Phil Campbell and Mike Daisey: a debate about Truth

Phil Campbell, author of Zioncheck for President, contributes occasional Q&As to this site. Below he has some mildly combative questions for monologuist Mike Daisey about his latest show, Truth. Daisey, whom the New York Times has called “one of the finest solo performers of his generation,” answers in the same spirit. It all makes for fascinating reading. The show opens October 5 at Ars Nova.

Literary scandals come and go. The latest to blow through our lives, like two crop dusters spraying a noxious pesticide, were James Frey and J.T. LeRoy. LeRoy duped a number of big celebrities, the McSweeney’s crowd, and thousands of readers; Frey duped Oprah Winfrey and her millions of fans. The two scandals are not related, but they did break around the same time and they both involved false or exaggerated identities in memoirs. And they both had people talking for months.

At a certain point during the downfall of Frey and LeRoy, I convinced myself that I had learned everything I needed to learn, and was therefore content to skip countless arguments, essays, and blog entries on the topic in favor of other things (including Mets baseball). But then Mike Daisey invited me to a pre-screening of his new monologue, Truth, which addressed both scandals, and I was suddenly interested all over again. Daisey, I believed, could turn these incidents on their heads.

An experienced monologuist, Daisey uses a mixture of big cultural ideas and personal stories to craft a coherent theme. His show on L. Ron Hubbard, which he performed as part of his Great Men of Genius series this past summer, was pitch-perfect, blending the bizarre, quintessentially American story of the cultish Hubbard with quieter personal stories about his grandfather and his own struggles with depression. Using comedy and pathos, Daisey pulled off a difficult feat: He entertained his audience even as he created sympathy for the ordinary people who get sucked into Scientology’s manipulative web.

But something about Truth — Daisey’s Frey-LeRoy monologue — bugged me. Like his other shows, the new one mixes non-fictional details with personal stories. Some of the personal narratives in Truth include his own tempations with manipulating truth in art, some loose tales surrounding an old school-chum named Gibbs, old problems related to an ex-girlfriend, and his efforts to tutor a theater student who steadfastly refused to admit some extremely personal problems that everyone else could see right through. Yet I wasn’t so sure it was working.

The more I considered Daisey’s show, the more questions I had. For starters, what was Daisey saying about Frey and LeRoy? Was it necessary or even useful to create sympathy for a story like this? And at what point does personal narrative get in the way of “truth”?

In a lively email exchange that lasted nearly a week, Daisey and I argued the points I raised, as well as a few other things.

I’m a little confused by the message of this new show. While on one hand you do effectively skewer all the players in the James Frey and JT LeRoy incidents, you also use a number of interlocking personal stories that give me the impression you want to let everyone off the hook. What overarching point do you want to make about the Frey and LeRoy incidents?

That might be in large part because my shows aren’t designed to have messages — it’s not an OpEd piece, like the countless ones that have been written about Frey and LeRoy, but a monologue that attempts to weave these events against each other and my life to find correlations, sympathies, and dissonances which ring true. That’s not to say that I feel the monologue has no point of view, but to say that what I’m mostly interested in is our perception of, and struggle with, truth. I found that the Frey and LeRoy cases make an interesting lens for looking at what our values are in regard to truth, from the personas that some feel they need to inhabit to tell stories, to the famewhoring and literary starmongering that follow, and to the cults of personality that worship experience and testimonial above transformation and synthesis in writing.

My story is integral in my work because it contextualizes my own experience of these scandals, and provides accountability from the only person I can expect it from — myself. If my own reflections leaven the indictments against Frey and LeRoy to some degree it is because spending time with these events and professionally reflecting on them mitigates my desire to pass judgment as I can see parts of myself reflected in their hungers and failures. It is always more interesting and more difficult to work toward empathy than it is to indict, and I feel the piece’s central allegiance is to unfolding the puzzle of what it means when we say we want the truth — and that carries the responsibility to get under the skin and try to unearth what makes these people like all of us, and like myself, because that’s where understanding begins.

Any overarching statement that a viewer could take from the piece and summarize into a point would be an inevitable disappointment. I hope instead to provide an engaging story, well-told, and leave space for the audience to take up the tale after the monologue has ended. I hope that the monologue is a starting place for people to begin a more serious conversation about issues of truth, memoir, persona and accountability than I’ve seen so far in the public dialogue.

But don’t you think “working toward empathy” sometimes actually undermines the truth? As Timothy Bewes wrote in Cynicism and Postmodernity, sincerity is one of the biggest cultural obsessions of our time (and he didn’t mean that as a compliment). Before Frey and LeRoy were exposed, everyone was consumed by these two as “sincere” writers and “sincere” people. It seems like the only genuinely true moment occurred immediately after they were exposed, when everyone was left dumbfounded, unable to find a quick, easy narrative for how and why everything had happened.

Of course working toward empathy sometimes undermines the truth — everything sometimes undermines the truth, including obsessive insistence on absolute truth, as though there even were such an animal. I believe a true story can’t be told without empathy, because it’s the connection between our shared humanity that allows words to bridge the gulf between us and communicate, and I’m interested in the conflict between truth and fiction that is inherent to the process of being alive — the same processes that allow us to find the truth can also deceive us, and the journey to know true from false is, in many ways, the fundamental journey of human consciousness.

Take sincerity, for example. Pessoa believed that sincerity in art is ridiculous, because all art is artifice, and there is much to recommend that position. The OED defines sincerity as “free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings.” It’s easy to imagine many works that fulfill the second clause of that definition without fulfilling the first — stories that illustrate genuine feelings as part of their telling often find it impossible to be free of pretense, because there’s no such animal as an objective story — what is one person’s deceit is another’s artistic license. I’m interested in working in that space, where the monologue can serve as a bridge and platform for wrestling with these ideas — it isn’t the arbiter of truth, as that would be a ridiculous place to put a piece of art.

I will say, however, that I totally disagree with your assessment of the “true moment” after Frey and LeRoy were exposed. Viewpoints vary, but in the universe I live in I saw a media circus, complete with carefully constructed national media appearances on Larry King and Oprah, that were notable because sometimes they strayed a foot or two from the prescribed path. I’ve never known anyone who has expressed actual surprise about the Frey and LeRoy revelations–shock, disgust, and amazement, but never actual surprise. Everyone I know who knew the works weren’t surprised because, once seen, the road is always so clear in retrospect — everyone thinks, “How could anyone ever have believed these stories?” The answer is that for a variety of reasons people wanted to believe in these stories, and that is what I find interesting.

I do see your point about empathy, but what “carefully constructed” national media appearances? Oprah had no idea what to do next with the revelations about Frey. Her various reactions in the following days seems like just one example of the telling — arguably genuine — deviations from the script. Because there was no script.

The door’s open to stay on that topic, but I’d like to turn now to a more basic aspect of your monologues. Specifically, why give them? With a little tinkering, your very smart stuff could be turned into very smart essays. Is there some advantage for you to do this in front of others? Or does it just appeal to you more?

I think it’s important to explain how my pieces work. The monologues I create are entirely unscripted — they are performed extemporaneously, from bullet points and notes, and build differently each and every night, the way stories and conversations do, and refine through the telling. This is in direct opposition to the path that text takes, where ideas are caught and crystallized into a single form, and are then revised and edited at length before being transmitted to the reader. I believe that the prevalence of text in our lives leads to a tyranny of the written word, making us forget that it is speech — live, imperfect, and sudden — that originally and best mirrors the process of narrative, and that narrative is itself the natural byproduct of human consciousness.

While it is entirely possible that I may create an essay about something from a monologue on stage, it won’t be alive anymore. It may have value as an essay, and may spark thoughts and ideas in others when they read it, but the living quality of the piece is destroyed, and it’s that nature that I think is invaluable — many can write essays, but very few essayists can bring that artistry to live performance. Performing monologues is in all ways harder than writing essays — conceptually, economically, and practically. The best reason I have to work in this form is knowing that there are almost no opportunities in our culture to hear a voice take stage and create an intellectual and emotional argument that is happening and changing night to night. There should be more.

On the issue of the scriptedness of events, we may just be having a difference in perspective here — by “carefully constructed”, I mean that I saw nothing in the reactions that followed the scandal breaking from Winfrey, Larry King or publishers that didn’t proceed directly from market share, whether it was readership, television viewers or ad sponsors. I saw no concern for the truth, despite the tremendous amount of noise being made — just the normal desire of corporate entities to preserve profitability at all costs. If there was a genuine human reaction in the landscape I missed it — for me, corporations and people who create corporations around their images aren’t generally capable of real human spontaneity. Winfrey may have struggled to figure out which script she wanted to use, but at no moment did I feel we were in danger of seeing her speak her actual mind.

Whoa – would you really attack the “tyranny of the written word”? In the post-literate age of YouTube? Don’t you think we could use a few more folks who are chained down by clear sentences and acceptable grammar?

I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about–I’m writing to you in written words, which you’re responding to with the same. They’re being read on a website made almost entirely of words, connected to many other webpages by text links to millions of word-filled pages. Our business contracts, legal documents — hell, the term “document” itself — are all word and text based. There is also this interesting invention called the book — very new, very fresh — that uses words to communicate thoughts, ideas, emotions and feelings. The incredible dominance of the written word in our world is so absolute that people forget that there are other paths, and that’s exactly the tyranny I’m speaking of.

I believe the term “post-literacy” is a convenient way for literary types to feel like an oppressed group, the same way Christianity has a persecution complex even though it’s a dominant world religion. If this is “post-literacy”, there must have been a magical time of “actual literacy”, which somehow I missed — presumably all the landed gentry could read, and the unruly stablehands didn’t make a fuss. As for clear writing and acceptable grammar, I’m not a Puritan or anyone’s enforcement officer–if writing is poor it’s self-evident, and I’ll stop reading. Culture is remarkably self-regulating that way.

OK. So, if you live-edit your monologues as you move from one performance to the next, tell me your own assessment of this play so far. You’ve had some time to think about Truth — at the Sunday night performance I attended we were told you had rehearsed it only once before. What, exactly, are you tweaking as you go along?

It’s going well–we’ve cut one scene, and merged two others, and when the show opens it will run about 15 minutes shorter than it did in the second preview. That’s due partially to these cuts and partially because my monologues, like most theatrical events, tightens and shrink as they comes into focus. We don’t rehearse, but there have been two performances, and between the two 20-30% of the words changed moment to moment. I expect that percentage to be the same going into opening, and as the run continues that number will drop slowly as the piece coalesces; like any story, once you’ve told it a number of times it sharpens and refines. My director, Jean-Michele Gregory, has extensive notes after every performance — we usually do 3 or 4 hours of notes for each show — and then I rework the outline based on our sessions before building the piece live again at the next performance. There’s a lot of work, but it’s good work, and that’s always a pleasure.

See for yourself how Mike Daisey approaches the issue of truth in art. His show is at Ars Nova in Manhattan from October 5th through November 4th. Tickets can be purchased at SmartTix.


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