What specific techniques of structure, style, or storytelling does the playwright of M. Butterfly use to create a meaningful theatrical experience?

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In M. Butterfly , Hwang’s brilliant use of structure, style, and storytelling earned his script the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play. His structure crisscrosses time and space. His style flows in and out of the heightened reality of the opera-within-the play. His storytelling examines the roles we all play...

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In M. Butterfly, Hwang’s brilliant use of structure, style, and storytelling earned his script the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play. His structure crisscrosses time and space. His style flows in and out of the heightened reality of the opera-within-the play. His storytelling examines the roles we all play as we attempt to serve ourselves and yet conform to the rules of our societies.

In particular, M. Butterfly crisscrosses time and space from 1940s Paris to 1960s China, and then from 1970s Paris to where it began in Paris 1988 with Gallimard, the main character. In the final scene, Gallimard directly addresses the members of the audience and challenges them to accept his method of making peace with his choices:

GALLIMARD: Tonight I realize my search is over. That I’ve looked all along in the wrong place. And now, to you, I will prove that my love was not in vain—by returning to the world of fantasy where I first met her.

(M. Butterfly, Act 3, Scene 3)

Unlike film or television, when watching theater we can never forget that we are watching actors on the stage. Hwang uses this truth and a style of flowing in and out of the opera-within-the play to compare and contrast theatrics and reality. He challenges the audience to determine which is more deeply authentic. In the following exchange, he raises the question of who is being theatrical and who is being more feminine, Song or Chin:

SONG: Comrade Chin, he’s not going to support me! Not in France! I was just his plaything—

CHIN: Oh yuck! Again with the sickening language? Where’s my stick?

SONG: You don’t understand the mind of a main.

CHIN: Oh no? No I don’t? Then how come I’m married, huh? How come I got a man? ... What does the Chairman say? He tells us that I'm now the smart one, you're now the nincompoop!

(M. Butterfly, Act Two, Scene 10)

Hwang’s masterful storytelling examines the roles we all play as we attempt to serve ourselves and our societies. He forces the audience to grapple with this question: was Song most authentic as a spy or as Gallimard’s butterfly?—even as Song strips for Gallimard:

GALLIMARD: What—what are you doing?

SONG: Helping you to see through my act.

GALLIMARD: Stop that! I don’t want to! I don’t—

SONG: Oh, but you asked me to strip, remember?

GALLIMARD: What? That was years ago! And I took it back!

SONG: No. You postponed it. Postponed the inevitable. Today the inevitable has come calling.

(M. Butterfly, Act 3, Scene 2)

The above are but a few examples of how Hwang uses this powerful combination of techniques to create a meaningful theatrical experience that raises deep questions about our choices as a society and as individuals.

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M. Butterfly is written by playwright David Henry Hwang. He is a Chinese-American playwright, as well as a librettist, professor, and screenwriter. While many of his plays have been influential, especially for Chinese and Asian-Americans, M. Butterfly is perhaps his most well-known play due to its clever subversion of traditional Orientalist fantasies and stereotypes. 

The play is structured around Puccini's opera, Madama Butterfly. This opera, which relies on many Oriental stereotypes, is subverted by David Henry Hwang. In this way, the structure of M. Butterfly is unique.

Oriental fantasies are based on two figures: the Oriental female and the Western male. These figures exist in M. Butterfly in the characters of Gallimard and Song. Gallimard draws all of his ideas on Eastern women from this opera, which is grounded in Oriental misconceptions. (For more information on Orientalism, check out the link below.) David Hwang subverts these storytelling cliches by playing with gender. Gallimard's desire is rooted in Orientalism, and so he fails to see Song for what he is: a man. When Song's identity is revealed, he refuses to take on the characteristics of a stereotypical Asian woman. Instead, Song appears and acts as a Western man, putting Song in the position of power. This brilliant storytelling twist is a clever move by Hwang to demonstrate how the West frequently mischaracterizes the East. 

M. Butterfly is a meaningful theatrical experience because its subversions of stereotypes are best appreciated when embodied onstage. The audience can see Gallimard's misconceptions of Song, and the dramatic irony is appreciated. The play is a visual feast, as well as a blending of gender and racial expectations. 

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