One of the highlights of this year’s expanded High Tide Festival in Suffolk in May is supposed to be the British premiere of Mike Daisey’s one-man play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which according to High Tide’s website, “illuminates how the former CEO of Apple and his obsessions shape our lives, while telling the story of his own travels to China to investigate the factories where millions toil to make iPhones, iPods and iPads.”
The description of the show goes on to say, “Mike Daisey’s groundbreaking monologues weave together autobiography, gonzo journalism and unscripted performance to tell stories that cut to the bone, exposing secret histories and unexpected connections. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been performed around the world, and was instrumental in forcing Apple to open its supply chain to outside auditing.”
But now the show itself has been audited from outside, and been found to be wanting. If gonzo journalism is, according to Wikipedia, “a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative,” the question now arises as to whether the reporter can include himself as part of a story he has not himself experienced first-hand, as if he has.
An interesting controversy has erupted in the US following the broadcast of excerpts from the show on a radio programme there called This American Life. They subsequently cancelled a live presentation of the entire show, following what they cited “”the revelation of numerous fabrications in Daisey’s story,” according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.
As the Chicago Tribune put it, “The crux of the issue here appears to be whether or not Daisey, as a theatrical performer, should be held to strict journalistic standards. On his website Friday, Daisey defended the work as theater (and it was performed in that context at the Public Theater).” By contrast, the radio show “subscribes to journalistic standards”, and as such Daisey wrote on his website, “It operates under a different set of rules and expectations.”
New York’s Public Theater, where the show ended a run on Sunday, issued a statement that said, “In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth— that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does. 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.”
How imprecise was he? In a blog posting on Marketplace by its China correspondent Rob Schmitz, who is based in Shanghai, and has himself reported on Apple’s supply chain there, he reported, “When I heard Daisey’s story, certain details didn’t sound right. I tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator to see for myself.”
He discovers that, while Daisey claims in the show to have met a group of workers who’ve been poisoned by the neurotoxin N-Hexane while working on the iPhone assembly line, saying that their “hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can’t even pick up a glass,” his translator denies ever having spoken to any such people. Schmitz reports confronting Daisey with this fact: Schmitz: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw? Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way. Schmitz: How would you express it? Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.
So it becomes a question of dramatic license, and just how far that can be stretched. In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood wrote a feature published on Sunday saying that the controversy “deserves examination in the light of the increasingly blurred lines, in various media, between entertainment and journalism.”
As he goes on to write, “Mr. Daisey may not claim to be a journalist, but there is little question that in his show, which he has been performing since 2010, he gives no indication that some of the events he describes as having witnessed himself were embellished or based on incidents that took place elsewhere. The program at the Public Theater described it as ‘nonfiction.’ Nonfiction should mean just that: facts and nothing but the facts.”
Following Daisey’s retraction, he says, it has become “clear that this was not a matter of reordering events or using colorful description for maximum theatrical effect, but of presenting as firsthand experience incidents that never happened.” As the sole narrator of his own story, we expect it to be true; and says Isherwood, “He may have been on the side of the angels in seeking to rouse interest in human-rights abuses in Chinese factories, twisting the facts in the service of a larger truth. But theater that aims to shape public opinion by exposing the world’s inequities has no less an obligation than journalism to construct its larger truths only from an accumulation of smaller ones.”
And what should have been a highlight at High Tide, now seems to have marked a low tide in theatrical transparency. Yesterday the New York Times reported that Daisey made changes to his show for its final performance at New York’s Public Theatre the day before, adding a new prologue that at least acknowledged the controversy.