The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

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

Glass accuses him of crafting his show from “things that actually happened when he visited China and things he had just heard about or researched.” But on his blog, Daisey turns that accusation into a point of pride, arguing, “My show is a theatrical piece…. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.” The Public, trying to have it both ways, issued a statement concluding, “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”

Few who have seen any of Daisey’s shows would confuse him with a journalist. He’s bigger than most, louder, funnier, and more opinionated, too, and some of what he says would never get by standards and practices. But many of his shows have a distinctly journalistic aura, with audiences assuming that his reminiscences have actually occurred, though some savvier viewers may suspect hyperbole. And indeed, in an earlier show called Truth, he admitted to having made up at least one story. The title of an even earlier piece: All Stories Are Fiction.

And really, why not? Theater has a long tradition of drama based unslavishly on documentary fact. The first extant play, Aeschylus’s The Persians, uses dramatic license to imagine the events at the Persian Court just after defeat by the Greeks, a defeat Aeschylus helped to bring about. And think of the liberties Shakespeare takes in his history plays or the way the WPA theater wing’s “living newspapers” wrung drama from current events. Though Joint Stock, the famed English company, built many of their plays based on interviews, it seems unlikely that many people asked Caryl Churchill or David Hare to defend the authenticity of their work.

Not always where he said he was.
Stan Barouh
Not always where he said he was.

But in recent decades--and owing, I think, to two trends, an uptick in both verbatim theater (of which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is an example) and a similar rise in confessional autobiographical solo performance--audiences have come to expect greater veracity in documentary work, or at least a brief program note explaining otherwise. The documentary company the Civilians, for example, used to include a song in their shows, in which they proudly declared, “We interview strangers. We don’t use any recording devices. We do little and mostly inconclusive research. People bring snacks. And then ... we make a show of it!” Yet for their past several shows, which have taken on more divisive and political topics--like those Daisey explores--the Civilians have adopted recording devices and have become more scrupulous about clarifying the line between fact and fiction.

In an e-mail to me over the weekend, the Civilians’ artistic director, Steve Cosson, wrote that while some plays are strictly documentary and others clearly fictions, a play that falls between these poles makes an “agreement with the audience about its relationship to the facts of the story. And if you purposefully mislead the audience in a play I don't see how that's different than misleading the public in a news story or a memoir or any work that purports to be true.”

While I agree with Cosson (even as I feel that some of the Civilians’ more free-wheelin’ early works were more fun, if less pertinent, than the later ones), I also appreciate that theater, as the artistic medium most like life, can best play with the facts and fictions of human experience, forcing spectators to examine--by techniques both brazen and subtle--questions of truth. When an audience member is revealed as a deliberate plant or an actor executes an abrupt change in voice or gesture to show us what we assumed as natural was so much pretense, we must interrogate our own subjectivity, our own perceptions. And I’d hate to see the richness of that process ruined with something so dreary as mandatory program notes. (It’s also mildly depressing that fact-based plays can now be criticized for being both too accurate and not accurate enough. Guess we’d better just revive Cats again.)

But as much as I believe in artistic freedom, I also hold with artistic responsibility. Besides, we ought to acknowledge that Agony was more than Daisey’s “theatrical piece”--it was also a polemic that closed with a plea that we stay informed and hold ourselves accountable for our choices. It also encouraged us to e-mail Apple’s CEO and demand greater accountability from him, too. And many who e-mailed did so because they believed Daisey and the truth of what he had witnessed.

Now, it’s possible to make an argument that the ends justifies the means, and Daisey’s show has indeed created positive social change, which is an extraordinarily rare and wonderful thing in the theater and should not be discounted in the midst of the current fracas. But it’s equally important to note that to demand greater transparency from others while remaining pointedly opaque about your own methods looks uncomfortably like hypocrisy. And to include a passage near the end of your piece where you lean in and say, “And tonight—we know the truth” is either a stunning feat of pomo brinksmanship or maybe just a little sleazy.

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