Daisey, Jobs, Translations and Truth
Ruminations inspired by the final Public Theater performance of
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 2pm
Public Theater, Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette
This piece of writing can’t be a typical review for many reasons. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been reviewed for two years in its many forms and we know what it is (one man’s story of his adoration and frustration with Apple and its cult and the factories that create the cult objects) — my summary of its journey on stage on this day plot-wise and dramatic structure-wise is now irrelevant. I thought what I was going to be doing when I purchased my ticket for this return engagement as soon as the Public Theater Member tickets became available weeks and weeks ago was to catch this piece of the cultural zeitgeist before it cut a swath somewhere else, before all the “do it yourself from the published versions of the script provided by Daisey himself with blanket permission to do just that” started springing up, crazy quilt, across the globe. I wanted to see the man himself do this show at one of his theatrical homes. And then, living in real time one of the memes of this piece of theatre, the whole megillah changed. The paradign shifted. In Daisey’s words repeated at several points of his monologue, “I can feel the metaphor shifting underneath me.”
I have seen Mike Daisey on stage in three of the four different cities in which I have resided over the past decade — always at a table, with lighting providing syncopated commentary and scene breaks, with big glass of water, with notes on yellow legal paper. I first saw Daisey in October 2008 at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art presenting his show about nuclear waste and other themes If You See Something Say Something. I was impressed by the story telling style, fascinated by the story (as any citizen and any child of the sixties will be) and yet not emotionally engaged. I watched and was impressed by the mechanics. My second visit with Daisey was more meta and fascinating. In September 2009 his monologue How Theater Failed America about the death-knell that big new theatre buildings were delivering to theatre communities was delivered in the big new Suzanne Roberts Theatre of the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The “paradigm shift” or the irony or the simple brilliance of the move made me gasp and attend — this man, I thought, was willing to do and say whatever was necessary to make his point. The fact that the theatre itself still welcomed him in to say it on its big new expensive stage bemused me.
And now — Daisey has been charged with presenting work assembled for this piece of theatre as journalistic research conducted by him when it may have been conducted by others, and presenting findings which he may have exaggerated for effect. Emotional truth and theatrical reality and philosophical debates and ethical claims have been bandied about extensively for several days on-line and in print and a-twittering madly. Would this issue have arisen had Daisey not agreed to present his piece on This American Life, a story-teling venue that holds itself to journalistic standards? I’ll leave that for all of us to figure out and debate.
Today I’ll muse upon the experience of attending this show in its final New York performance of the currently scheduled run, on the Sunday of a weekend during which  the performer had been called out and interviewed and chastised by Ira Glass,  major critics and theatre workers across the country debated the issue, and  the Public issued a statement of support with quiet reprimand concluding with: “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”
I think as I enter for the final matinée of a range of words that have filled the air around this show. Aristotle and Socrates on the meaning of truth. Jobs. Apple. China. Frey. Charlatan. Storyteller. In the end, I tell myself, it is just a man on a stage. Let’s see what he has to say. Climbing with my fellow audience members through the ongoing Public Theatre construction and stairs that lead to the 3rd Floor Martinson Theater, the excitement levels rise around me. I notice first that there are no new handouts in the playbill itself. The same quotations that appear in his published script as well as the final, now questioned disclaimer description about the play being “non fiction” are still printed in bold type (see image at right). And everything is a bit heightened. Even the placement in this same Playbill magazine, just before the Daisey show production credits, of an article by Frank Dilella about the revival of the 1992 musical Newsies entitled “Making Headlines” resonates differently today that it would have at the beginning of the week. Double, triple meanings that fall over themselves. And the show has not yet even begun.
The woman to my left has a print out of the This American Life retraction story (perhaps a transcript of the program that aired the day or so before) on her lap, folded over a few times, clipped with a New York Times black clip, and plays with her iPhone. I decide not to follow my usual instincts to strike up a brief conversation with a fellow audience member when there are some minutes before the show is to begin and I am not interrupting a conversation. We were there solo, yet I wanted to keep my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want to talk about all the reasons many of us were in the auditorium before the show. I wanted to keep all my antennae open to feel the event in real time. I do monitor her reactions to the show as it moves along.
I muse how different this heightened atmosphere is for film. I saw China Syndrome (1979), about a near disaster in a California nuclear plant, within days of the near meltdown that occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The off-hand reference by an on-screen scientist referring to a theoretical meltdown obliterating a state the size of Pennsylvania still brings gasps. The performance on film didn’t change, simply the audience reactions to it after the events near Harrisburg. In Daisey’s case, timing and events of the performer’s own creation have raised an atmosphere through which to experience and receive the art. Both artist and audience member have been affected by the events, and I ponder what the changes might be.
Daisey delivers a new prologue (see link at bottom of the page for this short statement as he delivered it on Saturday March 17) as “himself” not “monologue self”, referring generally to the fracas, but stands behinds his work. Once the show starts, in one of his berate-the-audience moments, he promises that he will examine the text of the show with a microscope for all elements that may be problematic. He then adds “I ask your grace, not your forgiveness, but your grace” to allow him to tell his story– and at this moment of his delivery I find this jarring as the audience feels to be relatively with him. It’s unclear what inspires him to ask for the special allowance at that moment.
As the show proceeds, as I compare it with what I read of the script Daisey shared some weeks ago for others to perform, it feels that he has excised references to visits to multiple factories and visits with multiple groups of union workers and instead makes his points with descriptions of single meetings and focusing on individual conversations. He does retain references, challenged in the This American Life retraction story, to guards wearing guns outside one factory he visits. He retains a reference to talking to a single 13-year-old female worker (not multiple underage workers as in his original script) and to a man with a maimed hand, once a worker who created iPads, to whom Daisey shows the tool turned on for the first time. Daisey’s research trip to China took place in 2010, and interpreter Cathy, a character in his monologue and interviewed during the This American Life retraction story to refute the veracity of many of Daisey’s claims, remains in his new monologue. He underscores retained, contested details such as the 13-year-old worker and the maimed hand iPad moment with a version of: “two years later, Cathy won’t remember this, but I do, I was there.”
Daisey pokes at the Apple corporate monolith and of Apple acolytes dutifully purchasing the newest gadgets. He balances his story with jokes at his own geekishness, jabs at Steve Jobs and the Apple corporate vision, those who love Apple, jokes at the expense of Windows, and his own journey to awareness that gizmos have a handmade manufacturing story that will break your heart. My iPhone-using seat mate laughs regularly throughout the show and rises for a standing ovation next to my seated one, joining a number of standing audience members in the auditorium.
I am struck by the audacity. And truth be told the worst taste in my mouth this particular day is left by my reaction to his doubling down on interpreter Cathy, making this all an interpersonal he said-she said. And nothing about this story is served by that last impression.
© Martha Wade Steketee (March 19, 2012)
Follow the link below for the new prologue Daisey inserted after the firestorm hit on Friday March 16, 2012. The audio here was recorded on Saturday (at any rate is not precisely the version I heard during the Sunday March 18, 2012 matinee). The version of this prologue delivered on Sunday March 18, 2012 was similar yet was not a verbatim reiteration. Daisey delivered this monologue for his final Public Theater performances, as he describes, as himself, standing before his set’s table, before the house lights were taken down, before the “show” started.