The "Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," Mike Daisey's one-man show at the Public Theater, is not about Steve Jobs' agony or his ecstasy. It's really not about Jobs at all. It's about the conflicts and contradictions indigenous to the Apple religion, as Daisey describes it; the Stockholm syndrome-esque dependence that blind believers have for the technology, and a way of life, that giveth and taketh away in equal measure.
Daisey turns the notion of comic relief on its head, drawing us in from the start with a set and stage direction that simultaneously celebrates and mocks the unmistakable Apple aesthetic. Daisey swiftly establishes his position on the far end of the techno geek spectrum, allowing him to lampoon the consumerist culture at large by drawing a caricature of his own fraught relationship with the technology that built an empire. In one sequence, he describes in hilarious detail his violent rejection of a perfectly efficient router after learning that a new, marginally faster router had just been made available.
Only later does Daisey show us the empire's truly dark side: A Chinese factory where workers labor in prison-like conditions to feed the Apple consumer's appetite for upgrade upon unnecessary upgrade.
Of course, Steve Jobs is the man in the throne -- or he was, until his death on Oct. 5; less than two weeks before "The Agony and the Ecstasy" was set to open in New York. (It had previously been staged in Seattle and San Francisco.)
It's possible that Steve Jobs' death could turn out to be one of the "where you were when?" events of this generation -- despite the fact that many an obituary had been written months in advance. In the hours after Steve Jobs died, every single status update on my Facebook news feed was a eulogy. The invisible wall dividing strangers in New York City fell away, and people were free to share the news with each other like they would the final score of a Yankees World Series game, or the capture of Osama bin Laden. People were almost jubilant in their grief, in their eagerness to deify Jobs.
But something funny happened on the way to apotheosis. Questions about Jobs' staggering estate began to surface the very next morning; the uncouth curiosity most certainly a function of Jobs' anti-philanthropic reputation. Unflattering tidbits made their surreptitious way into measured paeans. And some rogue journalists and bloggers impatiently demanded to know why the whole world was mourning a man -- a businessman, no less -- who only a handful of people knew at all, and who might have been kind of a dick.
Still, some (myself included) felt that it might be a bit too soon to skewer the Apple founder on an off-Broadway stage. But Daisey and his production team insisted that the show must go on, with some adjustments made to address the culture of deification and the realities of nostalgia, as well as Daisey's belief that "people have been expressing such tenderness and affection for this human being because of their connection to his devices," as he told the New York Times.
Without having seen an earlier incarnation of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," it's impossible to know exactly how Daisey textured the monologue to accommodate Jobs' death. Daisey told the Times the changes were not meant to soften any criticism of Jobs. Rather, he said, "his death is of such importance that it absolutely has to be addressed because it heightens the importance of talking about his legacy."
It seems that other reviewers disagree, but I didn't feel that Daisey presented Jobs as terribly much more culpable (at least proportionately) than anyone who profits from or enjoys the use of Apple products. He offered a handful of anecdotes that may not have flattered Jobs, but even in these stories, there is a certain charm to Jobs' cunning: Like the time he told his partner Steve Wozniak that Atari would pay them a bonus on top of a modest project fee if he were to fit the Breakout game on to a certain number of chips. Eager for the challenge, Wozniak delivered, and has been quoted as saying they were paid $700 total for the project. As it turns out, the project fee was actually $5,000, and there were no bonus incentives. Jobs pocketed the balance, and it was years before Wozniak found out.
Apple is one of many corporations with outsourced workers at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where Daisey went undercover as a wealthy businessman who intended to make a large purchase from the factory. If Daisey's information is correct, Foxconn manufactures 52% of the products sold in the United States. Apple may have the highest profile among those, but probably not the highest proportion.
A highlight of the monologue is Daisey's insistence that his audience concentrate on shifting their sense of scale in order to get some idea of the factory's magnitude. He walks us through a simple exercise designed to help visualize the size of the employee cafeterias at Foxconn, which in turn will help us imagine a factory that houses 430,000 people. It doesn't completely work -- at least not for me -- but perhaps that is the point.
Daisey seems to understand how easy it is for us dehumanize such an alien landscape, where workers labor for up to 36 hours per shift, repeating the same motion in perpetuity, and in complete silence (according to Daisey, there is no humming of machines here: Every single thing is made by hand). At Foxconn, Daisey tells us, the workers sleep stacked floor-to-ceiling in beds the size of coffins; if they are a minute late for their shift they won't be fed. In 2010, 18 workers attempted suicide, and 14 succeeded.
When faced with the notion of human suffering on a massive scale, it's easy to avoid perceiving the victims as complete and separate individuals. I can personally confess to projecting a perverted notion of consciousness onto the faces of unrelenting agony, tricking myself into believing that these people cannot possibly feel pain and despair and terror nearly as intensely as I would in the same nightmarish, unbearable circumstances.
But Daisey permits no such trickery. Having spoken individually to (presumably) dozens of workers, he learned that they are the thinkers, the feelers, and the high achievers who stood out in their villages; and in a fascist society, that kind of person is considered a threat. Daisey doesn't explain exactly how the mechanism works, but he more than suggests that the Foxconn factory functions as something of a prison for bright and active minds.
That said, there are times when the show -- the whole project -- feels disingenuous. As if perhaps Daisey is more interested in how this tragedy of globalization plays out under his own spotlight rather than how it will play out on the geopolitical stage. While Daisey admirably and bravely went into the trenches to expose in detail what the majority of American consumers can only vaguely suspect, a short-run one-man show is probably not the most effective impetus for wholesale social change.
Yet Daisey believes that his storytelling is a virus that will irreversibly infect our thinking. He says this explicitly, warning his audience that we will never again be able to look at our shiny i[blanks] without thinking of the hands that suffered so that we might have them. Daisey believes the images he has conjured for his audience will forever be burned into our brains, and he relishes in his role as messenger, tempting us to shoot him.
And the message is very much Daisey's -- make no mistake about that. The proprietary stronghold is one of the show's most palpable weaknesses. Daisey speaks of the suicide epidemic at Foxconn as though he were breaking the story, and carries an air of being the only American consumer to have ever gotten inside the factory city walls.
There is no question that this story needed to be told, and Daisey certainly tells it well. But there's a problem of integrity, which is particularly problematic in a show that traffics in value judgments about the integrity of others. Daisey compels us to think long and hard about the news he has brought us, to really consider what goes into making the products that we buy, but he doesn't for an instant suggest we stop buying them. One gets the impression that the thought never occurred to him. In Daisey's world, it seems you can enjoy your steak after visiting the slaughterhouse.