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Broadway's 'Lifespan Of A Fact' Tackles The Timely Question: What Is A Fact?

One of Broadway’s newest plays, “The Lifespan of a Fact,” has audiences jumping up in their seats and cheering for — as well and against — characters as though the show were a basketball game.

Based on the 2012 book of the same name, the show (@LifespanOfAFact) follows the story of what happens when an essayist, played by Bobby Cannavale, pens what he thinks is one of his greatest stories, only to be met by the scrutiny of a zealous young fact checker, played by Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe’s character proceeds to write 90 pages of corrections, locking the characters in a battle over what defines a fact. The cast is rounded out by Cherry Jones, who plays the editor who must ultimately decide whether the essay can be published.

“I’ve never done a play before that has an argument at the center of it,” Radcliffe tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “To feel that going backwards and forwards every night is really special.”

Interview Highlights

On acting out the real-life arguments between essayist John D’Agata and fact checker Jim Fingal

Daniel Radcliffe: “Some nights I’ll feel the audience finding me particularly irritating at a certain moment. Some of Jim’s quibbles like make the audience go, ‘Oh, this guy’s being ridiculous,’ but actually in my head they are not ridiculous at all. I find like it it fires you up to go, ‘Okay, I have to, I have to try and win this even more.’ ”

Bobby Cannavale: “Like any good play, you know, the events of the play have to be the biggest events of the characters on stage’s lives in a sense, and I think it works best when the three of us are fighting for it with all our lives.”

On D’Agata and Fingal attending the cast’s performances, and the role of Cherry Jones’s character

Cherry Jones: “They’ve come to the show many times. In fact, last night, when I said the first line of the play, … ‘OK, Jim Fingal,’ I heard people actually laughed, and it was when I left the theater last night, Jim Fingal was standing there with 30, literally 30, of his relatives who had flown in from all over the country. And when I opened the book that which they kindly gave for opening night, Jim’s comment was, ‘Man, we could have used you.’

“I don’t know if she’s the soul of the argument, but she’s the one who has to make the decision, and she so desperately wants to publish it, because she really thinks it will help at this moment in time. But at the same time, she is a journalist and… damn it.”

On the definition of a fact serving as the central issue of the play, and D’Agata’s critics

BC: “There is a difference between an essay and a piece of writing in a newspaper.

“There is a difference in an artistic piece being written in an essay. You know, what would you say about the Greek histories? What would you say about ‘In Cold Blood’?

“Let’s not call [D’Agata] a bad guy. … He’s a writer, he’s an artist.

“John doesn’t it work for The Washington Post. He’s not writing articles for The New York Times. He’s illuminating the lives of people who normally would never be written about. It follows in a long line of tradition. Why all of a sudden, because we’re in such a controversial time, we’re gonna just say to all these artists, ‘you can’t do that anymore’?”

On the play’s relevance in the current political climate, and the importance of facts

CJ: “It’s interesting, because there’s a beautiful speech about the importance of facts and democracy, and it frequently gets applause.”

DR: “The argument is basically that if you are reading something or watching something and you find even one thing to be untrue in it, the whole thing can fall apart for you and your trust and your relationship with that thing.

“There’s one point in the play where we’re debating about the length of time this person fell for. And that’s one of those moments that the audience is kind of going, ‘Oh, come on clearly you are going too far. This is not a difference that matters.’ You know, Jim wants to publish this essay. He is convinced that by making it truer, you will also make it more beautiful, inherently.

“It’s the case of picking your battles. He becomes more and more entrenched as the argument between him and John gets more intense.”

CJ: “It does go to those extremes, because these two men care so much, and it is in that sense where we are as a nation right now, of what facts mean to — I hate to say — the either side. And I just can’t believe we’re talking about our country that way.”

On Radcliffe’s experience going to The New York Times for a day to work as a fact checker and edit an article about a restaurant

DR: “As I was doing it, I was like, ‘Well, I guess every ingredient mentioned is a fact, so I’m just going to have to ask him about every single ingredient that is mentioned.

CJ: “And he only missed one. They were ready to hire him on the spot. … It was the ‘s’ on restaurant.”

DR: “Oh, yes, yes. I didn’t underline restaurants, which I should have, because I should have checked if it was in fact plural, and he had had two previous restaurants or one previous restaurant.”

On what they learned from the play

CJ: “You’ve got to read, listen, see with your eyes as much as you possibly can in these days, and fact check.”

DR: “To be honest, there’s such a huge gulf in my head between like the people that write silly stories about me in England and like the people whose journalism is stopping the world from falling apart. I don’t even think of them as being the same job.

“I know we’ve been talking about this play as an argument play. Ultimately, the truth is, we need both. Not one of us is right. Like the failure in both of our characters is that there’s no sense of like compromise or working with the other or recognition that the other could have a point. Both are what we need going forward in the actual real world.”

BC: “I just want to say that just because you have a web site and you hire a bunch of people to write stories doesn’t make you a journalist. And I think we’re just so accustomed now to having all these options, but all the options aren’t good, and a lot of them are erroneous. They’re motivated by other interests. And I think we just have to have more common sense.

“People like John D’Agata, he’s an artist, and he’s always had a place historically in the culture. And to blame John D’Agata for doing what has been done for thousands of years, because of the stupidity going on in the country and in the world I think is a disservice to art.”
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