The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

A one-man show about Apple’s dark side.

Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Photograph by AP Photo/The Public Theater, Stan Barouh.

Also in Slate: The Culture Gabfest discusses Steve Jobs.

Eight days ago, I received a call from the monologist Mike Daisey, whom I’ve been speaking with lately out of an interest in his work. The call was unexpected, and Daisey sounded weary and out-of-sorts. I wasn’t surprised by his mood. Since July of 2010, in cities from Hyderabad to Vancouver to Washington, Daisey has been performing an ambitious and heartfelt work titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and 45 minutes earlier the news had arrived that Jobs was dead.

Many people who’d never met Jobs felt surprisingly bereft, but for Daisey the emotions were compounded by the fact that he wasn’t just contending with the loss of a ubiquitous public figure—he was dealing with the loss of the man who had occupied his brain for the better part of two years.

Much longer than that, actually. As Daisey explains in his show, a taped version of which he sent me this summer, he’s been obsessed with Jobs ever since the 1980s, when, as a geeky adolescent in northern Maine, he spent hours tinkering with his parent’s new Apple IIc. “I am an Apple aficionado,” he intoned in that performance in his booming, voluble baritone. (Daisey performs without a script, so every performance is different.) “I am an Apple partisan. I am an Apple fanboy. I am a worshipper in the cult of Mac! I have been to the House of Jobs; I have walked through the stations of his cross; I have knelt before his throne!”

And yet Daisey’s relationship to Jobs and Apple has become significantly more complicated than that of his countless co-religionists, and those complications significantly more public. The bit about his Apple bona fides in “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is more disclaimer than boast, the ecstatic preface to what follows: an agonized narrative of his disillusionment and a vigorous effort to coax others out of the fold.

As Daisey told the story this summer, the germ of his doubt was a series of photographs taken at the Chinese factory where the iPhone is manufactured, inadvertently left on a device bound for America, and posted to an Apple discussion forum. The photographs were mundane—a worker on an assembly line, a cavernous factory floor—but they led Daisey to ask a question that he’d never considered before: How and where are these gadgets he adores, these marvels of industrial design and technological innovation, made?

This question in turn led Daisey on a gutsy adventure. With few leads and no journalistic credentials, he traveled to Shenzhen, in southern China, and, posing as a businessman, he infiltrated the heavily restricted, heavily guarded “special economic zone” where nearly all of the world’s electronics are produced. More than half of our electronics, including Apple’s, are made by a single company, Foxconn, at a single facility that employs 420,000 workers—a factory as populated as the city of Atlanta.

Despite dire risk (an AP photographer caught taking pictures outside Foxconn had recently been detained and beaten for two days before being released to his embassy), Daisey managed to interview dozens of these workers. He interviewed girls as young as 12 who worked crushing hours; he interviewed a man whose hand had been twisted into a claw from overuse; he interviewed a woman who had been blacklisted merely for requesting overtime pay.

In his show, Daisey is hardly shy in apportioning blame for these iniquities. He wants to implicate everyone: not just Beijing but the American companies that had requested and helped engineer the Shenzhen manufacturing hub; technology journalists who either ignored the labor question or, worse, allowed themselves to be duped by propaganda (Daisey is especially scornful about the author of a feckless Wired cover story from earlier this year: he calls him a “useful idiot,” Lenin’s term for the easily manipulable); and American consumers, himself included, who mindlessly salivate over the newest device yet remain in willful ignorance about the supply chain that delivers it to their doorstep.

But the primary target of Daisey’s show, as the title suggests, is the one person who had the power, the courage, and the financial clout to change things for the better. Steve Jobs was once idealistic and progressive, or at least he had pretensions along these lines. He spent time in an Indian ashram, he dropped acid, he pored over The Whole Earth Catalog; he studied Buddhism; he claimed that his countercultural roots were central to his thinking. Sure, he made that statement while working as the billionaire CEO of a publicly traded multinational corporation, but the crux of his charisma was his unpredictability! If anyone had the ability and authority to effect a sea change in “how we make our shit,” as Daisey put it, it was Jobs, and The Agony and the Ecstasy was delivered like an open letter. More than that, it was a letter-writing campaign. Until August, when Jobs resigned as Apple’s CEO, each performance ended with the distribution of Jobs’ email address to every member of the audience, and a plea to write to the man Daisey called “the only leader I have ever followed” about the issues raised.

And now Jobs was dead, and Daisey didn’t know what it meant. The show was set to begin its big Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in less than a week. Given the tremendous outpouring of grief associated with Jobs’ death, the fog of hagiography already descending, how would an audience response to such fervent, unflinching criticism? Would Daisey have to rework the show?

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll tell you one thing. Whatever I perform is going to be more emotionally charged than ever. It’s inevitable.”

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has its official New York premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 18, but it began in previews on Oct. 11, and that night I went to see how Daisey had managed to assimilate Jobs’ death into the work. Ten minutes before the show was to start, I ran into Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey’s wife and director, on a riser in the audience, milling around and greeting friends in a slim black dress. I asked her whether Daisey had been laboring over his outline in the week since we’d spoken. “He’s been laboring over his outline for the last hour or so,” she said. This, I knew, was typical of Daisey: His style is to think deeply about something for days, weeks, months, and only scribble something down at the last moment. He prefers the impromptu, the improvisational, the extemporaneous—whatever makes the proceedings less like a set piece and more like a conversation. It usually makes for exciting theater.

When the show began (to the famous Mac OS chime), Daisey was seated at a sleek aluminum table with a raised glass top—a piece of furniture you might find holding MacBooks, iPads, and cloud-white wireless keyboards at any Apple Store in the world—in front of a simple metal framework lined with LCD lights. It was a striking if obvious design choice, but far more striking, as always, was the sight of Daisey himself. He is an immense man, a nearly cuboid presence with soft, thick hands, a round second chin, and an aircraft carrier of a brow that sweats extravagantly as he performs. Yet Daisey can be subtle and graceful in his movements. Sitting alone in the dark before a show, with only a few sheets of paper and a glass of water in front of him, he signals to the lighting technician that he is ready to begin by raising his palms to shoulder height and then lowering them slowly, gently, like a yoga instructor, to the surface.

But that is when Daisey wants to be graceful. More often he wants to be blunt, concussive, and obscene. The Public show began, as it had in the performance I’d already heard, with a kind of shock wave—Daisey launching at full volume and headlong into a comic anecdote set in the Chungking Mansions, a massive, chaotic commercial complex in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where Daisey seeks out a gnarled, gold-toothed pirate to hack into his iPhone. It is a brief, theme-setting episode, an overture, but for me it quickly banished any suspicion that Daisey would be markedly changing his tone for this run.

As a performer, Daisey’s two dominant modes have long been a kind of gonzo irreverence and a compassionate, engagé earnestness—a mix of Hunter S. Thompson and Reinhold Niebuhr. One of the big questions I had walking into the theater was whether Jobs’ death would compel Daisey to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. It didn’t seem I had anything to worry about. Indeed, I was surprised to find that Jobs’ death didn’t appear to have convinced Daisey to change anything. For the vast majority of show—two hours without intermission—The Agony and the Ecstasy was much as I, and probably most of Daisey’s prior audiences, had already experienced it. As is true of many of Daisey’s monologues, the story was told in a back-and-forth style. He alternated between the half-bumbling, half-harrowing narrative of his travels abroad and the narrative of Jobs’ rise to prominence; his abrupt fall from grace in 1985, when he was ousted by Apple’s board of directors; and his subsequent struggles, his return to Apple, and his ascendance to world-historical status.

All that appeared to have changed were the tenses: Jobs now “was,” not “is.” This injected a mote of tension and confusion into the show, as if we were all trying to talk and think in final terms about a friend who had died but whose presence lingered on … but just a mote. But for the magnetic and massive figure in my line of vision, I might have been back in my office, listening to the show again on iTunes.

And so it went, pleasurably, and still stirringly. Critics often remark on Daisey’s comic acumen, but it’s important to qualify this observation by reference to the type of comic performer Daisey calls up. It isn’t Zero Mostel, whom he resembles in body shape and (I suspect, were he to rise from his table) in the physicality of his movements. Nor is it Spalding Gray, whom he resembles in his inexhaustible articulateness and his willingness to mine his own experiences for dramatic material. Rather, the comic performers Daisey most resemble are the pure, political, and profane stand-up greats, those unsettling, often self-destructive forces—people such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and, above all, Bill Hicks—whose best performances are at once convulsively funny and deeply unsettling.

Like these performers, Daisey is a ranter—but a controlled ranter. There is a kind of mad, prophetic urgency in what he has to tell, a sense that he is delivering news, and like all prophetic news it bears hearing more than once. Indeed, it probably should be heard more than once, like the message in a sermon. Over the course of the long run of “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” critics have charged Daisey with naïveté and liberal hectoring: globalization is the how business is done now. Without Apple—or Samsung, or Hewlett Packard, or Microsoft, or any of the other dozens of companies that have outsourced their manufacturing to Asia—those poor laborers would be on the streets, or toiling in the fields like serfs. Is that what he wants? Is that what he would have happen?

Daisey responds with simple, stark, and unignorable first-hand experience: He’s been to China. He’s seen the children “worked like beasts of burden.” He’s seen the ruined bodies and the ruined lives and he’s seen the nets—acts of “corporate responsibility,” he calls them acidly—erected beneath the factory roofs to catch the would-be suicides. He’s seen this “Stalinist wet dream,” and he intends to tell you all about it, so that you know and can’t forget. Yet he is shrewd enough to make you laugh as he tells you, so that you’re primed for the slip of the knife.

On Tuesday, I knew the outline, I knew the best anecdotes, I even knew the best descriptions, and I was grateful to hear it for a second time. But then Daisey came to the end, and once again I knew nothing. All along he had refused to temper his implication of Jobs in how Apple’s products were made. Placing Jobs’ story side-by-side with his travels to Shenzhen was itself an indictment. And yet, because these sections were conceived while Jobs was still alive, and therefore still capable of decision—of staging another one of his dramatic press conferences, effecting another momentous shift in the zeitgeist, in how we view technology, commerce, the world—they continued to feel imbued with the sense of possibility and hope. Jobs, one couldn’t help magically believing, might redeem himself yet.

Then, in the last minutes of this new version of the show, Daisey at last addressed Jobs’ death directly, and the tone shifted abruptly. With a mournful calm that crescendoed slowly in intensity, Daisey told how, in the moments after he heard the news—shortly before he called me—he sat in his darkened apartment and reread the dozens of emails Jobs had sent those members of Daisey’s audience who’d heeded his plea to contact the great man. In both the earlier and this new incarnation of the show Daisey notes how unusual these emails are: Can you imagine Bill Gates directly answering his critics? Sam Walton? Jamie Dimon?

And yet Daisey no longer sounded so impressed by Jobs’ accessibility. Indeed, he sounded let down, angry, even bitter. Jobs knew, he said. Of course he knew. This was a man who was celebrated for keeping a vigilant watch over all the minutiae, all the piddling details. He made it his business to know. And that meant, unforgivably, that he had chosen not to act. “Mike doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the situation,” Jobs sometimes replied to his new correspondents. This supposed techno-libertarian renegade, this poster child for the melding of microchips and humanist values, had become just another billionaire sophist. He turned his back on his ideals.

And so Daisey, appropriately and inevitably, now ended his performance by turning his back on Jobs. That oracle has gone silent. The only people to whom he can now appeal are his audience members, and he did so on the verge of tears, in a pitch just shy of brutal. “Steve made his choice. I wonder what you will choose,” he said. “When you sit in front of the laptop, you will see the blood welling up between the keys, because they were made by hands—human hands, hands of children.” It was an impassioned and aggrieved addition, and the audience squirmed until the lights came on.