“If Lenny Bruce was embodied by Zero Mostel and played by Louis Armstrong the result would closely resemble Mike Daisey.” — BROADWAY WORLD
Mike Daisey has been called “the master storyteller” and “one of the finest solo performers of his generation” by the New York Times for his groundbreaking monologues which weave together autobiography, gonzo journalism, and unscripted performance to tell hilarious and heartbreaking stories that cut to the bone, exposing secret histories and unexpected connections. His monologues, fourteen and counting, include the controversial How Theater Failed America (which he performed last weekend at the Live Arts-Fringe Festival), the six-hour epic Great Men of Genius, the unrepeatable series All Stories Are Fiction, and the international sensation 21 Dog Years. This weekend he performs The Last Cargo Cult, which tells the story of remote South Pacific islanders that worship America, at the Suzanne Roberts Theater.
PHAWKER: Please explain what a ‘cargo cult’ is for the benefit of anybody that might not know.
MIKE DAISEY: Cargo cults are an anthropological phenomenon that sprung up in the South Pacific after World War II or during World War II. Military bases were built by the United States on a number of islands in the South Pacific, because it didn’t know where the war was going to shift to, and in some cases those islands had not had contact with, had very minimal contact with the outside world before that, so you had islands where they had the some culture for 2,000, 3,000, you know, 4,000 years and Stone Age level technology and then one day, abruptly, all these white people show up and they built air fields and quonset huts and they have refrigerators and radios and cigarettes and chocolate and you know it’s absolutely intoxicating because in the first world we specialize in making awesome shit, so when the shit is taken there people are like oh my god this shit is so awesome. And so what happens is that the shit goes there and it’s incredibly awesome and then like any good mythology you need a trigger. And the trigger was World War II ended and the vast majority of bases were not to be needed and then the Americans left. And you know how it is, as soon as familiarity breeds contempt, so once the Americans leave that’s when it truly becomes mythological because once they leave people want the shit to come back and so religions sprung up all over the South Pacific, separately on different islands, that worshipped the Americans and wanted to summon the Americans back to the islands, really, to summon the power of America and the objects of America, which I would argue and in the piece, want to know what religion we practice here, in the First World, as well. That’s sort of a working definition of a Cargo Cult, they’re mostly, not really extinct but they’re dying out everywhere, most places have had contact with the outside world and so when you start seeing refrigerators all the time they no longer seem magical. But on this one island in the Vanuatu island chain, the island of Tanna, the cargo cult is not just shrinking, it’s actually growing. And that’s the island that I went and lived on.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about that…
MIKE DAISEY: Sure, I was there this spring, in February, and I was there for a month. And I was there and went all over the island and visited multiple villages and then I lived with the people who are the principle cargo cultists of Tanna in the Vanuatu Island chain. And I lived there with them for a couple of weeks and interviewed the people and lived among them and lived with them and they were the impetus for my journey there. Also, I wanted to experience, they have a celebration one day a year where they tell the history of America, as they know it to be in dance, theater, and song. It’s the biggest celebration on the island, it has a small population and it draws thousands of people, almost everyone goes to this one village at the base of an erupting volcano, and so I wanted to be there for that celebration and I was and so I documented all this stuff and that is a major part of The Last Cargo Cult.
PHAWKER: Were you viewed as a god?
MIKE DAISEY: Oh no, they have contact with outside world now, of course.
PHAWKER: They do?
MIKE DAISEY: Yes, they do. There’s no place in the world that doesn’t have contact with the outside world, I mean effectively. What they do they have a lot of respectful and interested in Americans deeply, but more than the what turned out to be central, sort of ongoing argument happening on the island now is that the island itself is having a war, an economic war over the value of money, where the western side of the island has adopted money, at least partially so that you can buy things with money, on the western side of the island. On the eastern side of the island, money has no value. They don’t recognize money as having worth. They still follow what they call the custom, which is the original sort of socioeconomic system of communal living that existed on the island before white people came. And so as a consequence that the war is going on right now on the island and a lot of my time there was spent sort of documenting this sort of economic war.
PHAWKER: On the eastern side where they don’t use money, what do they use in place of money?
MIKE DAISEY: Well, if you use anything in place of money then you are actually using money. They live communally.
PHAWKER: You mean they just share everything?
MIKE DAISEY: Correct. I mean it’s more complicated than that but how we would fundamentally conceive it would be living communally, sharing pretty much everything and having a very low sense of personal property in the way that you and I would conceive it.
PHAWKER: How do you get to this island? Is there an airport or a landing strip? Do you take a boat there?
MIKE DAISEY: There’s a grass landing strip, so you can take a tiny plane that hops one of he islands to make your way to Tanna.
PHAWKER: How would you arrange such a trip? Did you contact somebody in advance or did you sort of show up and I say I want to hang out with you guys?
MIKE DAISEY: I showed up. There’s really no way to contact anyone in advance.
PHAWKER: And you were welcomed with open arms pretty much?
MIKE DAISEY: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this was all, what we’re actually discussing is the fun content of the show, but yes. But yeah, the show itself is fundamentally those two stories interwoven, the story of going to this island this cargo cult and the story of being and the story of the international financial collapse.
PHAWKER: How do you think those two are connected? Or how do they speak to each other?
MIKE DAISEY: Well, they speak to each other; really it’s interesting in the most fundamental way. I mean, the cargo cult you know is a religion that worships the power of America, and it seems absurd to us to worship the objects of America as that power. The truth is of course that is actually the objects of America that gave America its power, and continues to. Like it’s a very straightforward, it’s a very straightforward religion that is not terribly different from the ones we follow. Meanwhile, like looking the lens what constitutes religion there’s seems so absurd and of course in the show I talk about, I sort of construct an argument that our fundamental religion, in the First World, is finance, the financial system that the religion each and everyone of us practice far more than your Catholics, Jews, or Buddhists. We are practitioners of the monetary system. That it’s a religion built on faith, because money has no inherent value except that which we the faith and trust that it has. And so it’s the ultimate faith backed by ritual and the ritual is the more in the exchange of money that occurs each and everyday. In fact, to many of us, money, despite being an abstraction seems more real than most of the things in our lives. Despite the fact that it is not in fact actually real, which makes it very pervasive and really fascinating social construct that underlies almost everything we do. And in fact, going to the island and being in an area living with other humans without most of the armature of money around it was a fascinating experience, but sadly most humans will never experience because sort of monoculturally, money as a dominant paradigm is spread everywhere, so it’s very, very difficult for us to even imagine a world without money.
PHAWKER: I wanted to touch on a little bit, about a prior monologue show that you had done The Great Men of Genius which to my understanding you are turning into a book form.
MIKE DAISEY: Yes, I am.
PHAWKER: That’s set to publish when?
MIKE DAISEY: It’s due in about a year, so I’m sure it will probably come out a year after that. I’m also working on an anthology of 5 or 6 of the monologues, which those will be working from transcripts of course shows are not scripted in anyway so any adaptations takes quite a bit of writing,
PHAWKER: Getting back to Great Men of Genius, I was wondering if you could just give just sort of thumbnail takes on, basically it concerns Brecht, Tesla, P.T. Barnum, L. Ron Hubbard, correct?
MIKE DAISEY: Yes, that’s correct. Each of the monologues sort of is a biography from birth to death of that particular genius. Woven with personal stories that reflect and refract the threads on genius and megalomania that run through each person’s life. It sort of arranged in ascending order of insanity, so generally when it’s performed the preferred way is to perform them all together so it’s like 6 or 7 hours long with breaks, of course. There’s a dinner break, then we take a break between the first and second and the third and fourth.
PHAWKER: Do you think we could go through and you could give us thumbnail takes on each of these men and your estimation, who they are, and why they matter?
MIKE DAISEY: I dedicated a couple of years working on shows about these people, so it’s hard to thumbnail them, but I mean if people aren’t familiar with them, you know Bertolt Brecht was the father of alienation and theater, really the first person to question the construct of the theater like look a theater from within and use the act of going into the theater as a lever for change and also the first to divide the theater into its components parts like to divide the experience emotionally of being in the theater from the intellectual experience of hearing a story and making the line cleave between them. He also had a very fascinating life, fleeing from the Nazis, betraying some of his closest people, being hauled in front of the House Select Committee On American activities, writing in Hollywood. I mean, really a fascinating very conflicted, very trouble person, quiet too.
P.T. Barnum was not quiet at all, extremely extroverted, famous, very famous showman, who sort of epitomizes a lot of what we consider now sort of American ideals about what it means to be a showman. Really, sort of invented the idea of American showman and popularized the sideshow and created on a huge series a popular thing that resonated a popular culture in an era before television and radio to a degree that it’s actually become hard for us to imagine now where he convinced all Americans an opera singer that no one had ever heard or seen, to a level that when he brought the opera singer to America at the docks, 25,000 people were waiting for this opera singer to arrive. So I mean it’s difficult to capture really a genius for promotion.
Nikola Tesla is an extremely brilliant inventor who actually invented the dominant form of electricity that we all use, everyday of our lives and the alternating electric motor that runs every single object that relies on a motor in our world, and as a consequence should be completely, utterly famous but was deeply fucked over. He didn’t understand business well enough and a lot of the credit for the inventions he authorized goes to Edison and to other people. An insane man who became increasingly erratic and had visions of aliens speaking to him, he invented a Death Ray, like very, very strange, really captured the arc of dramatic adventure.
And then finally, L. Ron Hubbard popularized a religion, created a religion ad hoc out of whole cloth. He was the first person in our world to merge religion and business to create an incredibly and incredibly profitable business model and used a tremendous amount of personal charisma to create a system that abuses a huge number of people, who enter into, but is tremendously compelling and self-sustaining so that even today the church of Scientology is tremendously powerful, and in fact when I perform the show I hear from them and they make their voice known and they’re the most litigious organization in the history of the world and we have a lot of litigious organizations in the world. So, that’s sort of the arc of the piece.
PHAWKER: To what extent have you been harassed by the Scientologists?
MIKE DAISEY: Oh you know, they’re very good at knowing exactly what they can and can’t do, so they go right up to the line of what is permissible so they will stand outside of where you are, but on the public sidewalk and they’ll remain standing there for long periods of time you know hours and hours and of course and they’ll call everyday at the same time over and over again, but always exactly at the same time. Things like that, kind of like standard psychological operations, like they’re very good at understanding exactly what the legal rules are and they go right up to the edge of the legal rules. That is their modus operandi.