Mike Daisey’s A People’s History

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Dating back to the Greeks, the boundary between moral certainty and hubris occupies a vital zone in the history of the theatre. Although reserved by Aristotle for the genre of tragedy, a similar tension underscores solo theatre. Doesn’t the very assumption that a single actor can engage an audience’s attention for more than 90 minutes risk transgressing from confidence to overconfidence? In his newest show, A People’s History, acclaimed monologist Mike Daisey audaciously went so much further. From March 14 to 31, 2018, Daisey performed 18 different solo shows at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, each one lasting at least 90 minutes. That’s approximately 30 hours of original theatre in a fortnight. The achievement, while remarkable, could not help but crisscross the blurred boundary between aspiration and hubris, between genius and self-indulgence.

Coming off of last year’s critically acclaimed The Drumpf Card, Daisey expanded his progressive political gaze beyond the current occupier of the White House to the entire history of the United States. To complete this ambitious task, Daisey divided American history into eighteen segments that ping pong between two contradicting points of view: a U.S. history textbook from his high school in rural Maine from over 25 years ago set against Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. A proud progressive and noted rabble-rouser, Daisey clearly prefers Zinn’s popular, alternative history. In the production I witnessed, (the 17th show of 18), Daisey never directly mentioned his high school text, but instead spent the majority of the 95-minute monologue venting his own personal observations in support of Zinn’s class-conscious spin on the late 1990s through the early 2000s.

No critic could accuse Mike Daisey of relying too much on spectacle. In 2012, I witnessed his most popular (and controversial… more on that later) monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The entire mise-en-scène for A People’s History—a desk and a chair—almost exactly replicated the design for the earlier show, save the playful addition of an apple on the desk. Such visual minimalism highlighted Daisey’s remarkable and magnetic power as a performer. As the lights dimmed, a recorded announcement playfully stated, “The theatre regrets to inform tonight’s audience that the role of Mike Daisey will be played by Mike Daisey.” Daisey then entered from upstage holding only a notebook and what can be assumed to be Xeroxed pages from Zinn’s text. Wearing a playful smirk, the portly performer crossed to his chair and sat. Evoking the ghost of Spalding Gray, he did not leave the chair again for the duration of the show. Relying solely on dynamic vocal inflections, elastic facial expressions, and stabbing gestures, Daisey valiantly held the attention of the sold-out house of 200 theatre goers.

Of course, what Daisey says also had a lot to do with how he holds an audience’s attention. Surprisingly, I found his vivid vignettes into what was happening in his personal life during major historical events more memorable and artful than his broader commentary on the events themselves. For example, Daisey’s exuberant account of the glee he experienced passing into the new millennium in a taxi cab with his fiancé was quickly pierced by the sad reveal that this optimistic love ended years later in a bitter divorce. “We destroyed each other,” he lamented with the full gravity of broken dreams. Likewise, Daisey’s account of living in downtown New York City when the planes hit the towers on 9/11 ached with terror-filled authenticity. With matter-of-fact underplay, he acknowledged that at least some of the never-ending, grey dust that perpetuated the flat surfaces of his Manhattan home for months after the attack consisted of human remains. Understandably, Daisey did not maintain such precision in the language throughout the show. How could anyone firmly memorize over 30 hours of material? At one point, striving for the apt metaphor, Daisey stumbled on the unfortunate phrase “like a knife through… wood.” Overall, however, he excelled at crafting colorful imagery based on personal experiences. Like all great storytellers, Daisey made art and found meaning in the shared experiences of the everyday.

While still provoking interest, Daisey’s extemporaneous riffs into the broader history of the United States seemed less compelling and artful than the more poignant details from his personal life. To be fair, many of his political observations deservedly earned the audience’s delight, particularly his unflattering depictions of George W. Bush. Statements such as “Bush has the total confidence of a complete moron” and “God grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man” generated the most laughter. Likewise, while discussing the Florida recount that determined the 2000 presidential election, Daisey’s refrain of “fucking Florida” was met with agreeing moans. Equally appealing was the reference to Zinn’s belief that Democrats and Republicans had forsaken their distinctiveness by coalescing around the corrupt middle ground of corporate interests. Supportive chuckles followed Daisey’s jab: “You know what you are if you are in the middle of the road? Roadkill.” Even with these entertaining zingers, a mildly observant viewer could pick up on the messy, inconstant logic of an early draft. For example, Daisey invested considerable energy early in the show proclaiming that Bush and Gore were essentially same candidate. He later lamented that the disastrous Iraq War happened because the Supreme Court intervened to place Bush on the family throne. Inconsistency, anyone?

And wit and vitriol only go so far as acts of persuasion. Although widely acknowledged as an influential and important text, even left-leaning historians have scolded A People’s History of the United States and Zinn for his one-sided failings as a historian. It follows that Daisey’s acerbic rants on Zinn occasionally became tiresome, at least to me. As a citizen, I probably agree with almost all of what Daisey said in his angry and dismissive missives. As an academic, I found myself wanting him to play fair. Whether talking about the racism of the Electoral College or the unilaterally sinister motives guiding all U.S. foreign policy, Daisey’s diatribes rarely rested upon cited documentation, nor did they leave room for the possibility of moral complexity. As he fondly repeated the phrase, “as we have discussed” dozens of times, I admit to resisting the impulse to reply, “Actually, we haven’t discussed anything.” Granted, he is a monologist and such a performance probably best falls into the polarizing genre of manifesto; still, Daisey’s ungracious retelling of history ironically caused me, a liberal theatre professor, to wonder what smart, educated people of different political vantage might say if given the Guthrie’s soapbox. Or, to put it another way, walking into the parking garage after the show, a fellow theatre goer remarked to me, “Daisey was like the liberal version of everybody’s blowhard libertarian uncle who won’t let anyone else talk at Thanksgiving.”

The biggest disconnect occurred late in the show when Daisey eviscerated the mainstream media for not doing due diligence in the run up to the second Iraq War. The lack of accountability from major news organizations regarding the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction certainly represents a massive failure of modern journalism. But when he passionately argued that politicians and journalists were complicit in lying to make a case for war, I could not but help but remember the reason behind the controversy of Daisey’s earlier show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In making the important and reasonable case against Apple’s exploitation of labor practices in China, Daisey himself fictionalized and embellished his experiences visiting a Chinese factory. Artists do this sort of thing, of course, but when given the career-making opportunity to have his show profiled on the popular radio show, This American Life, Daisey deliberately misled the show’s producers as to the veracity of his source, a humiliation for which he eventually apologized. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a colossal failure of journalism leading up to the Gulf War with Daisey’s relatively minor ethical misstep; the former carries so much more weigh and impact, obviously. Still, because of his history, Daisey, as much as anyone, should perhaps practice a modicum of generosity of spirit regarding the toils and pressures of narrative truth-telling.

Let me be clear: Mike Daisey deserves his status as one of the most gifted and important solo performers of his generation, and I loved the Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as a piece of political theatre (if not as an act of journalism). I loved this new, more ambitious work less. By making a case about the failures of our past, as he did throughout A People’s History, Daisey presumably desires a transparent, positive, and flourishing future. Might not this future be more attainable if we proclaim the sins of history while vigilantly also exploring the nuanced complexities of our world? In doing so, historians and artists alike must somehow do our jobs while clinging to the virtue of intellectual humility. Even in the hands of gifted storyteller, the alternative risks the tragic flaw of hubris.