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How to Win Against History

The wealthy and the privileged obsess on their legacy. Not content with winning the lottery of life, they want to win against history; a history that conspires with death, that ‘great leveller’, to render everyone equally forgotten. They do great deeds of charity and philanthropy that somehow always require acknowledgment by award, statue or a permanent plaque on that new hospital wing. In this way, they try to ensure their prestige and reputations survive after they have gone.

Of course, trying to control your reputation in this way is futile. You can build your legacy all you like but history can always pull it down again later. When Akhenaten became Pharaoh in about 1300BC, he decided to replace the entire Egyptian religion. During his reign, he built impressive monuments, statues and temples that were intended to outlast him. Upon his his death, they were all destroyed and his name was purged from memory. It was not until 19th century archaeologists began digging in Egypt that the existence of Pharaoh Akhenaten was (literally) uncovered again.

The ancient Romans viewed this kind of obliteration as a punishment worse than death. Scholars of Roman History call it Damnatio Memoriae and it was meted out in only the most heinous transgressions against the state. It is difficult to know how often this punishment was delivered because it is inherent in its effectiveness that all evidence disappears. Only the botched attempts reveal the practice existed at all.

It is harder in a modern society to obliterate someone from memory entirely but they can certainly be pulled from their pedestal. The USSR removed statues of Stalin, the Irish destroyed, removed or hid the statues of British monarchs and the statues of Saddam Hussein were toppled in Baghdad. The disappearing statues signified that these regimes were over. These actions were less about how people felt about the statues than how they felt about the people they represented. They were symbolically dismantling the reputations of powerful people who could no longer wield that power. Sometimes living longer makes you ‘the winner’ and the winners write, or in these cases, rewrite history.

Winston Churchill (whose own reputation recently came under renewed scrutiny) knew that what happened depended on the perspective of whoever described it. He said, “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history”. Often paraphrased as “History will be kind to me as I intend to write it”. He knew that writing history is the prerogative of the powerful and, at one stage, he may have been in a position to control that narrative but time marches on and history outlives us all.

Churchill’s compatriot and fellow imperialist, Cecil Rhodes had a country named after him before his reputation took a tumble. Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe and even today there are campaigns to remove statues of Rhodes from locations around the former British Empire. Even if some of the statues still stand, his reputation has been tarnished and his legacy diminished.

Of course, reputations can be redeemed by history too. Computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing died by suicide after being hounded by the establishment for being gay yet was given a posthumous pardon in 2013 (although thousands of other men punished under the same discriminatory laws are awaiting similar justice). The artist and poet William Blake was considered an oddball and rejected by the literary and artistic circles of his day however these days he celebrated as one of major artist and poets of that era. Neither man would have anticipated how history has swung in their favour.

Redeemed or ruined, the fact remains that no one has any control over what happens to their reputations when they are gone.

You cannot control history but perhaps you can win against it. That’s the premise of the play How to Win Against History (Dublin Theatre Festival 2019). It tells the story of a cross-dressing British aristocrat whose died with his reputation in tatters but perhaps history might allow him a reprieve.

In 1898, when Henry Cyril Paget was 23 years old, his father died and he became the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. Along with the title, he inherited lands that gave him an annual income of about £12 million in today’s money making him one of the richest men in Britain. Over the remainder of his short life, he seemed to take great pleasure in squandering away that fortune. When he died at the age of 29, penniless and in a sort of exile in Monte Carlo, his family did everything they could to ‘undo’ him from history.

It was the way that he squandered his wealth that seemed to draw the most ire. The year after he died, The Complete Peerage recorded that Henry Cyril Paget “seems only to have existed for the purpose of giving a melancholy and unneeded illustration of the truth that a man with the finest prospects, may, by the wildest folly and extravagance, as Sir Thomas Browne says, ‘foully miscarry in the advantage of humanity, play away an uniterable life, and have lived in vain’”. In simpler terms, Paget used his money to buy jewellery and furs, and to throw extravagant parties and flamboyant theatrical performances. He renamed the family’s country seat Plas Newydd as “Anglesey Castle” and converted the chapel there into a 150-seat theatre, named the Gaiety Theatre. He lived his best life and it really irked the establishment.

On his death, his successor (his cousin) had the Gaiety Theatre converted back to a chapel and all his private papers and letters burned. Paget would have faded from the collective memory if there wasn’t something about him that kept people talking, initially with judgement and then with the curiosity of the queer gaze. Was he just a flamboyant narcissist or was he a misunderstood and maligned individual who would be a rather unremarkable character in today’s colourful LGBT landscape? We may never know the answer but we do still remember him – and we are still talking about him. And I think he’d take the win!


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