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.
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.
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...
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