The Agony And The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 15, 2011
If you're reading this then you're one of the people who should probably see Mike Daisey's new show at The Public Theater. If you're reading it on an iPhone or on an iPad, then you are indisputably in Daisey's target audience, for this new show is called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and though it's not only about Apple and its revered late leader and its customer/fanbase, it will likely resonate more with you if you have spent some time in front of a sleek screen that runs Safari.
Daisey, as you perhaps know, is a storyteller—one of the masters of the form nowadays. He sits behind a glass table, dressed all in black, and though his face and hands and arms are magisterially expressive, he otherwise doesn't move much at all. He's got some yellow ruled sheets of 8x11 paper on the table before him, which he never seems to consult but which he does flip through as the show progresses. There's also a glass of water and a handkerchief. Behind Daisey is a fancy wall of light designed by Seth Reiser in the style of David Korins's work for shows like Stew's Passing Strange (it is, sad to say, the one misstep in this otherwise exemplary production, distracting us from Daisey's riveting words rather than bolstering them in some way). Jean-Michele Gregory directs.
There are three threads that run through Steve Jobs. One, not surprisingly, is a sort of biography of Jobs, tracking his career from the wunderkind days when he and Steve Wozniak first invented Apple (the computer AND the company) through his now-legendary fall from grace and up to his very recent demise. The second and by far most entertaining part of the show is a kind of public confession of a major geek. Daisey tells us, for example, that he takes apart his MacBook and cleans each of its components with an air compressor for relaxation. He's been a techie for all of his adult life and his descriptions of the obsessive desire for "new and improved" products that he absolutely doesn't need at all are very funny and authentic, earning smiles of recognition from many in the audience, myself included.
It's the third track that Daisey follows here, though, that's most important, and it's the one that ties the show together. Though he says he's just a storyteller, Daisey turned investigative reporter to research this piece, journeying to a city in China called Shenzhen, which is home to a bunch of humongous factories that, he tells us, make more than half of the electronics produced in the world. For example, every iPhone and every iPad is manufactured here; so are many other products sold by companies like Dell, Nokia, and Motorola.
The conditions at the factories Daisey visited will shock you, I think. If you thought serfdom was a thing of the past, well...guess again: he tells us about hundreds of thousands of workers, some as young as 12 or 13, working 60 or 70 hours a week and living in dormitories at the factory under constant surveillance. He toured factories filled with humans hand-crafting the highest-tech electronics in numbing silence; he spoke to organizers of illegal underground unions trying to find a way to reform work conditions. As he wrote in his recent New York Times op-ed piece, Daisey is disillusioned that Steve Jobs, who once was in the vanguard of bucking a corrupt corporate establishment, allowed Apple to get sucked into the Shenzhen way of doing business, along with so many other technology companies. And he reminds us that all of us who buy these products are culpable too.
Finally, what's great about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is that it hearkens back to the classic model of democracy. Daisey found some important stuff out, and he's sharing it with people who need to know about it. The rest is up to us. He's not subtle about his call to action—there's an informative handout provided after the show filled with data, email addresses, and possible action steps—but he's very clear in his determination to let each of us make up our own mind.
Which is why everyone of us needs to hear—really hear, and think about—what Mike Daisey has to say.