March 27, 2012
Mike Daisey Claims to Have Breached a Contract with His Audience
1. A monloguist named Mike Daisey performed a very successful show, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" which purports to be, in part, an account of his trip to China to investigate conditions at the factories at which Apple products are manufactured.
2. Ira Glass, host and creator of my favorite radio program, "This American Life" was impressed by Daisey's show and decided to devote an entire episode of "This American Life" to the part of Daisey's monologue that seems to be a piece of investigative reporting.
3. After being alerted to factual errors in Mr. Daisey's monologue, This American Life devoted another entire episode to a retraction of its report on conditions in Apple's factories to the extent that the earlier reporting relied on information provided by Mr. Daisey that turned out to be untrue or unreliable. Mr. Daisey agreed to be interviewed in connection with that retraction and the results were pretty ugly. Mr. Daisey admitted to some outright falsehoods, but he defended the larger truths of his work. His mistake, he claimed, was in agreeing to put his monologue on "This American Life," since it works as theater but not as journalism.
Ira Glass, who as the picture at right indicates, is adorkable but hardly physically imposing, entered a phonebooth, emerged as a truth-seeking action hero, and tore Mike Daisey a new one. There's an exchange, which you can read on page 19 of the transcript of the retraction, in which Glass asks Mike Daisey if he is going to stop representing his monologue as having happened to him. Daisey tried to claim that in the theatrical context "we have different languages for what truth means." Glass, who saw Daisey's show, responds that Daisey is "kidding himself" (i.e., delusional) if he thinks that the people in his audience are not deceived when he relates a first-person monologue as if it happened to him. Daisey claims that they just have different "worldviews," and Glass insists that his own worldview is the normal one.
Mike Daisey, who really seems to be unable to abandon the spotlight, continues to give interviews about his monologue and about the revelations of inaccuracies in the monologue. Eerily enough, one of Mr. Daisey's earlier monologues was about James Frey, whose fake memoir, A Million Little Pieces, famously unraveled (the monologue is called "Truth"). Glass asks Mr. Daisey about that monologue on pages 15 and 16 of the transcript. In that monologue, Daisey had admitted to having fabricated some experiences in order to connect with an audience. Daisey denies that the inaccurancies about his time in China were a result of such a desire to connect. He says, "No, no, because I didn’t, um, no I made a choice to put that, you know, I made a choice to put that detail in that scene, in that way."
Now, reminded of earlier self-important statements about the importance of truth and praising his own scrpulousness in letting his audiences know when he is reporting true events and when he is making stuff up, Daisey has acknowledged that he did not live up to his own standards. As Daisey puts it on his blog,
When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.
Even in this mode, Daisey is unable to refrain from self-aggrandizement. He did violate a trust and make worse art than his shows could have been if he were capable of honesty. But he did not fail to honor a contract because he never entered into a contract with his audience.
After a series of apologies to the various consituencies who may or may not have been harmed or offended by his transgressions, Daisey concludes by invoking one of his acting teachers and pledging:
I will be humble before the work.
That's all well and good, but the acting teacher was probably talking about acting in someone else's play or performing someone else's script or at least showing humility when working with other performers. When one is in the business of first-person monologues and "the work" at issue is a report on one's own experiences, before what exactly is one being humble?
Joshua Mehigan describes his poetry as a means of rendering his narcissism palatable. Perhaps that's what first-person monologues strive for as well. But once the performer becomes thoroughly unpalatable, one is left with a performance of narcissism itself.
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I not only listend to the This American Life episode but I also attended a theater performance of the first-person monologue by Mr. Daisey (His name supposedly name has an "e" in it, but who knows if that is true).
The real question here: What is my measure of damages? Didn't James Frey's readers get refunds for the cost of the book? Is the false memoir distinguishable from the false first-person monologue? The tickets weren't cheap. On top of that, my date didn't like the performance one bit, which didn't win me any points.
Posted by: Meredith R. Miller | Mar 27, 2012 12:52:32 PM
It's bad enough that Meredith is so much hipper than me that she gets to see live shows that I only hear about on the radio, but she's also a better speller. Well, I've fixed the spelling of Mike Daisey's name.
I think we're getting close to a useful hypo. I mean, imagine if the date backed out of an engagement and you lost your deposit on the hall where you were planning to hold the reception. And what if the date will testify that the show would have been measurably better if Daisey had just told the truth? He's acknowledged the breach, and now we've got colorable damages. What do you think?
Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Mar 27, 2012 3:20:47 PM