David Henry Hwang 1957-
American playwright, play adaptor, scriptwriter, and librettist.
The following entry provides recent commentary on Hwang's works. For further information on his life and career, see DC, Vol. 4.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang is an Asian-American dramatist whose work is distinguished by his skillful blending of Eastern and Western subjects and theatrical styles. While he has garnered critical acclaim since the beginning of his career, Hwang is best known for M. Butterfly, a play that borrows from, then repudiates the fawning obedient Asian female stereotype as depicted in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Hwang's plays, which illuminate the difficulties of assimilation and identity among Asian Americans, highlight the power struggle between Western and Eastern cultures, and explore racism, have established him as the most renowned Asian-American dramatist of the twentieth century.
Hwang was born in Los Angeles, California, on August 11, 1957, and raised in the nearby middle-class community of San Gabriel. He has told interviewers that he was not particularly conscious of his ethnicity as a young child, referring to it as a “minor detail” among the formative influences of his youth. But when he was ten, his maternal grandmother, who lived in the Philippines, was ailing and he asked permission to stay with her and learn about his heritage. When he returned home at the end of the summer, he wrote down this family information and distributed the short book among his relations. As a student at Stanford University in the mid-1970s, Hwang's ethnic consciousness was heightened through encounters with various student organizations and exposure to the works of Asian-American authors. While at Stanford, he developed an interest in writing plays and attended a playwright's workshop conducted by Sam Shepard in Claremont, California. One of his first efforts at the workshop, FOB, was enthusiastically received, and Hwang submitted it to the National Playwright's Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. In 1979, shortly before graduating, Hwang received notice that his play had been chosen for presentation at the conference. While the staging was being developed, noted theatrical producer Joseph Papp read FOB and was favorably impressed: he brought the play to New York's off-Broadway circuit the following year and offered to produce any subsequent plays that Hwang might write. FOB won an Obie Award for best off-Broadway production of 1981, and his 1988 play, M. Butterfly was awarded a Tony Award for best play.
FOB probes the ethnic identity of Chinese Americans, exploring the conflict between assimilation and the preservation of traditional culture. It depicts the interaction between Dale and Grace, two Chinese American students in Los Angeles, and Steve, a newly arrived Chinese immigrant who is derisively regarded as FOB—“fresh off the boat.” Steve is shunned by Dale, who distances himself from his Chinese roots and is embarrassed by Steve's lack of familiarity with American culture; Grace acts as an intermediary between the two. Hwang further explores Asian Americans' search for identity in The Dance and the Railroad (1981). Set in the early nineteenth century, it tells the story of two young Chinese immigrants who come to America and work on the transcontinental railroad. Family Devotions (1981) is a more autobiographical play and chronicles the difficulties faced by an Asian-American family caught between their American home and their Chinese culture. In M. Butterfly Hwang continues to examine the relationship between Eastern and Western cultures. The story centers on Gallimard, a French diplomat who falls in love with Beijing opera singer Song Liling. The two carry on an affair for several years before Gallimard learns that his lover is not only male but also a spy who is passing state secrets to the Chinese government. This seemingly unlikely scenario is based on actual events that culminated in an espionage trial in Paris in 1986. Hwang saw a connection between news accounts of the trial and Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, which depicts a passive young Chinese woman who kills herself when she realizes that she has been abandoned by her English lover. In Hwang's view, Puccini's opera reflects the Western world's stereotypical perception of the Orient as a submissive culture—a stereotype which blinds the West from an accurate view of the East. According to Hwang, the same cultural misconception contributed to the French diplomat's self-deception by providing him with an idealized image of a submissive Chinese woman that he found preferable to reality. In a reflection of his versatility and willingness to overstep traditional boundaries, Hwang collaborated with composer Philip Glass and scene designer Jerome Sirlin on 1000 Airplanes on the Roof in 1988. This science-fiction play, concerning a character who may have been kidnaped by visiting aliens, is a multimedia project in which Hwang's text serves as a narrative framework for Glass's music and Sirlin's set and projection images. In Face Value (1993) Hwang further experiments with perceptions of race. In the play, white actors paint their faces yellow or black to play Asian characters and the Asian actors wear white face-paint. This blatant color coding is intended to change the audience's perception of color signifiers and to recognize the superficiality of these colors. Coming full circle, in 1996 Hwang produced Golden Child, a play largely based on the stories he learned from his grandmother and wrote about when he was ten years old. The work concerns Andrew Kwong, a young Chinese American about to become a father, who receives a visit from the ghost of his grandmother, Eng Ahn. She urges him to honor his ancestors and his origins, and in a theatrical sleight-of-hand, Kwong transforms into his grandfather, Eng Tieng-Bin, as Eng Ahn simultaneously becomes the child she once was. Most of the play takes place in a small Chinese village at the turn of the twentieth century. Within this milieu Hwang explores the disruption of feudal traditions as Tieng-Bin returns from abroad to his three wives with new ideas about marriage, education, and religion. In another break from traditional theater, in 1999 Hwang wrote the book for the Disney-produced rock musical Aïda, in collaboration with Robert Falls and Linda Woolverton. With new music by Elton John and Tim Rice, the play received several Tony Awards, including original musical score and actress in a musical. In 2001 Hwang updated the 1958 Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers musical Flower Drum Song, reworking both the Hammerstein and Joseph Fields text and the original novel by C. Y. Lee. Hwang's adaptation strengthens the female protagonist, Mei-Li, from a shy, mail-order bride to a feisty young woman fleeing China due to her father's problems with the Maoist regime. Hwang changes the musical's setting to an old-style Chinese opera house in 1960s San Francisco that is run by a man whose son, Ta, transforms it into a Western-style nightclub when no opera is playing. In 2004 Hwang adapted Peter Sís' acclaimed children's work Tibet Through the Red Box, about a young boy whose father is a filmmaker working in Tibet. The father's letters home spark the child's imagination and transport him to a magical world. The vivid theatrical effects include moving projections, spectacular costumes, and authentic Tibetan music.
Although critics have described Hwang as an ethnic playwright, he has objected to that categorization, stating: “Really all American theater is ethnic theater to some degree. … [A] lot of writers derive their authenticity from focusing on a particular group and then drawing the universality from those particular specifics.” FOB borrows a staging tradition from Chinese theater in depicting the subconscious fantasies of its characters, and while not all commentators have agreed that this ambitious blending of Eastern and Western theater was successful, many observers have praised the fusion of theatrical styles. The reception of M. Butterfly has been mixed. Some critics have found that instead of dispelling Asian stereotypes, the play reinforces them and caters to the idea that Asians are more effeminate than whites and prefer to be dominated. On the other hand, many commentators have argued that by turning the tables on her white paramour, Song negates the image of the docile, subordinate Asian. Critics have often disagreed about the homosexual aspects of Song and Gallimard's relationship. A few have contended that Gallimard is a homosexual but is simply in denial about his sexuality, while others have suggested that his complete belief in the “perfect woman” as portrayed by Song clouds his mind to the possibility that Song might be a man. Some essayists have complained that while Hwang raises the larger issues of racism and sexism, he pays insufficient attention to the emotional attachment between Gallimard and Song. Despite such critical reservations, Hwang is generally applauded for bringing attention to Asian-American themes and struggles, and for bringing Asian-American stories more into the mainstream. Most commentators agree that Hwang's plays demonstrate his ability to derive dramas of universal interest from the specific cultural context of China and Chinese America.