David Henry Hwang Drama Analysis
Images of Asians and Asian Americans in modern culture have been relatively rare and often stereotypical; few have been created by Asian Americans themselves. On-screen stereotypes ranged from Charlie Chan (performed by a white actor), an image of wise but humble, ultimately “knowing” inscrutability, to the cook Hop Sing on the television series Bonanza (1959-1973). Contact between Eastern and Western cultures had been depicted in such works as David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (pr. 1900, pb. 1935, the basis for Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same name), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The King and I (pr. 1951) and Flower Drum Song (pr. 1958), John Patrick’s The Teahouse of the August Moon (pr. 1953, pb. 1954), and Paul Osborn’s The World of Suzie Wong (pr. 1958, based on the novel by Richard Mason). Whatever their merits, however, none of these plays offered a genuinely Asian perspective on the events portrayed. By the early 1970’s, literature by and about Asian Americans began to emerge; a decade later, its first critically acclaimed and commercially successful playwright was David Henry Hwang. From his earliest plays about the Chinese American experience to his Broadway hit M. Butterfly and the subsequent rewriting of Flower Drum Song, he has progressively explored issues of ethnic cultural identity, gender roles, the East/West relationship, and the effects of imperialism—and has done so with deftly constructed plots, a number of which incorporate elements of Chinese opera.
In his introduction to F.O.B. and Other Plays, Hwang identified three phases “in attempting to define [his] place in America,” and his early plays correspond to these. The first is an “assimilationist” phase, in which one tries to “out-white the whites” in order to fit in with the majority culture. Dale, the central character of his first play, F.O.B., is a second-generation American of Chinese descent who dresses like a “preppy” and particularly disdains Chinese immigrants who are “Fresh Off the Boat,” abbreviated “F.O.B.” One such, named Steve, is the target of his scorn throughout the play, in part because he reminds Dale of his ancestry, the nonwhite, non-American past that he prefers to ignore, discard, or deny. Steve’s cousin Grace, a first-generation Chinese American, functions as an intermediary between the two men, with insight into the plight of both the newly arrived and the all-too-assimilated “A.B.C.’s,” meaning “American-Born Chinese.” Steve announces himself as the great god Gwan Gung, the Chinese folk hero, the “god of warriors, writers, and prostitutes.” Grace tells him that in the United States, Gwan Gung is dead; nevertheless, her contact with Steve reawakens her own fantasy, Fu Ma Lan, a great woman warrior. Dale repudiates both myths, having struggled for so long to overcome his Chinese-ness, but Steve’s presence forces him to reexamine his values. Following Dale’s attempts to humiliate the immigrant, Steve becomes in monologue the embodiment of “ChinaMan,” the immigrant Everyman who helped build the American West, particularly its railroads. Such cultural kinship finally binds Steve and Grace, who transmutes him from dead god to living warrior. Dale is left behind at the end of the play, uncomprehending, unrepentant, and alone.
The Dance and the Railroad
Gwan Gung also figures significantly in The Dance and the Railroad, Hwang’s second play, a product of his “isolationist-nationalist” phase, in which he wrote primarily for other Asian Americans, having rejected “the assimilationist model” as “dangerous and self-defeating.” Set in 1867, The Dance and the Railroad is a two-character, one-act play whose characters, Lone and Ma, are workers building the transcontinental railroad but are currently on a nine-day laborers’ strike. Although conflicts between white management and Chinese labor underlie the action, personal differences between the characters and the traditions of Chinese opera and culture become increasingly prominent. Lone, a refugee from the Chinese opera, isolates himself from the other workers, practicing his art in solitude on the mountainside, above the strike and commercial toil. Ma, a gullible F.O.B. laborer who believes in the promises of the Gold Mountain in America, ascends in search of Lone, discovers his austere artistic training regimen, and yearns to learn opera to “become” Gwan Gung in the new land. To learn the discipline that artistry requires, Ma maintains the “locust” position all night, a metaphor for immigrant experience. Finally worthy to study Gwan Gung, Ma rejects doing so and returns to the work below when the strike ends. The play’s later scenes are performed in the style of Chinese opera. The actor playing Lone—his namesake, John Lone—had trained with the Peking Opera for eight years; he also directed the play, choreographed it, and provided its music.
Hwang’s third play, Family Devotions, is a nine-character farce set in contemporary California. The action centers on three generations of a thoroughly “assimilated” Chinese American family satirically based on Hwang’s own; they are visited by their “second brother” Di-gou, a doctor and former violinist who has lived for thirty years under the Communist Chinese regime. His sisters, ardent fundamentalist Christians, are shocked to find out that he is an atheist and that he rejects the legend of See-Goh-Poh, a Christian “Woman Warrior” who allegedly saved his soul at age eight. He, in turn, is baffled by the family’s crass materialism and conspicuous consumption and has come to ask his sisters to renounce their faith and return home with him. The first act ends with one of them, Ama, delivering a fiery testimonial from a rolling, neon-lit pulpit as the “Hallelujah Chorus” blares away. In the second act, the sisters and their daughters tie Di-gou to a table, assailing him with the word of God and See-Goh-Poh. He breaks his bonds in a holy fit of possession, speaks in tongues, and exposes See-Goh-Poh as a fraud whose crusade was a ruse to conceal an unwanted pregnancy. As the grotesque exorcism proceeds, the sisters die in their chairs as Di-gou continues...
(The entire section is 2606 words.)