Listening tonight to the nearly-unbearable “Retraction” edition of “This American Life” in which Mike Daisey is taken to task for his fabrication of details about his experiences in China, I kept waiting for Daisey to more effectively counter the assertion by Ira Glass that people who come to see a monologue expect that every word of it is true.
Perhaps it’s because Glass and the myriad bloggers and reporters feasting on this story are themselves journalists, and therefore can’t help but expect something like this to be akin to what they do, a retelling of actual events. And perhaps it’s because my roots are in theatre that I feel like Glass is wrong; one may not even think about it consciously while watching a show, but I feel that people on the whole do understand that a show is a show. I know that when I saw Daisey perform his excellent How Theatre Failed America in DC a few years ago, I certainly had no illusions that he was giving a 100% factual account of his life in theatre. Of course he was going to embellish, exaggerate, and invent. Why? Because he was spinning a tale, based on facts but not relying on them, that told a larger truth.
I understand that at least as far as “This American Life” and, perhaps even more damning, his op-ed in the New York Times are concerned, it’s the packaging of his story that matters. It does indeed sound as though Daisey offered his play as an entirely factual retelling and therefore worthy of being used as such on the show (and that his manufactured experiences could be written as though they were actual reportage for his New York Times piece). There’s no excusing the presentation of fiction as fact to news outlets.
But I have to wonder at “This American Life” for even wishing to do so with Daisey’s play. If they wanted to use his piece as a springboard, why not simply excerpt some pieces of a performance, make clear that what we’re hearing is a story told by an actor in a play, and then delve deeper into the very real, no less serious issue at hand? Why even decide to hand essentially an entire episode over to what they know is a piece of theatre? Glass says not killing the show after being thwarted in their attempts to contact Daisey’s translator was their big mistake. I think their big mistake was in thinking that a play might possibly be, not just the inspiration, but the substance of one of their reports. I find it hard to believe, but I am forced to believe, that Glass and company are as naive as he claims they are when it comes to credulousness about the veracity of performance art.
I don’t know what Mike Daisey was thinking. He’s such a brilliant writer and performer, and I think it would be a genuine, substantive loss to the culture if we were to lose what he does because of this — particularly since his larger motive was so crucial, so real. I can only presume that the idea of getting his show on “This American Life” and of getting to be treated with a kind of reverence by the media became con-fused with that larger motive. He is an actor, after all, and we are nothing if not attention whores of the worst kind. (Hey! Go download my music!!!!) I wish so badly that he had handled this all so differently. All he had to say to Glass, to the media, to his audience, in any subtle form he wished, that his play is just that, a play, but that it is based on many true events and reports. Done.
I also wish that when Ira Glass pressed him as to whether it was acceptable for his play to be in part constructed of fictions that he had said, proudly, that the art of storytelling has a different goal than journalism, and that his job is to get his audience to think and to feel something. Daisey does that extremely well, and the things he wants us to care about remain worth caring about.
Side note: I am more than a little sickened by many of the tech bloggers and journalists whose work I usually think extremely highly of, but are now dancing on Daisey’s reputation’s grave, almost delighted that Daisey is facing this new firestorm. This seems to me to be borne out of nothing other than their own desire to not have to feel anything about the source of the gadgets off of which they base their careers. Now they’re off the hook, so they believe, and they have someone to put in the stockades for his heresy. It’s deeply disappointing.