- The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey
The revelation in March 2012 that some of the details included in Mike Daisey’s monologue performance, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, were not factually accurate sparked a flood of critical reaction. Journalists and theatre artists nationwide became engaged in an invigorated debate about the distinctions between journalism and documentary theatre and an artist’s obligation to his audience. First performed in 2010 and with a run this past fall and winter at the Public Theater in New York City, the monologue wove together the strands of three interrelated stories: the history of Steve Jobs’s relationship with Apple; Daisey’s own cult-like devotion to Apple products; and the conditions in Chinese factories where these products are made. It was the content of this last story strand that sparked what Daisey referred to as “a scandal.”
In January, Daisey appeared on the National Public Radio show This American Life (TAL); in addition to rendering a lengthy section of Agony, Daisey also discussed his work researching and writing this performance, which was represented as a work of nonfiction, with host Ira Glass. Alerted to some factual errors by another reporter, TAL further investigated and discovered that some of the details about the conditions in these Chinese factories that Daisey claimed to have witnessed firsthand were fabricated. In March, TAL retracted the story and Daisey appeared on the show for a second, and painfully uncomfortable, interview with Glass. That interview revealed how blurry the distinctions between documentary theatre and journalism can be; while Daisey profusely apologized to Glass for representing his work as a form of journalism, he did not apologize for the show itself and instead stood behind the integrity of the truth at the center of his story, even with its contested details. In ironic comparison, almost two decades ago Anna Deavere Smith’s groundbreaking play Fires in the Mirror, which arguably catalyzed a surge of interest in documentary performance, was disqualified from Pulitzer Prize consideration because it was considered “too real”; judges said it was not a work of fiction and thus not truly a play. Since then, our media landscape has become ever more dominated by “reality” programming, and the passionate critical reaction to Daisey’s show reveals a larger cultural anxiety about blurring the boundary between truth and fiction—arguably an inherent part of turning reality into entertainment worth paying for.
Later in the season, Daisey performed this monologue to a full house and standing ovation at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. The festival’s online listing announced the show as follows: “This all-new version cuts the contested material and addresses the controversy head on.” He no longer referred to factory guards carrying guns, a fact that Daisey’s translator told Glass was not customary. Gone is the story that previously provided an emotional climax about a man poisoned by hexane gas (a substance found in the product used to clean the glass on iPhones), which Daisey revealed in his second interview was something that he had heard about though had not personally witnessed. In its place was a simple reference to hexane gas and the effects it could have on a person exposed to it. Yet, having read extensive coverage of this controversy before seeing the show, I was surprised to discover the extent to which the “scandal” itself [End Page 105] misrepresented the story at the heart of Daisey’s performance. This was not an exposé about labor practices in China nor an interrogation of the ruthless business practices of Apple, although both of those were discussed. The heart of the story was about Daisey himself and, by extension, the rest of us “geeks” and our complicity in systems of exploitation where it is inconvenient to “see” where our iPhones, and other essential electronics, come from.
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