Running Time: 85 minutes; Intermissions: none; Price of a ticket: $69-$299; High-stakes world taken on by characters in play (according to the press material): publishing; Theater: Studio 54; MTA lines disrupted on Saturday afternoon when reviewer went to see play: 1, 3, 4, 7, D, F, J, L, N, R, and Q; Estimated average age of audience at the matinee: 60
Central Question: Can a truth be self-evident?
Many reviews of Lifespan of a Fact, of the 2012 book or the 2018 Broadway adaptation, open with a similar conceit: if John D’Agata thinks that it’s okay to peddle lies for facts in the name of greater artistic truth, then so does this reviewer.
In case there was any doubt, the world of journalism aligns itself squarely with the side of facts. And these days, you’d be hard pressed not to sympathize with them. On the morning I went to see Lifespan of a Fact on Broadway, I had lain in bed and scrolled through the news of another devastating Hurricane that the president would refuse to attribute to climate change and the assassination of a Saudi journalist that the president suggested was the result of “rogue killers.” The top “trending” article on the New York Times app was titled “Goodbye, Political Spin. Hello, Blatant Lies.”
If that makes Lifespan sound on the nose, that’s because it is. And the play, which opened at Studio 54 on October 18th and stars Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Canavale, and Cherry Jones, knows it too. While it mercifully resists overt references to the state of 2018 America, it doesn’t need to: the current administration’s war on truth runs as an undercurrent throughout the actions, raising the stakes of the debate about truth and fact. But the more urgent the context, the less space exists for nuance.
The book Lifespan of a Fact traces the conversation that began in 2005 between Jim Fingal, a fact-checker at this magazine, and John D’Agata, an experimental essayist. D’Agata had written an essay about the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. Harper’s had originally commissioned the piece but later rejected it for factual inaccuracies. This led it to the Believer, where the editor, Heidi Julavits, asked Fingal, an intern, to determine what was true and what was not. Each page of Lifespan presents a triptych: a portion of the essay framed by Fingal’s fact-checking annotations and his correspondence with D’Agata. Both men are stubborn and a little cocky, and neither ever fully occupies the moral high ground. Fingal quibbles over details as irrelevant as whether bricks look more red than brown and asks if he can reach out to D’Agata’s mother to confirm that she owns a cat. At the same time, he discovers that D’Agata altered some of the quotations in the piece and changed the details of a girl’s suicide in order to frame the subject of his essay as more unique.
In conversations largely relegated to nonfiction MFA programs, the philosophy of the relationship between truth and literature tends to be split. There are the essayists, who see the notion of nonfiction primarily in the “non,” as an invitation to exist in a gray space between poetry and prose and make use of both of them at will. In other words, just because something is not fiction doesn’t make it factual. And on the other side are the literary journalists, the ones who define the primary function of nonfiction in its positioning to the truth—that nothing is fictionalized. Most nonfiction writers fall somewhere in between, finding value in both sides. But D’Agata, head of the nonfiction program at Iowa, represents the extreme of the former, making some of the more journalistic practitioners of the genre a little queasy.
The Broadway adaptation doesn’t concern itself with arcane genre distinctions. Instead, it amplifies the debate into a form that resembles a Greek comedy or a Socratic dialogue in which the characters are exaggerated to physicalize opposing viewpoints: D’Agata, played by Canavale, dressed in a Breadloaf shirt and carrying a Strand bag, whose gruff anti-pretentiousness positions him as a cowboy intellectual in the vein of David Foster Wallace (whose praise of D’Agata gets cited in the play), John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Hunter S. Thompson. And then there is Jim Fingal, played by an effectively nerdy Radcliffe, who loves craft ales and graduated from Harvard, a fact he manages to mention in the first two minutes of the play. If D’Agata represents the chauvinism of the (typically male) writer who feels entitled to change the rules, Fingal is the pious straight man, whose notion of truth is both idealistic and wholly unromantic. When asked what story means to him, Fingal responds by explaining the etymology of the word: “Story comes from the Greek historia—an accurate retelling…” This is Fingal’s gift: he manages to get and miss the point at every turn.
Meanwhile, Cherry Jones plays Emily Penrose, the editor of the magazine. Her character was one of the play’s central additions to the book, allowing her to serve as the interlocuter between the two. She negotiates between the two of them, attempting to quantify the factuality of the piece while also deciding which facts are kept and which are omitted. She serves as a stand-in for the audience, the owner of the moral dilemma of the play: her distress signifies what happens when you try to have the truth both ways. There is no such thing as à la carte facts.
For a play whose central question involves what happens when the facts get sacrificed for a better story, there was a considerable amount of narrative embellishment added to translate the play onto the stage. D’Agata is filled out with a childhood that gives biographical rationale to his disdain for facts and preference for narrative. The Believer becomes some sort of a Condé Nast publication, with Cherry Jones a gruff, Tina Brown-like figure who has an unlimited AmEx at her disposal. The opening scenes take place in her office, with the bland, asymmetrical minimalism of media companies, excel spreadsheets, and worries about lawsuits. In other words, the stakes of the play have been thoroughly corporatized, as if to assure the audience that this isn’t a niche conversation about the nature of Art and Truth but something that impacts us all.
But by framing the story in terms of what makes an essay publishable in a journalistic context, the play dead-ends the conversation. There is a rhetorical distinction in the sense of purpose: news is meant to inform while art categorically subverts convention and carves out space for contradiction. The book succeeds because it isn’t concerned with what might be publishable but rather what we might consider to be true.
I might just be sore because what was sacrificed in the play were the facts of writing. While the danger to legacy media empires is real and the ability of reporters to do their jobs is increasingly compromised, essayists operate in different world with a separate economy. In an interview with the New York Times, D’Agata said that he talked the playwrights out of a line suggesting that D’Agata was earning $10,000 for the essay, a number that is insultingly ludicrous for anyone in the business of publishing literary essays, where you can expect to earn somewhere between $100-$300 for a piece that might take you weeks. But these aren’t the facts that make for compelling theater.
In Fingal’s defense, sometimes having all the facts, even the ones that don’t fit, can create beauty and lend texture to a text. Journalism itself requires a selection of facts woven together to create a larger truth; the effectiveness of a story depends on the strength of the facts that bolster it. And sometimes, I feel that the pressure we put on narratives can be come burdensome. It is exhausting to watch film adaptations that feel the need to dramatize aspects of the book to make it compelling. Characters need emotional backstories, motivations, and plot trajectories, in order to merit empathy. Why isn’t the fact of a human enough to make us care?
In one fact that remained constant, the play chose to use the name of the boy whose suicide was at the center of D’Agata’s essay. For a work in which so much of the action revolved around the ethics of using someone’s story to serve a larger (if more personal) truth, there was something unsettling about the details of this boy’s death being litigated onstage night after night. Fingal warns D’Agata that his essay would become the authoritative story on the boy’s life and death to emphasize the responsibility he had toward the boy’s family. But this conflict exceeds the scope of the original essay now the boy’s name is repeated over eight performances a week, confined to an eight or (nine) second-long fall. His death has been flattened into a symbol, a point for debate instead of a human life. And this might be the most 2018 death of all: a death in which the facts themselves are all that remain, like a boy’s hoodie, a toddler’s drowned body washing up on a Turkish beach, or a journalist’s dismembered body. Or, perhaps we can think of it in the opposite terms, a death in which the facts have eroded but the story has moved into symbolism: a massacre of children spun as an invention by gun-control advocates, or the power of a boy who had his hands up when he was murdered by a police officer. In all these cases, we lose the prickly, incorrigible details, the personal mythologies, the dynamic topography of a human life.