Note from John Canton: Hugh Firth was one of the seven writers picked to write for TJR in our 2013 Writer Search held this month. Please enjoy the column that earned him a spot on the site.
"The actor must believe in everything that takes place on the stage - and most of all - in what he himself is doing - and one can only believe in the truth." (Konstantin Stanislavski).
This is my first column. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. This could be the start of a typical modern relationship. We’ll meet and see only the positives in each other. You’ll like my dress sense (suits all the way, I’m very British in that manner), clipped received pronunciation and moralistic point of view. I’ll like your ‘kooky’ manner, stories about the friends I’ve yet to meet and your terrible memory. We’ll laugh, drink and, slowly but surely, begin to form a relationship where you can tell me the truth and I can respond in an appropriate manner.
Then something will change...
You’ll begin to hate the fact I don’t wear jeans (not true, I own a pair for gardening but, still, I get your point), you’ll despise my accent and the fact I don’t like ‘bad guys and fast girls’. On the other hand, your ‘kooky’ manner will prove itself to be slightly needy, your stories will be repeated ad nauseum and your poor memory will mean that story you just told (you remember?) you just told it again, but you changed the names.
Then something will change...
We’ll be so far down the road that I’ll ‘pretend’ not to mind. And you’ll ‘pretend’ not to mind. And then we’ll start, effectively, ‘acting’. I’ll put on the smile (and the suit, obv.) and you’ll dress kookily and try to find something in me that still entertains.
That’s the modern relationship...it comes down to acting and pretending. I pretend to like you, you act as though you mean it (but really don’t).
Now, I like to think I can layer my writing but I’m probably not that clever. This was supposed to be an introductory article about our future relationship as writer and reader before you all disagree with everything I say. I also think it could speak volumes about wrestling (the product in general). How many times do we see a group with a surprise leader (thank you NWO or, indeed, Aces & Eights)? How many times does, for instance, the WWE repackage the same story in a short time period (is it really that long ago that we’ve forgotten JBL at the Mexican border one shout short of saying ‘we the people’?) and how kooky can wrestling try to be before it becomes ingratiating (if I see another dancing fat man, I might rip out the fast forward button on my TiVo). Having said that, if you don’t like my suits, I might just return in a glittery jacket and not speak to you for a couple of weeks and see what happens (what? Nothing? Oh well.).
However, my key point here (at least for this column – at least for maybe many columns) is that when something changes, the ‘pretending’ matters. That is, the ‘acting’ matters. It can trick you into caring about a strong plot with interesting characters. It can also make you interested in a badly written, rushed plot. It can also make you not care at all (remember John Cena ‘embracing the hate’? That worked out well didn’t it?!) I’m going to use one example for this column but, let’s be honest, the most successful wrestlers tend to be good actors (and they needn’t necessarily go on to TV or film for that point to be valid). My one example?...
The Undertaker v CM Punk.
Here are two men at differing ends of their careers but both at the top. One man has become the ‘main event’ of Wrestlemania (indeed, it could be argued that beating the streak means more than the WWE Championship at the biggest show of the year) whereas the other has just held the belt (and arguably carried the company during the mistake that will one day be called ‘the 3 hour Raw experiment’ – Summer of Punk? Summer of Slump more like it) for 434 days. One is the locker-room leader who is a one company man, the other is the indie darling who worked his way up from backyard wrestling. On paper these two men are different and yet the same. The main similarity? Attention to character.
The Undertaker is renowned (at least through the Deadman gimmick) for never breaking character. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the American Bad-Ass run, we wouldn’t have any interviews or true insight into the man bar airport arrivals photographs. WWE has become somewhat ‘characterless’ now. Apart from The Undertaker and Kane there are no true ‘heightened’ stars anymore. Gone are the days of Mankind, Doink and even The Boogeyman. Basically, in the world of wrestling, ‘real characters’ are the name of the game. Whether that’s a Randy Orton attacking Triple H’s family, Eddie Guerrero fighting for custody of Dominic or Cena fighting for redemption against The Rock, when WWE works (which is often doesn’t) we’re invested in ‘real’ situations we can believe in to varying degrees.
The Undertaker is a deadman. He’s from Death Valley. He was born in a period of wrestling where the entertainment was in a scary 6ft 8in monster walking slowly to the ring and not in two fat, tattooed wrestlers dancing with kids under a glitterball (sorry, it does my TiVo fast forward button’s head in). In the days of CM Punk pipe-bombs, the Undertaker gimmick shouldn’t work...but it does. It does because of the commitment to the cause that Mark Calaway brings to the part. He is terrifying, but we’re on his side and, thanks to various title runs but also the past four years at Wrestlemania, the man is a legend of the business. He’s made a ‘fantasy’ character work in the modern age by simply believing it himself, like any true actor should. By that, I don’t mean he works down the morgue but by the fact that when he puts on that long coat and brimmed hat, he is The Undertaker.
What’s the antithesis of this heightened character? The character from a bygone age with eyeliner and lightening SFX? Surely it’s the man who sat down in Las Vegas and ‘broke the fourth wall’. The man who talked about the ‘doofus’ Triple H whilst wearing a Stone Cold T-Shirt. The man who removed the WWE logo from the microphone before speaking. The man who had to be shut up. For a brief few weeks, even to the most cynical and jaded of wrestling fans, Punk made wrestling real and relevant. He spoke about the business. He spoke about the perceived corruption. He kissed McMahon goodbye. The Punk you see in the ring is the one you expect to meet outside the arena. He stands there and tells it like it is. He is not a character. He is a man. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe...
Clearly Punk isn’t like that. Alright, there are always negative stories floating about but which celebrity doesn’t have that? For Punk there are also stories about him visiting 77 year old Thomas Dotterer after the latter was shot in the face (famously declaring that Punk losing to Rock was worse than losing his eye). Punk is as much an actor as Mark Calaway, it’s just the style is different. Punk uses his vocal intonations (the monotone, the harsh consonants) as much Taker uses a booming, gritty timbre. The difference is, Punk is from one of those believable violent, revenge dramas whereas Calaway is from 1950’s Hammer movies. Both draw you in and, for your time with them, regardless of genre, you believe them both.
At the end of the day though, what happens when Frankenstein’s monster meets a real human being? That’s when the story gets interesting (and violent).
To be honest, we could have trusted these two performers to tell the story convincingly in the run up to Wrestlemania anyway. All you have to do is look back to last year. We had the two ‘best in the world’ fighting it out for the WWE Championship and we had the monumental ‘end of an era’ (four years of excellent storytelling with my highlight being the 2011 silent agreement to fight between Taker and Triple H – physical performance with no words and it was excellent).
Then something changed...
The passing of Paul Bearer. One of the best managers (another ‘heightened character’) and a man intrinsically linked to The Undertaker’s past. William Moody’s family have agreed that his passing can be used in the story and I’m pleased about this. It doesn’t feel tasteless (and I’ll get to Punk’s recent ‘urn promo’ in a minute) like the Randy Orton low-rider incident shortly after Eddie’s passing. This has now become a plot we’ve wanted to see for years. Indeed, I seem to remember it was a plot in a recent Smackdown vs. Raw game. It’s become about the memory of Paul Bearer. It’s become about the urn.
The Undertaker wants it back for the memory of his friend. To make him strong again. To truly mourn the passing of his manager. CM Punk knows what we’ve always known. It’s TheUndertaker’s only weakness. This is a man who buried Paul Bearer in cement because their relationship was making him weak. The urn however represents so much more now and we are invested in this emotionally. Yes, it’s because we are sad at the passing of a great performer, but it’s also an emotional investment beyond the streak. Beyond who is ‘the best in the world’. This is an investment into good versus evil. This, far more than the recent matches with Rock, could make Punk the best heel not only in the industry (which he arguably already is) but one of the best in the history of the business.
Some looked at the ‘urn promo’ two weeks ago as tasteless. Some found it weak as he wasn’t on the stage. Some would have preferred a true confrontation. However, heels don’t give us this. Heels turn on us and make us angry. Heels smile at us because they know they’re better than us. Also, heels are (in their heart) scared – it just depends how they show it. Punk wasn’t ‘scared’ during the promo but the fact he wasn’t doing it face to face spoke volumes. The fact that he smiled as he played with the memory of Bearer (in every way) created an emotional investment in the promo. The point of the heel is that they don’t give us what we want – that’s why the ring of the bell as the match starts is so important. It’s the anticipation.
The best example of this was the 2012 return of Chris Jericho. He returned. He smiled. He cried. He left. It was the anticipation that made his return great. Jericho is one of the best ‘actors’ in the business. He can get an audience to go from cheers to boos in minutes without saying anything. Perhaps that’s why since his (two) returns since then (after his month long ban and then at the Royal Rumble) he seems lacking something. He is lacking a ‘character’ to get his teeth into (and he will probably know this, all you have to do is watch his DVD to see how much of a student of the game he is).
This week, the anticipation was heightened. There was Punk in the middle of the ring, holding the urn, using his monotone, apologising to both ‘Pauls’ (an eye for an eye, a manager for a manger). Then the lights went out. The gong sounded. When the lights came up, as an audience, we all knew The Deadman would be stood there but what made it work was Punk’s arrogance leading up to it. We wanted to see him get hit and prove he’s a coward. And he did, and now we await Punk’s revenge next week.
The performances of Punk and Taker in the final week of build-up will decide if this match will be a classic even before we see it. The story will dictate that. We all know that they can have ‘good’ matches after their 2009 feud. We all know that even if they hadn’t met, both men could put on a clinic. The difference now will be the emotional investment and, let’s be honest, how much Punk can ‘piss us off’. We want Wrestlemania to end with The Undertaker (and perhaps Kane) kneeling before the urn. Will this happen? Again, we don’t know. It’s always easy with hindsight to say ‘yeah, the streak will never end’. After Taker was super-kicked and pedigreed in quick succession last year though I wasn’t thinking that. We thought the screw-job was in because of the build-up to the match.
I don’t want this to become a ‘what if’ column. All I know is, I don’t want to the streak to end BUT if Punk were to do the impossible, I’d hate him for it, and isn’t that perfect? Isn’t that the point of the story?
My point here has been that the best ‘actors’ in the WWE generally create the peaks and troughs to the story that make us have an emotional investment. It could be the voice. It could be the physicality. It is always, however, about their emotional commitment. We shout and we cheer when those two performers meet because we care. There are not enough stories like this at the moment and it’s not a surprise that WWE is looking to two of its top performers to tell this story at Wrestlemania. It’s about making us care for the good guys and making us hate the bad guys. It’s about the performances. It’s about the story. It’s about the relationship we have with those characters. Most importantly, it’s about the acting.
“When we are on stage, we are in the here and now.” (Konstantin Stanislavski).
Starting next week, Hugh Firth's columns will regularly appear on TJRWrestling.com on Wednesdays. If you have any thoughts, comment on the column below.