UPDATE, 3.25pm: The Public Theater has now included a link to its statement regarding the show at this Web page for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end — to make people care. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes — has made — other people delve.
The definitions of and assumptions underlying the terms “journalistic truth” and “dramatic and theatrical truth” are often contradictory, and it is this contradiction on which Ira Glass and the staff of This American Life hung themselves with regards to their airing an excerpt from Daisey’s critically acclaimed monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Unfortunately Daisey is left hanging as well; as Glass tells him, sounding ever so slightly like a schoolgirl whose lover has betrayed her with her best friend,
I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk — people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying, “This happened to me.” I took you at your word.
It is not only the world of journalism, however, which has been caught off-guard by This American Life‘s retraction of their Daisey episode. Buried at the bottom of the New York Times‘ article on the retraction which appeared in today’s paper is a statement from the Public Theater, where Daisey is performing his show through tomorrow. Reporter Brian Stelter writes:
In a statement on Friday, the theater said that Mr. Daisey’s show reveals “human truths in story form,” and added, “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.”
This slightly mealy-mouthed admission of embarrassment might ultimately be even more damning than This American Life‘s hourlong retraction that runs on NPR this weekend, for it suggests that, even in the theatre community, the revelation of Daisey’s compositional practices elicited a sense of betrayal even among those who may share his definition of theatrical and dramatic truth.
Earlier in the article Stelter seems to engage in a bit of his own editorializing, gazing into the crystal ball towards the future of both Daisey’s reputation and the cause he’d hoped to promote. “By being tarred as a fabulist,” he writes, “Mr. Daisey risks hurting the cause he is championing.” Whether or not this is true — whether or not this will be an unfortunate footnote in Daisey’s biography or a turning point in his career — is a question beyond anybody’s capability of answering. After all is said and done, however, l’affaire Daisey does bring to the surface issues surrounding a political theatre practice which claims to be documentary in its form, whether political observations are made through an affable, talented storyteller like Daisey or through various forms of verbatim and documentary theatre from Erwin Piscator’s experiments in Germany in the 1930s through the Federal Theatre Project through Peter Weiss’ The Investigation and Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy up to The Laramie Project and The Exonerated — a tradition to which, in his own way, Daisey promised to make a contribution.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in his 1817 Biographia Literaria. He was writing about poetry, but it has come to be applied to every form of storytelling — including that of journalism. In this paradigm, the reader accepts implausibilities in a given presentation and shelves the critical faculty temporarily to receive a form of truth that lies beneath the given facts. We believe, in short, because we want to believe, and it is the responsibility of the artist to take us into his or her confidence. (This is not necessarily a hard thing for Daisey, who is a talented, entertaining raconteur, and the time I’ve spent in his company — both watching him onstage and in a very few personal encounters — has been nothing but pleasurable. And, because I like him [or his public persona] as a person, of course I want to believe him when he tells me a story.)
As I mentioned, this does not only apply to work labelled as poetry or fiction, at least not any more, and this testifies to the status of critical thinking, whether we’re watching a play or reading a newspaper. Because the Public Theater has not posted its statement on its Web site, for example, I assume that the New York Times‘ quotation of that statement is correct: the reputation of the newspaper rests on the readers’ acceptance that the details of this story are as accurate as those of other stories in the newspaper. I suspend my critical judgment — my critical disbelief — and take it as verifiable fact, though I don’t myself have the resources to verify every single fact in the New York Times. Now it’s true that, as the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass affairs attested, I may be accepting this foolishly. But I must do so to a certain extent, if I am to believe that I have any kind of trustworthy knowledge about what may be going on in the world outside of my immediate surroundings. Responsible editors, journalists, and publications acknowledge this condition: it is why the op-ed pages are clearly identified as such, and why fiction is labelled as fiction.
A drama or theatre that claims to be a verbatim or documentary presentation of verifiable facts also must trust in the confidence of its audience to accept that these facts are true because the audience does not have the ability to assess this truth itself. We leave it to the artists, as we leave it to the journalists and editors, that what they are telling us is accurate in some smaller or larger sense. A political theatre that encourages audience members towards some kind of instrumental political or cultural action based upon the picture presented to them on the stage has the same obligation.
The larger truth of Daisey’s play may be valid in that artistic, and even in a journalistic, sense, but the discovery that a dramatic license may have been taken in the depiction of a few of the events he describes onstage undermines the whole. It’s not that if one event or fact is fictionalized for the sake of dramatic unity or a performative arc, all of the facts presented in the show have been thus fictionalized. The danger is that the work opens itself to that accusation, as Glass’ reaction implies, and thereby undermines its efficacy as a politically instrumental device. It becomes a good story. But for an audience member to make decisions about how to act in the world based upon that story also becomes far more problematic, and even unwise, for it is based on what is, at least in part, an ideologically-inscribed fiction. And there is no shortage of people who will recognize a chink in the armor as a place through which to thrust a deadly lance.
“My hope is that [The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs] makes — has made — other people delve” into deeper considerations about their place and responsibility in an increasingly globalized post-capitalist world, Daisey says, and indications are that many people have taken his words to heart. Nobody can take that away from him, and for that he should be commended. Whatever shame attaches to Daisey through this controversy is that the retraction of his story by This American Life (and a quasi-retraction of an essay he wrote for an October issue of the New York Times) will render the form of verbatim or documentary political theatre more suspect. Those of us who have always taken a critical regard to these works — who have always been aware that this material has been shaped by an aesthetic consciousness in the interests of making an engaging piece of theatre which justifies our suspension of disbelief — will be neither shocked nor surprised. Somehow the critical political theatre of Brecht’s Measures Taken has turned into its opposite. Far from a sense of critical detachment from the events taking place on stage, we are encouraged to accept them without question. What this means for any kind of truth, especially an aesthetic or dramatic truth, is profoundly ambivalent: it is our critical faculty that we leave at the door. Our naiveté, it seems, is more than welcome.
In other readings, Reuters’ Jack Shafer has an editorial on the controversy here; a transcript of today’s This American Life episode on the retraction, which includes reactions from Daisey, is here. The final Public Theater performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs takes place tomorrow. And in the meantime, according to USA Today, Apple has “another hit on its hands.”