Play Up Pompey – Sport and ritual drama.

The power of spectator sport is a phenomenon. However we get to support our team, or our tribe or an individual, there is no doubt about the power of partisanship to help us identify ourselves, and to lead us down certain paths. But its personal effects go still deeper in making in moulding our world and our relationship to it.

In the spring of 1966, two events occurred which would have life-changing effects in the Russell household. In March, I sat the 11 Plus exam. And in April, before the results came through (….”The Education Committee has decided that your child will benefit from a grammar school education. You are required to purchase the following…”) I visited Fratton Park for the first time.

At my primary school I had already identified myself as a Portsmouth supporter, possibly following the triumphalism shown by Southampton supporters following their heavy defeat of Pompey earlier in the season. But on 23nd April 1966, I was invited by my friend over the road to go with him and his father to see Pompey play.

Even from the Milton End, away from Fratton End diehards, the pure jubilation of scoring and winning was literally a revelation. From that point on, I was hooked, lined and sinkered.

The thrill of entering the space that is Fratton Park was amazing: I had always loved going to the pictures, and a football ground seemed to be a gigantic outdoor version: a self-contained and purpose-built space, opened at fixed times only, with a cash value for entry (1/9d for boys, I think.)

In sporting spectacles, we witness occasions when the crowd, competitors and stadium are so well matched that the theatrical effect reaches the status of dramatic art.  So we watch Mo Farah’s final lap at the London Olympics, with the crowd rising around the stadium to will and cheer him home, and as we do so, we feel the same exhilaration as, for example, when the lightning zings and the Valkyries set off on their fearsome ride, or when Don Giovanni plummets through the trapdoor of the ultimate relegation.

It is a commonplace that sport is used to go further, and to act as a proxy for other and wider ideas, with results which are both negative and positive.

On the one hand, there is the tedious Rangers-Celtic bipolar disorder. At a more sinister level, Hitler attempted to use the 1936 Olympics to demonstrate vile racial theories (and was stymied by the sublime Jesse Owens). On the other, the cause of African-American civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War were the leitmotifs of Mohammed Ali’s career – to the extent that when he was defeated by the likes of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, their white ringside supporters cheered that their man had “beaten the nigger.” Frazier and Norton were of course also black.

So sport can have a specific political purpose, either deliberately or as part of the baggage that it accumulates through being in the public realm.  At the same time, socio-biologists like Morris (in The Soccer Tribe, 1981) have sought to relate the group behaviour of football supporters to that of tribes of primates such as baboons. Their case is sound, for example, in the case of territorial disputes such as the demarcation of the home end or Kop and the ambition of away supporters to seize it by violence and weight of numbers.

For individuals, however, the function of sport may be different, and this is when its similarities with dramatic art are striking.

So what the opposing camps in the civil and human rights issues saw in the early 1970s for instance  were struggles between their values and those that they opposed, which affected some deeply as to strike them colour-blind, apparently. So, in this sense, spectator sport must be acknowledged as having the heightened capability to act as the medium to participate by proxy in those confrontations.

In this sense, the boxing ring, and in turn the football stadium, and the athletics track and other spectator sport venues can transcend their function, and become ritual spaces, in the same way as the theatre or the opera house. Such is our experience as we see sporting dramas enacted over 9.6 seconds in the 100 metres or over 5 days in a test match.

We do not need to run faster than anyone ever has before to know that the limitations of the body can be conquered – the thrill of our witness of Usain Bolt does it for us; we do not need to experience exile and refugee status redeemed by winning double gold – we live the moment and share our humanity with Mo Farah; we do not need to bat out a Test in South Africa for over 10 hours to know that obduracy and determination can defeat hostility – Michael Atherton does it for us.

(I fancy a later blog on great historical sport-as-drama moments.)

As long ago as 1949, Francis Fergusson described the ritual nature of Shakespearean and classical tragedy in The Idea of a Theater.

The public and participatory nature of that ritual was always clear from the design and social status of the great ancient Greek venues such as Epidaurus or the Theatre of Dionysus on the Acropolis. Likewise, while the social function of the early theatre in medieval Europe was realised by Barry Unsworth in Mystery Play (1995), Fergusson relates early modern Elizabethan theatre back to its ritual forebears of mummery at the parish church lych-gate.

In recent times, these participatory aspects of classic drama have amongst the revelations of Shakespeare’s Globe recreated by the late Sam Wanamaker on the South Bank.

So Lynn Gardner’s Guardian review of the 2012 tells us ‘Henry V put the Globe’s dynamics to such cunning use; I swear that if this Henry had strode off the stage and out of the theatre at the end, everyone would have followed him[1].’ In the popular press, Julie Carpenter of the Express agreed: ‘ When … Henry, in full war cry mode, speaks to the groundlings as if they are his soldier subjects, exhorting them to, “Cry, ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’’ some of the audience were so stirred up they joined in[2].’

At this point there appears to be a fusion of drama, spectacle and participatory ritual, which as a spectator experience coincides exactly at that spot where sport becomes drama. It may be no coincidence that football, cricket and classical and Elizabethan drama all share the same ‘wooden O’ – or Oval– design of premises for their ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to stage their events.

Even in the banal and frequently overblown context of a hometown football club, the same seems to apply.

Through the players’ flashes of skill (or incompetence) we can live the potential and limits of the individual, and over the longer duration of a game or a season, we can experience the vicissitudes of the battle and the campaign. This even includes a dilute version of the classic combination of war: long periods of boredom (waiting for Saturday to come) interspersed with action and fear (the matches themselves.)

Over a lifetime, our experience will inevitably vary from team to team, and we must always have sympathy for those whose experience is limited. This may be to eternal failure (the Hartlepools and Aldershots) or it may be eternal success (Manchester United and more recently City).

For the rest of us, there is a whole host of experience to glean – for example, our team may languish in the second tier for decades, make the top flight, win the FA Cup and for just one night best the mighty AC Milan, crash and burn in financial and sporting disaster, then be redeemed through becoming less of a business and more of community resource.

Our experience will then teach us: the victory of the underdog is always worth more than that of the dominant; success requires a mixture of talent, work and luck; do not live beyond your means and be careful about who you accept money from; to inflate a business (or any other economic unit) with no certainty that its real income can support it is not a sound proposition; success is fleeting so enjoy it while you can; and most of your fellow participants (fans) are soundly decent people from a wide range  of backgrounds, who will go to great efforts to preserve that which they value.

The nature of sport as dramatic ritual means that these have not just been observed but experienced; and the lesson is lived not learnt.

(On the negative side, you may emerge with prejudices reinforced, for example that good guys play in blue, and bad guys in red and white stripes.) Such is the journey of the Pompey fan.

My conclusion is that through this function, the ritual drama of sport can be a significant influence on societies as a whole. And, as in this instance, being a football supporter (at Fratton Park) can be as influential as formal education (passing the 11 Plus), in the development and social understanding of an individual.


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