THE QUEEN: Will I therefore never be who I am?
THE ENVOY: Never again.
THE QUEEN (AS IF FRIGHTENED): Never again? Nothing will ever relate to my person alone? Nothing concerning me will ever again be able to happen to others?
THE ENVOY (CURTLY): Quite.
THE QUEEN: Every event of my life — my blood that trickles if I scratch myself…
THE ENVOY: Quite, Madame. Each event will be written with a capital. And now…
THE QUEEN: But that’s Death?
THE ENVOY: It is indeed.
-Jean Genet, The Balcony
“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized. By the story tellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever. You, you, you, you, you, you are the legend markers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back I see many potential legends. Some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. Ultimate. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of the Ultimate Warrior will run forever!”
-Ultimate Warrior James Hellwig speaking on Monday Night RAW on April 7 2014, one day before he would die of a heart attack.
As a relatively recent WWE convert I remain, for better and/or worse, unmoved by cameos from veterans of the WWE, WWF or WCW. It’s not that I don’t care about their legacy or impact on the night’s show; I lack sufficient context to generate any emotional response to their inevitably miraculous arrival. For a while that meant said “legend” appearances bugged me.
“They’re not even on the show anymore,” I would grumble aloud like a lonely person, concerned with the veteran’s intrusion on the outcome of a match or time-wasting promo. Curiously, it would be French dramatist Jean Genet’s 1957 play The Balcony that showed me how profoundly wrong I was in this thinking.
The Balcony takes place in an unnamed country during an unnamed era. A revolution is afoot, and the rebels seem to have the upper hand. The action of the play takes place in The Grand Balcony, a high-end brothel where men use women more as pawns in elaborate fantasies than explicitly sexual objects. One man’s fantasy is to be a judge and pass judgement on a “theif” girl, another a general who uses the hired woman as his war horse, and another a Bishop who takes a girl’s confession. When the rebels destroy the royal palace and move to tear down the last vestige of the upper classes, the Balcony itself, an Envoy from the palace convinces the brothel’s madam to pose as the queen, and the pretend bishop, general and judge to pose as an actual bishop, general and judge, so they can restore order and quell the rebellion. It works — Genet’s play enforces the idea that in order to perform the function of a role in society one must simply look the part, and everyone else will fill in the blanks — but the new queen, general, bishop and judge realize that their individuality and indeed their humanity have been supplanted by their new roles.
Also, wrestling happened Monday.
Monday’s RAW theme was “RAW Reunion,” which I initially assumed would be the WWE cynically showing off a handful of living veterans to prove only most wrestlers die before age 50.1 The reunion would wind up being the most well-planned shtick payoff in months, while also cynically showing off a handful of living veterans to prove et cetera et cetera.
But first, Martin Luther King Day.
After last Monday’s show kicked off with a cringeworthy tribute to Dr. King interspersed with close-ups of various black members of the assembled Dallas crowd, I was still too mesmerized by my horror to fast forward when the RAW theme song began playing and I noticed recent a change.2 Despite having yet to fight anyone in the WWE roster, NXT call-up tag team the Ascension made it to the opening credits. But no time to think now — the Royal Rumble is this Sunday, and we have feuds to fuel:
“Seth Rollins, get your ass out here boy!” So spake Brock Lesnar, snatching the mic from manager Paul Heyman in the show’s opening promo. The crowd helps Lesnar count down the ten seconds he gives Rollins to emerge, though I’m mostly certain he can count that high himself.
Triple H emerges rather than Rollins to try and calm down recent Rollins-issued curb stomp victim Lesnar. Steph McMahon arrives on Trip’s heels with Kane and Big Show in tow, which even four on one is still a handicap match in Lesnar’s favor, and Heyman informs them to that effect. Rollins appears on the big screen and cyberbullies Lesnar. John Cena appears and ugh, John Cena, says everyone assembled. The Authority decrees that Cena will fight an unspecified main event match3 at the show’s closing: if Cena wins, former teammates Dolph Ziggler, Erick Rowan and Ryback are un-fired from the WWE; if Cena loses, he forfeits his place in Sunday’s triple threat title match.4
Returning from a long leave of absence due to a neck injury, the people’s yes-man Daniel Bryan is greeted by a match against, and blows to the neck from, Bray Wyatt. Bryan makes a comeback, telegraphed by his corny “building up power by shaking real hard” shtick, which is promptly cut down by interference from Bryan uber-rival Kane. Wyatt hits Sister Abigail and picks up the win.
Speaking of overpowered finishers, Big Show knockout punches Rick Flair to conclude the the “Legends Panel” RAW Reunion promo. Roman Reigns swoops in and throws Big Show over the top rope, prompting Show to scurry away.
Still sporting an “injury” to his knee, Dean Ambrose defeats Intercontinental Champ Bad News Barrett, who retains the title, which it doesn’t appear Ambrose cares about anyway.
Kofi Kingston continues to prove he’s both the most talented and purely fun to watch wrestler in the WWE, pulling off amazing spot after spot5 to secure a New Day win against Cesaro and Tyson Kidd in the best match of the night.
Paige and Natalya defeat Alicia Fox and Summer Rae, which makes sense when you do the match of two current Total Divas cast members versus one current member and one former member of the show-within-a-show-while-still-external-to-the-larger-show’s cast.
R-Truth rap segues into cutting a promo before a near-immediate submission loss to Rusev, and Jey Uso defeats the Miz ahead of the tag team title belt match at the Royal Rumble.
One other happened before the Cena v. Authority main event.
Midway through the night, The Ascension enter the ring to cut a promo. In previous weeks their promos all covered the same few points:
1. We are the Ascension,
2. We are very tough dudes.
3. We are the Ascension,
4. We are already a legendary tag team, even better than [list several notable and beloved pro wrestling tag teams here,]
5. We are the Ascension.
They communicate more or less the same thing to the Dallas crowd, interrupting former legendary tag team NWO cutting a RAW Reuinion-related promo.
This promo is also and example of some of the best scripting that’s happened in months — in a current permutation of the WWE fraught with senseless or unfinished plots and scuttled feuds, announcer JBL — who hemmed and hawed each time the Ascension declared themselves a “legendary tag team” — finally loses it and rips off his oxford to reveal an APA t-shirt, and arrives in the ring to shout down the Ascension shortly before former APA partner Faarooq arrives, closely followed by the New Age Outlaws.
With the all-star heel tag teams of the 90’s in place against the neo-retro Ascension6 it seemed obvious the longstanding hazing ritual of “kill the new guys” was imminent, and indeed the oldsters pummeled the Ascension six against two, with a notable Clothesline from Hell delivered by JBL. Immediately following the match, it was announced the Ascension would face the New Age Outlaws at the Royal Rumble.
Story-wise, it makes sense for the Ascension to win that match Sunday. Not just in terms of WWE story — I mean Story, the way events unfold to make a cohesive narrative. The WWE has featured upstarts defeating legends during major PPVs before, the most obvious example being Brock Lesnar defeating the Undertaker at Wrestlemania to break ‘Taker’s 21-0 Wrestlemania streak and certify Lesnar as the WWE’s man to beat — taking the Heavyweight title from Cena was secondary to shattering the Undertaker’s image — and, therefore, subsuming it.
The Ascension are, not counting this past week’s beat-down, technically undefeated while never fighting in a real match — so far only defeating nameless jobbers in during “matches” that serve as little more than punctuation to their promos — which is, after all, the only way to really be undefeated, or “legendary,” for that matter, until retirement or death, which in professional wrestling is essentially the same thing.7
In order to become a major tag-team heels, the Ascension have to defeat a heel tag-team that serves as a symbol — the symbol — of the definitive tag-team heels.8
This is why it’s helpful to have living legends that can be defeated in order to pass down the torch directly, rather than dying young and becoming legends who can never die, never be defeated or brought down to a living wrestler’s level. Real death is bad for perpetuating the business, or at least creating direct successors of characters within the business — the untimely death of the Ultimate Warrior and numerous other wrestlers means they can never have lineage, their legends solidified too quickly.9
On Sunday, the WWE has the chance to draw a direct correlation between the New Age Outlaws and the Ascension. Whether or not they choose to that is their prerogative, telling of how much they value veterans’ presence over up-and-coming talent — though how much time they have left with their stable of retirees is rapidly diminishing.
IRMA: We want to win, but not in death.
THE ENVOY: To save whom? (A pause) Won’t you answer? Would it perturb you to see things as they are? To gaze at the world tranquilly and accept responsibility for your gaze, whatever it might see?
Cena winds up in a handicap match against Authority staples Kane, Big Show and Seth Rollins. Though he puts up a good fight, cheating on the part of whoever isn’t in the ring with Cena (Kane taking cheap shots, Rollins’ security team J&J pulling Cena off Rollins and costing him the win) ensures his inevitable failure, until another “reunion”. Sting emerges at the head of the stage, apparently paralyzing the stadium with him, because in Sting literally just standing there the entire Authority faction is so distracted Cena takes the opportunity to pin Rollins for the win.
MIC MVP OF THE NIGHT: JBL, for delivering a terrific “kids these days” monologue before eviscerating the Ascension and grinning like a fool for the rest of the night.
RUNNER UP: It takes a lot of guts to rap in front of a sold out stadium moments before you know you’re about to get your ass handed to you, R-Truth.
Tune in next week for the Royal Rumble and the ensuing RAW episode that undoes at least half of the Rumble’s events.
This is both admittedly cynical myself and completely deserved on the part of the WWE. For the definitive text and self-described “book about dead wrestlers,” read David Shoemaker’s already-classic The Squared Circle. ↩
The MLK speech/video montage and choice crowd shots were never brought up or acknowledged on the show. ↩
Technically they ask the crowd to vote on the WWE app if they want to see Cena fight or not, but come on. ↩
Lesnar is ahem upset with the Authority inserting Rollins in the Heavyweight Champion title match at the Royal Rumble Sunday, so this is something like a solution inasmuch as Cena’s loss would make the match a one-on-be again, albeit with a different opponent than initially booked. ↩
i.e. holding himself upside-down vertically in an Cesaro’s arms to take a crushing hit from Kidd, and later a backwards kick over Cesaro’s shoulder to Kidd into a flip ending in pinning Cesaro for the win. ↩
Their gimmick itself an homage to once and future coolness of the late 80’s and early 90’s, arguably distanced enough from its original point of relevance to be cool again. ↩
THE BISHOP: …For ours was a happy state. And absolutely safe. In peace, in comfort, behind shutters, behind padded curtains, protected by a police force that protects brothels, we were able to be a general, judge and bishop to the point of perfection and to the point of rapture! You tore us brutally from that delicious, enviable, untroubled state, but we have since tasted other delights, the bitter delights of action and responsibility. We were judge, general and bishop in order to be bishop, judge and general beneath a perfect, total, solitary and sterile appearance…
THE GENERAL: My breeches! What joy when I pulled on my breeches! I now sleep in general’s breeches, I eat in my breeches, I waltz — when I waltz — in my breeches, I live in my general’s breeches. I’m a general the way one is a priest.
The general’s quote sounds an awful lot like kayfabe — the professional wrestling dogma that says you must be in character 24/7, the agreement to maintain the unreal throughout reality. Maybe it’s due to a century of industry practice, but in a media landscape saturated with #branding, it’s refreshing to witness the exploits of performers so honestly dishonest — the “you know I know you know” loop of kayfabe allows wrestlers to assume images in order to perform a function. The Ascension look like bad guys from a dystopian wasteland, they claim to be bad guys from a dystopian wasteland, and they maintain that act constantly. It’s the “looks like a duck, quacks like a duck” surface-level version of (sur)reality. ↩
THE CHIEF OF POLICE (TO THE ENVOY): You see. These masquerades prove how unimaginative you are. … No. I want my image to be both legendary and human. It should, of course, accord with eternal principles, but my face should be recognizable in it.
Easier said then done. While the judge, general and bishop struggle with only being a judge, general and bishop — not [Name,] the bishop, — the chief of police aims for being symbolic in a personal, individualized way — of making himself immortalized as a hero, not becoming immortal by adopting a well-trod role. The man might die, but the role can’t — and the man is dedicated to fulfilling their role, their function, then what’s the difference if the man dies, when so much of the man was symbolic?
THE CHIEF OF POLICE: Are you sure something of us won’t subsist?
IRMA (THE MADAM OF THE BROTHEL AND SOON TO BE QUEEN): We’ll have to strive to reduce it until it disappears. And when we die, what will seem to die will only be a gilded corpse. In a few minutes the metamorphosis will begin. We’ll be strangers to each other, for good and all. Do you consent, George?
THE CHIEF OF POLICE: I’ve got to. If I didn’t, what would become of me?
IRMA (TO THE ENVOY): So I’ll be real? My robe will be real? My lace, my jewels, will be real? The rest of the world will be a copy of what I’ll be? ↩
THE CHIEF OF POLICE (GREEDILY): Will I be able to stand there — or sit — and keep vigil over my entire death?
THE ENVOY: (BANTERINGLY) Who said anything about designating it for you? But he who gets it will be there — dead — for eternity. The world will center about it. About it will rotate the planets. It will no doubt be the most imposing funeral-pile in the universe…a room where mirrors will reflect to infinity — I say to infinity! — the image of the dead man. To infinity — and for eternity — in the depths of a vault…His image…
THE CHIEF OF POLICE: It’s an enormous risk… ↩