Intro: As oral historians we are taught to value personal truths and “mine for meaning” as Portelli once said. But in the era of “fake news” should we be so quick to dismiss facts? Current OHMA student ventured away from the library for a night at the theatre to watch this play out in “Lifespan of a Fact.”
You don’t have to poke around for too long on the internet these days before becoming aware of “fake news” and the supposedly decreasing power of truth and fact. Nefarious political discussions aside, the line between artistic license and lies is one that is becoming more and more difficult to trace. As oral historians, we are taught that we aren’t mining for fact, but instead for meaning – and that an erroneous memory can sometimes be just as interesting as the truth. A lie can often say more about a person’s biases than the truth does.
When my friend, Raissa (an avid theatre-goer and my number one source for recommendations on all things culture and style) told me that I absolutely HAD to see Lifespan of a Fact I assumed it was because Daniel Radcliffe (yes, THE Daniel Radcliffe) was in it. I was surprised then when she told me it was really relevant to oral history – now I was interested. On October 30th, I donned my thick winter jacket and made my way downtown to the bright lights of Broadway and Studio 54 for a night at the theatre.
My friend Kaz and I took our seats in the upper echelons of the theatre, which felt like a glorified basin - but it meant no matter where you sat, you would get a good view. As we waited for the show to start, I flipped through the Playbill to see if I could find any oral history-esque titbits to help me understand why I was told I HAD to see this show. Turns out, it was based on the stirring true story of John D'Agata's essay "What Happens There," about the suicide of Las Vegas teenager, Levi Presley. Also, that the show was the first ever on Broadway to have an all-female design team (something that both impressed and depressed me in 2018). I admit, I was skeptical. There were no references to Passerini, Grele or even Portelli (shocking I know.) I started to try and think back to how I had described Oral History to Raissa - probably the catch all “documenting history with spoken word.” But I knew that wasn’t really doing it justice. How was this play about suicide related to something as interdisciplinary and amorphous as oral history?
The first thing I learned in Lifespan of a Fact was that Daniel Radcliffe’s American accent was not half bad. The second was that premise of the story was less about suicide and more about how the story of that suicide should be told. Jim Fingle (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young fact-checker, given the task of editing the work of an unorthodox writer, John D’Agata, (Bobby Cannavale) by his Miranda Priestly-esque editor (Cherry Jones). It’s a race against the clock for the trio. If they don't finish by 8am Monday - a week from when Fingle initially accepted the task - the magazine is going to instead run a puff piece about congressional spouses. It becomes blatantly apparent that Fingle and D’Agata are on opposite sides of a question that oral historians have pondered over for years. What is more important: the interesting, but flawed, remembrance of the event? Or the pure, factual accounts based on corroborated fact?
So enters Alessandro Portelli - a leading light in the world of oral history. In “The Death of Luigi Trastulli” he explored how residents of a town collectively misremembered one event in their history - and sometimes remembered things that didn't even happen at all. This can put an oral historian in a difficult position. After all aren't we meant to be “documenting history with spoken word”? We accept the frailty of human memory as an occupational hazard but what impact are we having on shaping history if we are documenting misinformation, mis-memories and downright lies? Portelli argues that, “beyond the event as such, the real and significant historical fact which these narratives highlight is the memory itself.” In short, that the memory of the event can be more generative than the raw fact. I agree, but in an age of “fake news” - should we reconsider how much interpretation we are willing to allow when dealing with facts and fiction?
For a play that is firmly set in the world of journalism, “Lifespan of a Fact” does a masterful job of illustrating Portelli’s argument in an accessible and funny way. Your allegiances shift throughout the play. One minute you’re on D’Agata’s side, who argues - very combatively at times - that he isn’t a journalist in pursuit of the truth, but an “essayist” more interested in creating literary art. The next you’re rooting for the plucky Fingle who contends that “by misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society's trust in itself" - a poignant reminder that this is not an abstract issue, but something we have to ask of ourselves, our politicians and our journalists every day. You find yourself laughing at points because the scene is so tense. If we took Portelli’s theory as a roadmap, then D’Agata would come out on top. In reality, the show doesn't let either one of them win. Fingle comes across as obstructive, hell bent on the EXACT factual accuracy of the piece while D’Agata is confrontational, arrogant and just as obtuse as Fingle in the opposite direction. I think that was intentional. Fingle and D’Agata embody both sides of Portelli’s argument and while Portelli may have picked his side, I think the play encourages us not to pick a side and stick there. That’s not to say Portelli completely disregards the legitimacy of facts – the arguments in “The Death of Luigi Trastulli” would have been impossible to formulate if he hadn’t looked at newspapers and other traditional sources. But the keys is that those traditional sources aren’t the ones centered in his arguments, it’s these rich, flawed memories. This play doesn't have a “good guy” and a “bad guy” - but two sides that are both right and wrong in equal measures. As a viewer, you’re asked not to pick a side but to asked to question more. As oral historians, often we lean more towards the side of memory. After all, you can often learn more about a narrator’s biases and personal truth through a mis-memory or a lie. The goal in an oral history interview is to learn a personal truth and “mine for meaning”, rather than interrogate for facts.
You never find out whether they make the deadline and publish the piece in time. There’s no happy ending, just questions. For a 90-minute play, it packs a punch and there’s a surprising amount of depth to the characters and plot. I wish I could answer your questions about “fake news” or about whether Portelli is right or not - but in the spirit of the play, I instead invite you to brew a hot drink, to have a sit and think about what you would do in this situation. Or failing that, wait for the inevitable day that “Lifespan of a Fact” returns to Broadway and you can at least have a laugh while you ponder the impossible.
 A. Portelli, “The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History” (State University of New York Press, New York; 1991) p26
Rebecca McGilveray is the first Scottish OHMA student. Her interests include conducting oral histories of gentrification, displacement and deindustrialisation in her home city of Glasgow. She is also a research assistant on the Mott Haven Oral History Project. She loves studying at OHMA and refining her practice as an oral historian. Check out her work at OHMA’s upcoming exhibit Inter\views!