Moon #23: “Saturn is a Father Devouring his Children”
“There is something about being that kind of person, wanting to engage in that way, that makes it hard to get in touch with the artistic side of yourself because you want to fight. You know, you want to fight because you think there are things that matter. It’s not as artsy to fight.”
In Episode 23 of his 29-part monologue, All the Faces of the Moon, Mike Daisey makes some compelling connections between the drive to make art that matters, the rituals and magic surrounding live theater, and, well, kicking ass like you’re in Die Hard.
While there have been allusions to action movies throughout this piece and an odd trope dappled in here or there, we now find Daisey in full-on Matrix mode, strutting into the Freedom Tower wearing a long coat, carrying a duffle bag, and on his way to the top floor to rescue his wife. Now, the holy name of Bruce Willis is blatantly invoked, but it’s not just John McClane, a character who Daisey says encapsulates masculinity in its totality – Daisey can’t resist also bringing up Willis’ Moonlighting days, because he really wants to stick the transition. He wants to show that the trail leading from a “meta-theatrical” narrative into an action movie tower was blazed long ago. And he wants to show that in a way the same instinct – to do something that matters – can motivate both of them.
Daisey begins the show with a kind of reflection on his 2008 monologue, How Theater Failed America. I have already discussed this piece’s impact on me a little, but it bears repeating that it truly was a watershed moment in my understanding of why art is made and how it should be used. I had literally never heard of Daisey before I stepped into the Bleecker Street Theater that night, but I instantly appreciated his bombast, his honesty, and certainly his humor. The monologue landed as a call to action for me, and so here it was nice to hear a little of the story that led Daisey to issue that call.
Theatrical performance works on ritual, he explains, and the darkened rooms and repeated actions create a kind of “liminal space.” He goes on to describe a moment years ago when those rituals failed him – when the liminal space collapsed onstage and he felt his audience disengage. He talks a little about the dire straits that the American Theater was in then and that it finds itself in now: a third of the audience for straight plays gone in about a decade (according to recent NEA polling data), rampant insularity, the reallocation of arts funding to the acquiring of real estate, and the meteoric rise of ticket prices. These grim facts have even led Daisey and his wife to adopt a morbid vernacular when speaking to house staff at theaters. Rather than ask how full the house is – a question usually met with a euphemistic and unhelpful response – they now ask the number of “souls on board.” The ship is going down, Daisey seems to say, and How Theater Failed America was his attempt to bail a few buckets worth of water out of it.
A small snippet from Episode 23:
In those days I believed that art could change things. I believed that. And I keep telling myself it’s still possible that art can change things. I tell myself that over and over again. It’s like a mantra. It’s like a prayer I tell myself. Some of you in this room, maybe you are disciples of the arts? Maybe you practice in one form or another? You know what prayer I’m talking about. The hope that the things you do matter. The hope that you could possibly make something matter to someone. That you could communicate with even one person; you could make that spark leap that gap. That you could say something that you would feel, in the fullness of time, mattered. Just to you. Just so you would know in that moment before you fall asleep that you hadn’t wasted your life. That’s the dream.
But with All the Faces of the Moon, Daisey is in a way living that dream. Within the context of this narrative – a New York fantasia on magical themes – Daisey’s art does matter. In fact, it’s supernatural. As we have seen in a previous episode, Daisey’s “powers,” if I can use so gauche a term, coincide with his real-life storytelling abilities. Like when he had to coax his erstwhile mentor Phil out of a bar, he had to first construct a story and invoke the rituals of performance to make it happen. It’s an ability used to great effect in this episode after Daisey’s confrontation with the Small Man, who he finds waiting at the top of the Freedom Tower. Daisey had believed the Small Man was merely Mayor Bloomberg, but he is actually someone else; pointedly someone else. In fact he looks like no one – some sort of enchantment makes his face difficult to look at. This and his modulated voice make his identity impossible to discern, but he is in fact the mayor of New York City and has been for years. Bloomberg and Giuliani were just his “meat puppets.”
Daisey sidesteps direct confrontation with the Small Man by reminding him of a public speech Daisey had made during Occupy Broadway, when he challenged Mayor Bloomberg to a Mexican wrestling match. Being the actual mayor, the Small Man is obliged to accept and the two agree that it will take some time to schedule – classic New York bureaucracy for you. Daisey then quickly frees his wife and the two of them leap out of the top floor of the Tower. Daisey spies the Staten Island Ferry in the river below while they are falling and diverges into a brief aside about monologist Spalding Gray, who Daisey admired greatly and who committed suicide by jumping off the Ferry. By the end of this segment, Daisey and his wife, Jean-Michele, find themselves riding away from the Freedom Tower in an open convertible Cadillac with Jack and Mary Jane. When Jean-Michele questions how this is possible, Daisey, whose nose is bleeding, tells her simply that it was a “segue” and not to ask about it. I’ve talked a lot about the impressive, but sometimes hard to follow transitions that Daisey employs in his work; well, now he has made them into a bona fide dark art.
Daisey has a lot of fun with the idea of himself as an action hero, like when he stops the elevator on the way up the Freedom Tower to have a dramatic moment with Phil. As he tries to lay down the law with his tentative companion, the alarm blares so loud that neither can hear the other. It’s a very funny scene that a film director would work hard to stage, but Daisey – who must by turns play himself, Phil, and the elevator alarm – executes it with effortless hilarity. Daisey does check in briefly with other characters like Livia, Saul, and the Grey Lady, who finds herself under the protection of giant moles who live beneath the city. But largely this episode is devoted to exploring the rituals of theater and how they can be used to influence the world – a theme that culminates in the appearance of the three fates of myth, who here take the form of three Stage Managers.
And speaking of effortless hilarity and art influencing life – the Mexican wrestling challenge Daisey issued to Mayor Bloomberg actually happened. It’s about 25 minutes long, but well worth your time:
Follow the podcast at mikedaisey.com