There was no Duncan to slay

Comments on Mike Daisey

Reposting a comment from Polly Carl's What’s Done Cannot be Undone: Lies in the Theater and Some Thoughts on Mike Daisey

I have been sitting this one out because I haven't found a way into the discussion that seemed true to my own experience – of this particular mess nor of the whole idea of truth in monologues. I appreciated Holly Hughes' take on it on Facebook. I read the transcript of Mike's own response-as-performance in the Atlantic and recommend it for anyone who worries about how Mike is going to come through this. I understand Alli Houseworth's outcry. And can appreciate the nuances of Woolly Mammoth's position.

For me the grip this has on me is entirely about the question of lies told off stage, as you are pointing at, Polly. I am not in any way surprised at the fabrications inside the piece – Mike's whole body of work is based on that sort of storytelling. The distinction of something being emotionally true as opposed to nonfiction is a distinction I have worked with repeatedly myself in making monologues with some great, principled people. And there absolutely is and frequently must be a degree of separation between the artist and the character, even when they have the same name and the story is "emotionally autobiographical" in form. In this sense I wouldn't have cared a wit if Mike had, as he said in his Georgetown remarks, just stayed home in Brooklyn and made shit up because he could just as easily have Googled these stories at issue and come to the same emotionally true place for himself with this material.

But where I do snag on this is what happened next. To my mind this whole storm is rooted in the marketer Daisey, not the writer or performer Daisey. Just as he has done for his whole career, marketer Mike crafted a fiction off stage that expanded the opportunities for his monologue – a remarkable gift of Mr. Daisey's – but this time it also played out as an opportunity to elevate his position in our culture. There was no Duncan to slay, particularly once Mr. Jobs had passed, but the basic motivation – blinding ambition – and a self-rationalizing feedback loop led to the same sort of calamity.

After all, he's worked this way all along. There have been no consequences for it before now. So what's all the outrage suddenly?

And I, too, feel the producers and press who went along for this particular ride have done something that cannot be undone for themselves. It strains credibility that people who have followed Mike's career thought he was working in the form of non-fiction as a writer/performer and that this was the basis of their interest in the show. They were interested as much for Steve Jobs and Apple's celebrity as for the story's truthiness. And marketing the show as nonfiction was a clever hook in which they are active participants – a solid and inspired stunt, one of marketer Mike's best. Right up there with the viral video of his persecution by the religious right. Even without knowing the iPad or the underage girl or whatever other story was fictionalized, the whole monologue is filled with evidence of a storyteller at work. This is the basis of Mike's entire career.  And it was effective story and close enough to true for rock and roll (and Pulitzer talk) and sexy enough for big box office.

And when marketer Mike started to tell the lies to the marketing staffs and in the press, it only seems to have increased the viability of the piece as a prestige booking with big buzz/bucks. So their hand wringing now rings as false as the passive-voiced apologies carefully constructed to preserve Mike's sense of himself as the victim here. And in a sense he is on semi-solid ground there – which he will no doubt exploit onstage in a new monologue coming soon to a theater near you.  After all, he's worked this way all along. There have been no consequences for it before now. So what's all the outrage suddenly?  And the outrage around the lies inside the tale from these quarters plays like an attempt to evade responsibility for having participated in the lies surrounding the tale – the very salesmanship and chutzpah that drew them to him from the beginning. And for having fallen in line with the lies and perpetuating them for their own gain. It is this stuff that is at the bottom of the problem, not any problem with the monologue as a show, to my mind- or at least the new problem for him and for others in this line of work.  I don't look forward to the aftermath- for anyone. Least for the other monologists now tarred with this same brush. And the other "artist-witnesses" who will, for whatever time now find themselves on the defensive before they begin. But the standing ovation at Georgetown the other night makes it clear that Mike's going to only get bigger behind this. I wouldn't want to be Ira Glass when the next monologue premieres.

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In reading several of the blogs on the Mike Daisey story and the many fascinating, outraged, passiionate and thoughtful replys, I'm left in a speculative, intrigued, contemplative, and questioning state. And I think this is a good thing for all of us. Where and how do we "let things pass" when it comes to the issue of integrity? When and how does fabrication serve a larger affect of emotional truth and artistic purpose? And when and how have we crossed the line where fabrication is an act of reationalization that serves some form of infedility? Where and how do we short circuit the level and quality of our accountability, whether it be in any personal relationship or in this case an artistic endeavor and its social, ethical ramifications?. What is a proper balance, a correct expression of integrity in the relationship between artistic license and marketing? This story and its repercussions seems to touch something deep in many. It's not just about Mike Daisey. It includes him of course, and it also includes alll of us, at least those who have responded. Mr. Daisey may indeed be a brilliant presenter of stories, he may also be a savvy marketer of those stories. He may have an overblown ego that has allowed him to stray into territory of infedility [to himself, to the larger theatre community of which he is a part and as a writer serves, even ultimately to the level of integrity of storytelling itself]. He may also in his heart of hearts be someone who not only has an ego and miscalculated some kind of agenda, but desires to offer the best that he can in terms of theatre story presentation that hopefully will broaden and deepen people's understanding of and concern over social issues. I could have all kinds of opinions about this, but ultimately who am I to decide for him. What does rise to the surface for something to chew on is not whether he is right or wrong, but where I as a writer and human being can investigate these issues and questions for myself. What can I learn from this? Where do I compromise? Where am I out of integrity? In what situations am I willing to sell myself or another in the name of "getting ahead" or profit? Where do I lie and tell myself it's ok? The process of "fall out" on the Mike Daisy story will undoubtedly continue. And without brushing it aside as "enough already" or "no longer a hot topic" perhaps the investigation can continue on an ever deepening and broadening level for inquiry of a personal and organizational level.

If things are bad (conditions at the factory) don't exaggerate to make them worse. If you do, you will lose credibility. This has happened before. Anyone heard of Bruno Bettelheim?

David , I think your insights into l'affaire Daisey are profound. The extent to which you fault the press that covered him for happily buying into -- and describing as fact -- what they should have known was fiction is painful to read, and perhaps just a little harsh. I've interviewed Daisey twice and in retrospect, realize he surely fed me some fiction. However, journalists who cover theater cover theater for a reason: They love it. And like typical theater audiences, they are willing to suspend disbelief in the service of a show, unless and until that show proves unconvincing to them. Daisey is a pretty convincing performer. Where he went wrong was in his insistence on billing his pieces as factual when they were actually mixtures of both fact and fiction. (I'm assuming here that what we've learned about "...Steve Jobs" may also be the case with past works of his.) Where we went wrong as arts journalists was in WANTING to believe everything Daisey told us he saw with his own eyes or heard with his own ears, because he was (and is) so darn good at telling a tale. It wasn't an issue of "gain" for arts reporters. It was people who love theater loving the way Daisey performed, and just swallowing it whole. It's no surprise that it was a business reporter for "Marketplace" who got suspicious and followed up on his doubts. In retrospect, I remember asking Daisey more than once in a phone interview whether he actually went inside a Foxconn factory, and his replies were vague at best. I was a puzzled by that, but I, to my no eternal embarrassment now, let it pass. I'm willing to bet there are plenty of arts reporters who interviewed Daisey and now realize that any little flutters of doubt they may have had while talking to him should've been followed up on. Yes, arts journalists should have been more rigorous in covering him. But the preponderance of fault still lies with Mike Daisey. He deliberately mislabeled his work and we (or most of us) bought it. P.T. Barnum was right.

What do you mean by, "I wouldn't want to be Ira Glass when the next monologue appears."?

Daisy seems like a desperate marginalized artist who thought that he could punch his ticket to fame by riding the coat-tails of someone else. If he had the integrity he claims in the piece you linked to, then he would have told This American Life the process by which he makes up his shows by admitting that he made it up. They gave him fair opportunity to back out of the offer. He was incapable of doing that (and by the post-modern rambling of the Georgetown piece, he seems possibly pathologically incapable of it).

It is sad that American Theater has reached a point where our standards have slipped to a point where we permit such situational ethics. Silly really.