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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

Not always where he said he was.
Stan Barouh

Can a play ever be too truthful? The Pulitzer committee once thought so. In 1994, it disallowed Anna Deavere-Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 from 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.

Agony concerns 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 TAL producers, 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 Times reporter 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 TAL and on his own blog (mikedaisey.blogspot.com).

On TAL he 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.”

 

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.

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.

 

I like Daisey’s work and hope he makes more of it. Most theaters are honoring Agony’s contract (though who knows whether this owes to principle, legalities, or ticket sales), and Daisey has apparently already made changes to the show, cutting the more questionable elements and supplying a prologue explaining the ado. Can that dreary program note be far behind? Perhaps he’ll even make his own show about it, shades of TAL’s “Retraction.” (That episode, by the way, is interesting enough, but also devolves into hand-wringing and is unlikely to break any download records.)

If Daisey does make that new show, I suspect he’ll be more conscientious in delineating actuality from invention. That would be the smart thing to do. The right one, too. But will it make his art any better? Well, as Daisey himself has said, I would not express it that way.


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