Theater Talkback: ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’ Take 2

07.26.12
Mike Daisey
The New York Times

By CHARLES ISHERWOOD

WASHINGTON — “Why believe me? I’m a noted fabulist,” says Mike Daisey, his honeyed voice all but dripping with sarcasm, eyes glinting with challenge. The audience at the Woolly Mammoth Theater here, where Mr. Daisey is performing an encore run of his solo show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” chuckles in sympathy.

Mr. Daisey is, of course, referring to the controversy that erupted last spring over his popular, polemical solo show, in which he exposed the dire conditions workers were subjected to at the factories in China where Apple products – and much of the rest of the world’s electronics – are manufactured.

When an abbreviated version of his show was broadcast on “This American Life,” it was discovered that some of the details in his descriptions of the factory and his encounters with workers there had been embellished, even fabricated. The radio program took the unusual step of officially retracting the broadcast, and in a later program on the same show Mr. Daisey alternately defended his right as a theater artist to shape his narrative as he saw fit and expressed contrition at the liberties he had taken.

The Woolly Mammoth, which first presented “The Agony and the Ecstasy” in 2010 and has long been associated with Mr. Daisey, had already booked a return engagement for this summer, and decided to stand by Mr. Daisey and continue with the run. In fact the company, far from fleeing the scandal, used it as a promotional tool: ads for the return engagement referred to it as “the most notorious and controversial play of the decade.”

Fortunately for Mr. Daisey’s rehabilitation as a theater artist, the show has evolved in the wake of the public outcry that arose when Mr. Daisey admitted that he had not stuck strictly to the facts in a show that was unabashedly billed as “a work of nonfiction.” The program for the current run at the Woolly Mammoth does not carry any such description. Still, Mr. Daisey has smoothly excised virtually all of the material that was called into question by the radio show, which interviewed the translator Mr. Daisey employed during his visits to the factory. (It was not a happy indicator when Mr. Daisey told “This American Life” researchers that the translator – referred to as “Cathy” in the show – was not actually named Cathy. She was, and presumably still is.)

Gone are the references to guns carried by guards at the gates of the Foxconn factory compound, where Mr. Daisey interacted with workers. Gone are the references to girls as young as 12 working on the assembly lines. Gone is the moving description of an older factory worker with a mangled hand who studied Mr. Daisey’s iPad with awe and pronounced it “a kind of magic,” never having seen a sample of the product he had been injured while producing.

Mr. Daisey works from notes rather than a script, and I can’t directly compare the version of the show I saw at the Public Theater last fall with the new version, but Mr. Daisey’s encounters with individual workers at the Foxconn factory, some of the most damning material in the original version, seem to play a significantly smaller role in the new one. Mr. Daisey still describes his encounters with workers – alongside his translator, still named Cathy – but they are more generalized and less specific. The details about the long hours worked and the spate of worker suicides at the Foxconn compound are still both disturbing and well documented.

In a reference to Steve Jobs’s reputation as a demanding boss, he jokingly refers to Jobs’s head exploding, and adds, “That is hyperbole.” But aside from a few allusions to the controversy — including a sarcastic assertion that we all know that humans, not “Oompa-Loompas,” are employed to manufacture the sleek digital assistants we all rely on — Mr. Daisey sticks to his guns (except for that bit about the guns, of course), brandishing his forceful, admonishing tone with the same fervor that he used before the production inspired his own public agonies.

The new material in the show bears out the idea that while Mr. Daisey may well have misled audiences in describing the show as nonfiction, the larger truths about the treatment of Foxconn workers are indisputable. New to the show is Mr. Daisey’s description of a meeting with Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, who Mr. Daisey lampoons as an “autistic bear” guzzling Mountain Dew as he works. Far from taking offense at either these descriptions or Mr. Daisey’s admitted fabrications, Mr. Wozniak was moved and disturbed by the revelations in the show, expressing a sort of sorrowful awe at how the company he helped create has evolved.

Can we trust this description? It’s encouraging that Mr. Wozniak will be joining Mr. Daisey for a conversation after a performance of the show on Aug. 4.

And while I still believe Mr. Daisey was wrong to include falsified material in the show, a second encounter with “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” served to remind me that Mr. Daisey is indeed a raconteur whose material would not have had the impact it had – would never have been the subject of that fateful radio program – if he were not such an effective entertainer. Whether comically emulating the screech of an early dot-matrix printer, gleefully describing his own obsessive attachment to his Apple products, or darkly admonishing us for “indifference” to the plight of the workers who fashion these now-indispensable gadgets, he holds the audience fast for two straight hours, with no intermission.

The response to the performance I caught in Washington was no less enthusiastic than when I saw the show at the Public Theater last fall. I didn’t hear any catcalls, but then it’s unlikely that those who decried Mr. Daisey’s fabrications would pay the price of a ticket just to jeer him. There’s something of a sad irony in the fact that “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” Version 2.0 is, in my view, if anything more powerful, funny and engaging than the earlier production.

This may suggest a salutary lesson for this talented writer and performer: his particular dramatic methods are best served by a strict allegiance to the truth. Mr. Daisey doesn’t need to stretch his tales to make his points; his talents and the facts are a sufficiently potent theatrical combination.

I’d be interested in hearing your reactions to Mr. Daisey’s travails, and whether you think Mr. Daisey is right to continue performing a show that has been tainted by controversy.