Gone are some of the most galvanizing details: the report of security men at the factory gates carrying guns; the story of a mangled worker caressing a completely assembled iPad for the first time; the account of his visit to the laborers’ living quarters, with bunk beds stacked concentration-camp style. In their place, he’s lengthened his description of a scene he apparently did experience: the vastness of a Chinese factory cafeteria that can feed 10,000 workers at a time. That certainly gives you some sense of the scale of the operation. But it doesn’t tell you much about the human toll.
For those of you playing catch-up: Portions of “The Agony and the Ecstasy” were adapted for an episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” which later located an interpreter who had worked with Daisey and disputed many of the details he reported. While Daisey had insisted that programs for the stage version note that “Agony and Ecstasy” was a work of nonfiction, he confessed to “American Life” host Ira Glass that incidents had been fabricated.
The ensuing debate examined the ethical standards for theater vs. journalism, with a contrite Daisey conceding that he’d erred by shifting the metaphor: “Agony and Ecstasy,” he maintained, was never meant as actual reportage.
As a theatergoer, I had always taken Daisey’s words as unvarnished truth. And I see now how integral the reliability of the factory passages was to the monologue’s impact the first two times I listened to it, first at Woolly Mammoth in the spring of 2011, then in the fall at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, after which I described it as “the best original American play” I’d seen that year. Daisey’s words had their intended effect:I did, as a result of the piece, look at my beloved Apple equipment in a different way. And although I was uncomfortable with some of the excessive righteousness with which Daisey infused the earliest readings of the work — he implored us to take action in ways enumerated in brochures that were distributed at the time at play’s end — I understood that the passion was informed by what he said he saw in China.
That passion is tempered now in “Agony and Ecstasy” by what comes across, at times, as defensiveness and self-pity. Don’t get me wrong: I still adore Daisey’s writerly gifts, his displays of pique and arrogance, his ability to hold an audience for two hours while seated the entire time at a table, his elastic features and hands as his only dynamic tools. (A glass of water always sits at his elbow; I’ve never seen him take a sip.) And Daisey’s portrait of a visionary, diabolical Jobs and his Apple empire remains a marvelous, affirmative attribute of the show: His insights shed light hilariously on Silicon Valley and the technogeek culture it helped spawn.