What theatrical techniques from Asian cultural theater are used in M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In creating the play M. Butterfly, generally based on Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, playwright David Henry Hwang incorporated both Eastern and Western art forms. Hence, the Eastern art forms of Chinese opera, officially called Peking Opera, and Japanese Kabuki are definitely abundantly found in Hwang's M. Butterfly.

One element that stands out in Peking Opera is its minimalist usage of props. A Peking Opera set will typically only consist of two chairs and a table. Today, painted stage-curtains can be used as a backdrop to depict further setting. Roles were also only acted by males, and males who specialized in acting female roles were called dans. The story of M. Butterfly centers around a Chinese ambassador in France falling in love with a dan. In Peking Opera, actors symbolically used tools and gestures to relay complicated stories. For example, in M. Butterfly, four actors dressed as soldiers and four dressed as generals are used to symbolically represent an entire army of thousands of men.

The Japanese word Kabuki is made of three Japanese characters: Ka, which translates to mean song; bu, which translates to dance; and ki, which translates to skill. Kabuki incorporates a mixture of very stylized "music, dance, mime, and spectacular staging and costuming" to tell a story (Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Kabuki"). As it gained in popularity, Kabuki began being used to speak of social and economic issues and to dramatize historic events. Kabuki also makes use of kuroko, which are essentially stagehands, all dressed in black, who move the scenery and props in order to assist in scene and costume changes. They dress all in black to indicate they are not part of the action onstage. However, kuroko will also often play small roles, such as animals and dancers.

One element of Kabuki found in M. Butterfly is the use of hanamichi in the set design. A hanamichi is a runway that passes from from stage right, all the way through the audience to the very back of the theater. The character Song Liling makes her first entrance down this runway. In addition, kuroko are used throughout M. Butterfly.

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