Ever since Owen Hart -- on live television and in character -- fell to his death back in 1999, kayfabe has been dead. Kayfabe, of course, was for decades the insurmountable wall upon which suspension of disbelief in wrestling was established. Kayfabe was professional wrestling's non-disclosure agreement -- addressing wrestling and its storylines as anything but real was grounds for excommunication. It was an imposing barrier and, if you dared cross it, repercussions were certain (just ask Paul Levesque, who famously lost his main event push in 1996).
This needed to be so, probably more for the wrestlers than the fans. Suspension of disbelief is the key to all effective drama, from the stage to the screen, to the squared circle. The wrestlers need to give themselves to their performances so wholly because the absurdity of their narratives would otherwise unravel the whole routine. An oft-cited story recalls Hulk Hogan in the back after a match, still selling a leg injury although no one in plain sight, at least no one he of which he'd been aware, could have possibly seen him. And, of course, it's long been tradition that "faces" and "heels" never travel from show to show together, expediency be damned. The point behind such dogged dedication to masquerade? There's only The Show, and nothing else, and it must be maintained at all costs.
But then Owen Hart got killed during The Show, and reality had to be confronted. Up to this point in wrestling's history, hardly anyone past puberty believed the business ran on authentic strife. But it was never agreed upon by the wrestlers nor the fans to acknowledge this, thereby allowing kayfabe to exist within the same paramaters a moviegoer psychologically prepares himself to watch, say, The Avengers. It's simply more fun that way. In a manner much more affecting than his brother Bret's real-life fiasco in the "Montreal Screwjob" two years prior, Hart's death forced fans and performers both to acknowledge the separation between story and reality. Death, of course, has never allowed for disbelief, much less its suspension.
And then, when it seemed impossible, The Show went on. That very night, The Show went on. Vince McMahon has been criticized over countless decisions, but this is perhaps the most significant of them. Yes, Hart's death was subsequently acknowledged in his federation's programming, but it slowed nothing down. People had paid for tickets to see a show, and McMahon felt it was his obligation to them more than to anyone else that should guide the business.
So The Show went on, but it had changed. Along with Owen Hart, the oldest pretention of this business as spectacle was buried. Fans had to acknowledge that the heroes and villains for whom they cheered or booed were simply characters, played by real men with lives outside the ring often quite antithetical to their performances inside it. There was no choice in the matter, it was simply made so. Nothing forces us to confront life like death, and the ruse of pro wrestling was not exempt from this fact.
The Show could not have carried kayfabe into the 21st Century, regardless. Not in a world of 24-hour-cable news or the unyielding presence of the internet could kayfabe exist. Fans began monitoring the real lives of pro wrestlers with as much if not more ardor than the presented product. Oftentimes, the true story has been more intriguing than the one told to us.
But neither Vince McMahon nor his performers have agreed to this new paradigm. The Show went on that night that Owen Hart died. The Show went on after Chris Benoit committed murder-suicide. The Show went on after every dirtsheet and insider laid bare the politics behind the scenes, the real-life confrontations and mishaps that seem more soap operatic than what has been commonly decried as The Male Soap Opera. There are pauses -- pauses to reflect on the passing of fellow performers, or to acknowledge national events like 9/11 -- but almost in the next breath, The Show has resumed. Because it no longer has kayfabe, The Show has evolved so that it may not even need reality.
And it is with this resilience in the post-kayfabe era that John Cena and CM Punk and, as proof that tragedy is nothing if not ironic, Bret Hart went to the ring last night in Montreal, where kayfabe was first thought to be in declining health 15 years ago. Last night's audience had witnessed Jerry "The King" Lawler, well into his fourth decade of professional wrestling, depart from his usual role of color commentator and lace up the boots to compete, an infrequent sight for most men in their 60s but not entirely uncommon for The King. And, just minutes after the match, they watched in stunned horror as Lawler began slumping at the broadcast table, clutching himself in pain and gasping for air. The silence of an entire arena was deafening as Lawler was placed on a stretcher and carted out by EMTs.
Few details emerged aside from faint slivers of hope, relayed by Lawler's fellow broadcaster Michael Cole. Cole didn't acknowledge his partner's situation immediately, instead calling the match before him alone, as if The King's microphone had merely gone out. But for those watching at home, we knew something was afoot as fans in the live audience ogled a terrifying scene just outside the camera's frame. I may never forget the eeriness of seeing Daniel Bryan steal glances of what was going on outside the ring while he performed inside it mere feet away.
Tragic news spreads like wildfire in the age of social media, and platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were aglow with rumor and speculation about what had happened. Coming back from a lengthy commercial break, Cole informed us that Lawler had been evacuated and was receiving medical attention. The flatness in his voice told us this wasn't part of the show, and his concern became ours. He left his station at ringside and the night's event went on with no commentary for the two remaining matches, perhaps the most surreal spectacle in the history of Raw. For those in the arena, particularly Cole, it must have felt like shell shock, those fleeting moments after impact when all the world is in shambles and nothing can be pieced together.
When Cena, Punk, and Hart stepped into the ring, no one knew what to expect. But we should have. We got the company's top two stars at present, anchored by a legend of the industry, providing advancement to an angle that has been building for months, an angle in which Jerry Lawler himself has been significantly featured. We got excellent promos from two men set to perform in a few days, promos their feud has desperately been needing to stimulate interest in an otherwise staid program. We got The Show.
Many will think Raw's last hour should have been cancelled last night. How could they go on knowing a staple of the enterprise was perhaps on his deathbed, perhaps brought there by the enterprise itself? How could Cena and Punk and, especially, Hart go out to the ring to perform while this real human tragedy unfolded? And perhaps those are fair questions, but they have no satisfying answers.
Lawler could be dead right now and John Cena would still face CM Punk at the Night of Champions event this Sunday. There would be pauses: memorials, retrospectives, tributes, and many a tear shed for The King. But, inevitably, The Show would go on. And so it did last night, as always, ever faithful in a business, a "universe" as it were, that knows no other loyalty, not even to the players themselves, no loyalty but to the continuing adventures of our heroes and villains, even as the men and women who inhabit these roles slip away.
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