David Henry Hwang Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2606

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...

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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.

Family Devotions

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 his vehement speech. Di-gou and the young child of the family depart, leaving the house a spiritual wreck, torn between the Chinese past and the California present, between myth and reality. The play shows the influence of American playwright Sam Shepard, to whom it is dedicated, but many of its thematic preoccupations—assimilation versus origins, lost ethnic awareness, a core conflict of incompatible values—are recognizably Hwang’s own.

The House of Sleeping Beauties

In the third phase of his writing, Hwang sought to move beyond his personal experience. The House of Sleeping Beauties is an adaptation of a novella Nemureru bijo (1960-1961 serial, 1961 book; The House of the Sleeping Beauties, in The House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, 1969) by Yasunari Kawabata, who is himself one of the play’s two characters. The play is set in a brothel where elderly men learn to accept their mortality by sleeping beside comatose, nude, drugged young virgins. In Hwang’s version, Kawabata comes there to research a book but becomes spiritually (platonically) involved with Michiko, the elderly proprietress. The play ends with his suicide by self-poisoning, and he is rocked to his final eternal sleep in her lap.

The Sound of a Voice

The companion piece of The House of Sleeping Beauties is The Sound of a Voice, a fable of a samurai warrior who goes into a forest to kill a bewitching female hermit but instead falls in love with her. The role of the witch was originally written for an onnagata, a male actor specializing in women’s parts in Japanese Kabuki theater, but in the initial production it was played by a woman, Natsuko Ohama.

Rich Relations

Rich Relations, produced in 1986, was Hwang’s first play with all Caucasian characters and his first critical and commercial failure. Like Family Devotions, it lampooned evangelical Christianity, deathbed resurrections, and crass materialism within a suburban Los Angeles family, but it offered little that was new in technique or ideas.

M. Butterfly

M. Butterfly, two years later, was a commercial and critical triumph on Broadway. The play is based on an article that appeared in The New York Times about the conviction for espionage of a French diplomat, who aided the Communist Chinese government by turning over embassy documents to his mistress of twenty years, a Chinese opera singer whom he had mistakenly believed to be an extremely modest woman. Hwang, however, sought no additional details from the actual case so as to avoid writing a docudrama; he was struck by the story as an inversion of the plot of the play and opera Madame Butterfly, in which a Japanese woman falls in love with a Caucasian man, is spurned, and commits suicide. In Hwang’s play, the diplomat, René Gallimard, is the counterpart of Puccini’s Westerner, Pinkerton, as he falls in love with opera singer Song Liling, unaware that she is the Chinese counterpart of an onnagata and an agent of the Communist government. The role of Song Liling is played by a man (B. D. Wong in the original production), though this fact is not revealed to the theater audience until the beginning of the third act when, in a moment of startling theatricality, Song Liling removes her makeup and changes clothes onstage, dispelling the illusion for the audience before disclosing her true gender and identity to Gallimard in a nude scene near the end of the play.

In many ways, M. Butterfly continues the thematic preoccupations that became apparent in Hwang’s earlier plays: the use of Chinese opera from The Dance and the Railroad, the role for an onnagata and the unorthodox sexuality of The Sound of a Voice, and the clash of Asian and Western values that recurred in all of his earlier plays. Incorporating both Puccini’s music and Chinese opera, M. Butterfly also explores issues of gender and racial stereotyping, of dominance and submission (political as well as sexual), and of the morality of the Western presence in Asia. Furthermore, the play audaciously questions the nature of love and illusion, undermining any certainty about the ultimate knowability of another person or, indeed, of the world itself. While that theme is not new in twentieth century literature—having been particularly prominent in Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier (1915), for example, seldom, if ever, has it been presented with such dramatic effectiveness and theatrical flair.

M. Butterfly also marks a considerable advance in Hwang’s dramatic technique over the earlier plays, which were chronologically presented on realistic sets. The play begins with a retrospective monologue by Gallimard in his prison cell; many flashbacks to European and Asian locales are introduced throughout twenty-seven brief scenes in three acts. The stylized set, designed by Eiko Ishioka, is dominated by a gently sloping, curved ramp, enabling a flexible use of the stage space. The original title, Monsieur Butterfly, was shortened to M. Butterfly (at Hwang’s wife’s suggestion) to seem more mysterious and ambiguous.

Following the phenomenal success of M. Butterfly, Hwang worried that whatever he did next would be considered a disappointment; accordingly, following a collaboration with the composer Philip Glass on a work titled One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof, he worked primarily on film scripts, including a screen adaptation of M. Butterfly. In 1992, his one-act play titled Bondage opened in Louisville, Kentucky. Bondage, like The House of Sleeping Beauties, is set in an exotic brothel: one that caters to sadomasochists, where a dominating female is paid to humiliate a male clientele. The play begins with Terri, the female dominatrix, in a session with Mark; both are covered from head to toe in black leather so that their faces as well as their ethnic identities are concealed from the audience. The play consists of a fantasy game in which their races continually change, further exploring themes of gender, racial, and political stereotyping, as well as intricate power relationships.

Trends and Themes in the 1990’s

In the plays and screenplays that Hwang has written after Bondage, two major trends have become increasingly apparent. The first is his ongoing interest in the history of Chinese American experience in the twentieth century; he has consistently articulated this little-known aspect of American history, as in the award-winning Golden Child, set in 1918, and in the critically assailed film Golden Gate, which was set during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. In each of these works, questions of allegiance are paramount: The desire to preserve centuries-old cultural traditions and family values proves difficult to reconcile with a desire to become assimilated into American culture. Yet, as Golden Gate demonstrates in particular, the extent of one’s “American-ness” or “Other-ness” remains dangerously in question, difficult if not impossible to prove to the satisfaction of those in authority. Like V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Buchi Emecheta, among others, Hwang explores the nature of “hybridity,” a crosscultural experience that has drawn increasing attention in postmodern and postcolonial literature.

The second major trend in Hwang’s later plays is his boldly transformative use of earlier works, particularly (but not exclusively) Western operas. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Verdi’s Aida both exemplify what the critic Edward Said has termed “Orientalism,” the tendency of European (or American) writers and composers to “invent” an “Orient” that is defined by the “other-ness” of its ways, though such presentation may have little or nothing to do with the actualities of life in those non-Western cultures. Hwang’s works are often redactions of these classics, deconstructing some of the cultural assumptions that prevailed when they were first produced. Because Aida was a collaboration in which Hwang joined two other writers, a composer, and a lyricist, the extent and nature of his specific contributions to the text cannot readily be ascertained.

Flower Drum Song

In his revamping of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, however, both of the trends cited above receive their fullest elaboration since M. Butterfly. The original production, which opened in New York in 1958, was not as successful as South Pacific, Oklahoma!, Carousel, or The Sound of Music, but it ran for over 600 performances and was made into a film in 1961. Based on a novel by Chin Y. Lee (1957), it told the story of a mail-order bride from China, Mei-Li, who arrived in San Francisco to marry nightclub owner Sammy Fong, who was already in love with Linda Low, a stripper in the club. Although many of its cast members were Asian (including Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Miyoshi Umeki as Mei-Li), the role of Sammy Fong was played by a Caucasian actor, Larry Blyden, who was made up to appear Chinese. In Hwang’s revision of the story, the character of Sammy Fong has been eliminated. The setting is now a traditional Chinese theater that has presented Chinese opera, but is being transformed by the owner’s son into a Western-style nightclub, the Club Chop Suey. The father, Master Wang, is rooted in traditional Chinese culture, while his son Ta is attracted to the more modern and Americanized culture that is represented by the nightclub. The characters of Linda Low and Mei-Li have been retained in Hwang’s version, although Mei-Li is now a refugee from Mao’s China. The score, though re-orchestrated, retains most of the songs from the original (except “The Older Generation”) and restores one that was cut from the original production before its Broadway opening (“My Best Love”). One song (“The Next Time It Happens”) from another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Pipe Dream, was also added. The emphasis on the two styles of theater also allows Hwang to develop the theme of performance and theatricality that also characterized M. Butterfly.

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