A quick pointer to George Hunka's excellent roundup of the scandal unfolding around Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which journalistic and theatrical ideas of truthfulness have collided head on. The ensuing debate opens a can of worms about documentary theatre. My comment on Superfluities, which I'm pasting below:
It seems Daisey –
unwittingly, I think, in that I don’t believe he did anything in bad faith(update: it is undeniable that Daisey lied, both to his audiences and to TAL about the nature of his work) – encouraged people to think of his work in the ways it was received. There’s no doubt that the facts he’s retailing are pretty much true, whether or not he personally witnessed them, as anyone who reads the accounts of Foxconn elsewhere would know; but putting his work in the context of TAL would only make the distinction between the ethics of journalism and theatre more confused. There’s a larger question underneath there, about the illegality of imagination in contemporary culture, and the passive acceptance of various kinds of authority, that I find disturbing. I haven’t seen Daisey’s shows, but it seems clear that he’s not making verbatim theatre, where one might be on surer ground. But he has created a persona who acts very much like an investigative journalist, and that brings him up front in conflict with the ethics and responsibilities of journalism. My first thought was the scandal around the fictionalisations of the Independent journalist Johann Hari, whose career was basically destroyed when it was discovered that he was taking imaginative liberties in his stories, placing himself at the centre of events or conversations where he was not present and, worse, which might not have happened. This is the same problem, but from a different practice in which fictionalising is part of the practice.
But I agree, what’s mainly disturbing is the complacent acceptance of the “authentic” in the audience. Brecht’s practice was about stimulating the performance of thought, both in his actors and in the audience. This is the reverse of that: it’s about different kinds of authority which anoint the transmission of information with veracity, and that veracity then driving action. I am mainly surprised, perhaps because I haven’t seen Daisey in action, that so many people who ought to know better took Daisey’s monologues as literal fact, which suggests a shocking naivety: it’s like those people who send wedding presents when characters get married in soap operas.
Just a note on the “willing suspension of disbelief”: Coleridge specifically was speaking of the fantastic, works like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which it was wholly clear to any reader that the story wasn’t “true” in any factual sense. “My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” In other words, the disbelief comes first, and then is suspended. This work, it seems to me, asked for belief without any sense of disbelief, and therefore contains no moment of suspension, or of movement to what Coleridge calls “poetic faith”: and that is clearly its problem.
You can read George's editorial, with handy links, here. Footnote: the real issue with This American Life is that Mike Daisey misrepresented the nature of his work to Ira Glass, and misled the program. The lie exists in that action, not necessarily in the work of theatre itself. The ethical problems around it do raise questions about documentary theatre, or theatre that presents itself as factually true.