Less than a week after the death of its namesake, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs premiered last night at the Public. Two years ago, when the show’s creator and star Mike Daisey began research for this two-hour monologue, Jobs was leading the world’s largest technology company. But while Daisey and his director–wife Jean-Michele Gregory workshopped the production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Jobs took medical leave from Apple and would never return. Thus a series of lamentable events culminated in what was one of the most timely theatrical openings in recent memory. But anyone who bought tickets for opening night hoping to hear yet another hagiographic account of Jobs’s life and work was in for a rude awakening. Though Jobs has been universally lauded since his death as a visionary genius who revolutionized technology and changed the world, Daisey a Jobs fanboy himself has not forgotten the darker side of Apple’s success.
Daisey prides himself on presenting material that is outlined but not memorized, such that every evening’s program is a different semi-improvised conversation with the audience. Despite the sobering timing, the debut performance did not open with an acknowledgment of Jobs’s death. Instead the narrative began with an anecdote about digital piracy in Hong Kong, and Jobs wasn’t mentioned until fifteen minutes into the show.
The monologue eventually turned to Daisey’s observations while traveling to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where, according to Daisey, 52 percent of the world’s electronics were manufactured last year. In order to gain access to the workers and see their accommodations, he had pretended to be an American businessman interested in corporate collaboration. At Foxconn, Daisey encountered workers as young as 13, and individuals with sixteen-hour shifts. He discovered that employees never leave the premises, and saw a twelve-by-twelve-foot bedroom housing over a dozen bunks, cameras capturing every toss and turn. Daisey told of employees who would be demoted for speaking, blacklisted for requesting overtime wages, and crippled by disintegrating joints.
It was only in the last moments of the show that Daisey finally reacted to Jobs’s tragic passing, and with a message unlike any you would have seen last week on the notes left outside of Apple stores the world over. Earlier iterations of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs concluded with Daisey passing out Jobs’s e-mail address, encouraging the crowd to confront the CEO about Foxconn. Lots of former audience members received replies — “sometimes a short, sharp word; sometimes a link; sometimes a piece of Apple policy that only he would know,” — and forwarded them to Daisey. “There are too many of these messages,” he said. Reading through them, “I could feel [Jobs] turning it over in his hands — he could have changed things … he must have known. I didn’t want that to be true … He was my hero. He was the only hero that I ever had.”
His performance crescendos to a brutal conclusion: “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.”