April 17, 2008
MIT Art Work-Out: Pro Wrestling--Sport as Theater

Earlier this week, I was honored to be invited to take part in the Art Work-Out Lecture Series sponsored by the MIT Visual Arts Program, in conjunction with the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER), for an event called "The Theater of Sport."

The lecture was offered as part of Wendy Jacob's Introduction to Visual Arts class and Andrea Frank's Introduction to Photography and Related Media class. Thanks to Jennifer Tren, Sofia Ponte, and Kate James for their work in setting this up. (By the way, you can still see Kate's insights on the world of professional wrestling archived from her participation in my Spring 2007 course on U.S. pro wrestling here at MIT on our class blog.)

My portion of the Art Work-Out event was entitled "Pro Wrestling--Sport as Theater." This talk was based on a lecture I gave for the MIT List Visual Arts Center back in May 2007, entitled "America's Fascination with Pro Wrestling."

In short, I started by discussing the class I taught on pro wrestling and public reaction to it, specifically the surprise many people displayed at seeing a course on a subject like professional wrestling at MIT. For instance, Newstalk 920 AM KPSI called the course "a sign of the apocalypse," while one blogger called it "the undisputed end of higher education," both tongue-in-cheek of course.

What I sought to do is present an historical perspective at how the multimedia "sports entertainment" products of companies like World Wrestling Entertainment today came to be and looking at how--from the beginning of the idea of wrestling (perhaps the oldest sport), there has always been some degree of performance. I talked about the rhetoric of wrestlers in Egyptian hieroglyphics compared to the rhetoric of more modern pro wrestling "trash talkers," as well as the history of pro wrestling in Greek mythology and the Bible. We discussed the spread of popularity for pro wrestling in the U.S., as well as the carnival roots of wrestling in the days of P.T. Barnum, as well as some of the most important historical figures who saw wrestling move more squarely in the direction of performance.

For instance, there was Ed "Strangler" Lewis and The Gold Dust Trio, with their traveling troupe of wrestlers and matches booked to have more exciting sequences of action and more controlled durations, with finishes that would leave the crowd happy. There was "The Golden Greek" Jim Londos, who became famous as the short, good-looking wrestler who would face grotesque monsters in "Beauty vs. the Beast" contests. And, in the television era, there were a plethora of charismatic characters who took great advantage of the visuality of the new medium: the intense and dangerous Killer Kowalski, the high-flying Antonino "Argentina" Rocca, the flamboyant "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, the outrageous "Classy" Freddie Blassie, and the incomparable Gorgeous George.

The talk looked at how wrestling became a staple of the development of local affiliate stations in each region of the country and how, eventually, new technologies such as cable television, the VCR, and pay-per-view transformed the way pro wrestling reached its audience, leading to nationally touring groups like the WWE today. The talk focused in particular on the development of "sports entertainment" as a concept to explain pro wrestling's unique status as the performance of a sport, as well as some of the most successful characters the company has had over the past 25 years.

The talk concluded with some look at how the WWE has extended its brand across multiple media forms, including books, DVDs, games, and films; the blurring of reality and fiction and how this draws people into pro wrestling; the use of stereotypes, and the diverse cast of the WWE narrative; and the role of the fans themselves in the action, based on some of my prior research.

If you have any questions about the event, don't hesitate to contact me at samford@mit.edu. Later today, I'm going to include some notes about the other fascinating folks presenting at "The Theater of Sport."