Embrace Disgrace

Lord Sewel gets the Euripides treatment

A politician disgraces himself by becoming intoxicated and dressing in a woman’s clothes. He is exposed to the vitriol of a restless public and ripped apart. So goes The Bakkhai which sees Pentheus torn to shreds by a rapturous mob. How apt that a new production of Euripides’s tragedy opened this week at Islington’s Almeida theatre just as the papers have finished their ritual feeding on the remains of a shamed member of the great and good.

There wasn’t anything transcendental in Lord Sewel’s own Dionysian delirium but it’s no riddle of the sphinx to get from the downfall of the King of Thebes to our own modern perversions. James Macdonald’s terrific production bridges the original performance model of classical tragedy (three actors, singing chorus) with contemporary resonances. Pentheus speaks in the tones of New Labour rather than old Greece and his degradation, instigated by Ben Whishaw’s Dionysus, is thoroughly modern. It’s not enough just for the idol to fall- you have to bear witness to the stark transformation from slick suited politico to an image of blood smeared transvestite. In the Sun’s sacrifice to the tabloid gods we have the juxtaposition of the sartorially respectable Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and that of the cokehead “Sewer” wearing an orange bra and jacket.

The shaming of Pentheus needed to happen to reset the balance of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Jon Ronson, in his book on public shaming, suggests that things might not have moved on so much since Euripides’s day. Focusing on the twitter furies that pounce on those deemed to have transgressed, Ronson claims that “we’re living through a great renaissance of public shaming.” While many of those who find themselves in the cross-hairs of social media usually get there by some idiotic action of their own (e.g. Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks or Jonah Lehrer’s cunning ‘reappropriations’ of other people’s work) Ronson worries that the instant barrage of hate that pummels any defence on the part of the accused has the effect of creating a world “where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.”

For all the dangers of a society policed by the unaccountably self-righteous, there are aspects of public shaming that are worth defending. As was understood by the ancient Greeks shame can be a powerful tool for bringing the powerful to account. The cables released by WikiLeaks did more than just embarrass the US: by revealing the full extent of what a disaster Iraq has been (the infamous apache helicopter attack, etc), the leaks had an important role in shaping public opinion. Similarly the hacking of the affairs facilitator Ashley Madison has damaged the site’s ability to attract new subscribers. Rather than resorting to protest and civil disruption –such as today’s underground strike- perhaps those who aim to get their voices heard should consider playing the shame game.

All is not lost for the shamed either. Lord Sewel, having left his £85k job and privileges, is very likely kicking himself, not least for whatever possessed him to put on that bra. But if past disgraced greats are anything to go by redemption is always possible. John Profumo, a central character in the history of British political shame, immediately repented and went on to devote the rest of his life to charity work. Jeremy Thorpe did one up on Sir John and tried to have his ex-(male) lover killed; years later, however, he was being hailed as an icon of the liberal cause and received a standing ovation at the Lib Dem’s 1992 conference.

Where Ronson is right to say that the internet has turbo-charged our shaming impulses, it has also sped up our ability to forgive (or least forget). Both Profumo and Thorpe had to lie low for a decade or more before receiving their absolution. The recent transformation of Monica Lewinsky, on the other hand, shows how social media can turn someone who was once a laughingstock into a hero of the anti-bullying cause. With the help of the PR agency HvM, Lewinsky began doing the speaking rounds (Forbes-TED-Cannes) to lay the ground for the story of her ‘inspirational’ struggle against online abuse. In this sense her success speaks to the irony of social media: it creates many victims but it also loves the survivors of its own abuse. Euripides couldn’t have come up with a more brilliant twist.