Mike Daisey returns to D.C. with ‘Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’


Image of Mike Daisey in "The Agony and the Ectasy of Steve Jobs" at Woolly Mammoth Theater Copany. (Scott Suchman/Scott Suchman)

In the reboot of his notorious monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Mike Daisey sounds an alarm that now has a hollow ring.

Stripped of its most powerful ingredient — Daisey’s firsthand accounts of labor abuses inside a Chinese plant that makes Apple products — the piece, in its return engagement at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, remains a showcase for Daisey’s remarkable skills as a raconteur-provocateur. But the necessary excision of details Daisey claimed to have witnessed but later acknowledged he hadn’t has weakened the work’s authority, and, in this sad and sorry instance, neutered his argument.

It’s not that we can no longer believe the conditions for Chinese workers assembling our iPads and MacBooks are as inhumane as have been described in other places than on Daisey’s stage; Daisey tells us we don’t have to take his suspect word for it, because no less than the New York Times has reported on the harsh practices in the electronics factories of Shenzhen. The dilemma now for “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is as much a dramatic one as an ethical one. Without several of the devastating scenes and conversations Daisey claimed to have taken in with his own eyes and ears, the evening’s emotional payoff fails to arrive. Daisey can no longer use his singular ability as an image conjurer quite as potently to trigger our shame and prick our consciences.

Gone are some of the most galvanizing details: the report of security men at the factory gates carrying guns; the story of a mangled worker caressing a completely assembled iPad for the first time; the account of his visit to the laborers’ living quarters, with bunk beds stacked concentration-camp style. In their place, he’s lengthened his description of a scene he apparently did experience: the vastness of a Chinese factory cafeteria that can feed 10,000 workers at a time. That certainly gives you some sense of the scale of the operation. But it doesn’t tell you much about the human toll.

For those of you playing catch-up: Portions of “The Agony and the Ecstasy” were adapted for an episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” which later located an interpreter who had worked with Daisey and disputed many of the details he reported. While Daisey had insisted that programs for the stage version note that “Agony and Ecstasy” was a work of nonfiction, he confessed to “American Life” host Ira Glass that incidents had been fabricated.

The ensuing debate examined the ethical standards for theater vs. journalism, with a contrite Daisey conceding that he’d erred by shifting the metaphor: “Agony and Ecstasy,” he maintained, was never meant as actual reportage.

As a theatergoer, I had always taken Daisey’s words as unvarnished truth. And I see now how integral the reliability of the factory passages was to the monologue’s impact the first two times I listened to it, first at Woolly Mammoth in the spring of 2011, then in the fall at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, after which I described it as “the best original American play” I’d seen that year. Daisey’s words had their intended effect:I did, as a result of the piece, look at my beloved Apple equipment in a different way. And although I was uncomfortable with some of the excessive righteousness with which Daisey infused the earliest readings of the work — he implored us to take action in ways enumerated in brochures that were distributed at the time at play’s end — I understood that the passion was informed by what he said he saw in China.

That passion is tempered now in “Agony and Ecstasy” by what comes across, at times, as defensiveness and self-pity. Don’t get me wrong: I still adore Daisey’s writerly gifts, his displays of pique and arrogance, his ability to hold an audience for two hours while seated the entire time at a table, his elastic features and hands as his only dynamic tools. (A glass of water always sits at his elbow; I’ve never seen him take a sip.) And Daisey’s portrait of a visionary, diabolical Jobs and his Apple empire remains a marvelous, affirmative attribute of the show: His insights shed light hilariously on Silicon Valley and the technogeek culture it helped spawn.

He’s added or enlarged upon a few leavening anecdotes that have occurred since he first started doing the show, such as an encounter with Steve Wozniak. Daisey describes the Apple co-founder as being deeply affected by the revelations about Foxconn and Shenzhen: “It never was supposed to be this way,” he quotes Wozniak as saying.

The episode gives off a whiff of the self-serving, as if the narrator is seeking to convince someone that he was right all along.

The audience may be forgiven for reading into the tweaks and snippets: One spectator giggled when Daisey mentioned the idea of making things up as one goes along. But Daisey does not use this revisit to Woolly to analyze his behavior in this affair, the unfortunate distraction that has turned Jobs’s “Agony” into Daisey’s.

It’s a major disappointment — not that an apologia is required. Who cares about that? No, what’s missing is Dai­sey’s mind trained on the task of deconstructing his actions, the way he says he spends nights after the show in his hotel room, breaking down his MacBook into its 43 component pieces. Is that as important as the question of how thousands of Chinese workers are treated, making the products we love? Of course not. But it wasn’t Daisey’s listeners, or the media, that prompted this need. It’s unfortunate that some of us want the matter to intrude, however artfully this storyteller might weave it, into “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Or is that a journey of self-examination too scary for the intrepid Daisey to contemplate?

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

created and performed by Mike Daisey. Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory. Set and lighting, Seth Reiser. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Aug. 5 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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