“This is my first scandal.” That was the opening statement of monologist Mike Daisey’s talk at Georgetown University, sponsored by the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. One night after his hit show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” closed in New York, and only three days after This American Life issued a retraction of Daisey’s appearance back in January, he came to Washington, DC to tell his story. Or, more precisely, to retell his story. (The audio is now on his site: Georgetown Talk.)
His appearance was titled “A Hammer With Which To Shape It: Art and the Human Voice in the Global Labor Struggle,” but no subject could be more exigent than his own story, his fall from grace after the details of his story were fact-checked. Foreign correspondent Rob Schmitz was skeptical of Daisey’s claims, and went so far as to interview the translator Daisey used during his trip to China. American Life‘s host Ira Glass played snippets of the translator’s counter-claims on the same show where Daisey bravely returned to respond to Glass’s charges of having been lied to. It was a brutal program, but fascinating.
Daisey refers to his monologues as conversations. Though he is the only one speaking, and the only one lit, this is a key foundation of theatre. Even plays, where the actors are sticking to the script, can still be considered conversations. But another truism of theatre, at least of successful theatre, is that what we see and hear becomes true to the audience. Even the wildest piece of fiction, if successful, becomes true.
Daisey’s monologues are presented with minimal staging. I have seen him live only once, when he performed “If You See Something Say Something” at Woolly Mammoth, which made me a fan. And when I discovered his excerpt on This American Life, I devoured it. On stage, though he can be self-deprecating, he speaks with the voice of God. I mean that in the sense of there being no reason to doubt any of what he says. I never would have been bothered to discover that the show contains exaggerations, or that he had taken reports he had read and presented them as if he had experienced them first-hand, fortuitously on his trip to China. I do think he and his audience would be better served had there been some sort of qualifying blurb in the program.
Tonight Daisey explained how the show’s dramatic distortions grew beyond the stage and into the world of journalism. His monologue is designed as a virus, a way of spreading the truth about the conditions in Chinese factories. But over the course of hundreds of promotional interviews, it was not just the greater truths that were replicating and spreading, but also the not-quite-true-as-presented details.
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
While the talk was thankfully not an hour-long mea culpa, his apologies to Ira Glass, other journalists, and his audiences were heartfelt. And, being the pro storyteller he is, this was the most entertaining apology I will likely ever hear. He initially explained that his strategy for the evening would be to be naked – metaphorically, might I add. And it was cathartic for him, it seemed, and most likely also for many in the audience.
His March 16 blog post regarding the retraction struck me as overly cranky. It suggested that his only error and regret was letting the radio show air an excerpt. Tonight he manned up and made clear he understood his errors as well the public does. In fact, he now says that airing the monologue on the radio was the one thing he does not regret, given how it furthered his goal of spreading awareness of the Chinese workers’ conditions.
Throughout the evening Daisey did what he did best: he connected with the audience, though this time with his own voice, and not the voice of God. The full quote that formed the talk’s title is “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” by Bertolt Brecht. Daisey’s own passion for his cause, and his compulsion to exaggerate by “multiplying numbers by 2.2,” poised him to pass “greater truths” as personal accounts, and with each interview with the news media he dug himself deeper. Well, he can climb out of his hole now, I should say. The damage was only to his own reputation. This American Life has most likely prospered from the publicity, and I am sure their audience is smart enough to understand the circumstances. Surely a show that features humorist David Sedaris can move beyond the Daisey episode.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” had another thread not included in the American Life broadcast, the story of Steve Jobs himself. I was so happy to read this portion when Daisey made it available (on his Monologues page). This section was no less affecting for not being told as a personal anecdote. He never met Steve Jobs, but his fascination with the man made his stories about him – stories obviously garnered from other sources – compelling. In fact tonight Daisey said the tools of storytelling are such that he easily could have excised the China portion’s untrue parts and still had a monologue just as compelling. Alas.
“Agony and the Ecstasy” was born in Washington DC, at Woolly Mammoth, so perhaps, like Mount Doom, he had to return here to cast out The One Script of Power. I now offer my own apologies for the weak Lord of the Rings analogy.
Like the best situation comedies, tonight’s talk ended with everyone learning an important lesson. I look forward to Daisey growing as an artist, and, yes, as a truth teller.