M. Butterfly was a resoundingly successful Broadway play, winning the Tony Award for the Best Play of 1988, the John Gassner Award, and the Drama Desk Award. A film version directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone appeared in 1993. Prior to M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang had won a 1980 Off-Broadway Obie Award for F.O.B. (pr., pb. 1979)—his first play, written while he was a senior at Stanford University. After M. Butterfly, Hwang won Obie Awards for Golden Child (pr. 1996, pb. 1998) and Yellow Face (pr. 2007, pb. 2008); he also collaborated with composer Philip Glass on One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof (pr. 1988, pb. 1989) and with Elton John and Tim Rice on the musical Aida (pr. 2000). The success of M. Butterfly and these other achievements have made Hwang one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century and the preeminent Asian American dramatist of his time.
M. Butterfly germinated from a New York Times report about a French diplomat being jailed because he had for several years passed intelligence to his lover, a Chinese Communist man posing as a woman. Hwang saw in this odd story the potential to deconstruct stereotypes about race and gender that Westerners, especially Americans, hold about Asians. The classic formulation of these stereotypes is the archetypal tale of Madame Butterfly, which has teased the Western imagination in many guises, including Pierre Loti’s autobiographical Madame Chrysanthème (1887), John Luther Long’s novella Madame Butterfly (1898), and David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly (1900), as well as Puccini’s opera.
The gender ambiguity of Hwang’s title, M. Butterfly, immediately challenges the audience’s socialized expectation that gender is immutably of one’s essence: One is made insecure as to the sex of Hwang’s Butterfly. Furthermore, the pattern of preceding versions of the Butterfly archetype has projected expectations of an orientalized and fantasized image of Asian women as delicate, submissive, and complaisant toward potent, dominant, white European males: Puccini’s Butterfly, for instance, loves her treacherous American husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton, until death, surrendering their son to him on demand and considerately committing suicide to remove any impediment to his felicity with his new American wife.
As Hwang’s play unfolds, his Butterfly figure, the transvestite impersonator Liling Song, only appears to be the archetypally submissive “Oriental” woman. In reality, Song is in control, and Gallimard (Hwang’s equivalent of the Lieutenant Pinkerton figure) is the gull. Moreover, in Hwang’s figuration of the outcome of his play, it is not the Asian character but the white European male who self-destructs, stubbornly clinging to his delusion. While Hwang is successful in deconstructing this stereotype of the Asian woman as a submissive Butterfly, Asian American spectators have noted that his method may have unintended effects: The figure of Song, a spy, may feed into another negative stereotype of the “Oriental” as sneaky and inscrutable. Furthermore, Song’s ability to be so convincing as a woman may further foster the emasculating stereotype of Asian men as effeminate.
Hwang’s play also sets out to deconstruct a stereotype relating gender to power on a geopolitical level. In international affairs, white Western and European nations are figured as being masculine and imperious, natural colonizers, whereas the Asian and browner nations are figured as feminine and subjected, ready to be colonized. M. Butterfly points out that this paradigm of gendered geopolitics is no longer valid (if it ever was), as evidenced by the power that Song exerts over Gallimard and the failure of the “macho” military policy advocated by Gallimard for the conduct of the Vietnam War. Here again, while lauding Hwang’s critique of the geopolitical stereotype, some critics feel that his representation of political figures and ideology (such as the characters of the French ambassador and Comrade Chin) are unconvincingly broad and caricatural. On balance, then, M. Butterfly succeeds in being a piquant and thought-provoking drama that challenges the members of its mainstream audience to examine their individual and cultural stereotypes about race, gender, and politics.