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Stage West adapts Broadway’s buzzy, controversial ‘Lifespan of a Fact,’ which examines truth vs. fiction

Based on an essay and the resulting contentious book, the play raises questions about the nature of nonfiction writing

By Manuel Mendoza, Nov 23, 2019 in the Dallas Morning News

The Lifespan of a Fact is the name of a play currently on stage in Fort Worth. It’s based on a 2012 book with the same title, which itself grew out of a controversial essay written nine years earlier by John D’Agata about a 16-year-old boy who jumped to his death from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.

But what if the play had a different name, and I just thought The Lifespan of a Fact sounded sexier? Or what if the book was written only eight years after the essay, but I felt nine was a more poetic number? Or if the boy was actually a 20-year-old man but a teenage suicide victim sells more papers? Would that make this article you’re reading any less true?

D’Agata, an Iowa-based writer and college professor, doesn’t necessarily think so.

His contentions are at the center of the debate that rages in both versions of The Lifespan of a Fact. Or, as he puts it in our telephone interview: "The matter of what exactly we mean by nonfiction, by essay, by taking literary or artistic license.”

D’Agata is scheduled to come to Fort Worth on Nov. 29 to see Stage West’s production of the play and participate in an after-show discussion with the audience. It runs through Dec. 8 and is being promoted as “based on a true-ish story.”

In fact, ahem, D’Agata’s artistic license in his piece, which explores Las Vegas’ high suicide rate, is what has helped turn the essay that started it all, “What Happens There," into a near cottage industry. He originally wrote it for Harper’s Magazine in 2003, the same year that James Frey published his bestselling memoir A Million Little Pieces, later vilified over its exaggerations and fabrications, including by Frey’s former champion Oprah Winfrey.

Harper’s rejected What Happens There for some of the same reasons that its eventual publication at The Believer took another seven years: its loosely factual style. What everyone seems to agree is true is that an enthusiastic intern at The Believer named Jim Fingal, a recent Harvard graduate assigned to fact-check the 15-page essay, produced over 100 pages identifying problems with it.

While the magazine was figuring out what to do, D’Agata and Fingal decided to write an unusual book in which the essay appears in the middle of the pages in typical black ink, encircled by their disagreements in red.

“Jim became a hero to fact-checkers,” D’Agata says.

Fingal takes two pages of red ink to dispute just the first passage from the original essay: “On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas, archaeologists unearthed parts of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.”

The back and forth gets intense; D’Agata calls Fingal names. But a lot of the conversation was reconstructed and enhanced. D’Agata says they’re friends. How else could they have spent so much time on the project and then gone on a book tour together?

“We amped up the heat of the argument to make it more dramatic,” D’Agata says. “We were both nerdy guys who like talking about really nerdy stuff. John, the character in the book, is more of a diva than I think I am, more arrogant. I thought that would be obvious to people. People insisted otherwise.”

Art over journalism
The book received some nasty reviews. D’Agata initially didn’t want to be interviewed for this story because “I've become pretty vigilant now about protecting myself from participating in articles and profiles in which I could potentially end up becoming a punching bag again,” he wrote in an email.

“You have a lot of people using the term ‘feeling as if they were duped,’ and the writer in me takes issue with that,” D’Agata says later in our interview about the attacks on Frey and himself. “That’s not really our relationship. I’m not auditioning to be your best friend. I’m employed to try to tell a really good story.”

D’Agata’s argument from the beginning has been that he’s making art, not journalism; that the essay form has a long and cherished history of eschewing facts for larger truths. We talk about the New Journalism of the 1960s, when writers like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe created so-called “nonfiction novels” that incorporated imagination into reporting.

I mention “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson and the peyote-eating knowledge seeker Carlos Castaneda as other examples of important truth-stretchers. He brings up the ancient Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in which the author took liberties in chronicling his times’ famous men.

In print journalism, that approach can be a career-ender. Just ask Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass or Janet Cooke, The Washington Post reporter who lost her job and the 1981 Pulitzer Prize she had won for her profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict, “Jimmy’s World,” when it turned out there was no Jimmy. The publisher was forced to make a public apology.

Not everyone agreed on Cooke’s fate. Famed novelist Gabriel García Márquez said she should’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

D’Agata says readers need to be more educated about how to tell the difference between the various types of nonfiction.

In the nonfiction program he heads at the University of Iowa, “students write from the wildly experimental-lyrical to memoirs of different kinds to straight-up reported pieces. But nonfiction means more than reported pieces.”

What’s true: down the rabbit hole
If the book The Lifespan of a Fact is more “truth-y” than the essay that spawned it, the play goes even further down the rabbit hole, compressing time, inventing a character and killing off D’Agata’s mother, who is very much alive, for dramatic purposes.

Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, it premiered on Broadway last year with an impressive cast: Cherry Jones as the fictional editor at an unnamed magazine; Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Fingal; and Bobby Cannavale as D’Agata.

Stage West executive producer Dana Schultes plays the editor, Emily Penrose, in Fort Worth.

Kareken and Murrell call themselves “comedy people.” They collaborated on an award-winning screenplay, THESE! Conquered the Earth!, about haunted breast implants. Their take on The Lifespan of a Fact backs them up.

The play is quite funny in depicting all-out war between writer and fact-checker, with the editor taking a while to catch on as slipping ad sales and circulation grab more of her attention. She’s hoping this piece from a prestigious essayist will buoy the magazine’s reputation and bottom line. The audience is left to decide what finally happened.

The playwrights were struck by “the bilious reviews of the book, because if someone’s this angry, there has to be something going on here,” Murrell says in a phone interview. “Angry people are hilarious. We just couldn’t stop laughing. Then we read the book, and we thought, commercially, if there’s a lot of emotion being stirred up here, that means ticket sales. And we’re admirers of the book. It’s very funny. So given that it was two hyper-verbal, intelligent men finger-wagging, it was the natural thing to try.”

I write this as the impeachment hearings play out on the TV in the next room. But do the issues around What Happens There and The Lifespan of a Fact have anything to do with the current atmosphere of “fake news” in which people can’t seem to agree on what’s true, when obvious fabrications are taken by some as gospel?

In the play, Fingal says that if D’Agata’s story is published with fact errors “it’s a career-ender for both of us.” He implies that in the age of the internet and Google, people will be easily able to call out the mistakes. But another way of looking at the online world in which social media spreads information exponentially is that lies become permanent fixtures no matter how often corrected because of the sheer volume.

For D’Agata, the answer to the question is no.

“It’s a literary issue, the nerdy thing no one cares about, to let the essayist make their art,” he says. “Long before the current political era, it’s been a subject in the nonfiction world that people have not agreed on. It’s interesting that whenever it comes up, the issue sparks not so much debate as hysteria. There’s never the possibility for sober debate about it.”

D’Agata thinks the play goes a long way toward encouraging such debate by at least engaging in a three-way discussion about how much license a piece of writing can be afforded.

“What I really love about it, despite how strongly they disagree, is that these three people in the room are there at the end sitting together,” he says. “No one runs away. No one takes their ball and goes home. No one is tweeted to death.”