Mike Daisey’s False Witness

Mike Daisey, the truth-stretching monologist, has apologized for fabricating evidence about Foxconn, the Apple manufactory in Shenzhen, China, and has changed the script of his show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. But not before offering this defence to Ira Glass:

I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that [the play] isn’t true …. In a theatrical context … when people hear the story in those terms, we have different languages for what the truth means.

Disingenuous? Cowardly? Maybe. But does he have a point anyway?

Certainly, we don’t want to subject the arts to the same sorts of truth claims that we do history or journalism. It’s important to maintain that the novels The Grapes of Wrathand The Junglehad something valid to say about the American experience. Even if they were fictional, they described the kinds of things that were happening, and thus (appropriately) had an important political effect.      

Nor do we want to equate the actor and the character he portrays, even if they go by the same name, have done the same things, and live in the same world. Characters and an actor’s physical presence are the material of theatrical art; they’re not statements of fact, any more than Mark Twain’s tightly-observed dialogue is a transcript of actual conversation. Theatre has recently developed a bewildering array of genres, each with its own relationship to factuality. Daisey’s work sits at the intersection of a number of them, which adds to the confusion. It is part first-person confessional monologue (think Spalding Gray), which offers the performer considerable (but not unlimited) latitude with the facts, especially when speaking about his own life, as Daisey does throughout. But it is also interview-based documentary theatre (think Laramie Projector I Am My Own Wife), as well a modern version of the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper, which took its texts from court transcripts, diaries, and other written texts (think much of Tricycle Theatre’s work, such as Bloody Sunday, as well as My Name is Rachel Corrie). ‘Documentary’ plays are often written by self-professed journalists, not playwrights, and they lay claim to both a theatrical narrativity and a journalistic accuracy. Of course, they are necessarily edited and condensed. But if a single line in Laramie or Corrie did not accurately reflect its source text, the entire piece would collapse. I stress that I have absolutely no reason to think that such inaccuracies appear in any of these texts. But if they did, these pieces would fail as theatre, not just as journalism. Articulating precisely why that is, and when this possibility of failure should adhere, is very difficult.

Here is where the theological tradition of the Ninth Commandment can be useful. Daisey’s fault was not that he spoke untruths, or that he claimed to have seen things he had not. His sin was that he bore false witness. The structure and presentation of his performance led us—the audience—to take his performance as a form of testimony. His physical presence in performance was a necessary part of this testimonial claim; his body and his physical performance were put forward as evidence of the truth of what that same body had witnessed in another place and another time. His presence established a physical connection between his act of witnessing (in Shenzhen) and ours (in the theatre). Had he not done so, there would be no need to worry about the truth of his statement. Mike Daisey is thus not a liar; he is a perjurer.

The Ninth Commandment can also help us understand why we would be less concerned if his claims about his own enjoyment of Apple products were equally false. The sin is the bearing of false witness against a neighbour, which we can understand as a very large category but one that includes only other beings, not the self. Misleading an audience about one’s own experience or emotions may be a form of lying, but we can understand it as a different category, one which perhaps deserves a different sort of judgment.

There is a considerable corpus of theatre scholarship at the moment that looks into the possibilities of theatre as testimony. The work of my Central colleagues Lynne Kendrick and Amanda Stuart Fisher is exemplary here. But if we wish to claim that theatre can bear witness to trauma (or to human experience more generally), we need to accept that it can also bear false witness. To deny the possibility of the latter is to deny that of the former. Perhaps the theological tradition can help us better articulate just how this category of ‘false witness’—and thus of ‘witness’—might work. 

Joshua Edelman is Fellow in Research and Enterprise at the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. He studied theology and religion at Harvard and St Andrews and theatre at Trinity College, Dublin. He serves as co-convener of the International Federation for Theatre Research’s Performance and Religion Working Group.


Photo: Mike Daisey, in a scene from The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, at New York’s Public Theater. Fair use justification: this press photo is being used for scholarly comment on the performance depicted.

Credit: Stan Barouh / Associated Press

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