The Agony and the Infamy of Mike Daisey
The last few weeks saw a firestorm of controversy erupt when it became clear that some of the first-person reportage that Mike Daisey offered in his one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” may have been fabricated. The show, playing for a second leg at the Public Theater since opening in the fall, looks at the horrifically abusive practices at a Chinese factory that manufactures appliances for Apple.
It’s a riveting, unflinching two hours, and delivered by Daisey with stone cold conviction. But the substance seems to have been undone by the style of his approach. Events that he claimed to witnessing may have happened, but not with him there. Dubbed the James Frey of his genre, Daisey has come under fire since a “This American Life” expose cast doubt as to the veracity of Daisey’s monologue. He’s essentially become a persona non grata, a “liar liar pants on fire” of the theatrical community.
Wherever you stand on the Daisey support spectrum, there’s no doubt that what he did – because it was so unnecessary. How many biopics or bioplays do you see that cleave one hundred per cent to the truth? None. They all leave room for dramatic effect. I can’t imagine Daisey would have incurred the same wrath had he simply put a disclaimer on the show stating that while all factual, some events and interviews have been altered for the show. “Agony” would have retained its power, but in giving himself some wiggle room, Daisey would have been able to skirt indictment for combining documentary practices with theatrical ones. Meanwhile, while few doubt that the subject of his claims – the treatment of Foxconn workers – is fallacious, it has ceased to become the focus of the story.
And what does this mean for those in the Off-Off world who might also want to participate in social musckraking? Someone like Daisey, who has the resources to travel to China and put on a highly-publicized show, still takes a beating. How could someone with far less resources put on an accurate show? I see two choices that require whatever company tells such a story to go in two opposite directions. The first would be the journalistic route, a just-the-facts approach requiring that every fact or line of dialogue in whatever form this work took place be documented and cited, either within the show, on the program, or the show’s website. This would require research and vetting with absolutely no shortcuts. Firsthand visitation and travel might become an issue, but carefully chosen interviews can help overcome that gap.
The other option is, like I suggest above, to emphasize the dramatic nature of the work over the accuracy factor by giving full disclosure that the scenario(s) depicted in the show stem from real-life situations but do not adhere entirely to some of them. Art and accuracy can certain coincide, even if there isn’t a total overlap. I believe Daisey’s heart was in the right place, even if his art wasn’t.