Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey.

Alls I'm saying is, art doesn't require falsehood. In fact, it depends upon perfect honesty. Art doesn't cover lies. It exposes them.*

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.**

Much has been said about Mike Daisey (liar, fraudster, and "fucking sociopath" are some of the harsher terms) and his stage work The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs after This American Life retracted an excerpt that aired recently. I'm sure all the arguments from differing sides have been put more intelligently than I ever could. I haven't heard the original interview, or the subsequent one explaining the retraction. I haven't read many of the reactions, either. I can only go by my own memories of seeing Agony and Ecstasy last spring at the Seattle Rep, and what I took away from it.

You go into a Mike Daisey monologue knowing that ultimately the story is about Mike Daisey, no matter what else he talks about. I said this last time. You go in knowing some details are altered by memory and time and artistic license and anonymity. Think of Minna Pratt's mother in The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, who has a piece of paper pinned above her desk which says "Facts and fictions are different truths." Think of how Minna's mother once asked her, "Is that the truth?" ("It's one of the truths, Mama!").*** There is the expectation that this is a work of theatre, not journalism, but the line got blurred, or crossed, somewhere along the way.

There are two Mike Daiseys. One is the storyteller, and he is an amazing storyteller, always has been. He talks with his eyes and his hands, and he is funny as all hell when he isn't breaking your heart. The other Mike Daisey is more complicated. This is Daisey the crusader, with the glint of zealotry in his eye, who is willing to make up details and events to drive home an argument that could been made with only the bare facts. Or maybe they wouldn't have. Maybe we wouldn't have woken up to the truth that our electronic toys are made under terrible conditions by actual people who are treated like machines without his stories. Or would we?

I think that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs became bigger than anything Daisey had done before, and it swallowed him up, Jonah-like. We wanted every detail to be true. We needed it to be true. We wanted the excuse to knock down the juggernaut of Apple, to look down our noses at the shiny beautiful objects that taunted us, gleaming, in their white or black boxes within white or black boxes. (This disdain lasted about two weeks, or until the next iPhone or iPad came out). Our need became his One Ring, and it made him Gollum. Knowing that some of the story we believed so readily was beyond exaggeration and pure invention feels to many people like a kind of betrayal.

A few nights before I saw The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Seattle Rep last year, Mike Daisey gave a performance of How Theatre Failed America to benefit the recently closed Intiman Theatre. He referred to the Tony Award won by Intiman some years before as the "One Ring," which had brought about their downfall. It is hard not to see that he is currently self-destructing in the same way. I said, last year, that all of Mike Daisey's works are in a way love stories, the kind that are about love and disillusionment. There is a poetic irony in our own disillusionment, now.

*Martha Plimpton, via Twitter, March 16, 2012.
** Pablo Picasso. Epigraph to The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt.
***MacLachlan, Patricia. The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt.  Harper Trophy, 1990. pp. 65-66.

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