It isn’t surprising that The Lifespan of a Fact is a hot play this season on Broadway. The provenance of “facts” has been weaponized by President Trump in his dangerous, gaslighting war on the media, and then there is the starry casting of Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones in the play itself.
Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell’s excellent play is based on a true story. In 2010, the author John D’Agata published a piece about the 2002 suicide of Levi Presley, a Las Vegas teenager, for Believer magazine. You can read it in its final form here.
But the epic story of his fights with fact-checker Jim Fingal around that piece began in 2005, and finally became a co-authored 2012 book on which this play is based. On stage, the action is compressed down to a weekend (which isn't what happened), with a dramatic flight to Las Vegas (that never happened either).
The play features Fingal and D'Agata engaged in mortal journalistic combat, with Jones’ editor trying to referee between them.
Fingal is a stickler for getting things right, whereas D’Agata says, “I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece. Don’t get bogged down in the details, keep your eye on the big picture. Except don’t, because that’s my job.”
Jim doggedly continues his fact-finding mission. What is the number of strip clubs (31 or 34)? Where was the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco sauce really found? Who was the woman who won a certain tic-tac-toe game? How many heart attacks were there in Las Vegas that day: 4 or 8? How many seconds did Levi’s fatal fall last, 8 or 9? What about a traffic jam that likely never happened? Were a building’s bricks brown or red?
As Jim says: “By changing paint colors and statistics... by misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society’s trust in itself. Which is why facts have to be the final measure of the truth.”
Fingal and D'Agata are shown in animated, vigorous opposition, with John physically taller and stronger, menacing the slighter fact-checker and eventually throttling him.
In real life, what really happened? We fact-checked the play with its two real-life protagonists, who had just seen the play. Both men said they had enjoyed it; D’Agata had seen it before, whereas for Fingal it had been the first time.
Are the Jim and John in front of me the same as the Jim and John I just saw on stage?
John: I don't think of the characters as us because the characters in the book aren't really us. This is so many degrees separated from who we are. It was enjoyable for me to watch. I don't know what my family will feel. I may be defensive.
Jim: It’s surreal to see yourself played by Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale. Everything about the book being published seemed impossible to me, and the play happening seemed impossible and then our names are said on stage.
Let’s fact-check the play. Are the people we see on stage you? Did those conversations happen? Did you treat each other in the way that we see?
John: We did not treat each other like that although I was thinking last night, did our first email exchange happen like that, where I question your use of the word ‘article’?
Jim: I don't think so. It was cordial.
In the play that opening email exchange is immediately combative. You weren't aggressive in that opening email exchange?
Jim: We have gone back and re-read it in preparation for answering questions about it. Our initial email exchange was in the winter of 2005. The drama of the exchange was put in after the fact for dramatic effect.
So, John answered your questions, Jim? It wasn’t like wringing blood from a stone as it is on stage?
Jim: I had a lot of notes. When I was asking questions it was probably because I didn't understand something, or there wasn’t a note or source and I had to find something. My job as a fact-checker was not to get John to change the piece, just to gather the evidence to pass to someone else.
In the play John is utterly resistant to what you are doing?
Jim: I imagine it was tiresome after a certain point, but he never refused anything I asked for.
John: I honestly forget. I know when the book came out we were clear that we were always friendly during the exchange. When Jim and I decided to do the book versus fact-check the essay, we decided we would polarize a little bit and amp up the characters for the sake of the drama. I became a diva. Jim became more anal retentive than he is. I had a phone conversation with the playwrights early on, and said that in the spirit of the book they should do what they had to make their version of the story work. They take amazing liberties, but they work.
Both men laugh.
John: My mom is on her way to see it. I just revealed to her they killed her off in the play. She just laughed. I said it makes the play. It’s such a crucial moment. She said, “I’m glad I could be of use.”
Your mother is actually alive, not dead as the play has her?
John: Yes. I love they took gist of our story and turned it into their own story, their own argument.
So, totally unlike the play, there was no conflict between you?
Jim: The atypical thing was the length of the process. On stage it takes place over a weekend, in reality it was 2005 to 2010, off and on.
John: The magazine said they were going to give up, then we’d start up again. Then there were periods I’d say “Let’s give up,” then start up again.
Jim: The text forked at some point As the process of the magazine piece continued, the book project began.
What took so long? Five years is such a long time for a piece to be born.
John: There are liberties taken in my text, and so there was my interest in keeping those liberties and the magazine’s clear and rightful interest and need to make sure what was being published was legitimate and real—and how both parties negotiated it. There are now 2 stories: the story of the essay and how it appears right now in Believer; and the story of the essay in our book. We left intentionally messy, so we’d have stuff to talk about. Once or twice the magazine thought the piece wasn’t going to work, and then I got frustrated because I didn’t think it was going to work.
So, John, you were never as rude and unpleasant to Jim as you appear on stage to be?
John: We were cordial. We never called each other names.
Jim: In fact, while we were fact-checking, he came to Iowa and stayed in my guest room at some point. We were on the phone sometimes, but this was mostly done by email. I’m trying to remember if there were sticking points.
John: I can’t tell you whether there were things I went to bat for or whether there were things I felt I caved for. The book and play are a performance: it’s us trying to animate this discussion that happens in non-fiction circles. When it comes to 34 or 31 strip clubs, I think I now have convinced myself 34 does work better.
The more interesting literary issue is whether 9 seconds are more crucial than 8 seconds: what number is legitimate is in both the book and play. Levi’s parents and I did for a long time think that he had fallen for 9 seconds. It wasn't until the coroner report’s a long time later that it was revealed he had fallen for 8.
By that point, the essay had taken on the theme of what we can be certain about, and so that actually fit in a lot of ways. It sounds hokey to say, but there is an authority to the parents of a dead boy wanting to believe 9 seconds is how long it took for their son to fall. Levi was really involved in tae kwon do, and the number 9 is important in the culture of tae kwon do.
Did any of the conflicting moral discussions you had about hard facts—Jim believing in their primacy and John not—actually happen?
Jim: The dispute and conversation didn't happen as part of the fact-checking engagement between us, but over the course of writing book around the genre of literary non-fiction and the expectations of the reader: how will they read it, what do we owe them to let them know this is a different form. That’s where the main disagreement was. John came down largely on the side that we should expect readers to be adults and figure it out. In the book, the argument Jim explores is that expectations matter and people feel betrayed by articles where other rules are operating that they did not know about.
Jim, did you feel as strongly as you do in the play, in the provenance of facts and their incremental desecration as you fact-checked and worked with John?
Jim: Early on in the editing of the essay, it was acknowledged that maybe we wouldn’t touch the text and publish the fact-checking as footnotes. That was strange; to find all this stuff and then for it be an almost academic exercise. There was some amount of staring into the void. I came to appreciate the difficulty in coming up with the correct answer when there are conflicting sources, and encountering something that looks and quacks like a fact but is not something anyone can verify.
John, were you the kind of impossible diva the play shows; ‘don’t touch a word of mine,’ ‘don’t question me on facts,’ and the rest?
John: I honestly can’t remember. Jim might be withholding the diva things I said or did but would be too embarrassed for me to acknowledge… Before Believer the article had a history with Harper’s. That was the first time I had been fact-checked. What I didn't know at the time was that the editor I was working with was moving to another magazine. He had come to me looking for an essay, and I had pitched this. I warned him what might appear was strange, and he told me that’s why he had commissioned me.
I knew that fact-checking would happen, but I didn't know the process, I didn't know how rigid it was. I come from training as a poet. I remember getting frustrated when the fact-checker asked me to get some sources for folklore that was in the essay. I said, “But it’s folklore.” But even folklore sayings were fact-checked. I argued it was ridiculous. I don’t think I got very 'diva,' but I probably got exasperated because I just didn’t understand why this stuff mattered.”
Jim: Writing the book gave us the excuse to take seeds of that frustration and make it larger than life—making John diva and confrontational and me pedantic and poking. It was also fun to get to indulge that. You don't do those things in professional settings.
John: We turned the volume up here and there. It was performative. We could let our hair down and misbehave. I now understand why actors say it’s liberating to play the villain because I have found it is very liberating to play the villain. It was a joy to put my potty mouth on, and behave unprofessionally. However, that certainly backfired. People read those versions of us as the actual us.
And now see you both even more extremely on stage. Jim, do you still believe in the provenance of facts and John in the romantic leeway you think should be given to narrative non-fiction?
John: I think I would hope we all spiritually believe in both, especially in this moment in America where we are all desperate to preserve the integrity of facts. But I also all believe in the story and what I love about the play is that no one is a hero, no one is a villain. The play leaves you asking questions, particularly whether the essay is its own literary form or should it be shoved into the camp of journalism. I hope the latter is not the case. It is not journalism, it has its own history and path. I don’t know if I’m hedging your question.
You are slightly.
Both men laugh
John: If the question is, am I still in defense of the liberties of the literary essay, then the answer is yes, but those liberties are different for absolutely every single individual essay that’s written. There can’t be a single set of standards. As writers all in the field alone we're all figuring out how to tell story and how to do so ethically.
But right now, if a magazine or publication gets anything wrong, that can be very grave for them, more so now than ever before.
John: The interesting but sticky place we get into is merging journalism into the literary essay. We haven't, an as essay-writing community, properly had that conversation about gradations of reporting in essays. I consider myself a reporter but not a journalist. The standards of writing a literary essay I would still argue have to be different from the standards of a piece of journalism.
But you were reporting the death of a teenager, not 18th century poetry. Surely it was up to you to make sure what you were writing was accurate.
John: I was exploring uncertainty, that’s what I think the essay is about. Another relatively accurate moment in the play is when the John character reports Levi’s mom likes the essay and calls it a gift. The standard I had for myself was that, which is maybe not the proper standard for other writers, readers and critics. But what I wanted to do was pay tribute to the little bit of Levi I was able to understand, and the predicament of suicide in Las Vegas through his mother. She can be the only one to give me a thumbs up on that. But every critic, every reader, every writer has the right to say I was not following the proper standard.
Jim, you argue strongly against this subjective standard in the play.
Jim: It turned into a literary argument. Would it be more effective to read this and know it all to be true versus, read it, and have uncertainty and reading it as a work of fiction. The question of genres and rules is the core of the book. In the book, John says: God bless journalistic integrity, and it’s hugely important people who write journalism obey those rules. That’s not what I was doing and I don't call my work journalism.
So, Jim, you don’t believe in the provenance and the sacredness of facts, as you do in the play?
Jim: The experience broadened my view of literary genres and made me think of grey areas. I still strongly in the historic standards of journalistic fact. I also think magazines like the New York Times Magazine should communicate clearly to readers if some essays or pieces have a different standard of fact-use than others.
You both sound very different to the characters we see on stage. Are the characters on stage still ‘you’ in any way?
Jim: They match the exaggerated versions of ourselves from the book. In reality we’d both acknowledge a grey area.
John: The play I hope represents everybody. Dan (Radcliffe)'s character speaks for me. Bobby (Cannavale)’s character speaks for me. I believe in both ideas. The play doesn’t give us easy answers and really encourages people to their find own space in a messy grey area. There are two big speeches. Dan gives one. Bobby gives one. There are spaces after both to elicit applause.
Sure, and everyone gave Dan-as-Jim’s speech about the importance of facts a big roar and applause, and Bobby-as-you didn’t get anything.
Jim: In Bobby’s defense, he does sometimes get a big round of applause.
But right now generally, people believe strongly, especially with Trump’s attacks, in the importance of factual reporting. That's why Jim in the play gets that applause. He is standing up for what people want to believe in, and believe is important.
John: I think we encourage the audience to sit in the ambiguity, and to think about it intelligently. There are lots of kinds of literary essays that have given themselves the license to do this thing for millennia. What if we dismantle the third rail, and encourage writers to signal to us that they're doing this so we can have a discussion without it being a feeding frenzy. For those writers like myself, the conversation has to be more complicated than “You’ve been a bad boy.” Sometimes these are artistic choices, not moral failings.
Did the experience change how you report, John, and how you experience the fact-checking process?
John: I go out and observe things and gather notes, then do different things with them. Has it changed me? The God’s honest truth is I can’t say. My new book is based in first and second century Ancient Greece, and there is very little material to go on.
OK. If you did reporting on a contemporary event would it change your approach?
John: I would go back to the idea of trying to figure out what the rules are for this subject; if the person is living. I know it sounds like I’m hedging, but that experience with Gail, Levi’s mom, was powerful and unique. She gave me some license. At the end of the day I was not creating journalism, and at the end of the day I really love the history of this genre.
Jim: Being an intern made me not want to do that again. If I had had a full time job at Believer, or any reliable income stream, I probably would have stayed. I started working in technology, although recently started a magazine with some friends called Logic.
Does it have a fact-checking department?
Jim: Editors do our fact-checking, and do it well.
Had Cherry Jones’ character, or someone like it, been your editor, would it have been such a long, tortuous process?
John: We've said several times that it was not a tortuous process.
Well, you've ramped it up to really look like one.
Then you’ll forgive people believing it was tortuous. That is what both of you have made it out to be.
John: It wasn't tortuous. It was long. I’m not sure an editor like Cherry Jones exists. I think an editor today would say, “We’re killing this. It’s not going to happen.” I don’t mean to be antagonistic by saying it was not tortuous. It was annoying. It took a long time. The book itself was a joy.
Jim: When the piece came out it was like, “OK, I guess that happened.” The book was more exciting.
Seriously? The piece had taken five years to get published. Surely it was a big moment to get that published?
John: It was enjoyable, and that particular issue was reviewed in Vanity Fair. They said nice things about it, other people did.
And just to check John, did you throttle Jim? On stage you do.
John: No, I never throttled him.
The Lifespan of a Fact is at Studio 54, NYC, until January 13, 2019.