In Agony and Ecstasy, Mike Daisey Lies to a Lot of People

Jason Compton in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Photo by Benjamin Barlow.

Jason Compton in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Photo by Benjamin Barlow.

On my way to see the one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,  I switched on NPR in my car. Just in time, I heard the official announcement that Apple will be unveiling some as-yet-unnamed new products later this month, and I imagined the simultaneous elation and anger that Mike Daisey must have felt at that moment. I’m sure the author of the often controversial monologue—about Steve Jobs, the cult of Apple, and consumers’ responsibility to buy ethically created products—is still obsessed with upgrades to his iPhone and the latest shiny gadgets from Silicon Valley’s biggest star. And I was hoping the local incarnation of Daisey’s diatribe would shed some light on our current conundrums— about Foxconn coming to Wisconsin. About the necessity for labor unions and worker protections. About technology taking over our lives and frankly, the world.

It didn’t.

Which is not to say that Left of Left Center’s production wasn’t terrific. It was. Actor Jason Compton and director Jake Penner did an amazing job of wrangling a long, and sometimes wandering monologue into a compelling piece of theater. The beats were well shaped. The spare set — just a table and chair — were all we needed to visualize dozens of settings. Compton’s movements were bold and well placed. His use of specific gestures to create and then call back characters and themes were precise and evocative. And Compton’s ability to channel pop references from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and other geek culture talismans was also impressive. With barely a moment of hesitation in the 90-minute performance, he also channeled Daisey himself, whose mesmerizing delivery of the piece was part hypnotic chant, part clever word play, and part proselytizing from a true believer.

And that was part of the problem.

I was really hoping, sitting in the darkened theater at the Bartell, that I would able to separate the performance of Agony and Ecstasy from the controversy around it, and the claims made by its creator, which were largely debunked. I was hoping, as Daisey repeats in the monologue, that the “metaphor would shift” all these years later. But while the story of the author’s long, personal history with Apple products was entertaining, (not to mention familiar) and his history lesson about Steve Jobs and his company’s rise to power was interesting, it was hard to accept anything in the monologue at face value. So many indelible details from the original version had sounded true on first hearing. So much of the show now rings false.

Anyone who has listened to Daisey’s sorry-not-sorry apology on the episode of “This American Life” when Ira Glass retracted his story on Agony and Ecstasy knows that the “truth” is just a matter of semantics for the now infamous performer. By cutting corners to make a story of actual abuse of Chinese workers by giant corporations — including Foxconn and Apple — even more dramatic, he lost all credibility. He also lost the moral high ground that both Daisey and Compton seem to enjoy in the monologue, pointing fingers at a cartoonishly evil Steve Jobs and at us, their willfully ignorant, completely culpable audience who would never have known that such atrocities existed, had it not been for this creative exposé/public service announcement.

It’s very easy to see why The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs garnered as much attention as it did, when it was first performed at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2010. The poetry was undeniable. The performance, if it was anything like Compton’s last night, was electric. The subject matter was provocative. The characters were unforgettable.

But it was impossible not to wince when the narrator said, with sinister, almost giddy confidence, “I’m going to lie to lots of people.”