprised me with his ability. He started out with basic takedowns, but moved on to complicated progressions and really quite fierce bumps, culminating in what was perhaps the most shocking achievement, the hurricanrana! This match was in many ways the archetypal match between good and evil, face and heel forces; Drummond and Damo engaged with the audience and fought with virtue whereas the heels sneered at the audience and showed frustration when unsuccessful, as well as resorting to cheating. The ending of the match was excellent, Damo took some heavy punishment from the heels, who were regularly tagging in and out to stay fresh. He managed to overcome these two and recover sufficiently to reach Drummond for the tag. Earlier on, during his promo (as i’m calling it), he mentioned how he had dreamed his entire life of hitting the Superfly Splash on an antagonistic opponent. Bright in the audience’s mind, Drummond received the tag and climbed to the top rope before successfully hitting the move and gaining the pinfall, silencing all of the storyline demons, overcoming his antagonistic obstacle, and gaining dramatic closure all in one move.
The noise in the small audience was deafening by this point. If drama is supposed to move it’s audience and elicit emotion, than this example of pro-wrestling was an exemplary, visceral form of drama that is truly unique. Using the complex medium of pro-wrestling throughout to make it’s meaning patent, this wasn’t a show that explained how theatre can be lowered to the world of wrestling, but showed instead how pro-wrestling is a unique and moving form of drama in its own right.
Not theatre lowering itself to wrestling, but wrestling showing itself as a particularly rewarding form of theatre.