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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In Defense of Daisey

In my previous post on what I have now seen referred to as Daiseygate, I criticized the overly simplistic terms in which Mike Daisey and Occupy Wall Street confront the challenges facing a global economy in the 21st century.  And while I do not retract, so to speak, my opinion that the fabrications in TATESJ were specifically intended to make the case against Apple simpler, I do think Daisey has come under far too brutal an attack in the past few days.  People lie. People lie all the time for exactly the same reason Daisey did.  Two recent examples come to mind.  President George W. Bush exaggerated the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003; and President Barack Obama embellished the story of his mother’s battles with insurance companies during her treatment for cancer.  Both of these lies helped to bring about major US policy changes, by making the argument in favor of them less complicated and more obvious: we went to war; we reformed heath care.  This is exactly what Daisey did, and I think it is fair to say that the results of his lie are much less questionable.  
In 2004 I was in a production of Glynn O'Malley's A Heartbeat to Baghdad at the Flea Theater.  Glynn had gone to Fort Campbell Tennessee (home of the 101st Airborne division) shortly after the beginning of operations in Iraq.  His play was based on his interviews with military members and their families; in fact, most of the lines were taken word for word from those interviews.  This was not an anti war play. The horror of war was displayed by a gut wrenching scene in a which a wife learns of her husband’s death, but we also saw, in several monologues, that husband, a Captain in Iraq, describe the progress being made, and the important work being done. (Interesting side note, a main character was based on the wife of the then Commanding Officer of the 101st, one David Petraeus.) I take Glynn’s word on the fact that he used the real words from the interviews, but that does not make the piece objective.
There is no doubt that Glynn had many more interviews than he was able to use in the play, just had Daisey surely had interviews that he left out.  This act of reshaping the chronology and context of words for dramatic purposes is perfectly natural to theater.  In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce writes that “Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible: beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible.” In theater these two opposing appeasements intermingle, and in fact muddy each other.  Daisey wanted people to hurt, for people to sense guilt, not intellectually, but as an emotion.  However, at the same time, Daisey appeals to the intellect, showing us the intelligible examples of worker abuse.  Even if Daisey’s quotes had been accurate, it would be wrong to think that they revealed truth.  A dry statistic that says “95 percent of Chinese Ipad workers have never seen an Ipad in operation” can provide one with information that is true (assuming the fact is accurate), however, the story of one disfigured man who sees the screen light up for the first time and describes it as magic, cannot.  It is one man, and China is rather well populated.  
Mistaking anecdote for broader truth is a common mistake in this, our Society of Outrage.  The anger that Daisey brought out in his audiences made them feel like they were experiencing truth.  But as Joyce points out, you don’t feel truth, its not an emotion.  Anybody who left TATESJ believing that some truth about Apple or Foxconn or China had been related to them was fooling themselves to begin with.  In the Society of Outrage every individual example of police harassment indicts the entire NYPD as a repressive regime, in the Society of Outrage, every single bank that commits fraud reveals the broad evil of capitalism, in the Society of Outrage even discussing the constitutional issues surrounding birth control proves that there is a war on women.  Truth does not exist in captioned photos with snarky quips, truth does not reside on Youtube, no status update will ever leave you in possession of truth.  Truth is a process of discovery, in all likelihood an endless one.  
Oskar Eustis, in his defense of Daisey, said that theater’s job is to create fiction that reveals truth.  He could not be more wrong.  The emotional manipulation common to all theater renders it incapable of this task.  If Daisey’s stories had been true, or if he had left out the fabrications, everything would be the same as it is now.  The very positive investigations into abuses that his play helped to launch still happened.  The emotions of guilt in his audience still flicker when their Ipads light up in their hands.  Daisey offered something to think about, something to find out about for ourselves.  His lies don’t change that.  He has apologized, I see no reason that he should not be forgiven.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Simple World of Daisey and Occupy

The announcement by NPR that sections of Mike Daisey's "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" were fabricated by the author came as quite a surprise to me.  I have long enjoyed Daisey's writing, especially articles from years back focused on the bloated nature of not for profit theater.  Many of my own opinions regarding the need for a market driven theater were influenced by his work.  Daisey has a unique ability to tell people things they dont want to hear.  This ability to tell uncomfortable truths is a powerful tool for  artists.  But the the truths have to be true.  The Public theater released a statement today in which they said, "In theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth.".  This is a complicated sentiment, and one which we currently see in many aspects of our cultural and political lives.
About the same time that I saw the Daisey story on Facebook yesterday, I came across a quote, allegedly from Mitt Romney in which he supposedly said that he understands black people because his family owned slaves.  Obviously the quote was fake, but that didn't stop several people on my feed from posting it.  In comparing these two fabrications, what I found interesting was the fact that in both cases, a lie, or as the Public puts it, a fiction was being used to promote what the fabricators believed to be a greater truth, a greater good.   Better working conditions for Chinese workers may be a more objective good than re electing the President, it also may not be, but in both cases we see the same manipulation in operation.  In both cases the authors of the fabricated material decided that what they think should happen was worth misleading people.
Today I watched again Daisey's rambling, over simplistic speech from Occupy Broadway late last year.  It was interesting to hear it again in light of the new information about his sources.  Though the speech didn't dwell long on China, it was used a few times as an example of how obvious the left wing truth that Occupy preaches is.  He praises his audience to the heavens for recognizing the clear evil of corporations and speaking out about it.  But here's the problem, if it is so obvious, if the negative impact of corporations on our society is so clear,why did he need to make anything up?  The answer of course is that it is not obvious, it is not clear, it is in fact enormously complicated.  At some point in the creative process Daisey said to himself, how do I jazz this up?  How do I make people really feel what I know is true.  Sadly his answer was to mislead them for their own good and the greater good.
In his Occupy Broadway speech, Daisey accuses the United States of having exported our manufacturing without exporting our values.  As I heard those words I had to wonder, if his interviews with Chinese workers produced so few nightmarish tales that he had to make some up, what was he told that he left out altogether?  It is perfectly fair to say that working conditions in China can be abysmal, but one must also acknowledge that since China opened it's markets, there is vastly more freedom for it's citizens, not enough surely, but vastly more.  These are the cross currented complicated issues that both Occupy and Daisey choose to ignore, it is a shame, as both would be welcome and vital participants in an honest and open discussion.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Worst Man in The Best Man

In a recent article on Huffington Post, Rob Taub lauds the new production of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” as an example of bipartisanship on Broadway.  After describing this year’s Republican debates as “redundant and seemingly endless”, Taub goes on to explain how “politicians” (conservative politicians one imagines) “are the only people capable of of turning “progressive” into a dirty word”.  How lucky we are then, to have this bipartisan, fair and objective play about American politics return to the Great white Way.  To prove his point, Taub quotes director Michael Wilson who informs us that there is something in the play for everyone, no matter their political stripes.  The play, set during a 1960s Presidential primary has characters who, Taub informs us are either based on specific historical figures, or amalgamations of historical figures.  Wilson describes how Vidal created flesh and blood characters, with virtues and flaws, and compares the prodigious and prolific writer to no one less than William Shakespeare himself.  This all struck me as a little curious, so I undertook a bit of research to find out how Vidal himself viewed this bipartisan play and the characters therein.
In 1974, Vidal was interviewed by the Paris Review, without even being asked about “The Best Man”, the playwright said that it was “Nixon, who made me a popular playwright, the worst man in the Best Man was based on him”  The worst man in the Best Man.  Perhaps Mr. Taub did not subscribe to the Paris Review in 1974, that's understandable, but I found this quote after an internet search lasting approximately 2 minutes.  When the playwright himself describes the main conservative character as the worst man in the play, we are not talking about a bipartisan piece of theater.  This fact should be rather obvious, as anyone who has ever read an interview with Gore Vidal knows that his politics fall somewhere to the left of Chairman Mao.  So given that fact that the playwright himself admits a political bias in the play, what on earth could have given MSSRS. Taub and Wilson the sense that “The Best Man” is bipartisan?
Here we see the cultural echo chamber of the American Stage in its starkest and most naked relief.  Mr Taub does believe he is being objective, he just thinks he, and those of his progressive, liberal ilk,  are objectively right.  There is no need in his mind for plays that are actually conceived of or written by conservatives, because well intentioned liberal artists are perfectly capable of producing a fair and balanced view of American politics.  If Nixon is the worst man in the Best Man, it is not because Vidal has an agenda, it is because Nixon really is the worst man, and the author is simply exposing objective truth.  This is of course nonsense, but it is typical nonsense.  
The Best Man may well be a wonderful play, its cast certainly has more celebrities in it than the average issue of US magazine, but bipartisan?  I would say that this claim was just silly, were it not also dangerous.  When theater artists and critics come to believe that they know better how to explain the views of those they disagree with, than those they disagree with, we truly do begin to slip into propaganda.  I do not accuse Vidal of propaganda here, after all, he is pretty straightforward about his political leanings.  But for Mr. Taub to suggest that this play is bipartisan is propaganda.  It is a demonstrably false assertion meant to coddle his leftist readers into the continuing belief that have the monopoly on political and cultural truth.

UPDATE:  Came across this pic today, not exactly bipartisan.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Breitbart, Obama and the Modern American Stage

It appears that Andrew Breitbart’s final attacks from beyond the grave against President Obama  have begun.  We are promised videos of the Commander in Chief carousing with self hating white terrorists at Harvard some decades ago, but that, if it exists, will no doubt be the grand finale, yesterday we got the overture.  It turns out, that after searching high and low for evidence of the President hanging out with radicals, the place where Breitbart found it was, wait for it... the theater.  In 1998, Terrapin Theater in Chicago premiered Tony nominated playwright Herb Shapiro’s “The Love Song of Saul Alinsky”, the President participated in a talk back after one of the performances.  If this specious guilt by association is all Breitbart had it is clearly a swing and a miss at a ball badly outside the strike zone.  I am quite certain that nothing revelatory or enlightening occurred when then State Senator Obama participated in the talk back, because nothing revelatory or enlightening has ever been said at a talk back.  What struck me as interesting was the image that Breitbart was trying to paint, ultimately the guilt here is not from associating with Alinsky, or other radical types on the talk back panel, the guilt is in associating with theater, or more specifically, theater as practiced in modern America.  
Breitbart after citing a familiar sounding quotation from a person in attendance as to how eloquent and impressive the President was, questions if its “a good thing to impress the sort of people who show up to laud “The Love Song of Saul Alinsky”.  I think  by “sort of people”, Breitbart meant the fellow panelists, but certainly he is also talking about the people who pay money  to hear them speak.  Otherwise known as theater audiences. 
Much of Breitbart’s overall message dealt with the culture wars, after all, his first website was not on politics, it was Big Hollywood.  Breitbart saw a conspiracy at work, consisting of the academy, the entertainment industry and nefarious secretive radical leftists pulling the strings.  It is difficult to know wether Breitbart believed his conspiracies, or just believed they generated hits, but either way, they are effective because they reflect some element of truth.  
I don’t think we are letting any cats out of the bag when we say that theater in our country has a distinct left wing bias.  In reviewing the Assembly’s fantastic production of Home/Sick (a play about the Weather Underground) last year I noted that “The company's treatment of the Weather Underground is fair, we see their weakness and futility as well as their passion and pride. I do wonder if Nazis or Klansman, who also had passion and pride, could be treated as equitably on an American stage as these more privileged cop killers are”.  The answer is no, or at least not yet (though there has been some movement on the Nazi front, popular culture has to some degree embraced the “good Nazi” who is just caught up in a bad scene.  We have yet to see many stories about the “good Klansman”).  Breitbart was correct to see this, and its pretty silly to deny it.  One of the great ironies of Citizens United, is that their 90 minute movie “Hillary” was done on a shoestring and hardly anybody saw it, but nobody bats and eye when HBO produces Game Change, or when  Michael Moore and Oliver Stone put out their biannual indictments of all things conservative.  But if Hollywood has a bad case of left wing bias, in theater the disease is full blown.  
In the realm of TV and film examples of conservative programming abound, in fact The Hollywood Reporter tells us that they actually make more money than their liberal counterparts.   Just turn on the Hallmark Channel to see there is a vibrant conservative sub genre alive and well in on screen entertainment.  This sub genre is largely absent from theater and no doubt contributes to our increasing irrelevance.  The reason for this hegemony is clear, the top down foundational programming methods of most major theaters demand left wing shows.  In part this is because, in order to justify theater as a tax exempt non profit affair, there has to be deeper social value than mere entertainment (such as riveting talkbacks with old hippies and elected officials).  After all, I can’t make a tax free donation to most comedy clubs, and interestingly there are a lot more conservative comedians than theater artists.  Theater should look to this issue, for a broad swath of our society our shows offer little more than an indictment, and that’s not fun for anyone.  We should find ways to encourage conservative sub genres in theater, not only for reasons of fairness, but also for reasons of audience.  Theater as a debate will attract many more people than theater as a lecture.  
The point here is that though Breitbart offers no evidence that the President harbors far left radical beliefs, there is reason to believe that many in control of our nations stages do.  In fact, so long as theater remains in large part the domain of the Not For Profit, there is little hope of a more politically balanced American theater.  This is because theater as charity relies on a left wing idea of government responsibility to the arts for its basic survival.