Saturday, March 17, 2012

On Fantasy, Facts, and Fabrication: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Art

How’s THAT for Pretension in a Title?

Miss O' is feeling a little under the weather today, and so she's feeling a little critical.

Today’s title is brought to you by the letter “F.” What the alliterative “F” stands for, beyond the F words in the title, is Flunk.

People everywhere enjoy believing things that they know are not true. It spares them the ordeal of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for what they know.

–Brooks Atkinson

Brooks Atkinson was the New York Times theater critic in the mid-20th century, from 1925 to 1960, for most of that time, anyway (and for perspective, A Streetcar Named Desire 1947, and Death of a Salesman, 1949, were running on Broadway at the same time, right in the middle of his tenure). He was talking back there about why people like going to the theater, and in that context it’s charming. Did you read it a different way? Because I know I would, reading it for the first time now. By extension, we can see that as a lifestyle this way of being—believing things that are not true—is beyond dangerous, hence the beauty of Stephen Colbert’s word truthiness, the defining word of the new millennium.

If I Say It, It’s True

When writer James Frey was celebrated for his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, and it was revealed that he’d written it as a novel but his publisher convinced him it was “real enough” to sell—and sell better—as autobiography, everyone suddenly turned on not only the author, but the work itself. (Wikipedia now calls it “a semi-fictional memoir.”) What is at least a little heartening in this sordid set of conscious lies is that readers want to know if something is “true.” They actually want to know.

Even little kids, when they hear the Disney version of “The Three Little Pigs,” where all the brothers live and trick the wolf together, will ask (as educator Vivien Paley has pointed out), “Is that the real story?” Because they know—they have an inherent instinct for these lies. What they know is: If you toss together a house of straw, YOU DIE. If you build a half-assed house of sticks, you also DIE. Only when you build the house of bricks can you have any hope for survival. To tell the story in any other way is to say to children, “Go ahead and do a lousy, lazy job, because your brother will save your ass.” Is the true story—the first two pigs getting eaten by the wolf—really a lesson we want to protect children from? I’d say bring out the dead. Lay the carcass before them in story form. It’s life. One tornado through their town will teach them that, too. Why not a good story to prepare them?

So what is the role of art in all this debate? Is A Million Little Pieces a good book or a bad book? Does art quality change when the genre changes? It’s a vital question. Is a fur coat more beautiful if it’s real mink? Is a ring more stunning for being a real diamond? What if you can’t tell: Are you still allowed to be moved, or think it pretty?

You can ask this of high art and low—the forgeries of paintings, a woman who has had cosmetic surgery, a renovated home: Is something inherently more true or more beautiful for being unaltered, original, and stamped with a seal?

Here’s another case in point:

To recap the story: The monologist Mike Daisey, who has been performing his acclaimed show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at New York’s Public Theater—a show dismissed by some critics as not theater at all, but really journalism, a lecture—was recently showcased by Ira Glass on NPR’s This American Life, a show that exclusively focuses on stories of our real lives here on Earth. Daisey’s show has been promoted as an investigative piece about the conditions of workers in China who make Apple computers, iPods, iPads, and the horrifying working conditions Jobs’s company has subjected these workers to. It turns out that some of the story has been fabricated for theatrical purposes.  Daisey has said in a statement that he stands by his work, which is theater and not journalism.

So which is it?

"It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity," Daisey said in a statement posted on his website.

In fact-checking the show, the This American Life people interviewed the Chinese interpreter, who disputed many of his claims. Daisey, who reports, for example, that children work there, now admits he only guessed at the ages of those workers. He talks about hexane poisoning but now admits he didn’t meet any poisoned workers. Yet he stands by his work as art.

So which is it?

Here’s another view:

David Henry Hwang’s play Chinglish, which I saw in January, takes on the subject of interpreters. Hwang was a linguist at Stanford (I met him at Bread Loaf one summer and he’s just a doll) and does the audience the great favor of explaining how those Chinese signs for something such as “Dry Goods” end up, in English, as “Fuck Items” or some such. (The story, paraphrased and I hope I have all this right (don’t quote me—this is from memory and from a play, so I only know that it sounds true but don’t know if it's factual): Under Mao, Chinese calligraphy was forcibly recreated to “simplify” it for the common man, so symbols got conflated, and so the words “dry” and “do” became the same symbol, and “do” in Chinese has the same slang meaning as in English, “fuck,” so in a dictionary a Chinese may see “fuck” and not know it's sexual, you see, and there you have it.) So when things are “lost in translation” or “open to interpretation” you can see how it gets messed up.  (Hwang’s play also talks about men and women, Chinese and American, how the values and ideas and needs are different and get confused, so the play is multi-layered, but has a basis in language, since the main character is a sign-maker in Ohio who wants to do business in China.)

So which is it? “Dry” or “Do” or “Fuck”? That’s easy to answer. But when it comes to “art” or “fact,” this planet has been pissing me off for a couple of decades, and I can trace it to Bill O’Reilly and his “show” on Fox “network.” Back in the 90s I had students who came to believe that if you SAY it, it’s TRUE. And I’d stare.

Lest Mr. O’Reilly take all the credit for this, we have to go back at least to Shakespeare. Antony’s speech to the Citizens in Act III of Julius Caesar is a masterpiece of manipulation, because Antony understood what Brutus did not: If you say it, it’s true, until someone else comes along to say another thing, even if it’s a lie, and say it better. And THAT becomes true: “The evil that men do lives after them, / the good is oft interred with their bones. / So let it be with Caesar.”

And the truth is buried, too, isn’t it? I think of that poem by Robert Frost:

The Secret Sits

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

Truth from Fiction

Tim O’Brien’s short story collection, The Things They Carried, is a perfect book for this subject, not least because it is fiction that purports also to be a memoir of Vietnam even as he tells you he might be lying.  And you realize it’s true, this book, the way Virginia Woolf understood fiction to be more true (grammar check wants me to say “truer” but that is not what I mean) than so-called fact. One story, “On the Rainy River,” is about O’Brien’s near-draft-dodge, a story he says he hasn’t told anyone, not even his wife—is it true? “How to Tell a True War Story” discusses how one makes a story both believable—telling the truth—and bearable. (This is Kurt Vonnegut’s triumph in Slaughterhouse Five, a novel of WWII, and Elie Weisel’s in his Holocaust memoir, Night, a slight volume of 100+ pages culled from over 1,000.) The most astonishing story of O’Brien’s collection, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” is built around what would have to be a fantasy, but it somehow rings truest of all, so rich in symbolism, when a man’s childhood sweetheart joins him at his station in Vietnam, ostensibly to live with and comfort him, only to be absorbed by and empowered by the war and the country. It’s harrowing and gorgeous. (But don’t believe me; read the collection.)

When I say, “Don’t believe me,” I mean it. When Mike Daisey asks an audience to listen to him, and believe him, I gather that nowhere in his show (which I haven’t seen—I somehow distrusted it as theater, and now I am told I had it backwards) does he let his audience know he is dramatizing for effect. Does he consider his audience to be fools if they attend the theatrical presentation of a monologue at a theater, a monologue that bills itself as a memoir, as reportage, only to be shocked, shocked to learn he may not be telling the factual truth?

I have two responses to this.

1.     Brooks Atkinson, the aforementioned critic, wrote a book called Broadway, which I devoured when my mom gave it to me for Christmas in 1981 or so. Atkinson maintained that any Joe Schmo and his wife should be able to walk in off the street in New York and enjoy a play. (He was actually a little more high-minded than that, but that comes later in the book.) I more or less instantly disagreed with him. Going to the theater without knowing the ways of theater is like watching a football game without knowing the rules.  Sure, you can be captivated, and maybe you just instantly “get it,” but I’d sat through too many high school home games, agonizing over a holding penalty after a great run, hearing friends around me saying, “Lisa, calm down, why, what happened, what does that mean,” to know that not everyone can walk off the street to see much of anything without knowing the rules. As Mr. Atkinson also knew, “Good plays drive bad playgoers crazy.” Why? Because they have to know shit and really pay attention to the unfolding and know how that works, the way any sports game bores a spectator who is rule-clueless.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Andy Griffith when he was country, and so fun I think, “What It Was, Was Football,” from an innocent’s point of view: (The video is just there for cover—just listen.)

2.     If you call something “theater,” then, is it implicit that everything you experience from the stage is a fiction? If you do not call it “journalism,” but call it “a show,” is it just that? If so, the onus is all on Ira Glass for airing a theater piece on NPR and calling it nonfiction. But did Mr. Daisey say with a straight face that it all fell out just as he described? Yet even if he did, he’s on stage, delivering words as an actor in a theater, and like Tim O’Brien, he could tell you it’s true and tell you he’s lying, and you, the audience, have to decide, because this is art, after all.

3.     I have a third response: When you tell a story of your life, how can you be sure it’s true? How many times has your mom told a story, and your dad says, it didn’t happen that way? More often it’s the reverse in my family, but later my dad will tell me, “Your mother is wrong, but don’t tell her—it really did happen that way,” and he is sure he is speaking truth. The big question is: How can you be sure, and do you even need to be? If a story is a good story, and you can take away a memory from it, or learn by it, or be moved—isn’t that enough?

It really depends on what’s at stake.

Stakes and Obstacles

“The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep on looking.”  –Brooks Atkinson

As with photography, I think the power of writing, painting, or any other art form is the impulse it gives the tool user to keep on looking—at everything. Some things matter more than others, depending on the meaning they hold. When we try to look, we are often faced with obstacles: the higher the stakes (the greater our need), the more willing we are to surmount the obstacles to gain the better view.

It’s one of the first rules of playwriting: What’s at stake? To achieve good stakes, the playwright must, as M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart has observed, place the hero exactly where he does not want to be. The obstacles in his path on his way to getting out, and the way he surmounts them, are at the core of the drama. When the stakes are life and death, you have tragedy or drama; when the stakes are low but played as if they are life and death, you have farce. Anything in between can be comedy, in the richest sense.

Then there is LIFE: When the president lies and it means life and death, he’s a criminal. When Bill O’Reilly lies on national television and the lie means life and death, he’s a criminal.  But O’Reilly says he’s an “entertainer,” an artist, not a journalist, even on a news network. Which is it? When an artist lies, it’s called fabrication in service to art. He’s an artist. Is he a criminal? Society says “No.” Well, until he lies about his art.

I have mentioned often in my blog that I’m working on a theater version of The Miss O’ Show to be about teaching and my teaching life. It will be presented (whenever I get that far) as theater, a monologue, and done theatrically, but it will be absolutely true. For me.  How will I bill it? It’s in the title. I want people to leave thinking about what it’s like to be a teacher, that life. I don’t care about “facts” in terms of “Did that really happen?” It’s about the effect a scene produces in the audience: I want them to be moved, entertained, all that, and even educated. But it’s not reportage. Except when it is. But I'll be the only one who knows the difference.

I think the question we have to start asking is What’s at stake? If you bill your show as fact-finding, and Apple sends a special contingent to China to investigate, and a radio program goes fact-checking, and you don’t fess up to your fabrications, what are you? And to raise the stakes: When you send troops off to die in a phony war, what are you?

As I say, Miss O' is feeling sick today, and also sick of truthiness today. And we’re all a little bit guilty of going for the easy lie. So maybe she'll try out another F word, where nothing is at stake: Fantasy. And maybe he'll bring her a nice, tall one. And then, if she's very nice, a drink.

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