The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

How much should facts matter in theater? A look at the controversy surrounding the performer.

Can a play ever be too truthful? The Pulitzer committee once thought so. In 1994, it disallowed Anna Deavere-Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992from its drama prize on the grounds that Deavere-Smith relied solely on the words of those she interviewed. (The Tonys permitted the play, though it lost to Angels in America: Perestroika.)

Eighteen years on, a successful solo show is again fomenting questions about drama and journalism, art and accountability. But in this instance, regarding Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the problem is not that the piece is too truthful, but that it apparently isn’t truthful enough.

Agonyconcerns three narrative strands: Daisey’s obsession with Apple computers, a selective biography of Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, and Daisey’s trip to Shenzhen, China, during which he experienced firsthand how Apple products are made and the toll these processes exact on the lives of the Chinese laborers who manufacture them.

A hit in its initial run at the Public, it charmed audiences and most critics, with the Times's Charles Isherwood declaring, “Anyone with a cellphone and a moral center should see this show.” (Our own critic, James Hannaham, offered a tempered appraisal.) In January, the radio show This American Life (TAL) broadcast excerpts in a program that quickly became the most downloaded in TAL’s history.

At the same time, Daisey emerged as an outspoken critic of Apple, drawing on his personal experience in Shenzhen to pen op-eds and discourse on cable shows. Owing in part to the debate Daisey helped spark and the petition it generated, Apple agreed to greater transparency and oversight regarding its supply chain.

But now Daisey has sparked another debate. Rob Schmitz, a reporter for another radio show, American Public Media's Marketplace, suspected errors in Daisey’s account (the presence of armed factory guards, the setting of conversations in Starbucks) and contacted Daisey's translator, Cathy Lee. (When TALproducers, in a truncated fact-checking process, had pressed for that same contact information, Daisey mislead them, telling them the phone number he had for her no longer worked.)

When Schmitz read a transcript of Daisey’s show to Lee, which Daisey had made available for free download, she disagreed with certain episodes. Particularly, she denied that Daisey had met with several of Agony’s most pitiable characters--underage female workers and employees poisoned by the toxic cleanser N-Hexane. She also disputed Daisey’s conversation with an injured man who caressed Daisey’s iPad. Read that excerpt, she said, “This is not true. You know, it’s just like a movie scenery.”

Lee was prepared to excuse Daisey. She told Schmitz, “He is a writer. So I know what he say is only maybe half of them or less actual. But he is allowed to do that right? Because he’s not a journalist.” Prodded further, she would go so far as to say, “It’s better if he can tell the American people the truth.”

TAL apparently agreed and created a new episode, entitled “Retraction,” featuring Schmitz’s conversations with Lee, host Ira Glass’s interrogation of Daisey, and a talk with Timesreporter Charles Duhigg, who has published extensively on factory conditions in Shenzhen. In the course of the conversation with Glass, Daisey admits that he fabricated some events. Regarding other contested elements, like his encounter with the underage workers, he maintains the accuracy of his script.

According to Schmitz, Duhigg, and others, the facts Daisey reveals regarding conditions in the Chinese factories are substantially true. What is false is that Daisey witnessed them as he claimed. In the context of a radio show that often includes incisive investigative journalism, this is clearly troubling. And it is even more troubling that Daisey lied to the show’s producers during the fact-checking process.

Pressed in “Retraction” several times, by both Glass and Schmitz, to admit that he lied, Daisey offers only awkward and evasive replies such as, “I would not express it that way” and cites “the complexities of how the story gets told.” If you are a fan of Daisey’s work, which I am, and have waved cheerfully to him when you’ve seen him walking his dog near a Carroll Gardens bakery, the interview is discomfiting and cringe-inducing. Actually, it’s probably cringe-inducing regardless.

In terms of journalistic standards, Daisey did wrong. (And e-mails between him and TAL producers show that he understood what journalistic standards entail.) But in terms of theatrical standards, the question is much stickier, and it is according to those standards that Daisey has defended himself, both on TALand on his own blog (mikedaisey.blogspot.com).

On TALhe says, “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

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