Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, at the Public Theater
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've never seen anything quite like The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. A monologue from Mike Daisey, it demolishes theatre's imaginary "fourth wall" to directly challenge the audience. Its purpose is to entertain but also to provoke.

Daisey sits at a table with no props, no audio or visual aids except for some bars of white lights behind him that flash once in awhile. All he has is a glass of water and some sheets of legal-sized notepaper, which I didn't even see him referring to very often.

Interestingly, he uses a low-tech way to tell a high-tech story, mixing his history as an Apple fanboy with his experiences traveling to the factory in China where iPods, iPhones and iPads are assembled. You're just listening to him talk for nearly two hours - the oldest form of storytelling there is. The result is vivid and absorbing.

The centerpiece is Daisey's visit to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn is the world's largest maker of electronic components and it works under contract for many companies, including Apple. There have been numerous reports about long workdays, injuries, cramped living conditions and a spate of suicides. He recounts it all in heart-wrenching detail.

Along the way, Daisey raises questions about Apple's closed operating system, which keeps a tight rein on developers, how we're all so eager to upgrade our software and hardware whenever a new version comes out - whether we need it or not. And he points out how ignorant we are of the conditions under which the gadgets we love are made.

To be honest, he isn't telling us anything we don't already know: Steve Jobs was arrogant, working in a factory is repetitive and mind-numbing and in the West, we've turned a blind eye toward how China treats its citizens. But the way he puts it together is compelling. I bought my first Apple product in 1990 and I've been a fangirl ever since, and it made me uneasy.

There were some elements of Daisey's storytelling that I didn't really like. The unrelenting f-bombs felt unnecessary. He had a habit of raising his voice at the beginning of a sentence then lowering it, which got a bit annoying. I know some of that is necessary. He's acting, not delivering a speech. But it made me wonder how much of his story was embellished. We're paying $80 for a ticket. We want drama, emotion, conflict.

I don't doubt that conditions in China are as bad as Daisey portrays them. But I couldn't believe that the Foxconn workers were so willing to talk to him (through an interpreter). China is, after all, a repressive, totalitarian country. And Daisey is a performer, not a journalist. Plays, like TV and movies, are allowed to take artistic liberties.

Daisey has performed this piece before and the engagement at the Public Theater was announced long before Jobs died earlier this month. I wondered whether he would soften his criticism of the Apple cofounder but he doesn't let up, saying that Jobs went to his death knowing about the conditions in the Chinese factory and did nothing. That felt a little harsh, like he was intentionally piling it on about someone who died so recently.

I don't think that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs will make anyone stop buying Apple products. What's the alternative? Foxconn's clients include just about every maker of computers and cell phones. And the stock of those companies is likely in the mutual funds that are part of most of our retirement plans.

But Daisey is a great storyteller and he does what theatre should do: entertain, make you think, take you to a place you've never been. And when you leave, you get a sheet of paper with some suggestions for further steps you can take, including e-mail Apple CEO Tim Cook (

Daisey says that he focuses on Apple because it's an industry leader but he acknowledges that the issue goes deeper: "We do not like to think about our relationship with China and the true cost of our labor, but that silence can only exist if we are complicit with it."

By presenting the issue in such starkly human terms, Daisey accomplishes one thing with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: He made me think about where my stuff comes from in a way that I never had to do before.

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