It is a common trope that reading is really the only art that requires skill from its audience; this is one of the reasons that the audience for serious literature will always be limited, whatever the countless perky entreaties of high school librarians. But in his 24-hour monologue, All the Hours of the Day, Mike Daisey demanded something even rarer than skill or education: he asked of his audience fortitude, character, sheer inhuman will. That or a large supply of trucker speed.
His monologue began at 6 pm Saturday night and ended at 6 pm Sunday, a full 24 hours later. By 5 am Sunday morning—eleven hours into the performance—the once-full auditorium had drained into sparse scatterings; the crowd that remained resembled a base camp village or activist vigil. The side aisles were filled with sleepers, the seats with people drifting wearily in and out of semiconscious fugue but still dedicated to remaining there, with uncertain purpose. Daisey’s breaks at the end of each hour, which at first were a mere ten minutes, had been lengthening gradually. “Welcome to this liminal hour,” Daisey said from the stage. “For the first time,” he said, “I am beginning to doubt the sustainability of this.”
Really, it was a sort of shared faith that kept the audience in their seats, the notion that this was a difficult, shared, rarefied experience that would in some way be transformative. Daisey, a resolute mythologizer and self-mythologizer, encouraged this feeling. Upon arriving onstage at the very beginning of the performance, he thanked the audience for whatever had compelled them to go with him on this journey, while warning that “this journey will not be a good one.” He ministered slowly, methodically to his onstage desk, bringing out first a bottle of vodka, then a shot glass, then a revolver. The gun, by implication, was his only way out.
Over the course of the night pounds of bacon were cooked onstage by attractive vegans, cocoa and donuts were distributed, and once a fire alarm was pulled, leaving the noontime crowd standing out front with Daisey in the rain; this was explained, later in the narrative, as a spontaneous impulse by an old friend terrified by the unassimilability of the world.
Daisey’s narrative wasn’t always or even often easy to follow, because it drifted into the same half-dreamt space that the audience themselves had joined. Much of the story was enacted in a slightly parallel world in which a dead body was stashed at a funhouse-mirrored DBA fest (“duration-based art”), or in tangents where Daisey himself was both man and woman, a German prostitute, a fan who fucked film director Wim Wenders because he is literal-minded enough to need to actually fuck his heroes. Upon visiting post-flood New Orleans with his brother Warren, a rising metaphorical sea greeted him from behind an ominous door, carrying with it the floating, talking corpse of an old teacher. Disney World, the dark heart of America waiting at the end of Daisey’s journey, acted as a near-literal drug of forgetting, siphoning doughboys and cotton candy into the mouths of those who would attack it.
Again, if this all doesn’t make easy sense, that’s fine. In counterpoint to the more tightly focused pieces Daisey has performed in the past, this one seemed intended as an allegorical Inferno or Ulysses, a dark voyage told in often apocalyptic tones: a phantasmagorical prophecy interrupted by giddy coarseness and punch-drunk admissions of fatigue.
Daisey has a storytelling style that very much belongs to the theater or to the adolescent of a Bildungsroman; he talks slowly and forcefully and constantly hammers home the insane and unique importance of whatever is going on, as if nothing similar or nothing as intense has ever happened to anyone else, not even once. Daisey does this knowingly, a bit tongue in cheek, but his self-romance is very real, and much the same romance is demanded of his audience. This makes it both easy and fatal for a listener to simply lose faith. And in losing faith, you lose the thread of an experience that is very much all about faith.
Well, I broke faith, or lost it. I saw only about 13 hours of the performance in all—I had left to watch other performances in the meanwhile, or to sleep a scant four hours, or to drink bourbon. (I met few who stayed through the performance’s entirety, though most who left returned for its final hours.) More than this, though, I simply couldn’t fully buy into the unique relevance of Daisey’s story; oftentimes his manic insistence on his own despair, on his great gifts and great tragedies, seemed—as with much autobiographical theater and many first novels—to mask a lack of clarity in his thoughts, or to comb over the many frayed knots at the center of his tapestry. Too many times in his narrative, best friends made epic ultimata and parted forever. Too many times, Daisey left loose ends hanging like inedible gourds, pregnant with import.
But to those who fully kept their compact with the performance, mazel. Such faith is rare, and I wish I had it.
As for myself? At the end of it all I was dazed, physically and emotionally drained, slightly hung over and still very glad I had been there for what was a truly rare, truly enveloping performance. For a day, it was all of our lives: maddening, difficult, sometimes unsatisfying, but dense with feeling and thought and often deeply rewarding.
Matthew Korfhage is a freelance writer and itinerant wind turbine technician. He is currently at work on a novel.