The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: Theater Review

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs - P 2011
Kevin Berne

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs - P 2011

Mike Daisey's monologue challenges us to think long and hard about its provenance before getting on line for our next iPhone upgrade.

Mike Daisey's provocative monologue, which has been updated but not softened since the "techno-libertarian hippie" died earlier this month, makes its New York debut.

NEW YORK -- It might not be the eulogy the former Apple CEO would have chosen, but Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is an eye-opener. Updated but not softened since the recent death of the “techno-libertarian hippie,” this provocative monologue pulls no punches in confronting us with the dark side of Jobs’ legacy and of our own mass addiction to gadgets.

This is ideal material for an obsessive personality like Daisey, whose 2001 breakout piece, 21 Dog Years, covered during the Internet boom. Directed by his wife and regular collaborator, Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey extemporaneously explores his chosen subject from journalistic and personal perspectives, finding illumination in the overlap.

PHOTOS: Steve Jobs' Death: How the Magazines Covered

While he has been performing this piece since July 2010, the timing of its New York debut turns up the spotlight. An unapologetic tech geek, Daisey admits to being a longtime worshipper at the Apple altar, confessing that he often field-strips his MacBook Pro and cleans its parts with compressed air just to unwind after a performance. But his voice is definitely a counterpoint to all the warm-and-fuzzy nostalgists getting misty-eyed over photos of candy-colored clamshell iBooks, as if they were childhood pets.

Seated at a glass-top table with only some outline notes, Daisey explains that the turning point came when he was surfing the Apple site and found iPhone test photos taken in a factory in China. That made him contemplate, for the first time, how and where those beloved objects were made. “I started to think, which is always a problem for any religion,” he says.

That process led him to Shenzhen in southern China to interview dozens of workers outside Foxconn, the monolithic manufacturing plant where Apple products (and roughly half the world’s electronics) are made. He also posed as a businessman to get inside the factories and witness the dehumanizing labor-camp conditions firsthand.

PHOTOS: Apple Products in TV and Movies

This will be no surprise to anyone aware of the wave of employee deaths that prompted Foxconn to install suicide-prevention netting around its roofing in 2010. But Daisey makes a chilling narrative out of his findings -- workers as young as 12 or 13, treated as biomass; 12-hour shifts that can stretch to 16 or more when a new product is being stockpiled for release; employees whose hands are permanently warped from endlessly repeating the same task under pressure with no rotation of duty.

Daisey recounts how one worker died at the end of a 34-hour shift during his Foxconn visit. He recalls an encounter with a man whose job was terminated without compensation when his hand was crushed while making the metal casing for iPads. “It’s a kind of magic,” the injured man said when Daisey booted up his own iPad to show him a working model for the first time.

Running parallel to the account of his China trip, Daisey provides a selective history of Jobs’ life and career. His rigorous design standards and voracious hunger for the new steered Apple to world dominance, not in market share but in “mind share.”

Describing him as “the master of the forced upgrade,” Daisey makes a trenchant case that Jobs turned everyone into covetous tech consumers. “He was so good at making us need things we never even knew we wanted -- like a laptop so thin you can slice a sandwich with it.”

PHOTOS: Steve Jobs' 10 Memorable Milestones

He draws out the contradictions in the tech guru’s ability to create fetish objects while never being afraid to “knife the baby.” (RIP, iPod Mini.) But while the two sides of visionary aesthete and ruthless businessman are amply illustrated, Daisey gets no closer to Jobs the man than most obits of recent weeks.

He had no direct contact with the former Apple chief. A stash of e-mail responses sent by Jobs to people who had written to him after seeing Daisey’s show suggests he was aware of the human-rights violations behind the manufacture of his products. The attention to detail throughout Apple’s micromanaged history makes any other scenario inconceivable. But merely wondering how Jobs reconciled this via secondhand answers robs the piece of some impact.

Daisey’s work can veer toward sermonizing. His structure of loose chapters capped by resounding pronouncements becomes self-righteous at times, and at two solid hours, his storytelling here is not without fat. Detours on the nature of geekishness or the inanity of the PowerPoint presentation feel like extended standup bits.

VIDEO: Remembering Steve Jobs

But Daisey is a compelling polemicist. Beyond an information sheet distributed at the end of the performance, he doesn’t offer a solution. But he forces us to examine our acquisitive natures and the degree to which we are all complicit in screening out what we don’t want to see. In Daisey’s view, it was not Beijing but multinational corporations like Apple that created and continue to enforce the demand for dehumanized labor in places like China. His key point is that, as the P.T. Barnum of his era, Jobs was in a unique position to change things, but he chose not to.

Venue: Public Theater, New York (runs through Nov. 13)
Creator-performer: Mike Daisey
Director: Jean-Michele Gregory
Set/lighting designer: Seth Reiser
Presented by the Public Theater