Warning: Potential Conflict of Interest: These comments were written on an iMac and refined on my PowerBookPro and then posted using my iPad and shown to friends on my iPhone. All hail OS X 10!
Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” currently playing at the Public Theater in New York City, is among the most rarified forms of contemporary socio-political theatre and the work of a superb monologist. As socio-political theatre, Daisey draws his audience into a world they think they inhabit – devotees of the Steve Jobs priesthood – and then reshapes that world into willful compliance with economic barbarism and cultural imperialism. That is no small fete for a performer who spends two hours simply sitting at a modern desk with nothing but a glass of water and yellow pages of notes neatly stacked and periodically turned over to denote significant transitions in his totally enrapturing monologue.
Let me be clear. This two hour rant is very entertaining and provides one of the most satisfying theatrical experiences I have had since witnessing “The Scottsboro Boys,” which performs a similar fete in a much more theatrical framework. Toward the end of his performance, Mr. Daisey tells the audience that they are experiencing a virus, one of those invisible computer diseases that eventually takes over their operating system to do serious harm. But Mr. Daisey’s virus is intended to “do good,” to force the audience members to confront their role in the horrific treatment of foreign workers and their willingness to accept the creative geniuses of corporate America as profits of a better world (for us, if not for those in “other worlds”).
He accomplishes this infection by weaving a very humorous and absolutely on-target narrative about the birth and development of the “cult of Apple” with the story of how Apple has abused the willingness of China (and by extension several other emerging economies) to sacrifice individual workers’ health and happiness for a place in the world economy. The New York Times recently ran a powerful exposé on this issue which was stimulated by the earlier run of Mr. Daisey’s monologue at the Public Theatre last fall, shortly after the death of its title character. He evokes full-scale belly laughs by suggesting, “If you have not seriously contemplated the operating system, you are leading an unexamined life” or by contrasting Apple to Microsoft, a company that keeps “building tools that work like shit we already do.”
Steve Jobs’ followers are all willing participants in the cult of Apple. No other company has so effectively created a sense of belonging that defies the most fundamental tenets of logic. Only Apple could lead its followers to embrace the transition from Mini iPod to the Nano iPod, a transition from a device that did more to a device that did less, but looked more desirable. In fact, Mr. Daisey marvels at psychological transference that Apple users tend to perform when a product, like the disastrous Newton, doesn’t work: the user assumes that he, not Apple, must be missing something. But Mr. Daisey has not come to bury Steve Jobs; he shares the audience’s praise and affection and thus he plants the seeds of his virus.
We laugh with the recognition of our devotion as Mr. Daisey reminds us of Mr. Jobs’ unique ability to convince us that we want something that we had no idea we were in need of. Who knew that we wanted a computer so thin that we could throw away our carving knives and use our laptop for dual purposes? Which of us does not share in the wonder of the famous story about Mr. Jobs’ “discovery” of the visual interface in a storage room at the Silicon Valley Xerox research center? This is how we are drawn into the world that Mr. Daisey paints for us and that he eventually turns on us. You cannot have the comfort of the clan without sharing in the responsibilities for its atrocities. And Mr. Daisey skillfully draws his fellow clansmen into an unnerving appreciation those injustices.
I do not see many monologists (my theatre partner has an odd aversion toward one-person shows) and this was my first experience with Mike Daisey. But you do not have to be an aficionado to recognize that Mr. Daisey is a gifted master of the form. He does not portray multiple characters. He does not use visual aids or theatrical embellishments. In fact, he never moves from his seat at a desk. But his way with story-telling is every bit as theatrical and layered as any modern drama. He breaks his thoughts into clear beats, in a fashion as close to Stanislavski’s theory as any production of a Chekov play might ever reveal. When his narrative reaches a turning-point, the transition is marked by simply turning over one of the yellow note sheets that apparently organize his presentation, although he is never otherwise caught reading from, or even referring to, these notations. With the turn of a page, one scene has ended and the audience is prepared to mark that moment and move to the next. Mr. Daisey clearly has a written text memorized, internalized and played with as much variety and animation as any amount movement and vocal gymnastics might provide. Even his frequent wiping of the sweat from his brow with a black cloth is timed and focused toward its impact on his words and thoughts.
He establishes a direct relationship with his audience. It’s more like a conversation than a monologue, except that the viewers’ participation in that conversation is never manifested out loud. At one point in the evening, Mr. Daisey actually forces the audience to respond, but silently. He describes the size of the Foxconn factory in Wahun, China, where ¼ million workers (some as young as 12 years old) labor to produce Apple products, frequently for 14 hours a day, every day. He orders the viewer to imagine one of the 25 cafeterias, each serving 25,000 workers at a time, by remembering their grade school lunchroom and expanding the walls of that comfortable memory until they could accommodate a stadium’s-worth of under-nourished laborers. And here, he uses his acute awareness of the role of silence in Stanislavskian beats to challenge any audience member who may not be following his commands to formulate a picture in their minds. He pauses, waiting for that picture to manifest itself –a moment as remarkable as any I have witnessed by the best of Shakespearean actors.
One of the central organizing metaphors of “Agony/Ecstasy” is the story of an American consumer who found four test pictures inadvertently left on the “camera roll” of his new iPhone. Each camera is tested, not by robots, as Mr. Daisey says we tend to assume, but by a real person in a factory in southern China. One undeleted picture captures a worker in a warehouse, unaware that her image is being recorded, like so many of the nameless real people captured on iPhones everyday by consumers. That image seems to have been the provocation for Mr. Daisey’s investigation and this theatrical creation. Leaving the theatre, I wondered whether I would ever be able to look at one of those anonymous portraits that I snapped on my iPhone without weighing the guilt of my complicity with the cult of Apple against the comfort I feel as a true believer.