The Redemption Ouroboros
By Susan Kattwinkel
New Untitled Monologue
By Mike Daisey
Emmett Robinson Theatre, College of Charleston
Spoleto Festival USA
Mike Daisey questions everything now. He
filters all his experiences, the things he sees, the stories he
hears, and the stories he tells through a lens of questions. Questions
about truth, and narrative, and verification. He's "obsessed with
fact-checking" now, he says.
Daisey got lost in his own lies -- for
that is what he calls them -- and in the "great and terrible thing"
that he did. And after the scandal surrounding his monologue The
Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs -- and "scandal" is the
word he uses -- he found himself again on a trip that he and his
partner Jean-Michelle took to "recreate the Orient Express."
In his new as-yet-untitled piece that premiered
in June 2012 at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina,
Daisey turns his searing vision on himself, and on the construction
of stories and the line between story and truth. For nearly two
and a half hours the audience watched a spell-binding storyteller
consider the very nature of storytelling. "Story" is a hot topic
these days, not only in the Ouroboros of contemporary journalistic
self-inquiry, but in science as well. Jonathan Gottschall's recent
popular science book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories
Make Us Human describes the work of psychologists and neuroscientists
who are trying to understand how and why our brains create the
stories they do. Focusing on the written word, Gottschall claims
that "A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need
a catalyst to come to life." Gottschall believes that catalyst
is the mind of the reader, but Daisey knows there is an even more
powerful potential intermediary -- the oral storyteller. "The
act of speaking gives life to words," he says. And once those
words have been given life, they grow on their own, beyond the
intentions of their originator.
There is that sense in this new piece that
Daisey is trying to deflect blame for what happened, even as he
exposes (like the raw skin produced from a Turkish massage he
experienced) his own weaknesses that allowed things to get so
out of control. "We're not used to having our narratives constructed
for us," he muses. That's a telling statement. For certainly there
are many people in the world quite accustomed to having their
stories told by someone else; having society decide who they are,
what they think, and what they are worth. Perhaps, as a white
man of privilege, this is his first experience being misunderstood,
or misinterpreted, or dramatized, or spectacle-ized -- but his
repeated insistence that his experience of having his story taken
from him is unique somehow is disingenuous at best. After all,
isn't that what got him in trouble in the first place -- fabricating
the stories of others?
Every city that he and Jean-Michele visit
contains a story that serves as a metaphor for his own. Every
city has a story that he questions for its veracity; unable to
accept anything at face value he wonders incessantly how much
truth lies in the mythology of a place and whether it matters.
And he seems to magically encounter relevant stories in each city
-- the sculptor of stories about the wild west who never visited
there, the fictional character treated as real, the reluctance
of locals to discuss a political protest, the physical manipulations
that made him feel alive again. He comments often on how personal
narrative is created. And ultimately, he is creating his own personal
narrative about his downfall, his "breaking in two," as he puts
it, and his journey back to himself.
Vision is a thematic through line. Throughout
the journey, Jean-Michele's failing eyesight becomes a metaphor
for how Daisey lost sight of everything that was important to
him, and how he struggled to see things for what they were. He
uses Jean-Michele's vision problems as a touchstone, but he's
not telling her story at all; he's telling his. He keeps saying
"we," but it seems that he really means "me." He cannot speak
to what Jean-Michele must have been feeling, and he does not even
try. One senses that he is afraid to speak for anyone else right
now, and sometimes he even seems afraid to speak for himself.
He occasionally describes his personal experiences in the second
person. Discussing the reviews of The Agony and the Ecstasy
he says, "You read these things," and then corrects himself --
"I read these things." There's a feeling of distancing, like he
can't quite look all of it in the face yet.
Now Daisey has to embrace the experience
to go through it, because he did "a large and terrible thing."
Embracing it turns the spectacle into art, and he seems desperately
to want to turn this spectacle into art. The show itself hovers
between the two, with the audience, as he acknowledges, "looking
for blood," and Daisey trying to create art out of his own disaster.
He says this is the only story he can tell right now. Perhaps
he needs to turn it into art -- with its inherent tinge of fiction
-- before he can move on.
Daisey was reborn in Istanbul, he says.
It's a throw-away line, but closes the narrative loop nicely.
He suggests hope for his future stories when he puts himself in
the shoes of Istanbul’s most daring inventor, waiting to
soar into myth on man-made wings. The piece, however, ends with
a treacly message of hope that is intended to inspire but instead
feels manipulative and false. Daisey is grasping at the most superficial
of personal renewal actions, even as he acknowledges that living
your life on stage comes with terrible responsibility. "It can
be a radical act to tell a story," he says. Mike Daisey still
wants his stories to be radical acts.
[Author's note: although Daisey described
this piece from the stage as a "work-in-progress," it
was advertised by the Spoleto Festival USA as the “premiere”
of a “brand-new monologue." Since the performance I
saw, he has titled the work The Orient Express (or, The Value