Mike Daisey on Wednesday threw festival goers and, presumably, Spoleto admins, a curveball by canceling his previously scheduled one-off performance of Teching in India and instead presenting a premiere of a new monologue so fresh it still didn’t have a title. “This monologue has never been seen,” he said, in an announcement before the show to the packed house at Emmett Robinson Theater. “I haven’t even seen it yet.”
The artist first mentioned his intention to ditch Teching and present a new monologue after his performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs Sunday night. On Wednesday, he elaborated, explaining that, given the continuing firestorm of controversy around Agony and Ecstasy, he couldn’t imagine talking about anything other than it. The resulting performance was half travelogue and half public self-flagellation, a searing confessional performance in which Daisey led audience members on a guided tour of seven European cities and the scarred landscape of his own conscience.
“I recently had the opportunity to be immersed in a scandal,” he began. Over the two and a half hours that followed, the artist wandered across several themes relating to the nature of truth and falsehood, a trip he and his wife/director Jean-Michelle took by train along the Western route of the legendary Orient Express, the meaning of narrative, and his own recent, apparently existential struggle with the scandal that erupted after American Public Radio’s This American Life exposed significant parts of Daisey’s monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as fictionalized.
Daisey acknowledged at the outset that the show was still rough around the edges, and that, like all of his largely extemporized works, it would be refined and honed as he performed it more regularly in coming weeks and months. He was much more reserved than in his performance of Agony, and the piece had few of the high dramatic moments of that show, and even fewer of its light and comedic moments. While Daisey always performs with notes, in his other monologues they often appear little more than props; on Sunday, however, he seemed to refer to those on the table in front of him with frequency, and the piece was filled with the pauses and linguistic stutters of real conversation that has not yet been shaped and molded into dramatic art.
But mostly what it was filled with was guilt. Throughout the monologue, Daisey came back repeatedly to what he called “very poor ethical behavior on my own part” that led to the controversy in recent months over Agony. In the wake of the scandal, he said, he suddenly found himself with “an empty spot in the calendar,” as former supporters distanced themselves from him and previously scheduled dates were canceled or quietly forgotten. Beginning with one remaining tour date at a festival in Halesworth, Suffolk, England, he and Jean-Michelle decided to use their newly open schedule to take a vacation — a rail trip to Istanbul via Paris, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest.
Each of these cities is addressed in turn, sometimes in tortuous detail. In Budapest alone we heard about Daisey’s encounters with a street protest by Hungarian skinheads, his hunt for the perfect cafe, being brutalized by a thuggish masseur in a Turkish bath, a detailed amble through that city’s Terror Museum, and an exposition on the Remnants of Communism Park. Daisey has a clear gift for bringing these cities to life through small moments and startling, sometimes hilarious, details; but he seemed to want to throw in every observation he made, and it was simply too much for the audience, which had grown audibly restless at 90 minutes. After the two-hour mark, one could hear small signs of exasperation every time Daisey ended a story and flipped over the yellow page before him to reveal another page.
Yet these travel tales were merely the skeleton upon which to hang the real meat of his monologue: the inward-looking gaze with which Daisey assessed himself as an artist, as a person, as a husband. He told at one point of standing alone in his backyard late one recent night, naked, looking at the moon, and being so afraid of what his life had become that he wanted, literally, to die. “There must have been a moment,” he whispered, “when I had the whole world in my hands.” At another point he explained that he has always been the kind of artist who reads all of his reviews, and that this became a kind of sado-masochistic exercise for him during the peak of the scandal. “It was like a daily acid bath,” he said. “I read these things and I felt ill. I felt ill because I agreed with them. I felt like the only way through it was to put my arms around it.”
Despite the artist’s seeming sincerity, it would be easy to shrug all of this off as a fatuous and cynical attempt to manipulate audiences into feeling sorry for him, and indeed many critics will surely write it off as such. But he does not, thankfully, make this simple theme the only prism by which we’re asked to view his recent history. In every city, Daisey seemed also to find some experience or signifier that spoke to what he called “the quixotic quest to present something as true.” In Prague it was the Museum of Jára Cimrman, a native son celebrated throughout the Czech Republic for his remarkable contributions at the turn of the century as a playwright, poet, composer, philosopher, inventor, mathematician, and sportsman — and whose historical existence is acknowledged by all to be a complete fabrication. In Berlin, it was the life of Karl May, who wrote bestselling adventure novels during the same period about the American West without ever having set foot in the United States. May was ridiculed and even sued for his fabrications, yet was eventually vindicated when a German court held that “he was a poet, not a liar.”
Surely Mike Daisey would want us to come away from his new show believing the same thing about him. “If you don’t know that all stories are fiction,” he says at one point, “then you haven’t been paying attention.” We have been paying attention, as Daisey knows full well, but he would like to fiddle with the focus slightly.
Daisey will have an uphill battle convincing critics that he is genuinely remorseful, even with the moving confessional material in this show, and he seems to be aware of that. His monologue will, no doubt, develop into a powerful piece of theater, as Daisey is indisputably a gifted storyteller, though one could see only hints of that power Wednesday night. He has put his arms around this thing, this defining moment in his life, because he knows that, for better or worse, he and it are bound together for the rest of his time on earth. Whether he will ever again have the world in his hands, even his own world, is an open question for now, and one that this monologue makes no attempt to answer. That is one of its strengths. But it will take more than that for it to move Daisey and his outsized shadow back into the arms of the American public.