David Henry Hwang American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4011

The mix of elements in Hwang’s work runs the gamut from Chinese opera to television situation comedy. He believes in juxtaposing jarringly diverse features in his plays both for humor and for shock value, to make the reader or viewer self-conscious about the nature of exclusion, to question standards for...

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The mix of elements in Hwang’s work runs the gamut from Chinese opera to television situation comedy. He believes in juxtaposing jarringly diverse features in his plays both for humor and for shock value, to make the reader or viewer self-conscious about the nature of exclusion, to question standards for evaluating what is excluded, and to be responsible for those choices. This is a critical line of thought for a writer of Chinese heritage born in the United States; Hwang speaks for multitudes of Asian Americans for whom assimilation has not been easy. His strategy for presenting images of exclusion and inclusion is often to pit the realistic against the surrealistic, suggesting the absurdity and damage of racism as the ultimate exclusion.

Broken Promises is the title Hwang gave to the 1983 volume that collected his first four plays. That phrase, in fact, characterizes his later work as well. Beginning with F.O.B., in which a character says, “I’m going to America because of its promises,” the theme of promises not kept and dreams shattered recurs in many guises in Hwang’s work. The historical prototype, to which all of Hwang’s broken promises resonate, is the lure of the “Gold Mountain”—America—for the Chinese immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century. Once those immigrants arrived to build the transcontinental railroad, they discovered harsh working conditions and schemes by American bosses to swindle them out of what little money they did earn. Society offered them not gold in the streets free for the taking but alienation and racist treatment. Hwang shows how, in striving for success, the “hyphenated” person—the Asian American—experiences along the way a debilitating tension and loss.

Hwang has called his first three plays—F.O.B., Family Devotions, The Dance and the Railroad—his Chinese trilogy. In these works, he explores individual identity, working out the personal ramifications of his own Chinese heritage and American birth. Hwang is very open about the autobiographical elements in both Family Devotions and in Rich Relations, a play which uses the privilege and the religion that were parts of his upbringing. His exploration also takes on a more collective resonance and so highlights new cultural heroes. The two characters in The Dance and the Railroad are Chinese railroad workers in an 1867 strike who triumph over physical oppression in a psychologically liberating way.

Part of building an identity and claiming a birthright means bridging the distance between men and women. Except in The Dance and the Railroad, Hwang uses fully developed female characters that promote gender reconciliation. In F.O.B., for example, both gender and ethnicity achieve a balance. By the end of the play, the mythical warrior woman Fa Mu Lan has taught the warrior god Gwan Gung how to get along in America, and their human transformations, Grace and Steve, have formed a bond of caring friendship.

In a second important direction, Japanese literature and film inspired two hauntingly evocative one-acts by Hwang about tragic love. The House of Sleeping Beauties is based on a novella by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Hwang has said that this play, which centers on a bizarre and isolated brothel, is a fantasy about how Kawabata came to write. The Sound of a Voice, in which a medieval samurai is seduced by a magical crone, was inspired by a Japanese legend and ghost stories. In both plays, a mysterious woman harbors a shocking secret that, gradually revealed, leads to an unusual resolution, to love, and to death.

The media of sound and music drive much of Hwang’s work. American pop music is important as symbolic background in F.O.B. The Dance and the Railroad uses dancing, singing, and mock-Chinese opera. The melody of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, is a critical feature in The Sound of a Voice. M. Butterfly is at once a parody, a deconstruction, and an elaboration of Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, freely borrowing from Puccini’s music. For two important works, Hwang collaborated with composer Glass. For One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof, Hwang wrote a monologue about the “sound” of memory that was voiced over a ninety-minute instrumental piece by Glass. Hwang also wrote the libretto for Glass’s opera The Voyage, which the Metropolitan Opera commissioned for the Columbus Quincentennial in 1992.

Because Hwang is an experimenter, his works are often on the cutting edge, and not all of them have been equally successful. M. Butterfly, however, stands out as a remarkable achievement both in itself, as drama, and for the revolutionary way that it breaks stereotypes and dashes preconceptions about gender, race, public politics, and personal intimacy. As drama, it garnered more mainstream success than any previous work by an Asian American playwright, enjoying an extended run on Broadway, a world tour, the Tony Award for Best Play of the 1987-1988 season, and Drama Desk awards for both Hwang and for B. D. Wong, who initially played the role of Song Liling (also called Butterfly). The play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has played to appreciative audiences in two dozen countries. M. Butterfly turns the entire notion of tradition and identity inside out and is a landmark for theater and for Asian American literature.

F.O.B.

First produced: 1978 (first published, 1983)

Type of work: Play

Three Chinese Americans grapple with personal rivalries, ethnic identities, the power of myth, and the challenges of assimilation.

The play’s title is explained by the character Dale in the first lines: “F-O-B. Fresh Off the Boat. F.O.B.,” which are also the play’s closing lines. Dale continues his speech by describing the characteristics of F.O.B.’s, Asian people who are recent immigrants to the United States. He calls them “clumsy, ugly, greasy” and “loud, stupid, four-eyed.” Dale himself is an A.B.C., an “American Born Chinese,” and traditionally the relationship between A.B.C.’s and F.O.B.’s has been anything but pleasant.

The play, which has only three characters, traces the difficulty of assimilation for Asian newcomers to the United States and the hostility they receive from Americans of Asian descent. There is the added conflict of jealousy when Dale’s cousin, Grace, a first-generation Chinese American, shows a friendly interest in Steve, an F.O.B., but the jealousy is played out in a way that is more comic than tragic. The play delineates a hierarchy of importance and power, self-assurance and self-delusion, within various immigrant groups of Chinese Americans, overlaid with sexual jealousy and identity in flux. Hwang has said that in F.O.B., he is exploring how much of a person’s identity is inherited and to what extent a person is shaped by surrounding influences. Because he is himself a person of Chinese descent born in America, Hwang thus uses his characters to explore his personal issues of identity.

There is also a mythological subplot, which Hwang uses to explore the myth that underlies reality. This subplot involves two characters. The first is Fa Mu Lan, a village girl who avenges her people by taking her father’s place in battle, a character whom Hwang borrowed from Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1976 novel The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. He also uses Gwan Gung, a Chinese god of warriors, writers, and prostitutes, who appears in Cantonese opera and in the work of Chinese American playwright Frank Chin. Hwang dedicated the play to “the warriors of my family.”

F.O.B. takes place entirely in the back room of a small Chinese restaurant in California where American pop music is playing. The plot is fairly uncomplicated, but the innuendoes of dialogue and monologue are richly laden. Steve, a recent immigrant, enters the restaurant, which Grace’s family owns, and declares that he is Gwan Gung. Grace, in a half-hearted effort to deny her Chineseness, declares that Gwan Gung is dead and that his stories are merely history. Nevertheless, she poses intermittently as Fa Mu Lan. There is an undercurrent of rivalry between Dale, who wants to protect Grace from something he feels is undesirable, and Steve, who wishes to date Grace. They have dinner together at Grace’s restaurant, in a scene that includes a macho contest over who can stand more hot sauce, and openly vie for Grace’s affection. Grace and Steve eventually go out dancing together. Dale is left on the stage alone; Fa Mu Lan has been avenged, and Gwan Gung has triumphed.

Rich Relations

First produced: 1986 (first published, 1990)

Type of work: Play

A wealthy father and son are pressured and threatened by in-laws who are interested in their money in this darkly humorous farce.

In the introduction to F.O.B., and Other Plays, Hwang describes a two-year hiatus from writing that proceeded Rich Relations and comments that the play reestablished his commitment to writing. It is about the possibility of resurrection, he asserts, and writing it resurrected his love for work. Elsewhere, he calls the play autobiographical, even though Rich Relations is the first play that Hwang wrote that has no specifically Asian roles. The characters are white because Hwang is testing whether literary segregation implies cultural limitation. As an American author, he believes that he should be able to make his characters whatever ethnicity he chooses.

The play opens with Hinson, a high-tech entrepreneur, showing his son Keith one of his new inventions, a phone hooked up to a television. Hinson calls it “a modern convenience,” but Keith calls the device “ridiculous.” Hinson uses the invention to telephone his brother-in-law, Fred, who says the connection makes Hinson sound as though he is at the bottom of a sewer. That kind of multiple and contradictory perspective, played for humor, abounds in this play of misunderstood dialogue and misinterpreted gesture. California materialism and Christian mysticism are constant themes that try to unify characters with some common ground, but both are ineffectual.

The characters talk at each other rather than to each other, play for humor the fact of their being related, and bumble into and out of potentially incendiary situations with naïve aplomb. The play’s conflict hinges on the attempt of Hinson’s sister, Barbara, to force her daughter Marilyn onto Keith as his wife, thinking that such a marriage will make Barbara wealthy. In fact, Keith has brought his girlfriend, Jill, home with him from an East Coast high school, where he coaches debate and where Jill is one of his students. The friendship between Jill and Hinson is sealed when Jill expresses interest in seeing Hinson’s spy pens. Purchased from Hong Kong, the pens not only do not communicate secret messages but also do not even write.

Because Barbara’s pleas to Keith fall on deaf ears, she uses a more drastic measure to communicate, perching on the edge of a high balcony railing in a mock suicide attempt. Jill, whose friendship with Barbara blossoms over a bag of cheese puffs, joins her on the balcony.

Sordid secrets are confessed, but they neither effectively illuminate the listeners, vindicate the speakers, nor move the plot forward in any convincing way. Keith and Hinson aggressively smash inventions and appliances as a symbol of failed energy and thwarted convenience. Marilyn utters the most critical speech of the play, a warning to listen to the “constant voice” that “lurks behind every move we make.” Alone, Hinson and Keith crouch, ears to the ground, trying to get past addictive technology by listening for that pure, small voice. As the curtain drops, however, there is no indication that they hear it.

M. Butterfly

First produced: 1988 (first published, 1988)

Type of work: Play

A French diplomat becomes deeply enamored of a Chinese opera singer and is tragically disillusioned when she turns out to be both a spy and a man.

In an intriguing use of “found” material, Hwang used a newspaper article for the basic story line of M. Butterfly: A French diplomat falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, and they have a twenty-year love affair before the singer is shockingly exposed as both a spy and a man. The play begins with Rene Gallimard in his prison cell, musing and reflecting about the “perfect woman” as he utters the opening lines, “Butterfly, Butterfly,” which give rise to flashbacks that piece together the story. The play closes with Song Liling, Gallimard’s “perfect woman,” tersely and almost disdainfully questioning, “Butterfly? Butterfly?” after Gallimard has committed seppuku, ritual suicide.

Irony and ambiguity saturate the play. Things are not as they seem, and stark reality becomes, for Gallimard, impossible to accept. The title is a direct borrowing from Puccini’s opera, which tells the story of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a callous and selfish American naval officer stationed in Japan, who woos and leaves a fifteen-year-old geisha girl named Cio-Cio-San (her name means “butterfly” in Japanese), who bears his son and pines for his return. Three years later, when Pinkerton comes back with his American wife to claim the child, Cio-Cio-San kills herself.

Hwang’s protagonist, Gallimard, summarizes at extended length early in the play the plot of Puccini’s opera; he says that relaying the synopsis seems to him useful to making sense of his own parallel situation of love and betrayal. In actuality, the Puccini scenario, which relies heavily on racial and sexual stereotypes, is parodied and deconstructed by Hwang’s story. While the plot lines in the opera and in the play may be mirror images of each other, the images are garishly reversed. Because of that reversal, themes and identities are shockingly and inexorably confounded. Symbolic of the deceits and transformations, the ambiguous “M.” of the play’s title signifies “Monsieur” in the male protagonist’s language; Hwang thus transforms the gender of Puccini’s heroine into its opposite.

When Gallimard first sees Liling, the singer is performing Puccini’s opera, which Gallimard, in dazed admiration, proclaims to be his favorite. Liling claims to despise it. As is increasingly obvious throughout the play, Liling repeatedly and completely shatters the mold of the shy, subservient Asian woman. Between acts 2 and 3, Liling goes through a costume change onstage and is literally transformed into a man. Liling explains that, even in their most intimate moments, Gallimard never suspected Liling’s true sexual identity, primarily because Gallimard chose to believe what he wanted to believe. Gallimard, unmanned, his illusions blown apart, has no choice but to retreat from reality into the “Butterfly” of his imagination, donning Liling’s kimono and Butterfly wig. This mutation, however, produces an unnatural creature, and Gallimard must annihilate it by seppuku. Liling swaggers above Gallimard’s corpse with strength, insouciance, and power, the dominant race and gender, as the play ends.

Bondage

First produced: 1992 (first published, 1996)

Type of work: Play (one-act)

A masked dominatrix portrays various racial stereotypes in a session with a client, concealing her true identity until the play’s conclusion.

David Henry Hwang’s 1992 play Bondage explores human identity but moves away from the playwright’s earlier concerns about immigrant cultural integrity and toward questions about the validity of ethnic identities in general. In the play, a solitary actress portrays various races, including Caucasian, Asian, and African American, as does her male partner. Because she wears a mask and is clad head to toe in leather, as is he, skin tone is never an indicator of their ethnic allegiances.

Set in a sadomasochism parlor in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, the play probes the construction of racial stereotypes as Terri, the dominatrix, and Mark, her longtime willing submissive, role-play their way through a series of sexual games that are more philosophic than erotic in nature. Like children, they dress up, but the costumes that they select are racial, a fabrication of a different cloth. In the first sketch, Terri announces herself a blonde and Mark a Chinese man. In the second scenario, Terri is African American and Mark Caucasian. In a third matrix, she declares herself Asian as well as he. Each fantasy fails to materialize because the players interrupt the script with conversational queries of a decidedly ordinary nature, such as when Mark asks “You feeling OK today?”

Each racial shift allows Terri and Mark to expose stereotypes associated with a particular race, revealing to the audience the arbitrary nature of supposedly innate racial traits; blondes as bimbos, Asians as geeks, and African Americans as sexual beasts exist only in the realm of pretend. Throughout the play, the shifting racial identifications have proven a barrier to intimacy between the couple, and it is only when they are willing to strip themselves of their costuming to reveal their true skin that communication is possible. Having cleansed themselves of racial stereotypes through role-playing, Terri and Mark—who, it is revealed, are of different ethnic backgrounds—vow to leave fantasy behind and encounter each other in the real.

Trying to Find Chinatown

First produced: 1996 (first published, 1996)

Type of work: Play (one-act)

The adopted Caucasian son of an Asian American family seeks directions to his ancestral home in Chinatown, New York City.

Two perspectives on modern Chinese American identity clash on a New York City corner when Benjamin, a Caucasian Asian American, and Ronnie, a fully assimilated street musician of Asian ancestry, debate ethnic identity. The charm of this two-person play is that each character is equally likable (and at times equally annoying); their arguments, though oppositional, equally viable; and, in the end, no single viewpoint is privileged. Their debate about how best to represent oneself as an Asian American ends not in a victory but in a draw.

Benjamin Wong is blue eyed and blond haired. His midwestern drawl is the sound of a Kansas childhood, and his ethnic pride rants reflect his liberal education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in Asian American studies. Benjamin’s last name and his ethnic identity are products of his adoption as an infant into an Asian American family. Benjamin’s visit to New York City, his first, is a pilgrimage to pay homage to his recently deceased father. He wants to visit his father’s birth house in Chinatown, but first he needs directions, which he hopes to wrestle from Ronnie, who, Asian in appearance, looks like he might know.

Ronnie is a violinist of credible ability whose range covers classical to jazz, but not the country-western that is music to Benjamin’s ears. When Benjamin mistakenly identifies Ronnie’s instrument as a fiddle, tempers flare. Ronnie’s hurled invective “hick” is misplaced, however, as Benjamin points out, “you can’t judge my race by my genetic heritage alone.” Asian in skin tone and facial features, Ronnie knows little about the history of his culture, and it is a lesson in injustices that his paler counterpart inflicts upon him, brutal incident after brutal incident. If Ronnie is surprised that Benjamin knows so much about Asian American history, then Benjamin is equally shocked that Ronnie knows so little.

Ronnie has embraced a different heritage and in a stirring soliloquy gives an impromptu lesson on the history of American music, his words accompanied by background strings that evoke the very styles he names. He traces his musical roots to the American slave era, acknowledging the fiddle as the instrument of choice for oppressed slaves who would develop the blues out of their sufferings. Ronnie praises rockabilly and jazz, both traditional American musical genres, before imaginatively crossing the Atlantic to Europe, musical motherland to many Americans, including, ironically, Benjamin. Here Ronnie lauds the classical and folk traditions of those countries whose citizens immigrated to the United States and influenced generations of new musicians. In a directional note, the playwright suggests that the music begins to assume a somewhat Asian tone toward the end of Ronnie’s monologue. The violinist offers a musical pastiche that suggests a new metaphor for American culture, a cacophony of harmonious sounds, and a reminder as well of diverse contributions to an American identity. Ronnie suggests that to be American is to be all ethnicities at once.

Had Hwang ended his play at this point, the victor would be Ronnie, but one more monologue follows—Benjamin’s. His pulpit is the stoop outside his father’s birthplace, 13 Doyers Street. Overwhelmed with emotion, Benjamin revels in the various dialects that he hears spoken on the street (Cantonese, Sze-Yup, and Hokkien), which mimic in language the multiple musical sounds praised and played by Ronnie. The diverse human voices allow him to imagine scenes and sights and scents from his father’s childhood. Along with positive images of culinary delights, Benjamin recounts the struggles of his grandfather to provide a better life for his son in America and his father’s vow never to return to this ghetto. He did not, but his adopted Caucasian Asian American son does. Benjamin’s final statement is one of sympathy for people (such as Ronnie, it is implied) who do not “know who they truly are.”

Hwang intimates that neither Benjamin nor Ronnie’s viewpoint on ethnicity is wholly in error or entirely correct, but their coexistence seems important. In Trying to Find Chinatown, self-identity appears less a matter of skin tone than of culture, of language, of family connectedness.

Golden Child

First produced: 1996 (first published, 1998)

Type of work: Play

A Chinese landowner converts to Christianity and consequently must divorce two of his three wives. Dependent upon his choice of a wife is the future of his treasured daughter, Ahn, also known as his golden child.

David Henry Hwang’s grandmother told stories about her life in China to her young grandson, who precociously recorded them in a novel at the age of ten. In 1996, Hwang’s juvenile novel was finally realized as a stage drama in Golden Child, a play narrated by a ten-year-old ghost. Focusing on the chasm between Eastern and Western religious and political practices, the play features Eng Tieng-Bin, a husband torn between his Chinese devotion to his three wives and his desire to embrace American Christianity, which mandates that he divorce two of them.

The curtain rises on a contemporary urban American scene, but soon the audience realizes that events will be anything but typical. A nervous Andrew Kwong, a young Chinese American, contemplates his imminent fatherhood from the backseat of a taxicab, when the ghost of his grandmother, Eng Ahn, materializes. As he envisions the next generation, as represented by his much anticipated child, she asks him to contemplate those generations of the past to which he is linked by blood. Ahn admonishes her amazed grandson to honor his ancestors and to revere his heritage. Quickly, time reverses itself and place shifts, taking the audience back to 1918 China. Andrew Kwong reappears as his grandfather, Eng Tieng Bin, and the ghost of Eng Ahn transforms into his living daughter, the golden child. The setting for the action of the play is now a humble Chinese village.

Eng Tieng Bin returns from a trip abroad, bringing to the isolated village new ideas about religion, education, and government. His chosen rebirth through baptism in the Christian faith is not mere spiritual transformation but an embrace of the modern. He believes Christianity to be a more enlightened faith than Confucianism, one that will allow the Chinese a foothold in the rapidly changing world of the twentieth century. As his wives struggle to understand their transformed husband and their altered situation—two of them must go—he must decide what to do with his favorite daughter, Eng Ahn. Will her tightly swaddled feet be unbound, or will she remain bound in the traditions of the past?

Golden Child brings closure to Hwang’s trilogy of domestic dramas, which include Family Devotions and Rich Relations, by placing his characters back in China to revisit events that transpired prior to the family’s immigration. The complex questions of which traditions to honor, which to revise, and which to abandon are never fully answered in Golden Child; they remain fertile ground for future explorations.

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