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Mike Daisey's False Witness

Edelman, Joshua (2020) Mike Daisey's False Witness. In: Theatrical Scandals: Social Dynamics of Turbulent Theatrical Events. Themes in Theatre: Collective Approaches to Theatre and Performance . Brill, pp. 216-236. ISBN 978-90-04-43398-4

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Abstract

This chapter discusses the controversy around Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he shared both his love of Apple products and the horrors he saw on his visit to the Chinese factories in which they were made. When a portion of the play was broadcast on a popular American radio programme, it was revealed that Daisey had not, in fact, seen some of the things he described in the play. In the ensuing scandal, Daisey called what he had done ‘true for theatre,’ an argument met with some sympathy by performance scholars but scoffed at by the general public. This chapter seeks to shed light on these claims, but also to address this problematic gap in perception. Some of the confusion comes from the question of genre. Daisey’s work is both documentary theatre and autobiographical performance, and these two forms, with their differing histories, aims and methods, work with two related but distinct notions of truth. The chapter argues that Daisey’s work is not simply autobiographical or documentary, but testimonial. As such, the chapter discusses the specific character and requirements of the heightened form of speech known as witnessing, and concludes that it is not sufficient to refer to Daisey as a fabulist or a liar; rather, he should be thought of as a perjurer. If theatre of witness and testimony is to claim the heightened political and ethical stance it has, and the social authority that comes with the heightened act of witnessing, then the possibility of false witness must be considered. This framing also helps to explain both the ferocity of this scandal and its invisibility to some theatrical insiders. Daisey’s work was, for many audience members, placed within the potent social frame of testimony – the rules of which it, scandalously, did not observe – while some theatrical insiders placed it in a more autonomous aesthetic frame which has the right to set its own rules.

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