I've talked about monologist Mike Daisey before. We first saw him ages ago at the old Intiman, doing 27 Dog Years @ Amazon.com. I caught three of his four monologues on "Great Men" up on Cap hill. Saw The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Rep, and followed up on the craziness of his encounter with "This American Life". And now he's back in Seattle, at the Rep, doing A People's History.
That's all very well, Jeff, but why are you talking about it now, as opposed to after seeing the play? That is your usual MO, after all. Well, you really should go see it, and I want to tell you that before we get there ourselves, because I've been listening to the performance in advance.
So Mr. Daisey made an offer. He said: Here are the recordings so far. Download them, and listen to them. But, the deal is, you have to talk about them.
And so I'm going to talk about them. But to be honest, it has not been easy as it sounds. First message came through as MIME files with broken links. He fixed that, but then I was sent to LA for a few days. Then I got the files, but they were in an audio format I could not get my car computer to read (Yeah, Tech World problems). So I brought them in on a memory stick to work to change the format and promptly lost the stick (and I am deeply afraid one of the resident dogs has eaten it). Got the files into my Dropbox, which promptly went over its limits (they are big files). FINALLY I got it all set up so I can listen to them on my hour-plus-long commute from Grubb Street to downtown.
And it has been worth it. Mr. Daisey is a geek, a nerd, one of us, and turns that level of wonkiness to the American History. Knowledgeable and acerbic, profound and extremely profane, he's the guy who swallowed the encyclopedia as a child and can bring up the facts in a direct, meaningful, smartass way. He's the history professor you've always really needed.
Now A People's History is one of those depressing, truthful books. I've had it on my shelves for years, and I have read it in full, but in bits and piece. And I've read it in bits and pieces because prolonged exposure can really dampen your soul. The book can be summarized with a quote from Jimmy Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid "The strong take it away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong." The inhabitants of earth who actually lived in those past times, who actually did the work, who suffered so we can be her today, have been erased, forgotten, molded into faceless economic trends and social mores while we concentrate on the great men and the great battles. They are pushed aside while we build a suitable narrative for ourselves, construct a history shorn of its blemishes and genocides.
Tough read. And Daisey doesn't shy away from its warts-upon-warts-and-all description. There are bright moments of light, but the overarching tone of our own history is one of venal greed and violence. As I'm listening, he is still making jokes as he strikes hard against our foundational lies, and I hear the audience go quiet. This is tough sledding.
He starts with Columbus, who within my lifetime has been toppled from his heroic throne. As a young man I was instructed in his legend as one of the bedrock stories of our society, but here he is, damned in his own journals and actions. Genocide against the natives and a lust for gold. He has diminished both in achievement (The Vikings and others were first, though not as effective in destroying the neighborhood), and in iconic statue. And here's the thing: Columbus Day as a going concern really started in the mid-nineteenth century, about the same time as a unified Italy itself got established. Columbus himself would not call himself an Italian, but rather a Genoan, in the service of Spain. Yet it is identified strongly as an celebration of Italian-American Heritage. Part of the lessening of Columbus Day, I think, has come from the assimilation of the Italian immigrants into the Ameriborg body politic, escaping from the cities into exurbia. Less of a group that would defend the man as embodying their virtues.
This is the sort of thing that Daisey's work does to you - it gets you thinking and takes you down some strange passes to some very uncomfortable conclusions. And that's a good thing.
Here's another one that occurred to me on the way up I-5; History never ends, but history never really begins, either. The sighting of the New World is a convenient starting point for the History of Europeans in America, but the Spanish treatment of the native population has its origins in the reconquista that "recaptured" Spain from the North African Muslims, and the slave trade found its roots in the Portuguese use of radical new tech (deep-hulled caravels and galleons) meeting large, organized nations in Africa who found a good bargain in dealing with a oversupply of conquered peoples (Lest it sounds like I'm trying to spread the blame, it was still our ancestors who created the horrible Middle Passage that claimed half of the enslaved peoples it carried.)
History is messy and nasty and ugly, and the narratives we have used to tame it are like how we explain our dreams - filling in bits and excising uncomfortable truths. I'm glad I'm getting a chance to get in on this on the ground floor, as it were, and am looking forward to the performance itself. But I recognize that its going to be a rough one.