Friday, March 16, 2012

Mike Daisey and Shakespeare and Greater Truths

The theater has ever been an ailing medium, wanting relevance in an increasingly technology-based world. It's with considerable discomfort, then, that I've read about Mike Daisey's fabrications in his monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, whose popularity and success in effecting some actual change to Apple's business practices were astonishing and admirable.

Daisey's defense is that he's "not a journalist" and that he shouldn't have consented to have his show excerpted on This American Life, which is a journalistic enterprise. True enough. Daisey is an actor and performer. But what has he been performing? He describes it as "a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license," but is this clear to the audience? When Daisey sat at his table onstage and described what he claimed to have seen in China, audiences were inclined to take him at his word. This wasn't a The Things They Carried exercise in meta-fiction; the assumption was we were hearing about the experiences of Mike Daisey, not "Mike Daisey."

But still: Daisey is a storyteller. Ought not he be allowed to use every storyteller's tool at his disposal to do his job? Well, yes and no. Many people would probably scoff at the idea that there's such thing as a "greater truth," that one doesn't need facts for, but in almost any kind of dramatic narrative, it's generally true. Any costume drama is going to elide certain facts simply for narrative convenience. There are too many details that are either irrelevant or would take too long to include in the two hours' traffic of the stage. Shakespeare was notoriously promiscuous with the facts in his "True Historie"s of England's monarchs, but to dwell on that would be to miss entirely the point of a powerful piece of theatre as Richard III.

The problem is Daisey isn't merely out to entertain the groundlings. His truth is greater than the Tudor Myth that Shakespeare appealed to; it is the very real and very bad conditions of Chinese factories manufacturing Apple products. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs deals with Daisey's own ambivalence with Apple, yes, but it functions also as an expose and chronicling of Daisey's discoveries. At that point, when the integrity of the work is dependent on the unearthing of facts, creative license is no longer a benefit but in fact a considerable detriment. This was the critical failure of a very different work involving Shakespeare, last year's historical disaster film by Roland Emmerich, Anonymous. The goal of that grand misadventure was to tell the "truth" that "Shakespeare" wasn't actually Shakespeare, but it couldn't be bothered to get basic facts about the time period straight.

There is plenty of room in the world for both fiction and journalism. Goodness knows the internet's made it easier than ever for the propagation of falsehoods, nonsense, and pablum (see: Kony 2012), but it can also illuminate the darkest of places, such as the way Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have helped document and sustain the Arab Spring. But one can't have it both ways. The fact of Daisey's fictions hurts the credibility of Apple's critics; mingling invention with reportage only reduces the story's potency to so much sound and fury. Thus does the illuminating power of art, that brief candle, go out, out.


  1. The biggest fault in my mind is that the facts are powerful enough on their own. There doesn't seem to have been any need for embellishment to create a moving story that would put pressure on Apple to change their ways.

  2. His facts are wrong, since his thesis is built on lies, it too is fatuous. Since the dramatic action of the work is the fabricated description of super-hero Daisy singularly exposing systematic horrors--conflated and misunderstood isolated incidents--the only substance of his "play" is the self-aggrandizement of a man incapable of managing a meal or exercise plan, let alone the proper use of fact and fiction toward the presentation of valid art. He's fattened himself on empty calories, his wallet on lies and our unwarranted attention.