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.