- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
DAVID HENRY HWANG 1988
David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is one of the most celebrated of recent American plays, and the first by an Asian-American to win universal acclaim. It was first produced in 1988 and won numerous awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year, the New York Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Broadway play, and the John Gassner Award for the season’s outstanding new playwright. M. Butterfly enjoyed a popular run on Broadway and when it moved to London’s Shaftsbury Theatre in 1989 it broke all box office records in the first week.
The play is based on a bizarre but true story of a French diplomat who carried on a twenty-year affair with a Chinese actor and opera singer, not realizing that his partner was in fact a man masquerading as a woman. The diplomat apparently became aware of the deception only in 1986, when he was charged by the French government with treason—it transpired that his companion had been an agent for the Chinese government, and had passed on sensitive political information that he had acquired from the diplomat. This almost unbelievable story stimulated Hwang’s imagination, and from it he created a drama that plays with ideas on a grand scale and manages at the same time to be witty and entertaining. Weaving into the play many parallels with, and ultimately ironic reversals of, Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, Hwang explores the stereotypes that underlie and distort relations between Eastern and Western culture, and between men and women.
David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957 in Los Angeles, California. His father, Henry Hwang, was a banker who had immigrated to the United States from Shanghai, China, in the 1940s, and his mother Dorothy, also born in China, was a pianist and music teacher. Hwang grew up in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. He enrolled at Stanford University in 1975, where he developed an interest in play writing. It was while he was at Stanford that he wrote his first play, F.O.B. The letters stand for “fresh off the boat,” and the play explores the contrast in cultural attitudes between a recently arrived Chinese immigrant to California and two Chinese-American students who have long since assimilated American ways. The exploration of the interaction of Eastern and Western culture was to become a prominent theme in much of Hwang’s later work.
Hwang directed a performance of F.O.B. at Stanford in 1978 while he was still an undergraduate. The following year the play was produced at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut. A year later it was staged Off-Broadway, to appreciative reviews. F.O.B. won an Obie Award as the best play of the 1980-81 off-Broadway season.
Hwang went on to study at Yale University School of Drama from 1980 to 1981, and while there, he followed the success of F.O.B. with two more plays that explored the Chinese-American heritage. The first was The Dance and the Railroad(1981), about Chinese immigrants who helped to build the transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century. The second, Family Devotions(1981), explores the tensions in a modern Chinese-American family.
Hwang wrote several more plays during the next few years, including Sound and Beauty(1983), made up of two one-act plays, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice, both of which were set in Japan. Rich Relations, a comedy, followed in 1986. For the first time, Hwang chose not to write about Asian-Americans, his focus in this play being a white American family. The play was not a success, however.
After doing some writing for television, Hwang returned to the stage with M. Butterfly, which was first produced in Washington, D.C., in 1988 and moved to Broadway later that year. The play remains Hwang’s biggest success to date. In the same year, Hwang collaborated with composer Philip Glass to create the science-fiction music drama, One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof, in which a character relates his experience of abduction by aliens.
Hwang continued his collaboration with Glass by writing the libretto for The Voyage, an opera produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1992. He also adapted M. Butterfly for the movie screen (Warner Bros., 1993). In 1996, Hwang wrote Of Golden Child, which was produced at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in Washington, D.C. and moved to Broadway in 1998. The play is set in China in 1918, and deals with a Chinese family that comes increasingly under the influence of Western values.
Act 1, scenes 1-3
M. Butterfly opens in present-day Paris. Rene Gallimard is in a small prison cell. He describes his monotonous daily routine, and then confides that he is no ordinary prisoner, but a celebrity. People talk about him at parties from Amsterdam to New York. Scene 2 shows three people at a party joking about Gallimard, and the joke obviously has something to do with sex. Scene 3 returns to Gallimard’s cell, and he confides that he has been loved by the “Perfect Woman.” He then says that to understand his story, the audience must know the opera Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. He describes the opera and plays some of the music from it on his tape recorder. His old school friend Marc appears as one of the characters, and Gallimard assumes the role of Pinkerton, the American sailor who wins the heart of Butterfly, the Japanese girl, and then betrays her.
Scene 4 flashes back to 1947, at a school in Aix-en-Provence, France. Marc tries to persuade Gallimard to accompany him to a party, promising that there will be plenty of girls available, but Gallimard refuses to go. He lacks confidence with girls. Scene 5 returns to Gallimard’s cell, and Gallimard further explains the plot of Madame Butterfly, commenting that in real life, it is not easy to find a woman who will give herself so completely to a man. The closest to it are the girls who pose in pornographic magazines. As Gallimard pulls some of these magazines out of a crate in his cell, a pin-up girl appears, and tantalizingly disrobes. Gallimard
resumes his exposition of the opera, as Comrade Chin plays the part of Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. Gallimard reveals that he married a woman, Helga, for career reasons rather than love. Then he reveals that when he was a diplomat in Beijing, he first saw “her” singing the death scene from Madame Butterfly. He does not explain who the woman was.
Scene 6 takes place in Beijing in 1960, in the house of the German Ambassador. Gallimard has just watched Song Liling sing an aria from Madame Butterfly. He tells her he was moved by the story. Song, however, expresses little enthusiasm for it. She does, however, invite Gallimard to attend the Peking Opera. After scene 7, in which Gallimard and Helga discuss Chinese arrogance, scene 8 shows a meeting between Song and Gallimard in the streets of Beijing after Gallimard has attended the Peking Opera. Song invites him to her flat. In the next scene, Gallimard lies to his wife about having met Song, and Gallimard relates a dream in which Marc urges him to begin an affair with Song. In scene 10, Gallimard relates what happened on his first visit to Song’s flat. They drink tea, and Song confesses she is afraid of scandal because she is entertaining a man in her flat, which is against Chinese custom. Gallimard believes she is afraid of him.
In scene 11, Gallimard describes a strategy he devised to test Song. He makes no contact with her for five weeks. Marc reappears and together they recall Gallimard’s first sexual experience. Then Gallimard tells the audience that after six weeks, Song began to write to him, pleading with him to visit her. He ignores this and subsequent letters, until he feels ashamed of making her suffer. In scene 12, Gallimard learns from Toulon, the French Ambassador, that he is to be promoted and will be in charge of the intelligence division. In scene 13, eight weeks after he last saw Song, he returns to her apartment and asks if she will surrender to him, just as Madame Butterfly surrendered to Pinkerton in Puccini’s opera. Song is reluctant at first, but then they kiss and prepare to make love, although Song protests that she is inexperienced.
Act 2, scenes 1-4
Act two begins in the present, in Gallimard’s cell. Gallimard comments about Puccini’s opera. Scene 2 returns to Beijing in 1960, where Gallimard and Song now live in a flat together. Song complains about how, in Chinese society, women are kept down by men, and expresses admiration for the West. The following scene takes place a year later at the French Embassy. Toulon and Gallimard discuss Vietnam. Gallimard says that if the Americans show the will to win, the Vietnamese will submit. In scene 4, Comrade Chin asks Song to find out when the Americans plan to start bombing Vietnam. Song passes on information she has gleaned from an unsuspecting Gallimard. Chin asks why Song is wearing a dress, and Song says it is because she is in disguise.
In scene 5, Gallimard relates the routine the couple settled into from 1961 to 1963. Song says she longs to bear Gallimard’s child. In scene 6, Gallimard has an affair with Renee, a Western student he met at a party. Toulon tells Gallimard that the Americans are planning to assassinate the South Vietnamese leader, which is what Gallimard, in his diplomatic capacity, has been advising. But Toulon says that if anything goes wrong, no one will listen to Gallimard’s advice again. Humiliated, Gallimard visits Song for the first time in three weeks. At first, he wants to dominate her, but these feelings disappear and he feels genuine love. Song tells him she is pregnant (she is lying), and he says he wants to marry her. In the next scene, Song tells Page 185 | Top of ArticleChin that she needs a baby—a Chinese baby with blond hair—so she can convince Gallimard the child is his. In scene 8, Gallimard promises to divorce his wife and marry Song. Song says she is not worthy and declines. Gallimard informs the audience that Song went away to the countryside for three months, and then returned with a child.
Scene 9 jumps forward three years, to 1966. Gallimard explains that the revolutionary situation in China made contact between Chinese and foreigners impossible. The flat the couple shared was confiscated. Gallimard is sent back to France by Toulon because of the failure of his predictions about the relationship between China and the West. During the cultural upheaval, Song is made to confess that she had been corrupted by a foreigner. She is sent to work in the fields to be “rehabilitated.” In scene 10, set in 1970, Chin informs Song that she (although it is now clear that Song is really a man) is to be sent to France to spy, using Gallimard as her source of information. Scene 11 is set in Paris from 1968 to 1970. There are student demonstrations in the streets. Gallimard confesses to his wife about Song, and asks for a divorce. After Gallimard has a brief discussion with Marc, Song appears, and she and Gallimard are reunited. Some time elapses, and Song hints to the audience that she is about to undergo a transformation and that Gallimard must face the truth.
Act 3 is set in a courthouse in Paris in 1986. Song now appears as a man, dressed in a suit. He explains that Gallimard has supported him and his “son” in Paris for fifteen years. He also says that Gallimard gave him copies of sensitive documents. The judge asks Song if Gallimard knew he was a man. Song replies, in a roundabout way, that men believe what they want to believe. In scene 2, Song tries to convince Gallimard that he, Gallimard, still loves him, even though Gallimard now knows Song is a man. Gallimard asks Song why he treated him so cruelly. Song begins slowly to remove his clothes. Donning Butterfly’s robes, he tells Gallimard that he is still the same Butterfly that Gallimard loved. But Gallimard, now free of twenty years of illusion, tells Song to leave. Scene 3 returns to Gallimard’s cell, in the present. To the audience, he reasserts the vision of love that he had, of the perfect Oriental woman. But he realizes that it was he, not his beloved, who sacrificed everything and was be trayed. He puts on make-up, a wig, and a kimono, and rechristens himself Madame Butterfly. Then he plunges a knife into his body, committing suicide just as Butterfly does in the opera.
Comrade Chin is the Chinese Communist Party official who instructs Song to spy. Chin unthinkingly accepts communist doctrine. As the representative of the Communist Party during the revolutionary upheavals in the 1960s, she supervises Song’s confession of his offenses against party dogma.
Gallimard is a former French diplomat who has been imprisoned for treason. His crime was passing classified documents to the Chinese, through his lover, Song. Gallimard is an unimpressive man, who by his own admission is not “witty or clever.” At high school, he was voted “least likely to be invited to a party.” He is uncomfortable in his relations with the opposite sex, and has had little success in romance. He married for practical reasons rather than for love. However, he still longs for a beautiful woman who will be completely devoted to him. When he thinks he has found such a woman in Song, he gains pleasure in dominating her, and behaves arrogantly and cruelly towards her. This makes him feel for the first time that he is a real man. Eventually, however, he does develop a genuine love for Song. As a diplomat, Gallimard is a failure, and is ordered back to France for giving poor advice to the French ambassador. Gallimard’s greatest mistake, however, is that he fails to realize that Song, his long-time lover, is, in fact, a man. When his error is revealed at his trial, he becomes a laughingstock in France and around the world.
Helga is Gallimard’s wife. While the couple lives in Beijing, she remains ignorant of Chinese culture and appears to dislike the Chinese. She is concerned that she and Gallimard seem unable to produce a child. When the couple returns to Paris, Helga is upset by the demonstrations in the street and realizes that she was happier in Beijing.
At Gallimard’s trial in Paris in 1986, the judge questions Song about his relationship with Gallimard.
Song is a Chinese singer and actor. Although he is a man, he plays female roles in Chinese opera, which is a traditional practice in China. When Song and Gallimard first meet, Song allows him to think that he, Song, is really a woman. Song pretends to fit the stereotype that Western men have of the submissive Oriental woman: he appears modest and retiring in a way that Gallimard finds enticing. However, Song can also be assertive in his views about how women are treated in Chinese society and of the West’s prejudiced attitude to China. But all the time he is with Gallimard, Song is merely acting a part. In reality, he is using Gallimard to obtain sensitive political information, which he passes on to the Chinese government. Song shows no qualms about his deception of Gallimard, and even goes as far as acquiring a baby (supplied for him by his communist masters) and telling Gallimard the baby is theirs. When Song reveals himself as a man and testifies against Gallimard at the trial, he relates his story in a detached and unemotional manner, as if he has no real feelings in the matter. At the end of the play, he toys with the distressed Gallimard and tries to reassert his control over him.
Marc is an old school friend of Gallimard’s, and his complete opposite. Whereas Gallimard was socially withdrawn in high school, Marc was the most popular student. Gallimard lacks confidence with women, but Marc has been a shameless womanizer all his life. He is married, but boasts that he cheated on his wife only six months after their wedding and has had three hundred sexual conquests in twelve years. He urges Gallimard to be aggressive in his pursuit of Song.
Renee is a student from Denmark with whom Gallimard has an affair. She is physically attractive and sexually uninhibited. She engages Gallimard in explicit discussions about the male sexual organ.
Toulon is the French Ambassador in Beijing. He is a man of the world as far as sexual liaisons are concerned, and he seems impressed when he learns of Gallimard’s affair with Song. In his conversations with Gallimard about state business, however, he expresses disdain for both the Chinese and the Americans. Gallimard thinks Toulon has a paternalistic attitude to his employees, regarding them all as his children.
Race and Racism
Hwang set out to write a play that would deconstruct the race and gender stereotypes that the West has adopted in its dealings with Eastern culture. First, he had to show these stereotypes in operation. Negative Western images of the Chinese occur frequently throughout the play. Gallimard complains that the Chinese are arrogant, a view which he learned in Paris, where, according to him, it is a common belief. He and his wife also appear to despise Chinese culture, and complain about how the Chinese value its great antiquity, as if age conveyed some special distinction. And Toulon, the French Ambassador, is quick to point out that although he may live in China, he does not live with the Chinese, as if to do so would be beneath him.
Deeper than these derogatory perceptions of a foreign culture, however, is the implication that Western cultural stereotyping of the East as passive, weak, and subservient is in part responsible for
international conflicts such as the Vietnam war. Gallimard, who in his role as diplomat passes on his opinions to American decision-makers, expresses the belief that “The Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power.” Therefore America will succeed in Vietnam if it chooses to exercise sufficient force of will; the East will not resist. “The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East,” explains Song in the trial scene.
The playwright hardly needs to point out the irony of Gallimard’s views, since everyone in the audience will be aware of the American debacle in Vietnam, in which superior technology and powerful weaponry did not result in victory, and the Vietnamese proved to be far from passive. But Hwang points this out anyway, showing Gallimard being dismissed from his diplomatic post for giving bad advice. The year is 1966, and the war is going badly for the Americans. But even then Gallimard still mouths the platitudes that the American government was also disseminating at the time, that “the end is in sight”; it is only a matter of time before the Americans prevail. Gallimard cannot surrender the stereotype of how the East will respond to the West. This has been made plain earlier in the play when Song tells him that he cannot objectively judge his own Western values. Gallimard replies with rich dramatic irony, “I think it’s possible to achieve some distance,” something he manifestly fails to do in any of his opinions, feelings, or actions.
The racism also works in the other direction. Westerners are referred to as “foreign devils” more than once in the play, and the term appears to be so common and well known in China that the Westerners even use it ironically about themselves. On the other hand, Hwang suggests that many Eastern women accept the stereotype supplied to them by the West—that Western men are powerful and most to be prized. For example, one scene in the play acts out a scene from the opera Madame Butterfly, in which Butterfly refuses the marriage proposal of Yamadori, a Japanese prince, with the words “But he’s Japanese.” Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, rebukes her, reminding her that she is Japanese too. “You think you’ve been touched by the whitey god?’’ she says. (This exchange is not in Puccini’s opera, but is created by the playwright.) Similarly, Song hints to Gallimard that the fascination with the paradigm of Page 188 | Top of Articlethe dominant white male/submissive Oriental female is not confined to Western men. The fascination may be mutual. The implication is that blame does not lie entirely with the West. As Hwang himself said in an interview with John Lewis DiGaetani,
The colonial power. . . has an attitude of condescension toward the East. But the East has played up to that to its short-term advantage without thinking of the long-term ill effects that reinforcing those racial stereotypes causes. I think both sides are equally guilty.
The theme of racial and cultural stereotyping is inextricably linked to sexism and gender stereotyping. At the heart of the play is the cultural sexism displayed in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which Gallimard unthinkingly accepts. When he sees Song performing the death scene from the opera, he cannot separate her from the role she is singing, and so cannot relate to her as a real individual. Because he sees only through the lens of the cultural myth of the helpless, meek, self-sacrificial Oriental woman, he is ripe for both self-deception and deception by Song.
What Gallimard fails to notice is that when he first meets Song in his female guise, Song does his best to undermine the myth, perhaps before he has decided to dupe Gallimard. The story of Butterfly is “ridiculous,” Song says. He then tells Gallimard, “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.” He tries to point out to Gallimard how objectionable the stereotype might be for an Eastern woman by giving an example in which the roles are reversed:
What would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese business man? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.
Although Gallimard then turns to the audience and says, “So much for protecting her in my big Western arms,” Song’s deconstruction of the myth does not free Gallimard from the grip of the stereotype. He continues to admire Pinkerton, the callous betrayer in Puccini’s opera, saying that although an opera audience might condemn Pinkerton, few men would pass up the chance to be Pinkerton, if such an opportunity came their way. This observation about male psychology seems to be confirmed when Toulon, the French Ambassador, expresses admiration of Gallimard’s affair with Song. Gallimard takes Toulon’s approval to mean that he has finally managed to join a kind of “good old boys” club, admission to which seems to be granted to those men who seduce whatever women they choose and then sit together smoking and bragging about their conquests.
According to Song’s explanation at the trial, the reason that Gallimard failed to discern that his lover was a man can also be attributed to the cultural stereotype imposed by the West on the East. The West thinks of itself as masculine—“big guns, big industry, big money”—while it regards the East as feminine, “weak, delicate, poor... but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique.” Just as the West expects the East to submit to military force, it expects Oriental women to be submissive to Western men. Thus, the themes of racism and sexism are explicitly linked. And because of this type of thinking, even Eastern men are feminized. As Song puts it, “being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”
At the end of the play, the playwright finally demolishes the racial and sexual stereotypes that he has been steadily exposing from the beginning. The roles of Gallimard and Song become completely reversed. Gallimard, exploited, loving, betrayed, becomes like Butterfly, while Song is revealed not only as a man but also as a calculating deceiver (like Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly) who was never what he appeared to be. The lesson for the audience is that stereotypes are not only dangerous, they are also false.
M. Butterfly is set in several different places and time periods. It begins in the present, in Gallimard’s prison cell in Paris. As Gallimard tells his story, the scene shifts to Beijing, China, during the decade from 1960 to 1970. Scenes are set in the German Ambassador’s house, French Embassy, the French Ambassador’s residence, Gallimard’s apartment, Page 189 | Top of ArticleSong’s apartment, a Chinese opera house, and the streets of Beijing. One scene flashes back to Gallimard’s schooldays in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1947. Later scenes take place in Paris from 1966 to 1968, and in a courthouse in Paris in 1986.
As the play begins, and before a word is spoken, the playwright employs a technique known as foreshadowing, which is the presentation of an action, image, or symbol that anticipates a theme or event later in the work. In Act 1, scene 1, as Gallimard sits in his cell, the audience also sees Song upstage, behind Gallimard. Song is dressed as a beautiful woman in traditional Chinese clothing, and he/she is dancing to a piece from the Peking Opera, while Chinese percussion music plays. As Song dances, the Chinese music fades and is replaced by the music of a Western opera, Madame Butterfly. Song continues to dance in the Chinese style. Thus one of the main themes of the play, of a clash between two cultures, East and West, is demonstrated at the outset.
The story of M. Butterfly ranges across two continents and more than twenty-six years. Hwang solved the problem of how to present such a lengthy and unwieldy drama by making Gallimard the narrator of his own story and adopting the device of the flashback. The flashback is a technique that presents events that took place prior to the opening scene of the play. So after the play begins in the present, in Gallimard’s prison cell in Paris, it flashes back to the early days of Gallimard’s love affair with Song. Most of Act I is presented through flashbacks. Act 2 begins once more in the present, before again flashing back as Gallimard continues the story. Finally, in Act 3, scene 3, the action returns to the present, as Gallimard prepares his own transformation into Madame Butterfly.
Structurally, then, the play rounds back on itself, ending where it began, in a prison cell, to the music of the “love duet” from the opera Madame Butterfly. Another structural parallelism occurs when the opening words of the play, “Butterfly, Butterfly,” spoken by Gallimard as he gazes upstage at the dancing Song, are repeated as the final words of the play. However, there is a difference. The words are spoken not by Gallimard to Song, but the other way round, by Song to Gallimard. So the structure of the play, in which the ending is a reverse image of the beginning, echoes the theme, of how the expected, traditional roles of the Western man and the Oriental woman are radically reversed. (Incidentally, “Butterfly? Butterfly?” are also the last words of Puccini’s opera, sung by Pinkerton as he gazes with remorse on the dying Butterfly. This gives yet another layer of reference to the ending of the play.)
As Gallimard tells his story, he addresses the audience directly. Many of the scenes that flash back to an earlier period are introduced by Gallimard telling the audience of how he felt at the time, what his reasoning was for his actions, what the events were that lead up to the scene. For example, in Act 1, scene 10, Gallimard sets the scene for his first meeting alone with Song in the actor’s apartment by explaining how the meeting has long been delayed and confiding in the audience that he thinks Song is interested in him. Similarly, a scene often ends with Gallimard’s reflections on what has just taken place, as in Act 2 scene 9, in which he speculates about Song’s motives and his own state of mind.
On a number of occasions Gallimard turns to the audience and addresses it directly even in the middle of a scene. He may confide his thoughts, explain who a character is, or move the action forward with a piece of narration. An example occurs in Act 1, scene 11, when Gallimard is reading letters from Song complaining that Gallimard has failed to keep in touch. Gallimard keeps turning to the audience, commenting on the tone of the letters, and how he reacted to them.
Towards the end of the play, Gallimard’s role of narration and direct address is taken over by Song. This is in keeping with the reversal of roles that occurs as the play reaches its climax.
The effect of the technique of direct address to the audience is to limit the audience’s emotional involvement in the scene that is being played out in front of them. It is sometimes called a distancing device. When a character steps out of the immediate action and talks directly to the audience, the theatrical illusion is temporarily broken and the audience is reminded that they are watching a performance. The result is that the audience can view events from a more objective, or detached, point of view, rather than getting drawn into the emotional dynamics of the scene. The technique is appropriate for a play like M. Butterfly, which has as its purpose the deconstruction of the stereotypical romantic myth that is being acted out on stage.
The Vietnam War
During the early 1950s, the Western power with a vital interest in Vietnam was not the United States, but France. However, in 1954, the French were defeated by the Vietnamese at Dien Ben Phu, which ended direct French involvement in the region. It is this defeat that Ambassador Toulon alludes to in M. Butterfly(“It’s embarrassing that we lost Indochina.”).
In the Geneva Accords that followed, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Communist North Vietnam was under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam was under the nationalist, Page 191 | Top of Articleanticommunist rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was supported by the United States. During the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. military advisors were sent to South Vietnam. U.S. commitment to defending South Vietnam against communist aggression from the North increased during the presidency of John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1963.
This is the background to the incident in Act 2, scene 3 of M. Butterfly, in which Toulon and Gallimard discuss what is described as an American decision to begin bombing North Vietnam in 1961. Hwang has altered the chronology of the war, since the decision to bomb North Vietnam was not made until the administration of President Lyndon Johnson(1963-68). Similarly, Song’s report to Comrade Chin in 1961 (Act 2, scene 4) that the United States was to increase its troops in Vietnam to 170,000 soldiers, is greatly exaggerated. It was only in December 1961, that the first direct U.S. military support for the South Vietnamese government arrived in Saigon, the capital city. Troop numbers were initially small.
By 1963, South Vietnamese leader Diem had become an unpopular despot. He was assassinated in a coup by South Vietnamese generals who acted with the tacit support of the United States. This is the incident referred to in Act 2 scene 6, when Gallimard says that he has been advising the Americans that Diem must be removed from power.
By the end of 1966, when in the play Gallimard is dismissed for wrongly predicting that the United States would win in Vietnam, the United States had 385,000 troops in the region and was heavily bombing North Vietnam. But little progress was being made in winning the war.
One factor which was always uncertain in the minds of U.S. policy makers was how China would react to any escalation of the war. This concern about Chinese intentions is reflected in Toulon’s question to Gallimard (Act 2, scene 4). The United States feared that if China intervened, as it had done in the Korean War (1950-53), the war might escalate to the point where the use of nuclear weapons might have to be considered.
China’s Cultural Revolution
After a civil war in China, the communists gained power in 1949. Song refers to these events in Act 1, scene 10, when he tells Gallimard that his father did not live to see the Revolution.
Nearly two decades later, in 1966, China embarked on another period of internal upheaval, known as the Cultural Revolution, which lasted until 1976. Some of the effects of this are described impressionistically by Gallimard in Act 2, scene 9. Fueled by the personality cult of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution attempted a radical restructuring of Chinese society. Political leaders at all levels were purged, and large groups of communist youths, known as Red Guards, created disruption in cities as part of an officially approved struggle against what were called old ideas and customs. Schools were closed down, intellectuals and artists were denounced, and, in many cities, conditions became chaotic. This is the “continuous anarchy” that Gallimard describes in the play.
One aim of the Cultural Revolution was the complete restructuring of the educational system to make it less elitist. The goal was to eliminate the distinction between manual labor and intellectual work, and between urban and rural. Urban workers, young people, intellectuals, and artists were sent to work on farms where they engaged in physical labor and were forced to study the prevailing political ideology. This is the background of Act 2, scenes 9 and 10 in the play, when Comrade Chin holds a placard reading, “The Actor Renounces His Decadent Profession” and Song says he spent four years working on a farm from 1966 to 1970.
The cultural stereotyping of Asians by the West that is a central theme of M. Butterfly has a long history. Peter Kwan, in his article, “Invention, Inversion and Intervention: The Oriental Woman in The World of Suzie Wong, M. Butterfly, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” writes, ’ ’The figure of the Oriental Woman, and her relationship with the white man who becomes her lover is a theme repeatedly mined by Hollywood studios. . . . The Oriental Woman is meek, shy, passive, childlike, innocent and naive. She relies and is dependent on the white hero to satisfy her most basic needs and to perform the most basic tasks.” Kwan draws on the work of feminist scholar Gina Marchetti, who in Romance and the “Yellow Peril” analyzed seventeen mainstream films, made between 1958 and 1986, which featured romantic and sexual relationships between white men and Asian women. Marchetti concluded that the “myth” of the submissive Oriental woman “endures and Page 192 | Top of Articlecontinues to function not only as a romantic justification for traditional female roles but also as a political legitimation of American hegemony internationally.” This conclusion is a striking echo of the theme of M. Butterfly, in which cultural stereotyping is seen as in part responsible for the Vietnam war.
The meek Asian woman is not the only stereotype that American popular culture has imposed on the East. As Elaine H. Kim writes in Asian-American Literature,“The power-hungry despot, the helpless heathen, the sensuous dragon lady, the comical loyal servant, and the pudgy, desexed detective who talks about Confucius are all part of the standard American image of the Asian.”
When M. Butterfly was first performed in 1988 in Washington D.C. and then on Broadway, reviews were decidedly mixed. Most critics acknowledged that Hwang was a playwright of great talent, but praise for the play was often tempered by some harsh criticism. On the positive side, Frank Rich in the New York Times described M. Butterfly as “a visionary work that bridges the history and culture of two worlds” and “as intricate as an infinity of Chinese boxes.” He added that “one must [be] grateful that a play of this ambition has made it to Broadway.” But Rich had some serious reservations also, writing that the play did not rise to its full power until the final act; it was marred by repetition and “its overly explicit bouts of thesis mongering” (the dramatist’s tendency to pursue his central ideas in a didactic manner). Several other critics, including John Gross, in another New York Times review, and John Simon, in New York magazine, expressed a similar view.
However, William A. Henry III, in Time, had no such reservations, calling M. Butterfly “brilliant” and praising the ambitious scale of the work: “Hwang displays astonishing command of his material and craft.” Henry also praised the director, John Dexter, who “fuses the presentational style of opera with confessional scenes that address the audience directly,” and B. D. Wong, the actor who played Song, who moves from “hauntingly persuasive female victim. . . [to] cocky and unrepentant man.”
Jack Kroll in Newsweek was considerably less enthusiastic. While acknowledging that Hwang was a “very clever and gifted playwright,” Kroll complained that Hwang “has concocted a play that consumes itself in its own cleverness, that takes so many twists and turns that it spins itself into a brilliant blur.” Kroll’s main objections were, first, that Madame Butterfly, written in 1904, was not a relevant symbol of relations between East and West in the late twentieth century; second, that the playwright offered no real insight into why Gallimard failed to realize that Song was a man; and third, the references to the Vietnam war were completely unconvincing. Kroll’s conclusion was that “Hwang is a natural playwright whose desire to astonish has subverted the intellectual legitimacy of his play.”
Reviews in The Nation, The New Republic and the Washington Post were mostly on the negative side. For David Richards in the Post, for example, Hwang pays “entirely too much attention to footnotes, ironic asides and running commentary on such issues as male sexuality and how America lost the Vietnam war (related topics in Hwang’s view).” According to Richards, some of the more puzzling aspects of the affair between Gallimard and Song remain unanswered, such as “Was [Gallimard] merely the hapless victim of an astounding scheme or did he, in fact, realize deep down that he was involved in a masquerade and choose to embrace it anyway?”
Whatever may have been the reservations of some theatre critics, the fact that M. Butterfly won so many awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, shows that the play was held in considerable esteem by those qualified to judge it. And within eighteen months, M. Butterfly had become a hit on the international stage, with productions mounted in London, Buenos Aires, and Hamburg, and bookings already made for Paris, Brussels, Oslo, Copenhagen, Rome, Madrid, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Auckland, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, San Juan, and New Delhi. M. Butterfly reached an even wider audience when the film version, with screenplay written by Hwang, was released in 1993.
After drama reviewers had had their say, the more in-depth work of literary scholars and critics began to appear. Critics have used M. Butterfly to further explore the presence of stereotypes of Asians, both men and women, in American literature and film, and the play has been examined through a variety of interpretive frameworks, especially feminist
and gay. Although Hwang has written other plays since M. Butterfly, as well as screenplays and opera librettos, M. Butterfly remains his most acclaimed work.
Bryan Aubrey, Ph.D., has published many articles on literature and drama. In this essay, he discusses sexism and the extent to which the play deconstructs the Western ideal of romantic love.
It is hardly surprising that M. Butterfly has proved a fertile ground for feminist critics. The play is a relentless indictment of the way men, driven by inherited, male-created cultural patterns, behave towards women. There is something deeply disturbing about Gallimard’s psychology when it comes to his relations with women, and one doesn’t need to be a feminist to notice it. Let’s take just two examples. Every time he visits Renee, the young woman with whom he has an affair, he is excited by the knowledge that he is inflicting suffering on Song, who, Gallimard believes, is aware of his unfaithfulness. He imagines Song crying, alone and without comfort, and says, “It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee.” Gallimard had earlier demonstrated his cruelty in his refusal to make contact with Song, even when he knew she had a right to expect him to do so. This deliberate withdrawal also excited him: “I felt for the first time that rush of power—the absolute power of a man.”
The implication in both cases is that a man who is in the grip of a culturally determined romantic and sexual fantasy will seek to shore up his own fragile sense of identity by mistreating a woman. Women must suffer because men are weak. This is hardly a pretty picture, and it is made even less savory by the fact that the playwright links sexism with politics and imperialism. For example, Renee offers the opinion that the male aggression that erupts in wars is caused by the same kind of sexual insecurity and feelings of inferiority that are the dark elements in Gallimard’s own psychological make-up.
Nor is the indictment of male-female relations confined to Western culture. Hwang also has Chinese society in his sights. Song complains that women are kept down in Chinese society and denied an education, the implication being that a man is
threatened by a woman who may know as much as he does. Later, Song asks Chin why it is that in Chinese opera, all the women’s parts are played by men. Then he answers his own question: “Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” In other words, women behave in ways that are culturally prescribed, and those who prescribe their conduct are men.
In the light of all this, it is clear why a feminist critic such as Chalsa Loo can refer to the play as a “revenge fantasy.” As she comments in her essay, “M.Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective,” “Women who have felt the sting of male abandonment and betrayal silently rise in applause as Butterfly’s death is avenged. Gallimard, the cad, gets his due: he is betrayed, humiliated, and made miserable.”
And yet the play is also much more than a revenge fantasy, because it suggests that the stereotypical perceptions that lead to the tragedy are socially constructed; they are not inherent in the nature of things. And if something is a human, cultural construct, it can also be deconstructed and something else constructed in its place. Hwang himself, in “A Conversation With David Henry Page 195 | Top of ArticleHwang,” has described his play as “an attempt to debunk the stereotypes completely by mixing them up and confusing them so much that they really become inapplicable in any meaningful sense.”
The audience feels this demolition of stereotypical roles of race and gender most acutely in the immediate aftermath of the play, when the lights on stage dim and applause has not yet begun to fill the theatre. The play is over, but its effects linger in the mind. It is as if all the unconsciously imbibed, unexamined expectations of gender roles have been tossed up in the air like a pack of cards, and they have not yet landed to form a new pattern. There is a kind of imaginative space present in the collective mind of the audience, which is for a few moments free of the props, short cuts, and lazy conveniences that the human mind normally uses to classify its experience and confirm its prejudices. It is in this imaginative space that everyone in the audience is free to restructure their perceptions “from the common and equal ground we share as human beings,” as Hwang put it in his Afterword to the published edition of the play.
The aesthetic response to the play, then, includes the shattering of what Western, and also, to an extent, Eastern culture has conditioned people to believe regarding race and gender roles. Does it also shatter the myth of romantic love that is also so prevalent in the Western mind? Many would say that it does—after all, look what happens to Gallimard—but is it also possible that nestling somewhere alongside all the punctured balloons of Western male imperialism, the aesthetic response to M. Butterfly includes a sense, in spite of everything that would seem to contradict it, of a transforming vision of love? Or is that deconstructed too?
Few critics have seen the play primarily as a love story. Perhaps in part this is because Hwang seems more interested in playing with the ideas that underlie the drama than in exploring the emotional states of the characters. There is little in the relationship between Gallimard and Song, for example, that would explain why Gallimard regards Song as the “Perfect Woman.” Nor are the complexities of Gallimard’s own emotions, as his relationship with Song deepens, fully explored.
However, there is no reason to doubt that Gallimard does indeed experience a genuine love for Song. And at the time he first fully conceives this love, Gallimard’s character undergoes a marked transformation. This occurs well before the final, dramatic reversal of roles at the end of the play. The
change begins in Act 2, scene 7, when Gallimard approaches Song seeking only to dominate him/her sexually. Gallimard is completely caught up in the idea that he is the arrogant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. But then something unexpected happens:
At the time, I only knew that I was seeing Pinkerton stalking towards his Butterfly, ready to reward her love with his lecherous hands. The image sickened me, pulled me to my knees, so I was crawling towards her like a worm. By the time I reached her, Pinkerton. . . had vanished from my heart. To be replaced by something new, something unnatural, that flew in the face of all I’d learned in the world—something very close to love.
Instead of forcing Song to strip and overpowering her, Gallimard asks for forgiveness. He is a different man now, embarking on new psychic terrain, and perhaps he now wins back some of the sympathy from the audience that his callous behavior up to that point has forfeited.
It is from this point on that Gallimard, although he does not yet realize it, starts to become Butterfly, in that he loves unthinkingly, wholly, unconditionally, no matter what the circumstances. Of course he is deluded, and nowhere in the play is it made clear exactly why or how he fails to realize that the object of his love is a male spy. And his acceptance that the baby Song presents him with is his own makes him look, to say the least, foolish. But Gallimard is at least now a fool for love, not the arrogant seducer he once fancied himself to be. Love has ensnared him, in exactly the way that Madame Butterfly in Puccini’s opera had feared. She confesses to Pinkerton she has heard that in the United States, if a man catches a butterfly,“he’ll pierce its heart with a needle/ And then leave it to perish!” Gallimard alludes to this when he first embarks on his cruel behavior towards Song: “Had I, too, caught a butterfly who would Page 196 | Top of Articlewrithe on a needle?” Now, in love, Gallimard has himself become the butterfly. Interestingly, in Western literature the butterfly is a traditional symbol of transformation, of the liberation of the human spirit from the fetters that bind it. Although Hwang utilizes Puccini’s reversal of the traditional meaning, the more usual symbolism will surface later. Gallimard will indeed undergo a transformation.
This transformation comes in the final scene of the play. In spite of the shattering revelation that he has been deceived and betrayed by a man masquerading as a woman, Gallimard cannot shake the vision of love that he had. The romantic love for a particular individual, unable to jump the gender barrier, may have died, but the ideal of love lives on. As he begins his physical transformation into Madame Butterfly, Gallimard finally acknowledges that it is time to face the truth about Song:
And the truth demands a sacrifice. For mistakes made over the course of a lifetime. My mistakes were simple and absolute—the man I loved was a cad, a bounder. He deserved nothing but a kick in the behind, and instead I gave him. . . all my love. Yes—love. Why not admit it all? That was my undoing, wasn’t it? Love warped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face.
As he dons the Butterfly wig, Gallimard reaffirms his belief in his original vision of love, but this time it is fortified by his own experience and suffering:
I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to a sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.
As he continues his physical transformation, Gallimard realizes that the very love he longed for he has found, not in another but in himself. He does not need any more to search for a Butterfly, for he is Butterfly. He has lived his own ideal. His own fate is proof that the vision is real. With this self-knowledge and insight, Gallimard rises at the last to the stature of a tragic hero, and Hwang invests the scene with great dramatic and emotional power.
The impression of noble sacrifice (“Death with honor is better than life. . . life with dishonor,” Gallimard says, quoting Madame Butterfly), the playing of the Love Duet from Madame Butterfly rather than the music of the death scene, and the dignity of the dancers who lay the dying Gallimard “reverently on the floor,” all combine to create this final, moving moment. Of course, many may feel that Gallimard dies while still in the grip of a dangerous romantic illusion. Others may feel that in its own peculiar way, this moment is indeed an affirmation of a kind of transcendent, absolute vision of love, and hear in the background echoes of the deaths of other famous lovers in the Western tradition, such as Antony for his Cleopatra, Romeo for his Juliet.
The final moment in this play, however, belongs not to Gallimard but to the romantic antitype, namely Song, who is seen staring at the dead Gallimard, coolly smoking a cigarette and uttering the words “Butterfly? Butterfly?” The vision of love is juxtaposed with its antithesis; the myth of romantic fulfillment is deconstructed even in the moment that it reaches its most powerful expression.
So the answer to the question posed earlier—whether the aesthetic response to the play includes the sense of a transforming vision of love—is both yes and no. The dead Gallimard is proof of the power of the romantic imagination to create for itself the form of its deepest desire; the living Song is proof that in this harsh and unforgiving world, even that may not be enough.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses the theme of male fantasies in Hwang’s play.
David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly is loosely based on a true story about a French diplomat who lived for twenty years as the lover of a person he thought was a Chinese female actress but who was in fact a Chinese male spy. In his fictionalized story of love and espionage, based on this incident, Hwang’s play focuses on the theme of Western male fantasies about “Oriental” (Asian) women. The theme of fantasy is focused on the Frenchman Rene Gallimard’s perception of Song Liling as “The Perfect Woman.” In his “Afterword” to the published play, David Hwang explains that, having heard about the true story on which the play he later wrote was based, he “concluded that the diplomat must have fallen in love, not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype.” Hwang goes on to explain that this “stereotype” is that of the “exotic,” submissive “Oriental” woman, as portrayed in the famous Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly.
The motif of dream and fantasy is first invoked through Gallimard’s tongue-in-cheek description of his life in a French prison, following his conviction for treason: “When I want to eat, I’m marched off to the dining room. . . . When I want to sleep, the light bulb turns itself off—the work of fairies. It’s an enchanted space I occupy.” In this description, however, he symbolically characterizes his relationship to Song Liling, a relationship based on his own personal fantasies of what “The Perfect Woman” is like, a relationship in which he occupied “an enchanted space” of his own imagination. Addressing the audience, Gallimard claims that, “I have known, and been loved by. . . the Perfect Woman.” At the point when he makes this statement, Gallimard has already learned that his “Perfect Woman” was in fact a man; by insisting that Song was nonetheless “the Perfect Woman,” he emphasizes the extent to which she was, to him, a fantasy of a woman all along.
Hwang’s play thus begins with a portrayal of Gallimard’s early perceptions of women, which are derived from the many images of pin-up girls he saw in pornographic magazines. Hwang here establishes that, from youth, Gallimard’s relationship to women is purely that of fantasy images, as he has next to no experience with real women. Gallimard compares the character Madame Butterfly in Puccini’s opera, who insists that she is not worth the few cents he paid for her, to the images of women in “girlie magazines”: “In real life, women who put their total worth at less than sixty-six cents are quite hard to find. The closest we come is in the pages of these magazines.. . . For three or four dollars, you get seven or eight women.” Hwang makes a strong feminist statement here by implying that the pleasure for a man in paying for a fantasy image of a woman is not so much sexual, as one of power. Gallimard explains that, when he first saw such magazines, at the age of twelve, “my body shook. Not with lust—no, with power. Here were women—a shelfful—who would do exactly as I wanted.” The images of women in “girlie magazines” suggest to the man that “You can do whatever you want.”
When Gallimard meets Song, she points out to him directly that the opera Madame Butterfly is an expression of a standard fantasy that Western culture holds about Eastern culture: “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.” Later, as he is walking her home, Song again makes the observation
that she represents to him a white male fantasy of a woman: “We have always held a certain fascination for you Caucasian men, have we not?” Later, Song points out the extent to which a “Perfect Woman” is a creation of the male mind, a construction of a male fantasy which has little or nothing to do with real women. She comments that the reason the roles of women in the Peking Opera are always played by men is that, “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” The truth of this statement is confirmed when, even after Gallimard learns that Song was a man all along, he asserts that, “in China, I once loved, and was loved by, very simply, the Perfect Woman.” Again, the implication is that the “Perfect Woman” does not need to be a woman at all, but simply an image which conforms to a man’s fantasy.
The fantasy motif includes not just Gallimard’s perceptions of Song, but also the appearance of his school friend Marc in his imagination and his dreams. Marc, who appears as a “formless spirit,” encourages Gallimard to pursue Song by pointing out that she can be used like a “girlie magazine,” or a sex symbol from the movies, to fulfill his fantasies of sexual power: “All your life you’ve waited for a beautiful girl who would lay down for you... . And you see them in magazines and you see them in movies. And you wonder, what’s wrong with me? Will anyone beautiful ever want me?” Marc himself functions for Gallimard as a fantasy figure who gives him permission to live out his fantasies. Gallimard even compares the figure of Marc, as he appears in a dream, to the Italian movie star and sex symbol Sophia Lauren: “Other people, I’ve been told, have dreams where angels appear. Or dragons, or Sophia Lauren in a towel. In my dream, Marc from school appeared.” Marc represents the cultural influences that encourage men to view women as sexual objects who can be purchased for the purpose of male pleasure. In Gallimard’s dream, Marc refers to Gallimard’s imminent conquest in the form of Song to “picking exotic women off trees”—as if women were merely pieces of fruit, to be taken and consumed, rather than individuals. Marc then reminds Gallimard of a woman named Isabelle, whom Marc apparently either paid or otherwise convinced to have sex with Gallimard, his “first experience.”
Gallimard even begins to perceive “God” and the spiritual world as a justification for using Song as a means of acting on his fantasies of a love affair with “the Perfect Woman.” At first, however, Gallimard’s conscience tells him that his affair with Song is “evil.” When he believes, for a moment, that he is about to be fired from his job as a diplomat, Gallimard says, “Just as I feared! God has seen my evil heart—’’ But, after he learns that, in fact, he has been given a promotion, he comes to believe that God “understands,” and even desires that women be placed in the sexual service of men: “Of course! God who creates Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed—that God is a man. And he understands! At age thirty-nine, I was suddenly initiated into the way of the world.”
Once Gallimard has established an affair with Song, he further pursues women who can be used to fulfill the fantasies evoked by the “picture perfect” images of “those girls in magazines.” He describes Renee, a young woman with whom he has his “first extra-extramarital affair,” as “picture perfect. With a body like those girls in the magazines. If I put a tissue paper over my eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”
The theme of fantasy and the imagination in the play is central to the question of how it could have been that Gallimard lived with Song for twenty years without discovering that “she” was actually a man. Gallimard speculates about the power of the imagination to shape and maintain a fantasy that brings “happiness.” When he requests of Song that she allow him to see her completely naked, she Page 199 | Top of Articletakes the risk of offering to allow him to undress her—but he chooses not to at the last moment. From his cell, in retrospect, Gallimard reflects, “Did I not undress her because I knew, somewhere deep down, what I would find? Perhaps. Happiness is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect it.” Gallimard later comments on the extent to which his imagination was able to maintain the fantasy of Song as his “Butterfly,” even as he sat in the witness box in men’s clothing, confessing to his deception; even with the truth right before his very eyes, Gallimard states that, “even in this moment my mind remains agile, flip-flopping like a man on a trampoline.”
After Gallimard is fired from his position as a French diplomat in China, he returns to France with his wife Helga. Years later, Song appears at his home in France, having been sent by Chinese authorities to continue spying activities through him. As Gallimard narrates this part of his story to the audience, Song enters onstage. Although he now knows the “truth” about Song, Gallimard continues to see her in his imagination as his idea of “the Perfect Woman.” When he sees her onstage, unable to let go of this Perfect Woman in his mind’s eye, he says, “My imagination is hell.” Song then begins to tell the audience of her arrival in France, but Gallimard argues with her that he prefers to remember how they “embraced” their final evening together in China. When Song insists that the story move on, Gallimard argues that, since she is a figment of his imagination, she has to “do what I say!” because “I’m conjuring you up in my mind!” Song, however, responds that, now that Gallimard knows the “truth” about her, he can no longer completely control her, even as a fantasy figure; she tells him, “No matter what your eyes tell you, you can’t ignore the truth. You already know too much.”
During the court proceedings in which Gallimard is on trial for spying, the judge asks Song to explain how he was able to conceal from Gallimard the fact that he was a man. Song’s response indicates that, as he learned from his mother, who was a prostitute, it is easy to fool a man into believing in his own fantasies because “Men always believe what they want to hear. So a girl can tell the most obnoxious lies and the guys will believe them every time—’This is my first time’—’That’s the biggest I’ve ever seen’—” Furthermore, Song explains that the West has always imagined itself to be masculine in relation to the East, which it imagines to be feminine. Therefore, Song explains, it was not difficult for an Asian man to convince a Western man that he is a woman—because, in the eyes of the Western world, the stereotypical “Orient” is already seen as feminine. Furthermore, Song explains, the West holds a stereotype of “Oriental” women as submissive, and so imagines the East to be both feminine and submissive to the West. Song points out that, “You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That’s why you say they make the best wives.” The judge then questions Song as to why this would make it “possible” to “fool” Gallimard into thinking he was a woman. Song responds by pointing out that Gallimard was only able to perceive Song as a “fantasy,” and therefore allowed his imagination to project onto her his image of the “Perfect Woman”:“because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman.” Finally, Song explains that, because the West never sees the East as anything but feminine and submissive, then, “being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”
In the final scenes of the play, the Song of Gallimard’s imagination becomes confrontational toward him—he no longer passively submits to Gallimard’s fantasy image of him as the “Perfect Woman.” Instead, Song challenges Gallimard with the intention of undressing completely and revealing his manhood. At this point, it is as if Gallimard’s imagination can no longer cooperate with his fantasy. As Song begins to undress, against Gallimard’s wishes, he protests: “You’re only in my mind! All this is in my mind! I order you to stop! To stop!” Gallimard then admits to Song that, “I know what you are.. . . A—a man.” But Song replies “You don’t really believe that.” Gallimard then admits that, at some level, he knew the truth, but wished to postpone the unveiling of that truth in order to maintain his fantasy of Song as the Perfect Woman. He explains “I knew all the time somewhere that my happiness was temporary, my love a deception. But my mind kept the knowledge at bay. To make the wait bearable.” Gallimard goes on to assert that what he loved in Song was “a perfect lie,” a fantasy in which s/he was “playing a part.”
Gallimard comes to realize that what he loved was not a woman, but a male fantasy of a woman: “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man.’’ Furthermore, Gallimard realizes that no “true” woman could ever live up to this male fantasy of a Perfect Woman, because “Everything else—simply falls short.” He concludes that he prefers such fantasies as he derived from “girlie magazines” to Page 200 | Top of Articlethe truth: “I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.” Having lived for twenty years with someone he imagined was the Perfect Woman, Gallimard says of himself “I am pure imagination,” and that he in fact prefers the realm of imagination to that of reality, for “in my imagination I will remain.” Having been presented with the incontrovertible truth of Song’s masculinity, Gallimard chooses to return to “the world of fantasy” in which he first met Song. In these stereotyped fantasies of Eastern culture, the “Orient” is a realm of “perfect” women, who willingly submit to the dominance of men, and willingly cater to the needs of men—women, in short, who satisfy traditional male fantasies: “There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women. Who take whatever punishment we give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally. It is a vision that has become my life.” Gallimard goes on to describe this fantasy “vision” which he had projected onto Song: “I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.”
Hwang’s play presents a feminist perspective on the nature of male fantasies of the “Perfect Woman.” He also addresses the issue of racial stereotyping of Asian culture as feminine and Asian women as embodying male fantasies of submissiveness and subservience. In the Afterword to the play, Hwang explains that, “The catalogues and TV spots appeal to a strain in men which desires to reject Western women for what they have become—independent, assertive, self-possessed—in favor of a more reactionary model—the pre-feminist, domesticated geisha girl.” Hwang characterizes Gallimard as a man who prefers to live in a fantasy world of his imagination in which such a “Perfect Woman” loves him, rather than living in the realm of truth and reality.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Jan Herman provides an overview of Hwang’s career and the plays that made it successful.
Being Asian-American has always been David Henry Hwang’s stock in trade. Since the fall of 1978, when he wrote his first play, FOB, as a Stanford undergraduate and saw it open less than two years later at the prestigious New York Public Theater, the playwright has created a large and provocative body of work out of his highly charged sense of cultural identity.
Best known for M. Butterfly, the 1998 Tony-winning play of sexual deceit and romantic delusion that tapped into the troubled East-West history of race, ideology and alienation, Hwang has made his crucial theme the immigrant experience, a topic that has been at the heart of American theater in one way or another for nearly a century.
He’s at it again with his latest play, Golden Child, a bittersweet memory piece based on his own family’s history. But this time, it may be that he has written with more deeply felt emotion and, with the exception of M. Butterfly, more intellectual engagement than ever.
Directed by James Lapine, Golden Child has its world premiere at the Public on Nov. 17, a coproduction with South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it. After closing in New York on Dec. 1, the show will transfer to the SCR Mainstage in Costa Mesa, opening Jan. 10.
“I wanted to write something detailed and less directly political than before,” Hwang says of the new play. “T sort of used Chekhov as my example. But I didn’t necessarily know I was going to write about my family history.”
Golden Child begins with a taxi ride from Manhattan that takes us back to China of a century ago, before arriving at Kennedy Airport. Unlike most of the writer’s plays, which generally have two main figures, this one has a handful.
It tells the story of the taxi passenger’s greatgrandfather, Tieng-Bin, a widely traveled, well-to-do merchant with three wives. He returns to China from a trip to the Philippines with a British church missionary who converts him to Christianity. Although the encounter between East and West is rather comical at first, the consequences are tragic for the great-grandfather as well as his wives and a beloved daughter, who turns out to be the passenger’s maternal grandmother.
Sitting in a corner of the Time Cafe, a vast bistro on Lafayette Street down the block from the Public, Hwang has come from a rehearsal for Golden Child, where he left Lapine working on sound cues.
“One of the reasons for writing this play had to do with the fact that I’ve rejected Christianity,” Hwang said. “When you’re raised with a Christian fundamentalist mind-set, as I was, in order to free yourself from it you have to find something equally fundamentalist. I’m trying to take a more humanistic, complex view of how it is that my family came to the point it did in religion.
“To some extent—and this is really something I’ve developed more in rewrites—the story of TiengBin is the story of somebody who’s been raised in a Confucian tradition, which is very rigid and fundamentalist itself. Freeing himself from that, he has to find a new big stick to beat down the old big stick. Fundamentalism begets fundamentalism. I’m trying to transcend the rigidity and reactiveness that I needed, too, at a certain point in my life to become my own person.”
Now 39, on the cusp of middle age, when writers are inclined to turn inward, it seems only natural for Hwang to explore his family’s roots in a serious way.
“In some sense I feel like this is a play I’ve been writing since I was 10, when I wrote a ’novel’ from stories my grandmother told me,” he recounted. “It was fun to use the book as source material for something I’m doing now.”
But making art of raw materials requires considerably more than a firsthand witness. In this case, his grandmother’s stories only supplied the structure—that is to say, the plot of Golden Child. Although many events in the play mirror what he’d been told, Hwang said, he had to imagine the characters more thoroughly and invent new situations where there were gaps in his grandmother’s narrative.
Hwang’s mother, Dorothy, a pianist, was born in the Philippines after her family moved there from Amoy, a southern coastal town in China’s Fukien province across the straits from Taiwan. She came to the United States in 1952 to study piano at USC, where she met her future husband at a dance for foreign students. But when the pair decided to marry, her wealthy family—it owned the entire Philippine General Motors franchise, among many other ventures—insisted that her fiancé convert to Christianity before they could wed.
Asked about the family’s reaction to the revealing details in his plays, Hwang says he “tends to apprise them” of what to expect “because my parents go out of their way to see everything I’ve
done. But I don’t ask their permission to use what I want. They know my reaction: Sorry, I need that story.”
Hwang’s Shanghai-born father, Henry, came to the U.S. in 1948 and made his mark as a Los Angeles banker in 1974, when he founded the Far East National Bank. It was the first Asian-American federally chartered national bank in the country, and the playwright has served on the board of directors. He expresses mild astonishment when it’s suggested that as a writer he might have been bored by the world of high finance.
“Not necessarily!” he replied. “The bank is family business.” Indeed, Far East National, whose shares are publicly traded on the American Stock Exchange, has given Hwang a kind of financial security many writers long for. His family holds the largest block of stock; his father is chief policymaker; and the company recently announced its intent to merge with a Taiwanese bank, Sinopac, sending Far East National’s stock higher.
Hwang has always strived to be self-reliant, however, and he hasn’t done too poorly. He gained international renown and became a millionaire several times over on the strength of M. Butterfly. As of last year, the play had grossed $35 million in U.S. earnings alone. In addition to the original Broadway production, which ran for nearly two years (777 performances), it had three national tours, was a hit in London’s West End and had major commercial Page 202 | Top of Articleoutings in almost three dozen countries. However, the play has not had productions in China or France, which figure prominently in the plot.
Hwang was also unusually precocious. He came into his own with M. Butterfly at the age of 30, younger than Arthur Miller (33) with Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams (36) with A Streetcar Named Desire or Edward Albee (34) with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Like them, Hwang wrote many plays before getting to the top, including The Dance and the Railroad, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice, to name just three. Yet he insists, as always, that he has learned more from his failures—Rich Relations, produced off-Broadway in 1986, for example, and most recently his disastrous 1994 Broadway flop Face Value, which lasted just eight preview performances and never opened—than he has from his successes.
“A playwright has to have a right to fail,” he said philosophically, “otherwise you’re not going to get the really good works.”
Hwang considers himself a “relatively quick” writer but noted, “I’ve gotten slower as the years have gone by. I hope it’s because I’m playing more attention.” He admitted, though, that writing became somewhat intimidating in the aftermath of M. Butterfly. Worldwide raves are a hard act to follow and he modestly said he doubts he’ll “ever reach that peak again.”
His first produced play, FOB(the title stands for “fresh off the boat”), took him just three weeks to complete, he recalled.
“It will always have a special place for me, because I wrote it before I knew how to do anything. As I get older, I find that craft is useful in the sense that it allows me to fix things more easily, to know where I’m going.
“But when it comes to that first draft, it’s almost as if you have to overcome your craft to be able to get back to the original impulse. Maybe that’s why it takes me a bit longer, I’m trying not to be facile. For the first draft, I don’t want to take advantage of the tricks I’ve learned along the way.”
Today, the once-divorced Hwang lives on the Upper West Side in a posh but sparely decorated apartment near Central Park with his second wife, Kathryn Layng, and their 8-month-old son, Noah.
Layng, an actress from Rockford, III., played the nurse for four seasons on the TV comedy-drama Doogie Howser, M.D. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, she also played the brazen Renée in M. Butterfly, for nine months on Broadway; and she starred as the dominatrix in Hwang’s kinky 1992 one-act, Bondage, set in an S&M parlor near Los Angeles (and produced for the Humana Festival by the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky).
Said Hwang: “I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m really happy. For me, the 1980s were about having a career; the 1990s are about having a life.”
For all his domestic bliss, however, it’s not as though he has chosen to ignore his career. If Golden Child is well-received both at the Public and SCR, “it’s fair to say that Broadway is a possibility,” director Lapine said in a separate interview.
“Naturally, a lot will depend on the critics, but I think the play will be pretty popular,’’ said Lapine, best known for his many prize-winning collaborations with Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, “Passion”) and William Finn (Falsettos).
“I was asked last spring about directing this,” Lapine said, “which was flattering, because I’ve always admired David’s writing. But I ended up saying no because of another project. Then they called again in August, and I’m so glad they did. I don’t get offers to direct a play I haven’t written or isn’t a classic. This is the first one I’ve done.
“I love that Golden Child is about a culture I didn’t know. And David’s a total doll to work with. Very, very flexible, intellectually stimulating. He’s an enthusiast in a way, even though he can be as withdrawn as I am.”
Late last month, Hwang traveled to Washington, where Golden Child received a $50,000 grant from the annual Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays—$10,000 to him and $40,000 to South Coast Rep for commissioning it and co-producing it.
Hwang says he owes a special debt to SCR—and particularly to its dramaturge Jerry Patch, who was one of his earliest advocates and who helped bring about the commission.
“Jerry is the first person who ever wrote me a letter of support from a real theater,” the playwright explained. “This was when I went to the [Eugene Page 203 | Top of ArticleO’Neill] Playwrights Center in Connecticut to develop FOB, before it got on at the Public. Jerry has no memory of the letter. But I treasured it. I still have it.”
Patch, for his part, discounts any special foresight on his part.
“I thought his first play was terrific, though we couldn’t do it. It knocked me out, and apparently I wrote the letter before we met. Then I met him at the O’Neill, and it was obvious by that point that he was the next thing going to happen. FOB was out there.”
The late producer and Public founder Joseph Papp, for whom the theater is now named, was already interested in producing it and getting interested in Hwang’s next play. The Dance and the Railroad.
Patch returned to South Coast and told its co-artistic directors, David Emmes and Martin Benson, about “this kid who had a 250 IQ or something and was, I thought, the smartest young artist I’d ever met. The kid had a mind like a trap.
“So Hwang drives down from Los Angeles one day in 1982, and Martin and David give him this big commission,” Patch recalled. “It was a few thousand bucks, but that was a lot for us at the time.
“I don’t think Hwang really needed the money. He drove down in a Mercedes. But it meant something to him because he was very proud of the fact that he could make his own money.”
After writing several plays already committed to other theaters, Hwang spent the next five or so years on M. Butterfly, which was a commercial project from the outset. Then he wrote Face Value, which was unmistakably meant for a New York audience—it was a satire based on the well-publicized protests about the casting of Miss Saigon when it came to Broadway in 1991 with a white British star as the Eurasian lead (Jonathan Pryce, who had originated the role of the Engineer in London). It also portrayed the collective howl from Asian-American performers who objected to Miss Saigon stereotyping their community as pimps and whores.
Because of its commission, South Coast had a first look at Face Value, which its officials did only pro forma they say, taking a pass for reasons of diplomacy (Hwang’s Broadway backers had dibs on the show) and dramatic art (the show would have been too big and expensive for their nonprofit theater).
But when Hwang’s agent showed Golden Child to Emmes and Benson, they took it. “The plan was to start in Costa Mesa and then go to the Public,” Patch said. “The change had to do with Lapine’s schedule. He had to stay in New York. Hwang really wanted him to direct, so we made the accommodation.”
Said Hwang: “They could have been hard-asses about it. But that’s not their style, and I’m grateful it’s not. I think they’re happy. I’m happy. And I’m getting the production I want.”
Certainly, he’s getting an A-team capable of taking Golden Child all the way. Lapine has brought on Tony-winning designers Tony Straiges (set) and Richard Nelson (lighting), among others, and the cast includes the celebrated Chinese, British-trained actress Tsai Chin, who won a 1995 Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for a featured role in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior at the Doolittle and who played Auntie Lindo in the movie of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
Between plays, moreover, Hwang has become a busy screenwriter. He’s currently midway through the second draft of a script for a Jessica Lange picture at 20th Century Fox, based on a Russian film called Umbrellas for Newlyweds. He has also written screen adaptations of Possession, the A. S. Byatt novel, for Sydney Pollack, which hasn’t been produced, and Dostoevski’s The Idiot for Martin Scorcese.
“That’s still a picture Marty intends to make,” Hwang said. “I love working with him. What’s so great is learning about film from him and getting paid for it.”
Meanwhile, Hwang is working on another Scorsese project, Texas Guinan, a vehicle for Bette Midler, And he’s done The Alienist for producer Scott Rudin, “which is somewhere at Paramount.”
Still, the playwright hasn’t had great luck in Hollywood. The two scripts that have reached the screen came and went: 1994’s Golden Gate, about an FBI agent (Matt Dillon) obsessed with the daughter (Joan Chen) of an accused Communist he’d hounded to death during the McCarthy era, and 1993’s M. Butterfly, which starred Jeremy Irons and John Lone, and was directed by David Cronenberg.
“The Butterfly screenplay was rather impressionistic,” Hwang recalled. “My goal was to take some of the theatrical devices and find film equivalents. At the time David had just finished editing Page 204 | Top of ArticleNaked Lunch, and I thought, ’Oh, he’ll love this stuff.’ But most of it didn’t end up in the movie. He made something quite naturalistic.
“Movies are a director’s medium, of course, and David’s a great artist. He worked really hard; he had his own vision of the piece. It was just slightly different from mine. Let’s leave it at that.”
A trained musician who played classical violin throughout his youth and later turned to jazz, Hwang also spends some of his time working on operas. He wrote the libretto for composer Philip Glass’ science-fiction music drama 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, which premiered in Vienna in 1988 and toured the world. He also wrote the libretto for The Voyage(again with a score by Glass) on commission from the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered at the Met in a colossal 1992 production to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America.
And he’s about to begin the libretto of a Bright Sheng chamber opera, The Silver River, on commission from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where it is scheduled to open next July.
Pondering the future—the national elections were on his mind—Hwang surveyed the Time Cafe with its homey decor put together from different American decades and picked at his half-eaten gourmet pizza.
“We don’t listen when it comes to race and culture in this country,” he said. “We go in with our minds made up, and then we try to batter the other side with our opinions. The situation becomes either confrontational or nonsensical. There’s no receptiveness, whether it’s a white male complaining about reverse racism or an American Indian complaining about the Atlanta Braves.
“We strive for order in our lives, for constancy, for something to believe in,” he continued. “But human experience is contradictory. In fact, our lives are a horrid tangle of ambivalences, self-delusions, accidents. In part that’s what Golden Child is about. The attraction of any sort of fundamentalist ideology, whether it’s ethnic, political or religious, is this need to have some certainty, so you can say, ’This is an unalterable truth. If I can hang my hat on this, my life will make more sense.’
“But finally all those fundamentalist efforts are doomed to fail, because life is never that simple. Face it, life is inherently complex.”
Source: Jan Herman, “M. as in Metamorphosis,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vol. 3, November 3, 1996, pp. 6-7, 71.
Brustein, Robert, “Transcultural Blends,” in New Republic, April 25, 1988, pp. 28-29.
“A Conversation With David Henry Hwang,” in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune. Washington State University Press, 1993, pp. 185-191.
DiGaetani, John Louie, “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,’’ in Drama Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 142-43.
Henry, William A., III., “Politics and Strange Bedfellows,” in Time, April 4, 1988, p. 74.
Hodgson, Moira, “M. Butterfly,” in Nation, April 23, pp. 577-78.
Hwang, David Henry, “Afterword,” in M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, Penguin, 1989, pp. 94-100.
Kim, Elaine H., Asian-American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Temple University Press, 1982, p. 3.
Kroll, Jack, “The Diplomat and the Diva,” in Newsweek, April 4, 1988, p. 75.
Kwan, Peter, “Invention, Inversion and Intervention: The Oriental Woman in The World of Suzie Wong, M. Butterfly, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’’ in Asian Law Journal, Vol. 99, 1998.
Loo, Chalsa, “M. Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective,” in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune, Washington State University Press, 1993, pp. 177-180.
Marchetti, Gina, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood, University of California Press, 1994, p. 108.
Rich, Frank, “M. Butterfly, a Story of a Strange Love, Conflict and Betrayal,” in New York Times, March 21, 1988, p. C13.
Richards, David,’ ’Chinese Puzzle at the National: A Curious M. Butterfly,” in Washington Post, February 11, 1988, p. CI.
Chang, Williamson B. C, “M. Butterfly: Passivity, Devious-ness, and the Invisibility of the Asian-American Male,” in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Page 205 | Top of ArticlePerspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune. Washington State University Press, 1993.
In this text, Chang argues that the play lacks a character with whom Asian males can identify because Song embodies a negative stereotype of Asians as devious and untrustworthy.
Deeney, John J., “Of monkeys and butterflies: transformation in M. H. Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey and D. H. Hwang’s M. Butterfly,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 1993, p. 21.
This article is an analysis of how both works present characters seeking to transform themselves in reaction to stereotyped images that keep them from being recognized as individuals.
Gerard, Jeremy, “David Hwang: Riding on the Hyphen,” in New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, pp. 44-5, 88-9.
Gerard’s article is an overview of Hwang’s life and career up to M. Butterfly, including many observations by Hwang himself.
Henry III, William A.,“When East and West Collide: David Henry Hwang Proves Bedfellows Make Strange Politics in M. Butterfly, a Surprise Stage Success on Three Continents.” in Time, Vol. 134, No. 7, August 14, 1989, p. 62.
This overview of Hwang’s early life and career emphasizes the success of M. Butterfly, suggesting that Hwang has the potential to become the most important American dramatist since Arthur Miller.
Lyons, Bobby, ‘“Making His Muscles Work For Himself’: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, Winter 1999, p. 230.
During this interview, Hwang discusses the question of identity in his plays, including M. Butterfly, and notes that his work has been influenced by the plays of Sam Shepard and Anton Chekhov. Jazz has also influenced his theatrical approach.
Street, Douglas, David Henry Hwang, Boise State University Press, 1989.
This book is a concise analysis of Hwang’s work up to and including M. Butterfly, highlighting the many ways in which Hwang combines the American with the Asian experience.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693600021