But that is when Daisey wants to be graceful. More often he wants to be blunt, concussive, and obscene. The Public show began, as it had in the performance I’d already heard, with a kind of shock wave—Daisey launching at full volume and headlong into a comic anecdote set in the Chungking Mansions, a massive, chaotic commercial complex in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where Daisey seeks out a gnarled, gold-toothed pirate to hack into his iPhone. It is a brief, theme-setting episode, an overture, but for me it quickly banished any suspicion that Daisey would be markedly changing his tone for this run.
As a performer, Daisey’s two dominant modes have long been a kind of gonzo irreverence and a compassionate, engagé earnestness—a mix of Hunter S. Thompson and Reinhold Niebuhr. One of the big questions I had walking into the theater was whether Jobs’ death would compel Daisey to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. It didn’t seem I had anything to worry about. Indeed, I was surprised to find that Jobs’ death didn’t appear to have convinced Daisey to change anything. For the vast majority of show—two hours without intermission—The Agony and the Ecstasy was much as I, and probably most of Daisey’s prior audiences, had already experienced it. As is true of many of Daisey’s monologues, the story was told in a back-and-forth style. He alternated between the half-bumbling, half-harrowing narrative of his travels abroad and the narrative of Jobs’ rise to prominence; his abrupt fall from grace in 1985, when he was ousted by Apple’s board of directors; and his subsequent struggles, his return to Apple, and his ascendance to world-historical status.
All that appeared to have changed were the tenses: Jobs now “was,” not “is.” This injected a mote of tension and confusion into the show, as if we were all trying to talk and think in final terms about a friend who had died but whose presence lingered on … but just a mote. But for the magnetic and massive figure in my line of vision, I might have been back in my office, listening to the show again on iTunes.
And so it went, pleasurably, and still stirringly. Critics often remark on Daisey’s comic acumen, but it’s important to qualify this observation by reference to the type of comic performer Daisey calls up. It isn’t Zero Mostel, whom he resembles in body shape and (I suspect, were he to rise from his table) in the physicality of his movements. Nor is it Spalding Gray, whom he resembles in his inexhaustible articulateness and his willingness to mine his own experiences for dramatic material. Rather, the comic performers Daisey most resemble are the pure, political, and profane stand-up greats, those unsettling, often self-destructive forces—people such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and, above all, Bill Hicks—whose best performances are at once convulsively funny and deeply unsettling.
Like these performers, Daisey is a ranter—but a controlled ranter. There is a kind of mad, prophetic urgency in what he has to tell, a sense that he is delivering news, and like all prophetic news it bears hearing more than once. Indeed, it probably should be heard more than once, like the message in a sermon. Over the course of the long run of “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” critics have charged Daisey with naïveté and liberal hectoring: globalization is the how business is done now. Without Apple—or Samsung, or Hewlett Packard, or Microsoft, or any of the other dozens of companies that have outsourced their manufacturing to Asia—those poor laborers would be on the streets, or toiling in the fields like serfs. Is that what he wants? Is that what he would have happen?
Daisey responds with simple, stark, and unignorable first-hand experience: He’s been to China. He’s seen the children “worked like beasts of burden.” He’s seen the ruined bodies and the ruined lives and he’s seen the nets—acts of “corporate responsibility,” he calls them acidly—erected beneath the factory roofs to catch the would-be suicides. He’s seen this “Stalinist wet dream,” and he intends to tell you all about it, so that you know and can’t forget. Yet he is shrewd enough to make you laugh as he tells you, so that you’re primed for the slip of the knife.