An Audience for Shenzhen: part three, an unexpected turn

In the third installment of this piece, I originally had intended to look at how Mike Daisey’s audience for his stage monologue shifted as the location of his performance changed over time. However, given the developments in the This American Life, Mike Daisey, and Shenzhen story, I have slightly altered my focus for this penultimate installment.

To recap what has been all over the public radio, theatre, technology, and business blogs, Chicago Public Media/Public Radio International’s This American Life program “retracted” the episode by Mike Daisey based on his stage monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (so my links in previous posts to this episode will not work). The retraction was itself the basis of an episode of This American Life, released online earlier than its air-date and coinciding (intentionally or accidentally?) with the release of Apple’s new iPad on March 16. For two weeks, Daisey claimed dramatic license in his fabrication of details that led to this retraction. This American Life claims that Daisey lied during their fact-checking interviews, which led to misleading listeners as to what was truth and what was not.

Which path will you choose?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Im Kelsi

Daisey’s claim was that while some of the incidents related in his monologue did not happen to him, they had been documented by other, journalistic as opposed to dramatic, sources. Therefore, according to Daisey, the deeper truth of the monologue and its ability to spark empathy trumped the surface details of his actual visit to China.

At the heart of this conflict is the question of truth, genre, and audience.

Besides changing the media from theatre to radio, Daisey’s performance also straddles the uncomfortable divide between monologue storytelling and documentary drama, two theatrical genres that have their own problematic histories with “the truth.”

Plato and Aristotle
Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor

The question of a storyteller’s report being taken for truth goes back to Ancient Greece—that source of so many tropes used by white males when justifying their theatrical choices. The mime (an ancient embodied storyteller, not the white-faced mime) or the epic poet were both held in ill repute by Plato. All artists were at fault for attempting to replicate the world through lies, according to the philosopher. (I might also make the observation that another element to the story of Daisey and This American Life traces its lineage back to Ancient Greek theatre: hubris)

Daisey’s particular form of stage monologue has a much more recent precedent in the sit-at-a-table-and-read-a-monologue: the late Spalding Gray. Both Daisey and Gray came from the off-off-Broadway world of experimental theatre. Both were able to command larger audiences (and larger box office receipts) of New York’s largest off-Broadway houses at the Public Theatre and Lincoln Center.

Unlike Gray, however, Daisey does not restrict his source material only to his personal life—regardless of how the monologue presents that information. In the dramatic genre called documentary theatre (or its British equivalent verbatim theatre), exact words from sources are reported to the audience in order to create a story. The audience knows these words are sourced and easily could verify the sources if they wanted to do the research. It is the arrangement of these out-of-context quotes where the fictionalized version of reality enters into the theatre. Daisey, on the other hand, presented all of his researched material as first-person accounts that happened to him. Factual events placed in a fictionalized version of reality, but without citing the sources.

[An earlier controversy with Mike Daisey’s 2007 monologue, Invincible Summer]

Previous Daisey monologues also included words spoken by a character “Mike Daisey” that the writer Mike Daisey did not himself experience, but they were not subject to the same scrutiny as The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Perhaps this is why Daisey felt he did not need to explain every detail and cite every word. However, as the This American Life/The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs saga shows, you can’t always expect a new audience to understand the conventions of your previous work. As I tell my students, always cite your sources.

[As I was writing this response, Daisey posted an apology. Rather than continuing to defend his position in the tradition of storytelling, Daisey acknowledged that he “fell short” of his own expectations for telling the “truth.”]

I use the word “truth” a lot in my work. These words from the opening scene of How Theater Failed America come to mind:

Some of you are hoping tonight that the rarest of things will happen: that someone is actually going to tell the truth.

That’s rare. That’s hen’s teeth.

You should know better.

And so should I. Because that’s what I’m looking for—every time I come back to this place, and all the places like it. Looking for the truth: that rare, random descent, like a feather across the back of your hand.

I speak about truth because it is what I aspire to. All my stories, even when I’ve fallen short, have been attempts to experience the truth with my audiences.

I am sorry for where I have failed. I will look closer, be more patient, and listen more clearly.

I will be humble before the work.


  1. Ben Spatz says:

    This whole controversy sparked a great conversation with my Intro Theatre students about politics and truth and the different standards and assumptions of journalism and theatre. We ended up talking about Brechtian alienation (Daisey is alienating us from the “magic” of high-tech gadgets) and how different its notion of truth is from factual accuracy. Indeed, it’s all in the framing…


  1. […] Last time, I discussed how the character of “Mike Daisey” is different from the actual Mike Daisey. I must admit, I was taking a rather academic approach. I was arguing from the defensive position of a theatre scholar finding theatre under attack. Of course I will argue that a monologue broadcast on the radio is different from the same words spoken in a theatre. My academic career depends on that difference existing. However, with Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the difference is more than merely academic. […]

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