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True lies and fake drama

Andrew Fuhrmann

The scandal that erupted after performer Mike Daisey was found to be lying in his protest work The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs raised important questions about authenticity in theatre.
True lies and fake drama
“What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking.” Text for Nothing, Samuel Beckett) Last Sunday, at La Mama’s Farrady Street Theatre, it was Richard Pettifer who was doing the speaking. He described, in the first-person singular, a journey to the industrial city of Shenzhen, China, where he observed firsthand the working conditions at the sprawling Foxconn factories where Apple’s range of iProducts are manufactured. He’ll be doing it again, speaking, that is, this coming Sunday, and Sundays through to June 24. Except that Richard has never been to Shenzhen. The closest he’s ever been is a layover in Hong Kong, where he ate overpriced dumplings at a restaurant in Mong Kok. The story he’s telling is not his own. It is, of course, the controversial The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, written by the American monologist Mike Daisey. Chances are if you have an internet connection and even the vaguest interest in theatre, you’ve already heard about the Mike Daisey scandal, about his dramatic denunciation by Ira Glass on This American Life. If you did manage to miss it, I suggest you point your browser to the Guardian’s theatre blog or Superfluities Redux for concise summaries, or Scott Walters at the Huffington Post, parts one and two, for something more in depth. That should cover the basics, but for those who are really keen – and have the time – you can now go all the way back and read Daisey’s original script, then maybe check out the original episode of Ira Glass’s This American Life, then the retraction episode where Daisey’s “fabrications” were exposed, then read Daisey’s several reactions to the ensuing controversy, then listen to him discuss it as part of a panel, then browse the myriad links to comment across the web that have been posted on his own blog, and, finally, to get a sense of just how crazy things have become, read this two-page(!) exposé in the Washington Post(!) on the “exaggerations” of the otherwise innocuous American humourist David Sedaris, who, like Daisey, is a contributor to This American Life. Daisey released the script into the public domain before the proverbial hit the fan, encouraging artists from around the world to give their own creative interpretation to his adventures. Now, in the light of le debacle du Daisey and the broken heart of Ira Glass, theatre makers such as Pettifer are offering a variety of interpretations that attempt in some way to confront the thorny problem of Daisey’s moral culpability. Daisey has since “cleaned up” the script to address the accusations, but Pettifer makes it clear that his interest lies primarily in Daisey’s reputation post-retraction. “I’ll use the old version, complete with the lies,” says Pettifer. “It’s Mike’s prerogative to rework his own script but in my opinion the lies are important, and it sort of acts as a historical document post-scandal.” For his performance, Pettifer wears a black sweatshirt with the word LIAR printed in bold, white letters across the chest. Over this he wears an open Hawaiian shirt. The shirt is classic Daisey, but in case you still don’t get it, Pettifer also stuffs a pillow under the sweatshirt. Daisey is what you might call a husky man. Without doubt, Daisey lied to Ira Glass and his producer while they were preparing an excerpt of The Agony and Ecstasy for broadcast. He deliberately got in the way of their attempts to fact-check the details. Whether you think it’s useful to extend the meaning of “lie” to cover the elaborations and inventions in the monologue itself depends very much on the particular barrow you’re pushing. Daisey himself has equivocated on this point, at first hesitating to describe anything in his monologue as a lie, then declaring, rhetorically, that everything anyone ever says is a lie. In Australia, there hasn’t been much barrow pushing. Except for some murmurs on the blogs and one confused pro-Apple missive in the Sydney Morning Herald from an American-style think-tank, the debate over whether Daisey’s offences are venial or capital, a debate still raging fiercely in the US, has not aroused much local interest. In some ways this is surprising given that Daisey toured his show to the Sydney Opera House last year, and that Apple has achieved a stronger market share for its iPhones in Australia than almost anywhere in the world. But the lack of interest is also kind of understandable. It feels right that Pettifer should be performing this monologue in the character of an American, complete with serviceable East Coast vowels, rather than trying to transplant it, because the bitterness of the controversy over Daisey’s behaviour really only makes complete sense in the American context. Americans, generally, have a profounder respect for the processes of public debate than we do here in Oz. America is a country with an impressive, almost classical tradition of political oratory; it's a place where powerful arguments artfully framed have been credited with changing the world. It is this tradition, I hazard, and the consequent respect it implies for the power of words, which explains the perpetual American contest over civic propriety – a peculiarly American ethical notion, as Henry James understood. In short, Americans are perhaps the most sensitive people in the world when it comes to mixing fiction into news. This is not the place for a full anatomical, but, in brief, we might say that Plato’s war against the poets is still being keenly fought right across America. It’s a battle that cuts diagonally across the more visible fault line between conservatives and liberals, though in many ways it is a deeper and more consequential divide. The poet here is anyone who uses what Mike Daisey calls the “context of theatre” to leverage the feelings or beliefs of others into action. Colin Powell’s WMD speech, for instance, is a particularly despised example of “poetry”, and a key reason why liars like Daisey are denounced so ferociously. To get a feel for just how sensitive the American polity is post the WMDs-that-weren’t calamity, and just how intolerant certain parties are of any falsehood that might slip into the civic domain, glance over this indignant rant by American broadcaster Bob Garfield in The Guardian, in which he lumps Sedaris, Daisey and the architects of the Iraq invasion all in together. As he says, apparently exasperated, “Mike Daisey may be no Dick Cheney, but how do I know?” But enough about America. This is Australia, where the government never felt it essential to convince us of the need for war. Elections here take care of themselves. Same with iPhones and consumer responsibility. Takes care of itself, right? Words are less feared. Art is less feared. Art, as Pettifer will readily tell you, is generally ignored. From interviewing Pettifer – who, perhaps against his own expectations, makes an excellent fist of this performance, fluently rehearsing the more than ninety minutes of monologue into an entertaining provocation – I think it’s clear that he at least is motivated by something like the passion that fuels the American debate; but it is hard to translate that passion. For me, his performance was more reflective, and conveyed a sense of just how distant we are from the intensity of feeling evident in the US. Occasionally our local tabloids will gin up a brief bit of fury over how much public money is “wasted” on the arts, or whether it’s right for art to “exploit” a real-life tragedy, but such controversies are mere filler, so predictable that they all seem scripted by the same model Hackbot 3000. In fact, there are only two ways that an artist – or let’s say “poet” in the broadest possible sense – can inspire Daisey-esque levels of pique in Australia. One is by working with children. Sooner or later, someone is going to cry “abuse”. Indeed, this is the only issue where the Australian public appears genuinely intimidated by artists: their mysterious ability to "steal" childhood. Unfortunately, that fear never leads to actual debate, something cannily picked up on by Robert Reid in his latest play, On the Production of Monsters, on now at the MTC. The other way is by subverting our expectations of authenticity, and this is where it seems to me that Pettifer’s performance in character, as Daisey, is particularly interesting. Every modern culture worships the first-person narrative, and Australia is no exception. Why? Well, once upon a time, so it is said, cultural artefacts had an “aura” to them, a captivating sense of authenticity that stemmed from their absolute uniqueness across time and space. That age has passed; cultural objects are now transient, replicated, retailed and inferior. But we still yearn for that age, the age when our stuff was authentic stuff and when our art had authority. Fortunately, in the case of art, after much casting about, we have discovered in the narrative mode of autobiography a new kind of sacred aura. Why it should be so is anyone’s guess, but it does seem about right that as a society which values the individualised, bespoke experience above all things – millions of pale Heideggerarians all striving to make their selves as authentic and original as possible – we should kneel before the tyrannical power of the subjective in art. So it is the “I” – whether explicit or encoded – that we exalt as the truth and beauty of a work, and to offer the public a falsified “I” is to invite the rage of Dorothy, who upon discovering that the Wizard was no wizard declared, “You’re a very bad man.” In Australia – where civic propriety is only ever of marginal interest – there is nothing more important to an artwork’s success than this aura of autobiographical authenticity. Take The Seed, for instance, by Kate Mulvany. There can be few if any Australian plays written in the last ten years that have been revisited as often as The Seed, and certainly none of Mulvany’s other nine plays. It is a fascinating and powerful piece of theatre, but what is the source of this fascination and power? Certainly not its writing or dramatic arrangement, which, though promising, are not fantastic, something consistently pointed out in the reviews. No, without doubt the audience’s fascination with the work comes from its confident fusion of fiction and autobiography. As Anne-Louise Sarks, who directed the most recent MTC performance, says, “I think it just changes an audience's perception of a work when they know it's real. They can't just sit back and say, ‘It's only theatre.’ This is someone's story.” We crave that kick of the “real”, the hit of authenticity, the sacred thing that makes us care. Even where the real is revealed as a fake, we go on digging for it. Thus our obsession with the mythology of literary hoaxes (on display most recently with Rick Viede’s A Hoax, just closed at La Boite, but opening again in July at Griffin). In our passion to establish the motivations and circumstances behind a hoax, we seek to recover something of that lost sense of authenticity. By dissecting the life of Helen Darville, for example, we hope to find some deeper truth about the ghost-figure of Helen Demidenko. Given this, it is interesting for us to ask why Daisey should have been so determined to frame his story as a personal recollection. Yes, he wanted people to care about where their electronic products come from, but why first-person singular? Why does matter whether the playwright’s higher truth is framed as authentic testimony or not? In the words of another local playwright, Declan Greene, discussing the interviews he conducted with high-school kids in order to nail down the authentic patois of his teenage characters, “authenticity is an entry point”. It encourages the audience to engage. But it can also become a fetish, something that overwhelms the project, something which, as in the broadcast version of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, becomes essential to the synthesis of the argument and the moral. Seated behind his desk, a la Mike Daisey, the word LIAR stands out brightly on the chest of Pettifer, not just against the black of the sweatshirt, but against the black walls of the La Mama theatre. It’s a simple gesture, and it sounds crass, but it is surprisingly impressive. Somehow it doesn’t get in the way of our enjoyment of the story. The lies that theatre makers tell aren’t supposed to. The word just kind of hovers there in our peripheral vision, small and white, but always there. Some would say that a subtler version of this sweatshirt is what Daisey needed all along, a reminder to his audience that they were in a theatre, a place where lies are inevitably told. Pettifer is the first to say that this is a modest project, and he doesn’t offer any answers, but it is a performance that helps frame one of the great problems for artists working in this country: how much real do you really need?

About the author

Andrew Fuhrmann is a freelance writer. Currently, he is performing arts editor with Time Out Melbourne, theatre reviewer for ABR and an ArtsHub contributor. His tweets may be perused @arfuhrmann.

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