WHY I AM STILL PERFORMING THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
The Washington City Paper cover story by Chris Klimek uses a classic journalism storytelling technique: it asks a question at the end of its first movement that serves as the thesis around which the story turns. The question is:
“Why is Daisey still performing a play that brought him so much disgrace?”
It’s a great question. It’s an essential question, and despite all the interviews and writing around this run no one has actually directly asked me this question, so I thought I would do my best to answer it today.
It’s been a hard thing to look clearly at myself and see how I failed to live up to my expectations. I abused the trust of the public, let down my colleagues, and I failed to live up to my obligations to my craft. In the wake of the This American Life retraction, I posted a full apology for my behavior which you can read here.
After the public story went quieter, it was time to really begin to examine what I should do. Rather than go silent, I decided to remove all of the material that was contested in the TAL retraction and rebuild the show.
To some, this may seem absurd—after all, the show has been discredited, so why bother? I won’t lie and say that there wasn’t a strong temptation to simply cancel everything. It would have been much easier to drop everything and move on.
But this story was always much larger than I am, and the central tenet of the show’s work—to connect the audience empathically with the brutal circumstances under which the things they use every day are made—is absolutely true and always has been. No one contests that—not TAL, who interviewed Charles Duhigg, not Apple’s own auditors, not the NGOs who have reported on these issues for years and years.
Simply put, my failure to live up to what this story needed from me doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to tell it right.
It’s similar to what so many have been demanding from Apple—I want them to make it a priority to consider how they are building their devices, and to take real measures to consider human rights and living wages in the process of their manufacturing. Just as I expect Apple and other manufacturers to reform their ways, I needed to look to my own house and do the same.
If I expect them to build an ethical iPhone, then I had better build an ethical monologue.
Classically, people go to ground in literary or journalism scandals that involve falsehoods and the betrayal of the public’s trust. But I am not a journalist, nor is this a book. It’s a piece of theater, which only exists when it is performed. As a consequence, the very thing that makes it ephemeral affords a unique opportunity to do the right thing, and make this story work ethically in the room.
One of the interesting things about theater is that it is not a broadcast medium—it is a communal undertaking. People choose to participate in theater, and my obligation is to those who are participating in the room. People who do not want to hear this work have a simple alternative—they can stay home.
This new version of THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS has been performed in five cities since the closing of the show at the Public. Based on deeply unscientific exit polling, audience surveying, and random questioning after shows, we believe that only about half our audiences are even aware of the TAL retraction. Many nights the number feels like it may actually be lower.
This creates a fascinating environment: What does an artist owe his audiences, especially when they are coming in with radically different expectations? How do we shape a show that works for most people in the room?
Peter Marks, the head critic for the Washington Post, said this in his review:
“Daisey does not use this revisit to Woolly to analyze his behavior in this affair, the unfortunate distraction that has turned Jobs’s “Agony” into Daisey’s. It’s a major disappointment…what’s missing is Daisey’s mind trained on the task of deconstructing his actions. Is that as important as the question of how thousands of Chinese workers are treated, making the products we love? Of course not. But it wasn’t Daisey’s listeners, or the media, that prompted this need. It’s unfortunate that some of us want the matter to intrude, however artfully this storyteller might weave it.”
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.
Instead, in this new version, I try to make it very clear that I am a storyteller. I remind audiences, point blank, that they do not need to believe anything they hear on this stage, and urge them to find tools to investigate for themselves beyond the theater.
I think the new version also touches more deeply on the connections between rural China and the Special Economic Zones, and the circumstances that make work at Foxconn and other manufacturers an attractive option for many. It endeavors to humanize and complexify those relationships without letting the crimes that have been committed, and how we share that responsibility, off the hook.
The six minutes that were cut gave me the time to do this. Artists are thieves; this piece would have been nothing without the work of so many who know far more about China than I ever will and took the time to talk to me about it, or whose works I learned from. Time on stage is precious, and I have tried to make something that I hope does service to that time.
I do believe the work is stronger today than it was before; each audience member will make their own judgments, and that is wonderful. The show is not apologetic, because that would be terrible theater, and inappropriate in the show’s narrative arc. However, in the final moments of the show, at its climax, I do say this:
Steve Jobs, this genius of design and form, blinded himself to the most essential law of design: that the way in which a thing is made is a part of the design itself.
He forgot that.
And so did I.
It won’t be enough for many. That’s the way it is—it’s never enough, it can’t be. But I leave it there as part of the compact I have with those who choose to participate in it with me. And I say it because it is true.
Every night people walk in through the door who have never heard this story before, and I am honored to have the work of sharing it with them. When I talk to them after the show, and I can tell they are seeing their devices in a new way, I know that it would have been a crime to run away from my responsibilities and let this work die because of where I let it down.
The answer to why I am still performing this show that brought me so much disgrace is that now, when I tell it in the room, it brings me grace.