Mar 17, 2012

Daisey, Pro and Con

Mike Daisey, right, with his wife and director Jean-Michele Gregory

The swirling meta-drama around Mike Daisey's solo show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has often competed with the show itself, from the eerie coincidence of Jobs' death during the show's opening weekend at the Public Theater last fall to the jostling dissension among the critics, from the apparent way in which his show sparked enough interest among influential people to spur fresh investigative pieces, public outrage, and even action on the part of Apple and its manufacturing partners to redress working conditions in Chinese electronics factories, to the (not unrelated) soapbox the show earned Daisey on cable news and, most fatefully, on the storytelling anthology radio show "This American Life."

We all know the rest of the story by now—and I do mean "we all." It's a little disconcerting, in fact, how widely this error-retraction story has blown up; people who'd never heard of Daisey, let alone seen his show, and even folks who are only dimly aware of "This American Life," now understand the thumbnail sketch: Chubby Apple gadfly in hoity-toity theater show bent facts about Chinese labor practices to make dear departed St. Steve look bad. Nothing to see here; back to our collective orgasm over the new iPad.

Sigh. The two things I can say unequivocally in Daisey's favor are that he crafted a great evening of theater, equal parts unsettling and entertaining, and that this is no small feat; attention must be paid to such talent. In this respect, the groundswell of interest his show sparked and the influence it has had were duly and painstakingly earned, performance by performance. What's more, such is the integrity and liveness of his work that he, perhaps inevitably but not necessarily, addressed the controversy in the show's final performance tonight.

But if the thumbnail sketch I alluded to above does him and his work a huge disservice, we who enjoyed and defended Agony and Ecstasy have good reason for feeling betrayed. Not just because it may count as a setback for the very cause Daisey set out to advance, which is no small thing; but because it counts as a setback for the theater, and for the possibility that a politically engaged piece of theater could actually have a voice in, and even drive, a national dialogue. That notion has always sounded like an overly romanticized shibboleth to me—I'm not sure that even in 1949, when Death of a Salesman bowed on Broadway, that it cast the kind of national shadow we imagine it did (I'd argue that decades of being taught as The Great American Play gave us that impression). Still, a hyper-relevant, unashamedly pointed play like Daisey's seemed to offer a bracing and hopeful exception. Here was a piece of art that spoke directly to our time, and directly to power, and seemed to possess a power of its own to move people to action.

I guess it should have seemed to good to be true. But what's more troubling is that the moments Daisey admits to concocting—particularly the encounter with a worker who touches a working iPad for the first time, after losing the use of one arm to a metal press* used in making iPads, and pronounces it "a kind of magic"—are the show's most gripping and uncomfortable. It pains me to realize, as well, that these concoctions play all too well into a line of criticism that has been dogging the show for years, and which I (and other defenders) essentially brushed off. You can find versions of it near the bottom of this post, below all the raves, but it was put most strongly by the Stranger's Brendan Kiley. It sounded overly harsh to me at the time (when the show played in Seattle last May), but reads as eerily prescient now:
When a storyteller moves from memoir to reporting, he incurs a new set of responsibilities: the responsibilities of verifiable fact. And as a reporter as well as a theater critic, I'll admit that facts are a bitch. They're messy, they screw up your well-calibrated plotlines, and they'll leave you in a ditch without a second thought. But facts matter. And if you start faking some of them, you put everything you say in peril. The real casualties of Daisey's fibbing aren't him or the audience—screw him and screw us. The real casualties of his fibbing are the Chinese people (probably real, but who knows?) on the production lines whom Daisey says he interviewed. The man whose hand was ruined, the child worker, the people whose backbones were fused together by standing for hours at a time: They deserve an advocate who will be scrupulously honest.
I can't disagree with that, knowing all we know now. For my part, I haven't written off Mike Daisey's unique and considerable talent—I will eagerly see his next show and follow his work with interest—but I do lament the great damage this controversy may have done to that poor player, the theater, on our national stage.

*This post initially stated that he'd lost the use of his arm due to exposure to the chemical n-hexane. My bad.


Joy said...

Well said.

Mariah said...

Hate to nitpick, but since we are talking about the inaccuracies of the was a metal press that destroyed the guy's hand.

Otherwise, spot on.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Mariah: Thanks for the heads up, the post is now fixed.