Study Guide

M. Butterfly

by David Henry Hwang

M. Butterfly Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

F.O.B. (pr. 1978, pb. 1983) marked the beginning of Hwang’s rapid ascendance in the theatrical world. The play reveals Hwang’s interest in ethnic origins and the struggle that occurs between a Chinese immigrant’s cultural identity and the forces of assimilation. The Dance and the Railroad (pr. 1981, pb. 1983) and Family Devotions (pr. 1981, pb. 1983) explore similar issues, with the former play examining the struggle of Chinese railroad workers in the nineteenth century and the latter play analyzing a wealthy Chinese American family in the twentieth century. In these plays, Chinese individuals must learn to balance the traditions and values of Chinese and American societies. In The House of Sleeping Beauties (pb. 1983) and The Sound of a Voice (pb. 1984), Hwang departs from the issues surrounding Chinese immigrants in the United States and explores the sorrows of love, relying on Japanese sources.

Hwang’s success as a dramatist resulted in his being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He continued to write and stage plays, including Rich Relations (pr. 1986, pb. 1990) and As the Crow Flies (pr. 1986), but Hwang’s greatest recognition came for M. Butterfly, for which the playwright won various awards, including the Tony Award for best new play. After the major breakthrough of M. Butterfly, Hwang continued productively, bringing One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof (pr. 1988, pb. 1989), Bondage (pr. 1992, pb. 1996), Face Value (pr. 1993), and The Voyage (pr. 1992, pb. 2000) to the stage.

With its clear focus on ethnic identity, gender issues, and assimilation into American society, M. Butterfly fits neatly into the context of its era. One might compare Hwang’s drama to Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles (pr., pb. 1988), which examines similar issues involving Jews, or to August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986, pb. 1988) and The Piano Lesson (pr. 1987, pb. 1990), which interpret the African American experience. Plays of this era helped to advance acceptance and celebration of America’s multicultural society.

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster