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October 18, 2011

TT: Fascist thugs and useful idiots

In light of the recent death of Steve Jobs, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column today in which to review Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Here's an excerpt.

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Mike Daisey is the inventor of his own pigeonhole. He calls himself a "storyteller" and specializes in semi-improvised autobiographical monologues of the kind that made Spalding Gray semi-famous. But his "stories" tend to be issue-driven and to have a political edge, which makes them seem more like theatrical journalism than storytelling. In "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," Mr. Daisey's journalistic side comes to the fore, in part because he had the luck (if that's the word) to bring his new show to the Public Theater immediately after the death of its subject. Even if Mr. Jobs were still alive, this show, in which Mr. Daisey weaves together his experience as a technogeek with the story of a visit that he paid to the Chinese factories in which Apple's products are assembled, would still have a journalistic feel.

All that said, Mr. Daisey's new monologue is first and foremost a work of theatrical art, just as Mr. Daisey himself, though he is not an actor in the ordinary sense of the word, is an awesomely gifted stage performer. Indeed, it is so strong a piece of theater that you can't help but wonder about its journalistic soundness. About that I'm not qualified to render judgment, but I can vouch for its theatrical soundness: "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" ranks alongside "Follies" as the most exciting show in town.

DAISEY.jpgMr. Daisey used to worship at the Apple altar, and Mr. Jobs, he claims, was "the only hero I ever had." Then he went to Shenzhen, the city where Apple products are put together in huge sweatshop-like factories that reportedly make use of child labor. Mr. Daisey claims to have talked his way into some of these factories, and to have spoken to some of the leaders of the illegal "secret unions" that are struggling to improve conditions in Shenzhen. What he saw shocked him to the core...

Mr. Daisey is the least glamorous figure imaginable, a sweaty, bulbous fellow with a foot-wide mouth whose demeanor suggests the kind of smart-ass second banana you might expect to encounter in a high-school romcom. But no sooner do the proceedings get underway than he starts to work his coarsely irresistible magic. Imagine an essay by Tom Wolfe being read out loud by John Belushi and you'll get some idea of how he comes across onstage. His klaxon-horn delivery is that of a stand-up comedian, but it acquires an energizing tightness of focus from the fact that he remains seated throughout the show, using his hands like a mime to add color to his words....

The trouble with "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," as with all theatrical journalism, is that Mr. Daisey is in essence asking us to take his word for it. He hasn't brought back pictures or named names, and the artful anger with which he tells his tale inevitably makes it still more suspect. You don't have to be a puritan to prefer that facts be served straight up. Still, Mr. Daisey deserves much credit for telling his audience things it almost certainly doesn't want to hear...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted October 18, 2011 12:00 AM

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