The Dance and the Railroad Essay - Critical Essays

David Henry Hwang

Critical Context

With the exception of Hwang’s libretti for the science-fiction musicals One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof (pr. 1988, pb. 1989), dealing with an alien abductee, and The Voyage (pr. 1992, pb. 2000), dealing with a far-future space voyage paralleling that of Christopher Columbus, and his play Rich Relations (pr. 1986, pb. 1990), dealing with comically dysfunctional middle-class white Americans, most of Hwang’s dramatic works deals in some way with Asian culture.

Sound and Beauty (pr. 1983, pb. 1983-1984), consisting of two one-act plays, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice, deals with Japanese culture and relationships between the sexes. The Dance and the Railroad, like F.O.B. (pr. 1978, pb. 1983), Family Devotions (pr. 1981, pb. 1983), Bondage (pr. 1992, pb. 1996), and Trying to Find Chinatown (pr., pb. 1996), is set in the United States and deals with issues of cultural assimilation. The Dance and the Railroad differs from these other plays, however, in being set in the nineteenth century, rather than twentieth century. Like F.O.B.—which stands for “fresh off the boat”—The Dance and the Railroad centers on a newcomer to the United States and contains prominent references to the god Gwan Gung.

The Dance and the Railroad is similar to Trying to Find Chinatown in being built entirely around only two male characters and having virtually none of the references to sexual relations that permeate F.O.B., Family Devotions, and Bondage. The play also deals with issues of discrimination, subsumed under Hwang’s general interest in the issue of understanding or sympathy toward “the other.”

The Dance and the Railroad has affinities with Hwang’s later works, M. Butterfly (pr. 1988, pb. 1989) and Golden Child (pr. 1996, pb. 1998), in offering dual portrayals of the Chinese in late nineteenth and early twentieth century China and in Western cultures. All three plays also explore the subject of culture clash. However, M. Butterfly and Golden Child differ from The Dance and the Railroad in their exploration of issues surrounding gender and cultural differences, and in contrasting the nineteenth century with the late twentieth century. Also missing from The Dance and the Railroad is Hwang’s recurrent topic of the opposition of Western Christianity to ancient indigenous Chinese religions. This issue is relevant to the history of Hwang’s own family, which was converted to Christianity by his great-grandfather, and is portrayed vividly in Family Devotions and Golden Child.