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  • ‘A Kind of Magic’: Theatre, Transportation, and Moral Persuasion
  • M. B. Willard (bio) and Jennifer Kokai (bio)

On 6 January 2012, the radio program This American Life presented the monologist Mike Daisey, who performed a portion of his show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Host Ira Glass introduced the monologue as a work of amateur journalism.1

Daisey told of taking a trip to China and discovering the harrowing conditions endured by factory workers at the Apple subcontractor Foxconn: child workers kept inside at gun point; the illnesses the chemical solvents used to clean screens fostered; and, in what was perhaps the most touching scene, an injured employee encountering a finished iPad for the first time, stroking the screen and calling it “a kind of magic.”

The episode received enormous attention, but shortly after it aired it was fact checked by journalists and found wanting. While the broad contours of Daisey’s story were correct, he had fabricated many of the personal anecdotes that made the piece so compelling. This American Life took the unprecedented action of creating an entire hour-long retraction of the show.

Daisey argued that his mistake had been to move a live theatrical work from the context of the theatre to the context of a radio program known for storytelling and short works of investigative journalism, which leads us to this curious exchange from the retraction episode:

Mike Daisey:

And I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater. And I regret deeply that it was put into this context, on your show . . . I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater, that [End Page 7] when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass:

I understand that you believe that, but I think you’re kidding yourself, in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk—people take it as a literal truth. I thought the story was literally true seeing it in the theater.2 Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show. I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true, because you were on stage saying, this happened to me. I took you at your word.3

Glass is surely aware of fictional theatrical works delivered in the first person.4 Though he did claim that the underlying events of the performance were true, Daisey never publicly claimed that his theatrical performances were journalism.5 Why did Glass believe that Daisey was entirely truthful? How did a monologue delivered in a theatre persuade him of Apple’s abuses?

Glass was not the only person who felt fooled or swindled by Daisey. Many of those who listened to the radio broadcast or downloaded the podcast believed that Daisey was presenting a factual narrative. Clearly, the typical audience member, whether an avid theatre goer or casual radio listener, believed that the performance was nonfiction. Moreover, the educated theatre-savvy audience member, aware of the conventions of documentary theatre and live performance, or what philosophers would identify as the normal consumer, was also wholly taken in. The subsequent outrage led us to ask the following questions. How do live theatrical performances persuade their audiences? When is a theatrical work responsible for the effects on its audience?

Philosophers have long recognized the power of narrative fiction to change how its consumers view moral matters.6 Contemporary philosophers have drawn on work from cognitive science and psychology to explain when a work of narrative fiction is responsible for the resulting changes in its consumers’ attitudes, emotions, and actions; its capacity for moral persuasion.7

Despite the attention given to the persuasive power of narrative fiction, philosophers have tended to focus on what we will term static works of fiction, such as novels or films, and ignore expressive works of performance, such...


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