By Will Pruett
Verfremdungseffekt. That’s right, I’m breaking out the obnoxious German terms today. What is Verfremdungseffekt? I’m glad you asked. Well, I’m glad you’re still reading at least. To answer I have to tell you about Bertold Brecht (German playwright and director, 1898-1956), who pioneered a style of theatre John Cena and Roman Reigns attempted to practice on Raw with limited success. Let’s talk Brecht and Verfremdungseffekt first, then wrestling.
Brecht wanted theatre to be more than just a one way conversation. He wanted to draw the audience into the discussion and make theatre an avenue for social and political commentary (theatre, has always been an avenue for political and social commentary, by the way). He wanted to bring more thinking and less feeling to the theatre (although Brechtian theatre done well does allow for both), causing the audience to look inside themselves and at the world around them.
Brecht did this by reminding the audience early and often that what they were watching was a scripted play. He never wanted the audience to forget where they were (in a theater). While most directors and artists would love for an audience member to disappear into the world, Brecht never wanted spectators to become completely immersed. He eschewed empathy for rational thought.
This brings us to Verfremdungseffekt, or the estrangement effect. The goal is to create distance between the characters and the audience. With this distance, the audience doesn’t invest emotionally and rational thought about the play can happen. The desired outcome of Verfremdungseffekt is for the audience to stop suspending disbelief. It goes against what theatre was up to this point (okay, some theatre was doing this for a long time before, but there is nothing new under the sun).
John Cena and Roman Reigns (I told you I’d talk about wrestling eventually) tried their hands at Verfremdungseffekt on monday night. As a viewer, their exchange forced me to leave the moment of two superheroes colliding (or, well, discussing their upcoming collision) and think about wrestling as a pre-planned scripted entertainment medium.
By discussing the role of the top protagonist in WWE John Cena filled for years, then passed to Roman Reigns, WWE asked us to consider it as something given and not earned. They told us it wasn’t Cena’s “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect” that brought him to the top, but a writer making a decision.
I would assume, when the writers in WWE penciled John Cena vs. Roman Reigns onto the No Mercy card, they expected excitement. Why wouldn’t they? It’s the two biggest stars of WWE’s last decade facing off for the first time ever. Reigns vs. Cena is huge. It is a major match. It is two WrestleMania main event stars having a match people would expect to see in a WrestleMania main event. I can’t overstate how big Cena vs. Reigns is.
So why, as WWE is giving us the biggest match they might be able to provide in this decade, are they asking fans to step back and consider the scripted nature of professional wrestling? Why, when Cena vs. Reigns is the biggest possible match WWE could make, are fans being asked to alienate themselves and not emotionally attach to the story? Why, when WWE creates the biggest thing it could create, are they tearing it down at the same time?
John Cena and Roman Reigns are unwitting actors in a play that isn’t supposed to be Brechtian, but somehow is. Instead of building a logical and exciting feud within the world WWE has created, they’re attempting to go outside. Why?
No one who knows Cena and Reigns are using insider terms and discussing performance as measurable by more than wins and losses believes they will really fight each other. While the insults are certainly more interesting to those who follow the ins and outs of the wrestling business, they are not more compelling. At the same time, this distancing of Cena and Reigns as “more real” makes everything else, including the other insanely huge match on the show Lesnar vs. Strowman, seem less real. By breaking down barriers in one portion of the show, WWE is breaking them down across the entire show.
I doubt WWE is distancing its viewers to try and motivate political action like Brecht often was. While the Smackdown Your Vote campaign was ineffective and awkward at best, I don’t believe WWE is going with the high art approach to voter registration.
This unintentional distance can only hurt WWE, who would love for you to be as emotionally invested as possible in John Cena and Roman Reigns. They aren’t purposefully channeling Bertold Brecht and Verfremdungseffekt, but they have unintentionally wandered into an area where research, study, and theory exists as to why what they’re doing will have the opposite of their desired effect. WWE wants John Cena and Roman Reigns to feel epic, but in going about it this way, they’re taking away the audience’s ability to feel anything about it.
Last week’s essential viewing:
What matches do you need to see from the last week of wrestles?
The Mae Young Classic – Just watch it all. Go on. I’ll wait. I hope it was an entertaining four hours. WWE does masterful work with these tournaments. They are presented as important. They are amazingly diverse. They are delightful and easy to watch, never insulting a viewer’s intelligence. All of the special tournaments have been great and seeing the over 50% of the population WWE chronically under-represents comprise an entire tournament is freaking amazing. Skip Raw. Skip Smackdown. Skip NXT. Skip GFW (forever). Skip ROH. Watch the MYC.
What I absolutely positively love in wrestling this week:
The US Championship Open Challenge – What started as John Cena’s weekly attempt to have a great match with a random opponent has become the identity of a silly undercard title. The US Championship wasn’t taken seriously in its various incarnations across promotions from 1997-2015. Cena resurrected the title and gave whoever holds it something unique and fun to go back to. Hopefully we see more of these open challenges on Smackdown every week.
If you enjoy getting a little bit of what I love in wresting each week, check out my new YouTube series called “What I Love About Professional Wrestling!”
What I absolutely positively love in the world this week:
Rainbow by Kesha – Sometimes I would just highlight a song or two here, but it would do a disservice to the work of art this whole album is. Kesha’s first album in years is completely true to herself and emotionally tells the story of being a survivor of abuse from her former producer. She is stronger for it. The art she’s made coming out of it is inspiring and deep. The first single released, “Praying” hits an emotional crescendo that will wreck you. “Hymn” will make you want to scream along. “Woman” is a catchy declaration of strength. Kesha rules, people. I can’t stop listening to this entire album.
Got something to say/react to in today’s piece? Write to me at email@example.com or on Twitter @wilpruett. Just let me know whether you’d like your name attached to your statement or not. Alternately, there’s a comment section just below this article, so comment away!
“You need to work in the medical field. Your articles can cure insomnia better than anything they ever have. Congrats.”
Well, Becky, I like to think I’m making a difference one Shane McMahon gif at a time. I’m glad you found a way to get to sleep! I tend to use episodes of WCW Nitro from 2000 to help me turn off my brain, but I’ll try my blog instead!
Someone I think is named Hank said:
“Wrestling is a reflection of reality. Figure out how to stop the cynicism in things that matter like politics and society, maybe things that don’t matter like wrestling will follow suit.”
Hank, are you the person who brings up starving children at nice dinner parties? I’m sorry I didn’t write about cynicism in politics. I can only do so much here on a professional wrestling website and some (but not my editor) would say I push that boundary at times.
I’ll be honest, y’all could up your comment game.
SSMGOTW (Superfluous Shane McMahon Gif of the Week):
I assume this is Shane’s reaction every week as he watches Smackdown’s head writer get into arguments on Twitter instead of writing a quality show.
We’re Done Here:
We all made it through another week of wrestling! Get out there and watch some Mae Young Classic, enjoy what you want to enjoy in life, listen to Kesha, and have some fun this week. Wrestling is awesome and for everyone!
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video series “What I Love About Professional Wrestling” subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @wilpruett, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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