Aristotle, in his Poetics, famously articulated his principle of the tragic flaw in drama. A hero, who is mostly a good and decent person, makes a mistake that arises inevitably from a fundamental character defect, often something of no great importance, like hubris or pride, but that dogs the character at every step. His eventual misfortune is brought about "not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty." And that mistake dooms the character, well and truly.
As tragic figures in the vein of Aristotle's imagining go, one could find less fitting characters than the Brooklyn-based monologist Mike Daisey, who will be presenting The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as part of Spoleto's theater series next week. Daisey has in fact appeared on the festival program twice before. On both of those occasions, it would have been safe to say that his name was not well known far outside the circle of international, professional theatrical monologists, which is to say a group roughly the size of your average PTA pancake dinner. But Mr. Daisey has become somewhat more renowned than when he was last in Charleston in 2006.
Even if you are somehow unaware of the international controversy to which the artist put a match in recent months, you are likely, if you follow the national news at all, to have heard him called a liar, a fraud, or an opportunistic hack — or, alternately, a hero, a scapegoat, a martyr, or a well-intentioned naif hopelessly out of his depth on the national stage who got caught in a trap of his own devising. It's all been a lovely piece of real-world theater, which, if you know Daisey, is the finest irony of it all. To understand Daisey and, more to the point, to fully appreciate The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, one must also understand the drama that has metastasized around Daisey and this particular monologue since he first presented it in 2010 and that has made it one of the most talked-about pieces of theater in, well, maybe ever.
Daisey first made a name for himself in 2001 at Seattle's Speakeasy Café Backroom with a piece entitled 21 Dog Years, a one-hander based on three (human) years he spent working inside the pressure cooker of pre-bubble Amazon.com. It's a gonzo lampooning of the late '90s dot.com madness, a tale of greed, deception, hubris, and heartbreak, and it put him on the map, establishing the spare, indiosyncratic performance style that would become Daisey's trademark. Like the late Spalding Gray, to whom he's often been compared, Daisey's monologues are intimate personal narratives presented without benefit of a fourth wall. He addresses the audience directly, with none of the pretense that traditional theater relies upon: He's less an actor than a storyteller. (Indeed, the monologue Daisey first brought to Spoleto seven years ago was The Ugly American, a story based in part upon a summer he once spent in the U.K. learning that he cannot act his way out of a wet paper bag.)
But Daisey's genius is to make this seeming handicap — a theatrical performer who can't act? — his signature and his strength. Sitting behind a desk, armed with nothing but a glass of water, a sheaf of notes containing talking points, and a handkerchief into which he sweats profusely, he spins a grab-bag of what appear initially to be unrelated storylines, often including one or more in which he is a central character, into a single, resonant tale. His performances are not memorized but improvised, refined through repetition into a potent cocktail of dramatic technique, whip-smart timing, generous wit, and self-confession that delivers an emotional and intellectual wallop.
A central conceit of Daisey's monologues is that they are true stories based upon real characters and real events both large and small. Monopoly!, for example, which he brought to Spoleto for his second visit six years ago, spins around rival inventors Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the historic antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, the secret history of the board game Monopoly, and the story of Daisey's hometown and its sole remaining retailer, Walmart.
Or consider Daisey's lesser-known 2006 monologue entitled Truth, which ran delicious circles around the fictional and nonfictional stories of fact-challenged author James Frey, a celebrated transsexual author named JT LeRoy who didn't actually exist, and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote with multiple personality disorder. "These stories," we read in promotional material for the show, "are reflected against an autobiographical accounting of Daisey's own history of lying and telling the truth in an attempt to illuminate the uncertain landscape of the emotionally true, the literally true, and the constant struggle to speak the truth." A New York Times review of the off-Broadway version of Truth at Ars Nova Theatre noted, "Mr. Daisey's performing style has reaped great benefits in solo shows like 21 Dog Years and Monopoly!, but it does make one wonder about their veracity. Without a text to work from, it must be tempting to introduce a little white lie here and there: an evocative detail, say, or a new sequence of events to improve the narrative?"
Which brings us back to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and the subject of tragic flaws.
"I've been obsessed with Apple and Steve Jobs my entire life, and [I am] a huge fan of their devices," Daisey explained in an e-mail. "Almost five years ago, I began researching how those devices are made and reading about the brutal circumstances under which they are created. The monologue grew out of my research, traveling to China, and the web of relationships that create our devices."
The resulting show, which premiered at Portland's TBA Festival in 2010, wove its multiple storylines around Apple CEO Steve Jobs' obsessions, Daisey's personal history with the subject of Jobs' obsessions, and the nasty secret that makes possible, and affordable, virtually every piece of mobile technology we and the rest of the developed world have been conditioned to admire, to worship, and to lust after. (Capsule summary: Your iPhone is not made of Soylent Green, exactly, but that's not far off the mark.) As part of his research, Daisey actually visited the site of one of the largest manufacturers of iPhones and iPads in China, the notorious Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, to which Apple outsources nearly all manufacturing of its products. (Take a look at the back of your iDevice: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.")
In Agony's premiere, he described pretending to be an American businessman in order to gain entrance to that factory for a peek at working conditions inside, which were rumored to be of an antediluvian standard. He described gun-toting security guards and 12-year-old workers at the plant. In a particularly poignant passage, he related meeting a worker, an old Chinese man whose "right hand is twisted up into a claw" because it was crushed in a metal press while he was making iPads but who, incredibly, had never seen a completed iPad — until Daisey handed him his. Daisey recounted in a hushed voice how the old man swiped a finger across the screen, marveled as the icons flared into view, and called it, through a translator, "a kind of magic." It was one of the most dramatic moments in the performance, and it never failed to enrapture audiences.
In 2011, Agony was an unstoppable freight train. It was called "the best new play of the year" by The Washington Post and was hailed as one of the year's best theater pieces by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and ... well, you get the point. The blogosphere, too, erupted. If 21 Dog Years made Daisey's name, Agony put it on the lips of the world.
But for Daisey, the show was about much more than theater. The subject of Agony was, for him, a personal mission. Daisey began distributing literature after his shows containing information on how to contact legislators to push them to action on making Apple and other U.S. firms accountable for the way our electronic toys are made in China. He wrote op-ed columns and spoke publicly about Foxconn, airings in which he decried the treatment of Chinese laborers and gave only passing mention to his theater work. In short, the artist became an activist.
The interview requests poured in: Maher, Letterman, PBSNews Hour, and many more. Some of the same outlets that had praised Daisey's artistic presentation of the issue suddenly found the resources to undertake ambitious investigative reports of their own, most notably The New York Times, which in January 2012 began a hard-hitting series of reports on conditions at Apple's factories in China, particularly at Foxconn. Attention was paid. The technology reporting industry followed suit, though not always with the same enthusiasm; Apple's carefully doled-out cycle of press announcements, teasers, and firmware upgrades, and the industry's own feverish next-model speculation assures that the technology media is little more than a massive feedback loop of masturbatory collective self-promotion. Major online tech reporting outlets like Mashable, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Boing Boing, and TheNextWeb latched on, grudgingly, to the controversy, mainly because it was too big to ignore. But that didn't mean they had to like it. It didn't help that Daisey had, in an interview with outspoken tech commentator Andrew Keen, accused all technology journalists of being "cowards" for failing to report on the issue.
Daisey's star reached a new point in its rocketing ascent in January 2012 after Ira Glass, the iconic presenter and producer of Public Radio International's This American Life, saw Agony at the Public Theater in New York and decided he wanted to dedicate an entire program to it. Entitled "Mr. Daisey's Apple Factory," the show aired on Jan. 6 and quickly became one of TAL's all-time most popular broadcasts, with 888,000 downloads and 206,000 streams of the program online. After hearing the broadcast, one listener started a petition calling for better conditions for Apple's Chinese workers and quickly handed over almost a quarter-million signatures to Apple. A plucky cabal of Foxconn workers made international news by threatening group suicide over their treatment. In a surprise announcement, Apple stated that it would finally concede to an outside, independent audit of working conditions at those factories and — for the first time ever — it released a list of its suppliers.
Daisey seemed to be everywhere, a superhero in an XXL cape with a sopping wet hankie, doling out judgment and delivering justice. The truth, he said, would set Foxconn's exploited workers free.
Then, on March 16, Ira Glass and This American Life made a startling announcement. They'd decided to retract the entire episode of "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory." It seemed that a public radio correspondent named Rob Schmitz had heard the program and several details didn't sit right with his long experience covering China for American Public Media's Marketplace. They tracked down Daisey's Chinese interpreter, who was unable to corroborate several important details in the monologue, including the encounter with the maimed old man. The "magic" moment was completely fabricated, she said.
"Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast," Glass wrote on TAL's blog. "We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors — our friends and colleagues — have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows. Just a few days later, This American Life broadcast another episode on Daisey, this one devoted entirely to picking apart the "factual inaccuracies" that lay within Daisey's monologue, a total of about six minutes of the two-hour play. The hour-long program included an excruciating 15 minutes of an edited conversation in which Glass slowly turned Daisey on a basting rack over the subject of journalistic truth. It was, as many have since noted, almost too painful to listen to.
"I felt appearing on the program was the ethical thing for me to do," Daisey now says. "Another person might make a different decision, but I knew that I had to do that interview, regardless of how it was aired."
The media sacking that followed was as unchecked and gleeful as the coronation that preceded it had been, though speedier. The calls for Daisey's head came from two quarters: on one, the self-righteous standard-bearers of Capital-J Journalism, who've watched with dismay as the spectre of obsolescence has crept up on them and are ever on the lookout for a chance to remind everyone how mind-blowingly important journalistic values and principles are — that facts are facts and entertainment is entertainment, and we should never, ever confuse journalism with entertainment (because that would be crazy, right?). And on the other side, wielding brickbats and propeller beanies, were the dweebs of the tech outlets, who couldn't care less about journalism, frankly, as it's been essentially outsourced to the cloud, but were fairly erect with revenge lust and were only too happy to imply that those six questionable minutes invalidated everything that had happened regarding Apple and Foxconn in the previous six months. Again, the blogosphere erupted. Even Alec Baldwin told Daisey, in a tweet, to go fuck himself.
Daisey gritted his teeth and apologized to the point of tedium, acknowledging his error in bringing elements of theater to a news media outlet, yet with just enough of a spark of defiance to keep the hits coming. Which they are still doing.
If he were playing by Aristotle's rules, Daisey would be either dead or banished by now. So far, he seems to have eluded death and is somehow keeping banishment at bay by sheer force of personality. He remains, if not contrite exactly, then at least chastened. His blog has become a repository for articles and posts from around the web that question the accepted narrative of Daisey-as-antichrist, which one can hardly begrudge him. He has four new monologues planned for the coming two years. And he's still performing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, as he will here over the weekend. He's removed the offending six minutes from his show but he's also incorporated the TAL controversy into it, once again turning the spotlight on himself, on the confessional booth, revealing not a monster nor a hero but, as he is wont to do, a human being.
For the rest of the always-hungry news cycle, the incident seems to have tapped into some larger self-consciousness over the increasingly precarious state of verifiable fact in today's post-postmodern reality. Recently, for example, The Washington Post used Daisey as a springboard to justify a further extension of hostilities between journalism and Everything Else in the Media. Lifestyle reporter Paul Farhi set his sights on none other than David Sedaris, who's been parlaying his mostly autobiographical brand of humor into donor dollars at This American Life for years. Public radio, apparently, is finding it hard to navigate around the smoking ashes of Ira Glass' ire following the Daisey incident.
Can we call what Sedaris does journalism? Seems like a stretch, and, really, who cares? Is what Daisey does journalism? He would say not only no but hell no. But what is journalism after all, but one version of the truth? And truth is a slippery thing. Like journalism's obsession with facts (not all the facts, please, just the right ones), truth has its own agenda.
"In our world, all stories are fiction," Daisey reflects. "Every story is made up of fictions of one kind or another, which we sift and weigh in an attempt to find the truth for ourselves. If we are honest about the world, there is no way not to be drawn to such topics, as they sit at the heart of what it is to be a human being."