A few short weeks ago, in a Brooklyn restaurant, I sat down to a long lunch with Mike Daisey, to talk about the enormous success of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and his plans to bring it, after two successful New York engagements, back to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where his journey with performing the monologue had begun.
He’d just gotten back on the red-eye from L.A., where he’d done Bill Maher’s HBO talk show. He was excited about Ira Glass’s broadcast of portions of the monologue on “This American Life,” though he also remarked with some chagrin on how much editing and vetting Glass and his staff had put him through. And he was positively thrilled by the validation that his show seemed to receive from recent investigative articles in The New York Times about harsh working conditions in Apple’s factories in Shenzhen, China, about which Daisey claimed in “Agony and Ecstasy” to have much first-hand knowledge.
I was a vigorous admirer of the show myself, and I said to him that day that I thought he had crossed over in this monologue—one of the numerous he’s performed over the years—to investigative reporting himself. Some of the best investigative reporting I’d seen all year.
Well, of course, given the revelations contained on this weekend’s harrowing “Retraction” episode of “This American Life,” that was an utterly empty observation. But I wonder now what could possibly have been going through Daisey’s mind as I said it. “I’m not a journalist,” he said to me, an assertion he would later lay out in defense of his fabulations. In the best possible way of looking at it: did he realize how literally people like me took his declaration that the events he’s been describing for months onstage had happened to him—and how intrinsic that belief was to our embrace of the story? Or did he really believe that the mere fact of delivering his account from a desk on a stage absolved him of the responsibility to treat his audience as worthy of candor?
I’ve been talking and tweeting a lot about this scandal over the past few days, with colleagues and people in the theater. One of the very smartest, a performance artist who’s been doing solo work for decades, quoted or at least paraphrased for me in a late-night message the novelist Lawrence Durrell, on the prerogative of the artist “to rearrange daily life to show its significant side.” Though at the same time the performer admitted to being perplexed—a feeling I share—about why Daisey had not simply “trusted the strength of his material.”
The conversation is going to rage on about what Daisey did, why his violation was indeed severe, and what it means for the expanding domain of documentary theater, the sort that purports to transfer much of its reality directly from verbatim conversation and a near-complete reconstruction of events outside the theater, as they occurred. I’m still sorting out my own heartbreak over this fiasco, but hope to write about it at more length this Sunday.
In the meantime, I’m wondering what people think about Woolly’s decision to keep the show on its summer agenda. The right one?