The Agony of Mike Daisey: Dramatic License or Fraud?

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs - P 2011
Kevin Berne

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs - P 2011

THR's theater critic looks at the questions raised by the public radio show "This American Life" concerning the veracity of Mike Daisey's monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

NEW YORK – Dramatic license or fraud?

The question might not be quite so cut-and-dried, but that in essence is the nature of the debate that arises from Friday’s decision by This American Life, the popular show produced by Chicago-based WBEZ and distributed by Public Radio International, to retract its January 6 episode featuring excerpts from Mike Daisey’s solo show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

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That two-hour monologue parallels self-professed tech geek Daisey’s love of all things Apple with his assessment of Jobs’ complex personal and professional gestalt. But its most provocative content details the findings of a research trip to Shenzhen, China, and the inhumane working conditions at the Foxconn manufacturing plant where Apple products are made.

After being performed in earlier incarnations for more than a year, the show opened its initial run at New York’s Public Theater on Oct. 17 last year, less than two weeks after the Apple co-founder died following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Rave reviews and sellout business led to a return engagement, which ended as scheduled this weekend amid the radio controversy.

Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, released a statement on Friday explaining that Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for another radio show, American Public Media's Marketplace, had discovered that parts of Daisey’s first-person account were fabricated.

This American Life followed the retraction with a new hour-long segment detailing numerous incidents described in Daisey’s show that either did not take place or were embellished for dramatic effect. Among these are encounters with underage workers as young as 12, interviews with employees at factory gates while armed security guards looked on, and meeting a man whose hand was crushed while making iPad casings, resulting in his job being terminated without compensation.

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“I stand by my work,” wrote Daisey on Friday in a response on his blog. “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.”

“What I do is not journalism,” continued Daisey. “The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed This American Life to air an excerpt from my monologue. This American Life is essentially a journalistic – not a theatrical – enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret.”

The Public Theater released a statement in support of Daisey, albeit frowning on the writer-performer's failure to distinguish in his show between what was documented fact and what was hearsay.

“In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth – that's what a storyteller does, that's what a dramatist does,” said the Public statement. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form. Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”

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The Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C., where Daisey’s show was performed prior to its run at the Public and remains on schedule to return this summer, also spoke out in support of the monologist.

Daisey prefaced his final performance at the Public on Sunday afternoon by stressing to the audience that the facts of his show are undisputed, but that the veracity of the personal experience had been called into question. Reflecting on the nature of storytelling as a theatrical art intended to expose truths, he said changes had been made to the show in order to enable him to stand behind his work completely.

So are Daisey’s polemics now to be viewed with skepticism? Subsequent reporting in the New York Times, on CNN and in other outlets has substantiated his claims of appalling work conditions at Foxconn and elsewhere, so the answer arguably is no. Given the protests that greeted the launch of the iPad 3 this month, and the promises of Apple CEO Tim Cook to eliminate human-rights violations in the company’s supply chain, Daisey is entitled to feel pride in raising awareness of the issue.

But in presenting his show as non-fiction, without a clear disclaimer specifying that certain elements were second-hand accounts, altered or punched up for greater impact, Daisey has betrayed his audience’s trust. Even if his intentions were honorable, he has crossed a line.

Unlike the late, great Spalding Gray, whose best monologues riffed on personal experience with the acknowledged exaggeration of a virtuoso standup comedian and master caricaturist, Daisey’s descriptions of his experiences in China carry the moral indignation of cold hard fact. As such, he had an ethical responsibility to clarify when those facts were distorted.

Memoirists like Augusten Burroughs have come under fire over issues concerning the authenticity of their work. In more clamorous cases, the autobiographical writings of James Frey and JT LeRoy, the pseudonymous identity created by writer Laura Albert, were exposed as fakes. (In an awkward collision between art and life that must now be haunting Daisey, the Frey/LeRoy scandals were the subject of his 2006 monologue, Truth: The Heart Is a Million Little Pieces Above All Things.)

Nervous about having the next hot hoax on their hands, publishers have since become more rigorous in their fact-checking. Theater has different entertainment requirements from literary memoir, but when presented as reportage, it should be able to stand up to the same scrutiny. If artists like Daisey are going to take liberties with the truth, they need to say so up front.