What’s Done Cannot be Undone
Lies in the Theater and Some Thoughts on Mike Daisey
For better or worse I have always had a passion for justice. This was not a lip service passion, it was one I tried to live out. I intended to graduate from college and change the world, to make it better here and abroad. I spent the first several months after college in South Central Los Angeles working in a medical clinic for Central American refugees and taking part in political protests with the Catholic Workers on the weekends. I was a perfect candidate to fall head over heels for Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I didn’t have a chance to hear it until some of it was broadcast on This American Life. I was rehabbing from hip surgery and working out on an exercise bike at the YMCA. I was riveted, embarrassed about my love of Apple products. I decided to buy tickets to his show in Chicago with Ira Glass. The story within the monologue that activated my passions?—the man with the twisted hand who sees an iPod for the first time. In sorting this all out—This American Life’s calling out Daisey’s story as fiction, Daisey’s justification and explanation of his role as artist versus journalist, and its impact on us— I’m much less interested in Mike Daisey per se.
I don’t care all that much that he betrayed me. His betrayal is so much less significant than let’s say Exxon or BP, or even Apple and whatever is true about what’s happening at Foxconn. And his betrayal is less than the larger betrayal for me of the American theater that has tossed out a commitment to artists in favor of a commitment to big buildings, inflated administrator salaries, and big individual egos. Rather, I want to focus on at what point in the plot of the Mike Daisey story did lies get told that were no longer in service of the story of workers in Chinese factories but in service of Mike Daisey’s ego and personal ambition? Again, I’m not interested in sorting this out because of feelings about Mike Daisey, as I don’t know him, but rather I care about that moment where people with power to change the course of history tell lies, commit murders, cross the line where what has been done can no longer be undone. My thoughts about this come directly from a lecture by author Charles Baxter on plot at Bread Loaf a couple of summers ago “Undoings: Dramatic Actions that Can’t be Undone.” When I listened to this lecture on that same exercise bike at that same YMCA, I felt some kind of deep understanding about the nature of compelling stories and how we enact them, how they are more interesting as theater, less interesting when you find yourself the victim of the unfolding plot that can’t be undone.
Baxter takes the phrase, “what’s done cannot be undone” directly from Act 5, Scene 1 of the Scottish play when Lady Macbeth utters these words and then leaves the stage for good. Baxter defines the central feature of some of the greatest stories:
The stubborn and unfixable nature of an action that’s been done but cannot be undone, constitutes the core of how certain great plots work. . .a one-way gate, an irrevocable action that a character cannot go back on. . .You are now defined by that action, often unforgivable, and always undoable.
And as the plot unfolds in some of our best stories, Baxter says we get a snowball effect or what he calls snowball plotting. "An error becomes retroactive—everything that follows one error becomes another error…you lose control of events and you lose your ethical self in the bargain." The story of Macbeth is for Baxter the story of ambition. And it’s ambition, the desire “to increase power and social status” that leads to scheming and scheming leads to ever more complicated plots:
The schemer says I will lie to everyone and therefore I will succeed. If I do not succeed, if people don’t believe me, I will tell more lies until I do succeed. And then I will tell lies to cover up my previous lies. The schemer, the social climber, is therefore in league with the writer. Both are creating plots, lying like art begins when fabrication replaces action.
We can feel the snowball plotting effect, in both listening to and reading the transcripts from This American Life’s “Retraction” episode. From the transcript:
Rob Schmitz: How many factories did you visit when you were there?
Mike Daisey: I believe I went to 5.
Rob Schmitz: You told Ira 10.
Mike Daisey: I know.
Rob Schmitz: OK.
Mike Daisey: But, now that I’m looking at it, I believe it was 5.
Rob Schmitz: Cathy remembers three. Daisey also revises the number of illegal union members he met. He originally told Ira 25 to 30. Now he knocks it down to ten. Cathy remembers, said it was between 2 and 5.
Much of the conversation proceeds this way until Daisey leaves the interview and comes back the following day and suddenly has his story straight, and then holds steady to the notion that he’s making theater and not journalism. But I think the compelling part of the retraction episode is what Baxter says, makes great drama, when an action spirals out of control and one lie justifies another lie and “lying like art begins when fabrication replaces action.” This is the line from Baxter’s lecture that requires a moment to understand and I’m truly not sure I’m getting it right, but this is what I take from it. For most people who start off with good intentions, and we imagine Mike Daisey did start off truly passionate about the plight of Chinese factory workers, they take concrete action.
In Daisey’s case he hires a translator, he flies to China, he interviews workers. He actively pursues the story he cares about as a citizen and a person. But like a good artist, as he goes to tell the story, he says by his own admission, that he becomes the fabricating artist. He tells us he was performing Mike Daisey on stage, and that that Mike Daisey isn’t the Mike Daisey citizen. Fabrication replaces action. But in this case it was the private citizen Mike Daisey who was critical to our embrace of his actions. As a former activist, turned artist, I was moved by how he took those two pieces of himself and weaved them together and performed them. This is what made The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs great, not just good art, performed well. It’s what allowed Mike Daisey to be asked to write an editorial in The New York Times after Steve Jobs death, and it’s why he was asked to go on MSNBC. I know plenty of playwrights who have written plays on the Iraq war for example, but they are not asked to write an op-ed for the Times as an expert because their private citizen persona and their artist persona are clearly distinct. Baxter makes clear what happens to the private citizen who becomes mad with ambition:
The private self, the person we are to ourselves is gradually overwhelmed by an artificially constructed public self underwritten by social climbing, and the will to power, the markers of ambition.
Mike Daisey isn’t alone in his ambition as a theater artist, and he’s in good company in his profession, a profession that has its share of former private and passionate citizens whose ambitions have caused them to lose sight of what drove them to love theater and to want to make it in the first place. We have plenty of ambitious public personas caught in their own snowball plotting. Daisey made the mistake of taking his ambitions well beyond his profession, into a public realm where transparency couldn’t be covered over, where those complicit in the lie could no longer cover them up. And I think Daisey’s undoing is all of our undoing.
He was the theater artist we could bring into our spaces and assuage our liberal guilt, cover over our own activism gone dormant. We could live vicariously through his citizen/artist persona. We could take cover behind his truth, make it our truth, and feel we had done our part. I’ve been undone by this. I’ve been exposed as a complacent passenger on his lying train. I handed over my own responsibility as citizen/artist. I was happy to let Daisey do the hard work of responsible citizenship for me. In exposing himself, he’s also exposed all of his supporters. We all have some blood on our hands.