Comedy and Tragedy: From Desperate Housewife to Disgraced Parent

Charles Krupa/AP/Shutterstock

Charles Krupa/AP/Shutterstock

In its most essential form, acting teaches. Going back to antiquity, an actor's performance was meant to impart a lesson to the audience—the perils of power, the price of hubris, the power of mercy.

Felicity Huffman's announcement yesterday that she would plead guilty to her role in the college admissions scandal read like a monologue ripped from the third act of an Aeschylus tragedy. Parental delusion, the misuse of power, crippling self-importance, the sting of shame—it was all there. All that was missing was the bloodshed.

"My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions, and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her," Huffman wrote. "This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty,"

"I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions," Huffman continued. "I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly."

And there you have it. It lacks the ring of a Hamlet soliloquy, but you get the point a lot faster.

Now what? Not just for Huffman, but for us? What lessons have we learned from her zeal, her mistakes, her humiliation? Defending her these past few weeks was perilous; social media and self-appointed pundits have been out for blood (an echo of Aeschylus after all!), savaging her and the other wealthy cheaters. And that's understandable. But now that her shame seems complete, do we forgive or punish? I hope we just learn–learn that parental love can become twisted when alloyed to wealth and ambition, that we're always vulnerable to the con and the lie, and that familial betrayal can be more painful than any punishment meted out by the state. 

There's a reason we still learn the Greek tragedies today. Their lessons, it would seem, will always have an audience.

Larry Hackett