David Henry Hwang Henry Hwang, David - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

FOB 1978

The Dance and the Railroad 1981

Family Devotions 1981

*The House of Sleeping Beauties [adaptor; from Yasunari Kawabata's novella] 1983

*The Sound of a Voice 1983

As the Crow Flies 1986

Rich Relations 1986

M. Butterfly 1988

1000 Airplanes on the Roof [with Philip Glass and Jerome Sirlin] 1988

Bondage 1992

The Voyage [librettist; with Philip Glass] 1992

Face Value 1993

Golden Child 1996

The Silver River [librettist; with Bright Sheng] 1997

Peer Gynt [adaptor; from Henrik Ibsen's play] 1998

Aïda [adaptor, from Giuseppe Verdi's opera; with Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, Elton John, and Tim Rice] 1999

Flower Drum Song [adaptor, from Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' musical and C. Y. Lee's novel] 2001

Ainadamar [librettist; with Osvaldo Golijov] 2003

The Sound of a Voice [librettist; with Philip Glass] 2003

Tibet Through the Red Box [adaptor; from Peter Sís' autobiographical children's book] 2004

M. Butterfly (screenplay) 1993

Golden Gate (screenplay) 1994

Possession [adaptor, with Neil LaBute, from A. S. Byatt's novel] (screenplay) 2002

*These works were performed together as Sound and Beauty in 1983.

Maxine Hong Kingston (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kingston, Maxine Hong. “Foreword.” In Broken Promises: Four Plays, by David Henry Hwang, pp. vii-ix. New York: Avon Books, 1983.

[In the following essay, Kingston applauds Hwang's ability to capture Asian-American language and memories in his plays and finds that his works give Asian Americans a sense of nostalgia and a feeling of belonging.]

“Look here,” says a long-lost relative in David Henry Hwang's latest play. “At your face. Study your face and you will see—the shape of your face is the shape of faces back many generations. …” Not only I but many other Chinese Americans could not hold back tears. There—on the stage, in public—were our...

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Jerry R. Dickey (essay date 1993)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Dickey, Jerry R. “‘Myths of the East, Myths of the West’: Shattering Racial and Gender Stereotypes in the Plays of David Henry Hwang.” In Old West-New West: Centennial Essays, edited by Barbara Howard Meldrum, pp. 272-80. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Dickey explores the role of Asian men in The Dance and the Railroad and examines Asian female roles and the stereotype of Oriental submissiveness in M. Butterfly.]

“I write about Asian-Americans to claim our legitimate, but often neglected, place in the American experience.”1 These are the words of David Henry Hwang, a second-generation...

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James S. Moy (essay date 1993)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Moy, James S. “Flawed Self-Representations: Authenticating Chinese American Marginality.” In Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America, pp. 115-29. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Moy examines the playwrights' intent to denounce common Asian stereotypes in Hwang's M. Butterfly and FOB and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die. Moy contends that by targeting Anglo-American audiences, the plays simply reinforce these fallacies and at times create new stereotypes that further marginalize Asian Americans from mainstream culture.]

One thinks one is tracing the outline of the...

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Robert Cooperman (essay date 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Cooperman, Robert. “New Theatrical Statements: Asian-Western Mergers in the Early Plays of David Henry Hwang.” In Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, pp. 201-13. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Cooperman asserts that, while M. Butterfly highlights the disparities in East-West cultures, his earlier plays—FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, The House of Sleeping Beauties, and The Sound of a Voice—are culturally balanced and optimistic of East-West blending. Hwang not only merges cultures in the storylines in these early works, Cooperman argues, but also...

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Vera Jiji (essay date 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Jiji, Vera. “The Plays of David Hwang: The Gaze of the Medusa.” In Staging the Rage: The Web of Misogyny in Modern Drama, edited by Katherine H. Burkman and Judith Roof, pp. 218-29. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Jiji studies the depiction of sexual roles, misogyny, and the interplay of dominance and submission in many relationships presented in Hwang's plays. Jiji argues that although Hwang attempts to reverse power roles, he still occasionally perpetuates gender myths.]

I worry when I think about the coming millennium. Because it feels like all labels have to be rewritten, all...

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David Henry Hwang (essay date 1989)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hwang, David Henry. “Afterword.” In M. Butterfly, pp. 94-100. New York: Plume, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hwang discusses the inspiration for M. Butterfly, explains the process the play underwent in production, and expresses his hope that people will look beyond stereotypes to uncover truths about one another.]

It all started in May of 1986, over casual dinner conversation. A friend asked, had I heard about the French diplomat who'd fallen in love with a Chinese actress, who subsequently turned out to be not only a spy, but a man? I later found a two-paragraph story in The New York Times. The diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, attempting to...

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David Henry Hwang and Bonnie Lyons (interview date 7 September 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hwang, David Henry, and Bonnie Lyons. “‘Making His Muscles Work for Himself’: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” Literary Review 42, no. 2 (winter 1999): 230-44.

[In the following interview, which took place on September 7, 1996, Hwang muses on his early rise to fame, details the elements of playwriting that he focuses on, provides his view on Asian Americans in the arts, and discusses how he has matured personally and artistically since the beginning of his career.]

Raised in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb by a first generation, Chinese American fundamentalist Christian family, David Henry Hwang wrote and directed his first play, F.O.B. (slang...

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David Henry Hwang (essay date 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hwang, David Henry. “Bringing Up ‘Child.’” In Golden Child, pp. v-ix. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1998.

[In the following essay, Hwang describes the impetus behind Golden Child and traces the revisions that have been made to this play since its inception.]

Each play defines its own journey toward completion. Some emerge relatively complete, needing only a few nips and tucks before going out to face the world. Some are problem children who, despite all efforts, never seem to find themselves. The Broadway opening of my most recent show, Golden Child, represents the culmination of an unusual voyage, one which began germinating...

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Robert L. King (review date spring 1989)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Robert L. “Recent Drama.” Massachusetts Review 30, no. 1 (spring 1989): 132-6.

[In the following excerpt, King applauds the Broadway staging of M. Butterfly and deems Hwang's playwriting intelligent and reflective.]

David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly is deliberately seductive in its rhetorical strategies; striking theatrical techniques and a sensational plot gimmick lead audiences on until they are as likely to question their preconceptions about sexual, racial and cultural superiority as they can be in a theater. The precipitating incident, straight out of the newspapers, gave Hwang bait for the literal-minded; as epigraph to the text, a...

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Janet V. Haedicke (essay date fall 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Haedicke, Janet V. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly: The Eye on the Wing.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 7, no. 2 (fall 1992): 27-44.

[In the following essay, Haedicke claims that M. Butterfly has changed many of her feminist ideas and opened her eyes to subjugation in roles that are not necessarily male/female, yet still carry the taint of oppressor/oppressed.]

Safely ensconced in a feminist identity, like a dog-tag of otherness on the battlelines of sexual difference, I attended in 1988 the New York production of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. Expecting an indictment of male exploitation, I anticipated pleasure in...

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Angela Pao (essay date 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Pao, Angela. “The Critic and the Butterfly: Sociocultural Contexts and the Reception of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Amerasia Journal 18, no. 3 (1992): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Pao evaluates the positive and negative criticism Hwang's M. Butterfly has received. Pao contends that many of the negative reviews came from critics who were not receptive to the artistic endeavor or were unable to comprehend the meaning and the concepts of the play. Pao faults the reviews and not Hwang for this incomprehension.]

Since the Broadway première of M. Butterfly in March 1988, there has been considerable debate over the representations...

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Kathryn Remen (essay date fall 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Remen, Kathryn. “The Theatre of Punishment: David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 391-400.

[In the following essay, Remen uses Michel Foucault's theories of prisons and punishment to explore key themes of power and consequences in M. Butterfly.]

It's an enchanted space I occupy.1

Mainstream American drama generally allows its audiences to slip into a passive role. With the exception of experimental theaters, such as the Living Theater, that rely directly on audience involvement and participation, dramatic...

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David L. Eng (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Eng, David L. “In the Shadows of a Diva: Committing Homosexuality in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Amerasia Journal 20, no. 1 (1994): 93-116.

[In the following essay, Eng studies the homosexual relationship between Gallimard and Song in M. Butterfly. Eng equates Gallimard's cell with the metaphorical“closet” and analyzes Gallimard's refusal to “come out of the closet” and his subsequent denial and suppression of his homosexuality.]

The limits of my cell are as such: four-and-a-half meters by five. There's one window against the far wall; a door, very strong, to protect me from autograph hounds. I'm responsible...

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Melanie C. Hawthorne (essay date winter 1997)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Hawthorne, Melanie C. “‘Du Du That Voodoo’1: M. Vénus and M. Butterfly.L'Esprit Createur 37, no. 4 (winter 1997): 58-66.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne uncovers the layers of sexual ambiguity and imperialist manifestations in Hwang's M. Butterfly and draws correlations between the play and the novel Monsieur Venus. by Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery Vallette).]

Lately, I have found myself referring to Rachilde's 1884 novel Monsieur Vénus as “M. Venus” in both writing and speech. In writing, of course, the abbreviation “M.” is the accepted French abbreviation for “Monsieur,” so in a way this...

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Andrew Shin (essay date spring 2002)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Shin, Andrew. “Projected Bodies in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Golden Gate.MELUS 27, no. 1 (spring 2002): 177-197.

[In the following excerpt, Shin argues that in M. Butterfly Hwang explores the restrictive nature of heterosexuality in both white and Asian cultures.]

It has been barely thirty years since the inception of ethnic studies programs at San Francisco State University in 1968 and Berkeley in 1969, yet movements that seek to dismantle the liberationist energies of the 1960s—whether in the form of reinstating traditional curricula or reversing civil rights policies—are well underway. In California, the passage of...

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Criticism: Face Value (1993)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Sun, William H. and Faye C. Fei. “Masks of Faces Re-Visited: A Study of Four Theatrical Works Concerning Cultural Identity.” Drama Review 38, no. 4 (winter 1994): 120-32.

[In the following excerpt, Sun and Fei provide a mixed assessment of Face Value. Although they appreciate the ideology behind the painted faces of the cross-cast actors, they find that Hwang seems torn between a rigid classification of race and raceless humanity, making the play harder to understand and interpret.]

“Masks or Faces” is a phrase William Archer used to title his 1888 book on the psychology of the actor. His Ibsenian argument, that emotion and passion genuinely...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Chang, Hsiao-hung. “Cultural/Sexual/Theatrical Ambivalence in M. Butterfly.Tamking Review 23, nos. 1-4 (autumn 1992-summer 1993): 735-55.

Addresses the definition and vacillation of gender roles with regard to imperialism, dominance, and cultural differences in M. Butterfly.

Deeney, John J. “Of Monkeys and Butterflies: Transformation in M. H. Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and D. H. Hwang's M. Butterfly.MELUS 18, no. 4 (winter 1993): 21-39.

Examines the dramatic changes the characters undergo in Kingston's novel Tripmaster Monkey and Hwang's play M. Butterfly,...

(The entire section is 716 words.)