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Alex Lyras (Photo: Christina Xenos)

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” Theatre Review

Let me get this out of the way right at the get-go: As presented by actor/writer Alex Lyras, this version of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is a really important, well-executed one-man show that exposes the abusive working conditions of masses of Chinese laborers toiling away for low pay in abysmal circumstances. I’m delighted that the original solo performer and playwright Mike Daisey not only decided to take on Steve Jobs and the blow jobs masquerading as “journalism” celebrating this inventor/guru/uber-capitalist as if he was the second coming. Hagiography doth not reportage maketh. I’m really glad this production is, very deservedly, being extended into June. By all means, I urge anyone who loves good acting and his fellow man and woman -- as well as those who fetishize those futuristic doohickeys that glow in the dark -- to go see it.

So kudos for this expose of the hyper-exploitative labor practices Jobs and his ilk perpetuate under the veneer of being “geniuses” who are doing good and changing the world with their bigger and better high-tech mousetraps that, oh by the way, we really don’t need anyway. Sometimes it seems that these capitalists’ greatest “genius” lies in conning us into spending our hard earned dough on their unnecessary gizmos that, as “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” reveals, are manufactured through the sweat of untold multitudes of mistreated, underpaid workers. Like them, we consumers are supposed to feel thankful for the largesse bestowed upon us mere mortals by these Silicon Valley demigods.

Having said all that, I have some questions re: the script and performance as adapted from Mike Daisey’s monologue, which I don’t think were fully answered in the presentation I saw at Theatre Asylum. Is this a work of drama or of journalism? Is it a play or an oral essay? Precisely who is the character in this piece who is supposed to be telling this story? Lyras? Daisey? And is the protagonist supposed to be an investigative reporter, an actor or what?

Who owns Foxconn, the Fortune 500 company which the show tells us produces almost half of all of the world’s electronics? Apple? Americans? “Mainland” Chinese? Taiwanese? What exactly are the precise labor conditions at the Shenzhen factories that are driving workers to leap off of their buildings? How long are their shifts? How much are they paid? How many American workers lost jobs because of Jobs’ outsourcing? And so on.

Although some of the purported facts are described, others aren’t, so we are left with incomplete explanations for why some workers find suicide to be preferable to continuing to work at these apparently highly surveilled, hyper-intensive plants that make the speedup on the assembly line in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times” seem like mere child’s play. Inquiring minds want to know, Mssrs. Daisey/Lyras, and it would just take a few nano-seconds of dialogue and perhaps imagery to enlighten us. After all, not even the redoubtable Mr. Jobs himself invented a device to turn audience members into mind readers.

I also have a bone to pick with the monologist calling China “communist.” (This is the playwright/performer’s word, not mine, and he brought it up, not me, so please forgive this brief ideological interlude.) First of all, to use HUAC parlance, China is not now nor has it ever been communist. For that matter, it is not now and never was “socialist.” It is true that after the 1949 revolution that the People’s Republic of China had attributes of socialism, but I do not know to what degree contemporary China still has any socialistic characteristics since the passing of Mao and the Gang of Four. I suspect that today’s China is somewhere between a “deformed workers’ state” and “state capitalism,” but is in no way, shape or form communist or socialist.

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For your information Mssrs. Daisey/Lyras, one of the early classics of socialist literature was Friedrich Engels’ “The Conditions of the Working Class in England,” a wretchedness which was documented by this industrialist’s son from 1842-1844. In it, Engels exposed the extreme misery the English masses lived under during the industrial revolution. If communism is anything, it is arguably first and foremost the alleviation and eradication of these dire circumstances and sufferings in favor of humane working -- and living -- conditions for the masses of common people. It would also, arguably, be the creation of a system wherein, as Orwell pithily put it in his Spanish Civil War novel “Homage to Catalonia”: “the working class riding in the saddle.” Marx and Engels argued in favor of workers owning the means of production and for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” -- not a dictatorship over the proletariat, as currently seems to be the case in a sweatshop labor China that is very far removed from the communist ideal indeed. Blaming Marx and Engels for crimes committed by Stalinists or China’s current leaders is like blaming pedophile priests on Jesus.

Having said that, my points are mere quibbles: Don’t let my questions and bone picking deter you from seeing this major example of the activism now sweeping today’s new proletarian theatre. In collaboration with Robert McCaskill, this version corrects the perhaps overzealous exaggerations of Daisey’s original script as produced at New York’s Public Theatre in 2010, which embellished the story for, we are told, purely dramatic reasons. To make amends, Daisey “recalled” and rewrote the original script, reportedly exorcised the nonessential, factual mistakes (which allowed Apple’s acolytes to pounce on Daisey and detract from the thrust of his main humanist argument), and then “open sourced” the script with an open license. (Hmm, are Lyras and McCaskill exploiting Daisey’s labor by not paying him for the rights to use the work he originated? And who manufactured their show’s laptop with its effective, imaginative power point presentation creatively rendered by multimedia designer Tim Arnold, with digital media by Christina Xenos?) In any case, to err is human and to correct the record is divine -- although, Mr. Daisey, the moral of the story is: “Don’t unnecessarily hand your enemies ammunition with which to shoot you.”

Steve Jobs may or may have been a brilliant technical innovator, but in an essential way he was the same old story of ownership of the means of production in order to maximize profit. Whatever his agonies and ecstasies, he was in the end no angel -- or even a Michelangelo. With a bite of the Apple, these theatre artists expel viewers from the fool’s paradise of Jobs and tech worship. All in all, bravo for this theatrical blow against Jobs at the Theatre Asylum, which may make you demand political asylum.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

[dc]“T[/dc]he Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” has been extended through June 5 and is being performed onWednesdaysat8:00 p.m.onApril 10, May 15, 22, 29; June 5 (dark April 17 & 24, May 1 & 8) and on
Sunday, April 28 at7:00 p.m. at: Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038. For more info: 800-838-3006 or

Ed Rampell

Friday, 4 April 2013