How Mike Daisey Failed American Theatre

March 19th, 2012 § 11 comments

I have never seen Mike Daisey perform. However, I have been to The Public Theatre many times, I have read many reviews of and features about Daisey’s The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (and his other monologues) and have discussed it with people who have seen it and were, indeed, quite enthusiastic about it. Apparently, by the standards of non-fiction that Mr. Daisey followed, at least until this past Friday, I could have claimed to have seen his show. Yet I never would have thought to do so.

As someone whose primary interests have long been the arts and journalism, “The Daisey Affair” is a train wreck, media circus, artistic bombshell and teaching moment all bound up with a bright big bow of schadenfreude. After declaring to all who would listen, both free and paid, that he was an honest messenger about deplorable conditions, Daisey got his comeuppance when, after repurposing portions of his stage piece for radio’s “This American Life,” someone sought to fully fact-check his claims and found them wanting, insofar as Daisey’s own first-hand experiences went. There have been independent reports of the working conditions at Apple’s China-based supplier Foxconn; Daisey himself did not witness all of the effects and abuses at those plants, and had wholly fabricated certain anecdotes.

Perhaps it is fitting that Daisey was caught out by public radio itself, since the excerpt that ran on their stations was no doubt heard by more people than had actually seen Daisey perform the piece at The Public Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as a whole (this is a guess, not a fact). Frankly, had it not been for the “This American Life” airing and its tragic sequel, “Retraction,” theatergoers may well have gone on indefinitely believing everything Daisey said to be true as objective fact. So while public radio may well loom larger, proportionally, in overall impact, I would like to focus solely on the theatrical presentation, since that is the world in which I travel.

Am I angry at Daisey? Yes, I am. Not because I feel personally duped, since I never saw the show. But I’m upset for all of the people I know, and those I don’t, who were completely taken in by Daisey’s account, which he declared to be a work of non-fiction, a phrase that with every passing day, accelerated by people like James Frey and Daisey, becomes ever more suspect. Yes, theatre is primarily a world of artifice, but it is also a world in which “truth” is valued, be it literal truth, emotional truth, what have you. In a place where we are normally are asked to suspend our disbelief, where that is an essential principle, we are also ready to believe wholeheartedly in fiction, where we willingly trust artists – and therefore, we do so even more when we’re presented with something represented as fact.

Theatres are not in the habit of fact-checking the work they present; they operate on a good faith basis with the artists with whom they work and unless something seems egregiously out-of-whack, the work of artists like Daisey, Spalding Gray, Anna Deavere Smith, Eve Ensler and others are accepted as art and as theatricalized documentary. Now, of course, Daisey has spoiled the fun for the rest of the class, and artists who traffic in “true stories” may well have to provide footnotes to be printed in the programs or on the websites of the theatres that produce or present such work, or even open their notes for scrutiny, as if every production was a libel suit waiting to happen. It’s interesting to note that Smith makes her original tapes available online already, although this was intended as a guide for those who would attempt to mimic her subjects as she does, but they certainly provide the ability to verify her faithfulness to their words – or indeed to examine how her artistry has taken their words and melded them into a work of theatre.

I am angry with Mike Daisey because he made people I know, respect and like complicit in his fabrication. While both The Public and Woolly Mammoth have appropriately remained rather silent in the first 72 hours of the revelation beyond short prepared statements, I have no doubt (but again, I am guessing) that the people who worked to promote the engagements of Agony and Ecstasy, those who chose to present it, those who helped to mount the production, are feeling betrayed because, so far as we know, they had taken Daisey at his word. The only insight we have thus far are tweets from Alli Houseworth, who was the marketing director at Woolly Mammoth when the show ran there and she is, to say the least, profoundly unhappy. She is also, I imagine, only one of many feeling this way, but the rest must keep silent, be it by employer edict or professional decorum. [Addendum: subsequent to my posting of this piece, Alli wrote her own post expressing her thoughts in detail.]

In addition to theatres’ staffs, those who reported on and reviewed Daisey, and indeed praised him (people I also know, respect and like), feel they have been ill-used; one major critic wrote to me that he felt like he had egg on his face, others have publicly questioned their role in facilitating Daisey’s untruths, as if they had given glowing coverage to Bernard Madoff which caused people to lose their savings (I exaggerate here for effect, and the metaphor is wholly mine). Some have pointed out that they had noted uncertainty about Daisey’s veracity; no doubt like all arts writers, they were too overworked and underpaid to attempt to verify the story independently, or simply felt that by questioning it, they had sufficiently addressed the ambiguity they perceived, because, after all, it’s only theatre.

Mike Daisey failed me, and everyone who attends the theatre, because he has contributed to the degradation of the word “theatre.” Some time ago, I wrote about the fact that, in modern parlance, theatre can either mean the presentation of dramatic and musical works as well as the venue in which that work is presented – but an can also mean any act from which true meaning has been dissociated from visible action. We most often hear this applied to ploys by those who govern, or seek to govern us; “political theatre” is a constant refrain. But now, by attempting to convince us that his work was factually true ,only to be revealed as partially false, Daisey has further eroded anyone’s belief in theatre. Even plays which do not pretend to be “documentary theatre,” but which utilize real-world events as the setting for stories either invented or amalgamated from research, will be called into question. Could audiences value Ruined or Blood and Gifts less in the wake of “Daiseygate”? I fear they might, and that is a shame both for the artists who created them and for the real world situations that they brought into focus in a way that the evening news perhaps never had. The same holds true for the working conditions in China that Daisey sought to bring to light, until the spotlight shifted from message to messenger. Daisey had shown with Agony and Ecstasy, as some often wonder, that political theatre does have a place in American discourse, only to undermine his own platform.

Movies have long ago degraded the phrase “based on a true story” as a catch-all to exploit tales which may have their roots in real world events, but which take creative liberties with the historical record. Must theatre now apply very specific disclaimers – or claims – to any production which seeks to be perceived a something more than pure fiction? I have already seen a real world application of such efforts, in the London program for the play with music Backbeat, about the very earliest days of The Beatles, and it remains one of my favorite program notes ever. In order to assure the audience of what was true and where they had strayed from fact, they went so far as to excuse a small flaw in their casting by noting that, “And, of course, Paul was left-handed,” lest everything else be discounted. Interestingly, Claude Lanzmann, who made Shoah, which many consider the definitive documentary of the Holocaust, refuses to use the term; because he staged moments with some of the survivors he interviewed, he prefers to call his epic document “a fiction of the real.” If only Daisey had done so as well.

Finally, I’m upset with Mike Daisey because he has provided a theatrical scandal for the media to feast upon once again. Theatre is, beyond those specifically charged with and invested in reporting upon it, rarely able to break beyond the ghetto of the arts page into the larger consciousness: the electronic media, new media, the front page. We only find ourselves there when something goes spectacularly wrong, and though you may think this an unfair comparison, the Daisey brouhaha is the biggest “beyond just the arts” theatre story since Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark began its troubled journey to the stage.  Just as the Daisey story broke on Friday, I wrote a post musing on the attention that George Clooney’s arrest might focus on the Sudan and wondered whether some celebrity might be willing to get arrested to promote the arts, since that appears to be the only way to get attention these days. Daisey wasn’t a celebrity, nor is he a criminal, but he has achieved his greatest fame to date for engaging in actions which are ethically questionable. He has made theatre relevant to more than just those who love it, but in the worst way possible.

Let me return to my opening sentence, the fact that I have never seen Mike Daisey perform, because there’s a tremendous irony. I never chose to see him because, based on what I had read, and despite the glowing remarks of those who knew his work, I conceived a bias about the work, however unfair it may have been to do so. I did not wish to spend my money to go to a lecture, no matter how artfully presented. Just as I tired quickly of Michael Moore, I assumed that an evening with Mike Daisey would be somewhere between a profoundly biased 60 Minutes segment and a partisan polemic – and that’s not why I go to the theatre. I go to see and hear the world transformed by an artist into something that is, indeed, emotionally true but filtered through a creative sensibility. Fiction may be a lie, but it is a lie I willingly participate in, whereas I mostly leave my fact consumption for other media. If only I had known what Daisey was really doing, I might have been more willing to see him, not less. Now, I look forward to his next play.

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  • planetoffinks

    How Howard Sherman Failed Theater Journalism

    I have never read this article I’m commenting on.  However, a friend read it and told me about it. I am appalled by whatever is written here (disapproving things about Mike Daisey? Presumably?) Anyway, all I know is, I definitely don’t need to know anything about the exact content of this article to have a very specific and firm opinion about it.

  • In defense of Howard Sherman, I don’t think planetoffinks got the point. It is immaterial to the focus of his article if he saw the performance or not; he is talking about the result of the performance -one that was not honest or true as purposed.  It was the result of this work that did the harm. The performance, as art, could have been spellbinding and brilliant.  This is not in dispute. The authenticity of the story is.  Theatre at its best holds up a mirror, and not a funhouse mirror.  I think, IMHO, this is more what Mr. Sherman is talking about.

    • planetoffinks

       I would say that the actual content and nature of a theatrical piece is never immaterial to discussing any controversy involving it, and to think it is immaterial is to fail completely to understand theater.

      • Splurge24

        “to think it is immaterial is to fail completely to understand theater” … exactly how turned up was your nose when you typed that?  Get off your pretentious high horse, dude.  The man was trying to have a civil discourse with you. Don’t be that guy.

        • Yeah, why be That guy? Aren’t there enough of them on the interwebs already?

        • jcranor

          I’m going to say planetoffinks was (at worst) on the same high horse Howard Sherman was on when he wrote that Mike Daisey (someone Howard Sherman HAS NEVER SEEN has somehow FAILED ALL OF AMERICAN THEATER). This article is just as dishonest & disingenuous as the unseen artist he pretends to understand. Again, some excellent points by Mr. Sherman, but the core premise is a lie – that he has seen and understood the type of work Mike Daisey creates & performs.

  • Mike Daisey is a compelling storyteller and it was the opposite of a lecture. In fact, I felt it was so clearly a performance that I was skeptical even as I was sitting at the Public Theater watching it. Just the way he raised and lowered his voice, the quotes and scenarios that seemed too perfect, it smacked of acting. I wondered what was embellished. You pay $80 for a ticket, you want emotion, drama, conflict. So I wasn’t surprised when the fabrications were revealed because I never entirely bought into the piece.

    But what makes me angry is that 1). it clearly states in the program that this is a work of nonfiction and 2). as Daisey tries to defend himself he’s castigating his audience for their moral failing by paying more attention to his lies than to conditions for workers in China. I’m perfectly capable of doing both. And this whole episode makes me less inclined to see another work by Mike Daisey.

    I really believe that with a little more effort and ingenuity, he could have written a monologue that would have been just as compelling and 100 percent truthful. It’s lazy writing and that’s just sad.

  • Michael Eddy

    I’ve read a lot of coverage of this whole affair and I would like to thank you for an interesting and well-written piece on the whole affair. I could have accepted what Daisey put on stage if he didn’t get on his high horse and start blaming everyone but himself. He has lied and dug his hole deeper and deeper. Why he insisted that the programs carry the line that this was a work of non-fiction was an amazing act of hubris. 

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  • Well said, Howard.  

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