'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs'

Monologist Mike Daisey takes a slightly different bite of the Apple

Nothing but the truth?: Sitting down, Mike Daisey stands by his story.
Nothing but the truth?: Sitting down, Mike Daisey stands by his story. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne)

In his compelling one-person theatre piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, being presented by Texas Performing Arts Sept. 13-15, Mike Daisey illuminates the genius imagination of the Apple, Inc. co-founder, the dark side of the company's supply chain, and the real cost of consumers' appetite for electronic gadgets. As such, the monologue propels audiences to question issues not normally addressed onstage. Think of Daisey as a theatrical Michael Moore, a town crier in the body of Family Guy's hyper-animated Peter Griffin, and you'll have a close approximation. He's revealing, energetic, and dynamic, and his ability to weave an informative yet entertaining narrative of global commerce and exploitation that pulls the viewer along is top-notch. Daisey is a master storyteller – perhaps too good a one.

Before written language, storytelling was the means of conveying the news of the day or of yesteryear. It is both functional and an art form. It conjures up sitting around a fire, recounting an event or moment of importance with expressionistic flair. For the teller, slight embellishments or alterations that make the story more exciting are par for the course.

In the case of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey embellished a bit too much; to put it bluntly, he lied.

When Daisey first began performing the monologue at the Public Theatre in New York City, everything went swimmingly. The piece garnered praise from critics and audiences alike, and his commentary spurred journalists to dig deeper into Apple's overseas supplier Foxconn, which produces an estimated 40% of the world's electronics and employs more than 1.2 million workers. Responding to Daisey's reports of adverse factory conditions and an enormous number of worker suicides, The New York Times broke a major investigative piece about Apple's supply chain and the real cost of making products fast and cheap. Public radio's This American Life devoted an entire episode to Daisey with excerpts from his performance – a broadcast that became the program's most downloaded show to date.

But parts of Daisey's monologue didn't add up to Rob Schmitz, reporter for the public radio series Marketplace. As a responsible journalist, he tracked down Daisey's Chinese interpreter in Shenzhen only to discover several major discrepancies in Daisey's account of his trip to Foxconn. There were no guards with guns at the gates, no 13-year-olds employed in the factory, and no workers who had been poisoned by n-hexane, a chemical used to clean screens.

This discovery prompted This American Life to apologize and retract the episode in a follow-up piece two months later. After this public outing, Daisey wobbled along, continually reframing his story in the press. He has since revised The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, cutting six minutes of text and replacing it with the tale of his own scandal.

All of the makings of a good story are here in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – including the fallibility of the storyteller. Although the controversy has diluted some of the public's trust in Daisey, it needn't cloud the remaining 84 minutes of his compelling monologue – a tale of how multinational corporations and overseas manufacturers are cutting corners that directly impact workers. Daisey says, "I am very aware how narratives shape us, bind us. I've always been aware of that."

Should Daisey be excused for his distortive lies? Absolutely not. Should you go see this piece of theatre? Absolutely yes. As an audience member, you get to decide where you stand on the entire story, including the story about the story. In the end, it is ultimately about truth and redemption, with the facts exposed, including Daisey himself.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Andrew Long
Multilingual in Movement
Multilingual in Movement
Hubbard Street Dance returns with an international program

Jan. 26, 2015

Laurie Anderson: 'Dirtday!'
Laurie Anderson: 'Dirtday!'
A chance to see this shape-shifting performance artist spin stories up close

Sept. 21, 2012


The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey, Texas Performing Arts, Foxconn, This American Life, Marketplace

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle