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Why is Mike Daisey remounting “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” the play that was the basis for his famously retracted “This American Life” episode about the manufacture of Apple devices? “Marketplace” reporter Rob Schmitz, who busted Daisey for fabricating details, characters and events in the episode, expresses some astonishment to Hamish McKenzie that Daisey returned the show to Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Schmitz allows that Daisey “raised awareness about working conditions in China,” but that’s about as generous as it gets:
“I wouldn’t listen to a theatre performer who doesn’t speak the language and has proven that he has a penchant for lying,” says Schmitz, who leans forward when he talks about Daisey. “That’s what bothers me the most, when I see that people are still interested in it. And maybe they’re just interested in it for entertainment value, and that’s fine. But it’s a little disturbing because it crosses the line of information and entertainment. It’s infotainment.”
What really gets Schmitz is that Daisey gets China so wrong. “He’s dehumanizing a place that he so wants to humanize, or claims that he wants to humanize. That bothers me. That really bothers me. Because people who believe that he cares about the Chinese? Give me a break.” Schmitz scoffs just a little. “If he cares so much about the Chinese, he wouldn’t have taken the interpreter’s words and then just completely lied about everything she said. He talked to workers and then lied about what they said to him. How much respect is he giving the Chinese by doing that? That’s what bothers me, that people believe that this guy is some sort of hero for the Chinese worker.”
Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks reviewed the show and said it “sounds an alarm that now has a hollow ring.” He praises Daisey’s performance but writes that the passion of its original run “is tempered now…by what comes across, at times, as defensiveness and self-pity.”
He’s added or enlarged upon a few leavening anecdotes that have occurred since he first started doing the show, such as an encounter with Steve Wozniak. Daisey describes the Apple co-founder as being deeply affected by the revelations about Foxconn and Shenzhen: “It never was supposed to be this way,” he quotes Wozniak as saying.
The episode gives off a whiff of the self-serving, as if the narrator is seeking to convince someone that he was right all along.
DCist’s Benjamin R. Freed came away with a similar conclusion: Basically, The play’s damaged goods, shelve it.
Unfortunately, where Agony and Ecstasy is concerned, watching Mike Daisey be Mike Daisey is now a chore and a two-hour exercise in vanity. He is still consumed by his own role as messenger of Apple’s corporate misdeeds, acknowledging but not rectifying the fact that his message was flawed. Daisey has long been a fixture of summers at Woolly Mammoth, but ideally, he would use these weeks to workshop a new project, not wring the last bits of life from a irreparably damaged monologue.
In a piece that seeks to explain why Daisey’s sticking with the show, Chris Klimek interviews Daisey and The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten, who says:
Mike Daisey has such contempt for his listeners that he is willing to invent facts—powerful, evocative, central facts of his narrative—to make people believe what he thinks they should believe. He is saying: I, Mike Daisey, believe a certain truth about the world. I want you to believe the same thing, so I will distort reality to make you believe it, and not tell you I am doing that. It is so dishonest, and so manipulative, it is essentially intellectual totalitarianism.”
But journalism isn’t the right lens for “Agony,” Klimek writes. Think of it as a prompt, he says.
I don’t think it’s right to blame Daisey for falling short of our expectations. Rather, I think we expect the wrong things from the medium. … Unlike many of Daisey’s critics, apparently, I’ve never assumed that anything a stage storyteller tells me is as rigidly factual as what I read in the New York Times. I reserve those expectations for Charles Duhigg, David Barboza, and Keith Bradsher, whose “iEconomy” series I might not have devoured when it hit the Times in January had I not seen Daisey’s show nine months earlier.
In a post called “Why I Am Still Performing the Agony and the Ecstasy,” Daisey responds to some of the criticism:
While I can understand the desire for me to explain my actions, I think doing so in the course of AGONY/ECSTASY would be unethical because it would make the show more about me than about the very real issues and real people the show addresses.
Earlier Tuesday, Politico reporter Patrick Gavin tweeted that Daisey’s run at Woolly Mammoth is “already discounted.” Deeksha Gaur, the theater’s director of marketing and public relations, tells me via email that’s a reflection of the theater’s deal with ticket-discounter Goldstar, not sales of Daisey’s show. “It gives us the ability to reach out to people for whom our higher-priced tickets are just not a possibility,” Gaur writes. Sales in general are good, Gaur writes: “we’ve had the second biggest advance for this production than any other production this season and so far, we are meeting expectations.”
On Aug. 4, Daisey will have a post-show chat with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Tickets are still available; they start at $120.