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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...

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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

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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)

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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 gestures, our voices, our accents, our own faces. It isn't sad scenes that bring the tears, but a realization of how isolated we've been, and a wonder that our private Chinese lives and secret language can be communally understood. To see even one other person indicate “myself” by pointing to his nose makes me know I am not alone; there are two of us. But to be among an audience at a play—here are many of us. Here is a community. We become proud to the bones.

One of the happiest moments I have ever had at the theater was watching the young men in FOB pour hot sauce on their food and gulp it down in an eating contest. I myself had just written a scene about an eating race. To have a fellow writer who works an ocean and a continent away meet me at an intersection reassures me that there is a place called Chinese America and that I am seeing it with an authentic vision.

In fact, Family Devotions, the most complicated and disturbing of the plays, has a humor that is utterly familiar. Let me savor some of it again by quoting a few lines:

… You remember Twa-Ling? Before we leave China, before Communist come, she say, “I will send you a picture. If Communists are good, I will stand—if bad, I will sit.”
That does not mean anything!
In picture she sent, she was lying down!

Yes, in the picture my grandmother sent, she was lying down! We make up stories about the people far away.

The characters in David Hwang's plays speak idioms and make sounds that go straight to the heart and the guts: “Ai-ya.” “Suffer, good for you.” “Junk stuffs.” That wonderful scene where Popo “translates” Jenny's speech and comes up with all the wrong meanings. And here exactly is our view of the Japanese from World War II movies: “Kill and laugh. Kill and laugh.” “Torture and laugh.” David Hwang has an ear for Chinatown English, the language of childhood and the subconscious, the language of emotion, the language of home.

Telling true stories to one another is very important for those whose histories and literature have been left out of textbooks. Writers will find these plays appealing because their author deals with some troublesome basic questions: How to tell stories and what stories to tell? The Dance and the Railroad and Family Devotions, two plays quite different from each other in their moods and powers, both tell about people who are shut out of mainstream cultures and how they manage to create their own rites. In the former play, the dance turns out to be beautiful, but in the latter, the “devotions” become grotesque and deadly. “You don't remember,” accuses a character in Family Devotions. “Your stories do not remember.”

David Hwang writes stories that do remember. Especially in FOB, he draws from Chinese mythology and asks what good those myths do us in America. The Dance and the Railroad reminds us that when our pioneer ancestors built the railroad through the Sierras, they struck against inhuman “coolie” labor. This play is also about artists who have to support art with hard labor. After work, they practice their art on their own time. Finally, their new art praises the working man.

A good playwright also “remembers” true stories that haven't happened. David Hwang's plays are not just about what is familiar; they take us far imaginatively. In Family Devotions, the humor turns black. These are no family devotions I ever participated in. The two most beguiling characters die suddenly and nightmarishly. Is this a warning? Is this what happens to a family that is warped by isolation? Is it time to stop hanging onto shreds of strange traditions somebody brought from China?

Chinese American actors are given too few dignified parts to play. If no playwrights like David Hwang came along, a generation of actors who speak our accents would be lost. A novelist can only invent an approximate orthography. For voices, the play's the thing. Chinese American theater, which started out with a bang—firecrackers, drums—keeps dying out. David Henry Hwang gives it life once again.

Jerry R. Dickey (essay date 1993)

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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 Chinese-American born and raised in San Gabriel, California. In the relatively short span of the past decade, Hwang has written a dozen plays and has established himself as one of America's finest and most original playwrights. One of his latest works, M. Butterfly, was produced on Broadway in 1988, where it won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play. Some of his other major plays include FOB (an acronym referring to recent Asian immigrants to the United States meaning “fresh-off-the-boat,”) and The Dance and the Railroad, set in the Sierra Nevadas during the Chinese-American labor strike of 1867 over working conditions on the transcontinental railroad. In his works, Hwang is concerned primarily with exploring the unique identity of today's Chinese-American, an identity that rejects the westerner's restrictive racial and gender stereotypes toward Asians. In The Dance and the Railroad and Mr. Butterfly, Hwang examines these stereotypes in an effort to forge a new, more mutually beneficial relationship between East and West.

The son of a Shanghai-born banker and a Chinese pianist who grew up in the Philippines, Hwang was raised in his California home with strong American middle-class values. During his early years, he was relatively unaware of his ethnic background. “I knew I was Chinese,” he has said, “but growing up, it never occurred to me that that had any particular implication or that it should differentiate me in any way. I thought it was a minor detail, like having red hair.”2 By the time he was attending Stanford University in the late 1970s, however, he was well aware of the racial stereotypes that prevailed toward Asian-Americans, and his early plays were often concerned with the denial by Chinese-Americans of their ethnic heritage.

The literary history of Asian-Americans during their 150-plus years in the United States has been slow to achieve national recognition, often obstructed by language barriers, wartime hysteria, reluctant publishers, and the popularization and perpetuation of demeaning Asian stereotypes, such as Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, stereotypes that were frequently the creations of non-Asian writers. With the advent of the civil rights movement in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, and with the removal in 1966 of the last of legislative restrictions involving racial immigration, Asian-American writing took on a new theme: the urgent need to define a new cultural identity that reconciled the disparate traditions of the Eastern and Western experience. Writers such as John Okada, Richard Kim, Louis Chu, and Maxine Hong Kingston produced novels that sensitively explored their ethnic heritage and cultural environment. In the theater, the dynamic and somewhat angry plays of Frank Chin in the early 1970s heralded the emergence of a vital Chinese-American theater, one that dealt with the daily realities of the Chinese-American experience. This new theater bore no resemblance to the numerous productions of Peking or Cantonese operas so prevalent in any one of America's Chinatowns, works that hitherto served as the most visible form of Chinese-American theater. When the characters in Frank Chin's plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, proclaimed they were not Chinese but rather “ChinaMen,” or Chinese-Americans, they spoke for several generations of Asian-American citizens who were frequently torn between an ancient cultural heritage from a land they did not know or had left behind and the lack of total assimilation into the American mainstream.

America, and especially the American West, has always offered the promise of new beginnings, a better life, and the opportunity for quick riches. But the promise of America as a land of perpetual sunshine and endless wealth, a vision the early Chinese immigrants called “Gold Mountain,” was often only an enticement by enterprising white businessmen to lure cheap labor to the United States. The reality of Gold Mountain for Chinese-Americans turned out to be back-breaking work on the railroads or in the mines, geographical confinement in work shanties exotically called “Chinatowns,” persistent attempts at conversion to Christianity, and the constant tease of buying into the American Dream. All of these realities have become recurring themes in the plays of David Henry Hwang, and it is little wonder that he titled the first anthology of his work Broken Promises.

Much of Hwang's writing is concerned with deflating the Western stereotypes of the roles of the Asian male and female. In The Dance and the Railroad, Hwang chose a historical incident, the Chinese-American labor strike of 1867, to dispel the notion that the Chinese railroad workers were what Hwang derisively refers to as “little coolies who were always being knocked down by big white men on horses.”3 This belief is symptomatic of one of two long-standing stereotypes of the Asian male: he is either the “good” Asian, a helpless, asexual, broken-English, loyal but docile servant to the white man (such as Charlie Chan or any one of a host of characters from American melodrama and television); or, he is the “bad” Asian, a brilliant but morally bankrupt conniver who threatens to overrun the Western world (such as Fu Manchu or the notion of the “yellow peril”). Frank Chin and the other authors of the preface to the popular and widely influential anthology of Asian-American writing, Aiiieeeee!, wrote: “Good or bad, the stereotypical Asian is nothing as a man. At worst, the Asian-American is contemptible because he is womanly, effeminate, devoid of all the traditionally masculine qualities of originality, daring, physical courage and creativity.”4 In The Dance and the Railroad, Hwang attempted to show that the early Chinese railroad laborers (perhaps as many as 8,000-10,000 in 1867)5 were what he termed “strong and hardy and rebellious men who considered themselves warriors, adventurers or soldiers.”6

In this play Hwang attacks head-on the demeaning stereotypes of Asian males by the West, but does so in a manner that never degenerates into hostile polemics. The Dance and the Railroad is set on a mountaintop near the transcontinental railroad camp and depicts only two characters: Lone, a twenty-year-old worker who was forced by his Chinese family to abandon studies at opera school to go to America to earn money; and Ma, a naive eighteen-year-old worker who arrived in Gold Mountain four weeks previously with dreams of wealth. Lone escapes to the mountaintop each day to practice arduous dance steps he learned in opera school. For Lone, the daily practice is the only remaining proof of his individuality and his distinction from the other workers on the railroad. “They are dead,” Lone says. “Their muscles work only because the white man forces them. I live because I can still force my muscles to work for me.”7

One day, Ma follows Lone to the mountaintop where he pleads to be taught some of the movements associated with the depictions of Gwan Gung, the god of fighters and writers and adopted god of Chinese-America. “I spend a lot of time watching the opera when it comes around,” Ma says. “Every time I see Gwan Gung, I say, ‘Yeah. That's me. … We have the same kind of spirit’” (77). Ma refuses to be discouraged by Lone's pessimistic refusals and, inspired by the striking Chinese workers in the valley camp below, Ma accepts Lone's challenge to adopt and hold a dancer's strenuous physical stance throughout the night.

Lone returns excitedly the next day to the mountaintop with the news that the ChinaMen have won the strike and, further buoyed by Ma's tenacious spirit in holding the dancer's position, agrees to teach him the steps of Gwan Gung. Surprisingly, Ma is no longer interested in the heroic god. He tells Lone: “I don't wanna play Gwan Gung. … Gwan Gung stayed up all night once to prove his loyalty. Well, now I have too. … So let's do an opera about me. … I deserve an opera in my honor” (88-89). Ma recognizes the heroic qualities within himself and within each of the striking workers. Together with Lone, Ma invents and performs his own opera, no longer the glorification of the ancient god Gwan Gung, but the celebration of Ma, the Everyman. The railroad workers in Hwang's play do not submit to the white man like abject coolies but, rather, are depicted as men who “laid tracks like soldiers … hung from cliffs in baskets [while] the winds blew [them] like birds,” and survived winter snows by living “underground like moles for days at a time” (68). As he did in FOB, Hwang suggests that ancient myths alone do not have meaning for the Chinese in America, but rather the spirit of these myths must be embraced and adapted to the spirit of the modern American warriors.

If The Dance and the Railroad attempts to correct stereotypical attitudes toward the Asian male, Hwang's finest play, M. Butterfly, tackles the stereotype of the Asian female. Typically, the Asian woman is viewed by the Western male as exotically sensual, possessing some inherited or innate knowledge about sexual performance and domestic servitude.8 If the Asian male is viewed as asexual, the Asian female is seen as all sexual, a perfect companion for the Western male who, perhaps subconsciously at least, desires a prefeminist ideal of womanhood, someone less independent and less assertive.

According to Hwang, “Asians have long been aware of ‘Yellow Fever’—Caucasian men with a fetish for exotic Oriental women. I have often heard it said that ‘Oriental women make the best wives.’ (Rarely is this heard from the mouths of Asian men, incidentally.)”9

Hwang was immediately intrigued when he first read a brief news article describing the improbable twenty-year romance in China between a French diplomat named Bernard Bouriscot and a male, Chinese spy, whom Bouriscot believed to be a female actress. “What did [the diplomat] think he was getting in this Chinese actress?” Hwang asked himself. “The answer came to me clearly: ‘He probably thought he had found Madame Butterfly’ … [he] must have fallen in love, not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype” (93-94). At this time, Hwang was unfamiliar even with the plot of Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly. Hwang wrote:

… speaking of an Asian woman, we would sometimes say, “She's pulling a Butterfly,” which meant playing the submissive Oriental number. Yet, I felt convinced that [Puccini's] libretto would include yet another lotus blossom pining away for a cruel Caucasian man, and dying for [his] love. … Sure enough, when I purchased the record, I discovered it contained a wealth of sexist and racist clichés, reaffirming my faith in Western culture.


In the hands of another writer, a story with such mistaken sexual identities could easily have become lurid or farcical. Hwang, however, ingenuously used the brief historical event as a springboard to create a highly original commentary on gender relationships and the clash of Eastern and Western cultures.

Early in M. Butterfly, the French diplomat (here renamed Gallimard) witnesses a performance of the “Love Duet” from Madame Butterfly at a social function at the home of an ambassador. Gallimard is immediately “transfixed” (10) by the story and by the presence of the performer, Song Liling, the undercover male spy. Gallimard reveals his secret attraction in an address to the audience:

But as she glides past him, beautiful, laughing softly behind her fan, don't we who are men sigh with hope? We, who are not handsome, nor brave, nor powerful, yet somehow believe, like [Puccini's] Pinkerton, that we deserve a Butterfly. She arrives with all her possessions in the folds of her sleeves, lays them all out, for her man to do with as he pleases. Even her life itself—she bows her head as she whispers that she's not even worth the hundred yen he paid for her. He's already given too much, when we know he's really had to give nothing at all.


Judging by the persistent appeal of Puccini's work for Western operagoers, there is little doubt that Gallimard's speech would strike a sympathetic chord with audiences in the theatre. Hwang, however, wastes little time undercutting the appeal of the Butterfly myth as he attempts a modern deconstruction of the opera. Gallimard quickly seeks out the singer, Song Liling, and confesses his love for what he calls the “beautiful story” of Butterfly. Song responds:

Well, yes, [it's a beautiful story] to a Westerner. … It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man. … Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful!


Despite Song's rebuttal, Gallimard feels he has found and fallen in love with the “Perfect Woman” (77). He quickly adopts the role of Puccini's Pinkerton, alternately loving and abusing his newfound Butterfly. Similarly, Song cleverly plays out the role of the submissive and selflessly obedient lover, all the while gaining secret political information for his rising communist government.

M. Butterfly, however, is much more than an imaginative retelling of a titillating story. It is also a devastating attack on Western attitudes toward the Orient. Late in the play, after the affair has been made public, Song confesses in court how it was so easy for him to manipulate the Western diplomat. He says:

As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East—he's already confused. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. … The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor … but good at art and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique.

… You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.

… When [Gallimard] finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And … I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.


Hwang implies that personal gender stereotypes by Westerners toward Asians ultimately influence the popular culture and media, which in turn influence the attitudes of political leaders. In M. Butterfly, he suggests that the “rape mentality” is one reason the United States had so much difficulty with the Vietnam War. American politicians simply could not comprehend that a small, undeveloped Eastern country could match the “big guns” of the West. As Gallimard states in the play, “Four hundred thousand dollars were being spent for every Viet Cong killed; so General Westmoreland's remark that the Oriental does not value life the way Americans do was oddly accurate” (68).

Hwang's other plays cover a wide range of themes and styles. He has recently completed works with non-Asian subjects, including a domestic play, Rich Relations, and an opera about UFOs, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, the latter cocreated in 1988 with musician Philip Glass and scenographer Jerome Sirlin. Hwang's work, however, is always concerned with characters outside society's mainstream, torn between embracing and denying their past. His work is an honest and heartfelt plea for all people to recognize the destructive nature of prevalent gender and cultural stereotypes. Hwang's Afterword to M. Butterfly states: “For the myths of the East, the myths of the West, the myths of men, and the myths of women—these have so saturated our consciousness that truthful contact between nations and lovers can only be the result of heroic effort” (100). In terms of the continuously changing voice of western American literature, the plays of David Henry Hwang offer a new direction. With Hwang's work, the Asian-American literary concern has moved beyond a regional experience and now attempts to define a national and international consciousness regarding gender and race relations.


  1. Eric Pace, “I Write Plays to Claim a Place for Asian-Americans,” New York Times, July 12, 1981, D4.

  2. Jeremy Gerard, “David Hwang: Riding on the Hyphen,” New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, 88.

  3. Pace, “I Write Plays,” D4.

  4. Frank Chin et al., eds., Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), xxx.

  5. Ping Chiu, Chinese Labor in California (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963), 45-46.

  6. Pace, “I Write Plays,” D4.

  7. David Henry Hwang, The Dance and the Railroad, in Broken Promises: Four Plays by David Henry Hwang (New York: Avon, 1983), 73. Subsequent references to this play are cited parenthetically.

  8. See Elaine Kim, “Asian Americans and American Popular Culture,” in Dictionary of Asian American History, ed. Hyung-Chan Kim (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986), 108.

  9. David Henry Hwang, Afterword to M. Butterfly (New York: New American Library, 1989), 98. Subsequent references to this essay and play are cited parenthetically.


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———. The Chickencoop Chinaman and the Year of the Dragon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

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———. M. Butterfly. New York: New American Library, 1989.

Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

———. “Asian Americans and American Popular Culture.” In Dictionary of Asian American History, edited by Hyung-Chan Kim, 99-114. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986.

Meissenburg, Karin. The Writing on the Wall: Socio-Historical Aspects of Chinese American Literature, 1900-1980. Frankfurt: Verlag fur Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 1986.

Pace, Eric. “I Write Plays to Claim a Place for Asian-Americans.” New York Times, July 12, 1981, D4.

Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang. Western Writer's Series, no. 90. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1989.

Wong, Yen Lu. “Chinese-American Theatre. The Drama Review 20 (June 1976): 13-18.

James S. Moy (essay date 1993)

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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 thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at it. … A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

The extent to which socially conscious drama can emerge from the morass of the bourgeois perception of the world is questionable at best.1 Until recently, popular representations of Asian populations in America have remained at a level perhaps best described as stereotypical. Not until the new cultural awareness of the 1960s did this situation change as Asian American playwrights attempted to dispel stereotypes. As these playwrights emerged, the earlier comic or exotic treatments offered by whites were replaced by self-representations. Rarely popular with dominant-culture audiences, some of these plays did provide incisive examinations of what it is to be Chinese in a familiar yet alien land.

Important among these Asian American attempts to stage self-representations are a pair of works which seek to redefine Chinese American identity by confronting Anglo-American stereotyping of Asianness and the Orient. David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly enjoyed a successful run on Broadway and won the Tony award for best American play of 1988.2 In addition, 1988 saw successful runs of Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with an off-Broadway production in New York during 1989.3 Both plays feature Chinese characters as major figures and have received generally favorable press in America, though the authors of these plays claim to attack the established stereotypical representation of Asianness deployed by the traditional theatre. Accordingly, an awkward tension emerges between the popular acceptance of these works and the claim that the established stereotype is under attack.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, China's Cultural Revolution, and the events of May 1968, M. Butterfly adapts the true-life tale of French diplomat René Bouriscot's twenty-year affair with a Beijing Opera performer, which resulted in the birth of a child and a trial for espionage. Through the character René Gallimard, Hwang reformulates Bouriscot's story. At Gallimard's trial it is revealed that his lover was not only a spy but a man. Accordingly, the audience is left to ponder how a sophisticated Western member of the diplomatic service could fall victim to so amusing a case of gender confusion. In order to set up this question, Hwang uses Puccini's Madama Butterfly as a point of departure for the diplomat's first encounter with his “mistress,” which takes place at a performance of scenes from the Puccini opera in the German ambassador's residence in Beijing. Gallimard compliments the performance: “You were utterly convincing. It's the first time … I've seen the beauty of the story” (4). In response, Song Liling, the soon-to-be lover, assails the silliness of the Western stereotypes:

It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man. … Consider it this way: what would you say if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.


Despite this harangue, Gallimard proceeds to entrap his “butterfly.” We look on as he manipulates the emotions of Song Liling, all the while unaware that he himself has fallen into a trap of his own delusions regarding their relationship: “I stopped going to the opera, I didn't phone or writer her … and, as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt for the first time that rush of power—the absolute power of a man” (7). As Gallimard feels the “power of a man,” Song explains: “All he wants is for her to submit. Once a woman submits, a man is always ready to become ‘generous.’ … Now, if I can just present him with a baby. A Chinese baby with blond hair—he'll be mine for life!” (12). Gallimard's conquest of his butterfly complete, he applies his newfound wisdom to the conduct of international policy: “If the Americans demonstrate the will to win, the Vietnamese will welcome them into a mutually beneficial union. … Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (9-10). This of course was the mistake of the Vietnam war: “And somehow the American war went wrong. … Four hundred thousand dollars were being spent for every Viet Cong killed; so General Westmoreland's remark that the Oriental does not value life the way Americans do was oddly accurate. Why weren't the Vietnamese people giving in? Why were they content to die and die and die again?” (13).

Just as he had miscalculated the Vietnamese will to resist, so Gallimard had fallen hopelessly in love with a Song Liling created within his own imagination. When Song reveals his deception, Gallimard dismisses him: “You, you're as real as hamburger. Now get out! I have a date with my Butterfly.” Gallimard explains that he is “a man who loved a woman created by a man. Everything else—simply falls short. … Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy” (16). Gallimard's fantasy collapses the Orient into one indistinguishable mass, annihilating the differences between Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese. A vision of “slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women. Who take whatever punishment we give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally. It is a vision that has become my life” (16). As Gallimard's unworthy life interpenetrates that of his imaginary lover, he realizes that the only course open to him is the same as that chosen by Puccini's Cho-Cho-San: “Death with honor is better than life … with dishonor.” When the diplomat commits suicide, Song, making explicit an ironic role reversal, declares Gallimard his “butterfly” as the lights fade to black (16).

Although Hwang's conflation of “imperialism, racism, and sexism”4 may not always be clearly articulated in the development of Gallimard's flawed character, the indictment of the West is made explicit through Song's words: “The West has a sort of international rape mentality. … The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique. … Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself” (15).

Resonances of Puccini's Madama Butterfly likewise permeate Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die. While Hwang's M. Butterfly cinematically spans some twenty years, the Gotanda piece examines the first year in the evolving relationship between an aspiring Japanese actor, Bradley Yamashita, and an older, more established “Chinese” actor. Gotanda's piece uses a stereotypical cinematic portrayal of a Japanese soldier to fix the general reception of Asianness in the popular consciousness. The opening scene of Yankee Dawg You Die, which attacks this standard portrayal of the Japanese, sets the tone for the rest of the play. The lead character in this piece, Vincent Chang, is a “Chinese” actor who is later revealed to be Japanese, having changed his name to find work after World War II. Accordingly, in the industry he is a Japanese man who pretended to be a Chinese actor so that he could get work portraying Japanese stereotypes.

If M. Butterfly merely attacks the Anglo-American system of representing Asianness, Yankee Dawg You Die reinforces the attack with a discussion of its impact. Bradley, for example, exposes the effects the cinematic castration of the Asian male has had on his life while accusing Vincent of perpetuating it:

Vincent … All that self hate. … Where does it begin? You and your Charley Chop Suey roles … you think every time you do one of those demeaning roles, the only thing lost is your dignity. … Don't you see that every time you do a portrayal like that millions of people in movie theatres see it. Believe it. Every time you do any old stereotypic role just to pay the bills, you kill the right of some Asian child to be treated as a human being. To walk through the school yard and not be called a “chinaman gook” by some kid who saw the last Rambo film.


Gotanda sensitively measures the depth of the Asian American desire to find role models. Bradley's misplaced identification with Neil Sedaka, a Jewish pop singer with a Japanese-sounding name, causes Yamashita to mistake him for America's first “Japanese American rock 'n roll star” (27). Finally, failing to locate an adequate human model for behavior, Gotanda seems to suggest that many Asian Americans have turned to the Japanese movie-monster Godzilla as a source of cultural pride and perhaps even identification (41-44). Gotanda's piece shifts back and forth between the issue of identifying proper role models on the one hand and the pragmatics of employment in the theatre/film industry on the other. Gotanda's desire to show “real” Asians is always suspended in tension with the Oriental stereotype required in the industry. And the stereotype usually wins out. Vincent's claim to being a “leading man” is repeatedly undercut by vignettes which display the mechanics of his stereotypical portrayals. Early on in the play, Bradley complains that the only roles open to Asians are “waiters, viet cong killers, chimpanzees, drug dealers, hookers, sexless houseboys. … They fucking cut off our balls and made us all houseboys on the evening soaps. ‘Get your very own neutered, oriental houseboy!’” (36). Accordingly, this piece seems more overt than M. Butterfly in its attack on the theatrical institutions which work to subjugate the representations of the Orient.

Vincent makes clear his cognizance of his complicity within this theatrical institution by relating an early episode in the life of Martin Luther King: “They came and took him away. Told him they were going to kill him. He said he never felt more impotent, more like a slave than that night. After that, he realized he had to fight not only the white man on the outside, but the slave inside of him. … It is so easy to slip into the ching-chong chinaman” (60). Central to Yankee Dawg You Die, then, is the issue of how one must deal with this imperative which would seduce Asian Americans into the kind of cultural complicity required to “survive,” to allow one to surrender to the cultural hegemony of Anglo dominance. In response to this issue Gotanda offers the contrast between the older Vincent Chang, who has “sold out” by accepting stereotypical roles, and Bradley Yamashita, the aspiring young actor full of radical rage and demands that Asians be allowed realistic stage presences.

Again, because both plays are clearly popular with Anglo-American audiences, one is inspired to wonder whether the acceptance of these plays signals, finally, an end to the marginalization of Chineseness or Asianness. Unfortunately, even a superficial examination of the social text reveals that this is not the case. A close interrogation of the scripts reveals an interesting system of literary subversions with significant impact for the social.

Both Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die and Hwang's M. Butterfly set out to dispel stereotypical representations of Asianness. While Gotanda makes the aim explicit in his text, Hwang has said that he set out to do a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly.5 Toward this end Hwang employed a strategy described in an interview/essay appropriately entitled “Smashing Stereotypes”: “I am interested in cutting through … all the crap about the way people write about characters from the East. I mean, when these people are written about, it's always in this inscrutable poetic fashion. It's so untrue, and kind of irritating. So my tendency is to go to the other extreme and make it so slangy and contemporary that it is jarring.”6 Hwang's hope, then, is to offer a truer view of Asianness within the space created by the tension between the audience's stereotypical knowledge and his “slangy and jarring” contemporary reality.

Both plays also seem to be scathing indictments of the Western need to demean, stereotype, and psychologically control the Orient and its stage representations. Despite the good intentions, however, these plays are quite traditional in their celebration of theatrical spectacle and tour de force acting. Indeed, their production values are quintessentially of the theatre. Accordingly, traditional or conventional qualities contribute to their broad popularity. As it is clear Asians remain marginalized, one must conclude that either Anglo-American audiences harbor a strong, heretofore-unexploited masochistic tendency or the authors of these pieces have somehow managed to neutralize or deflect their explicit attack on Anglo-American sensibilities. Given the limits of enlightened liberal self-guilt, one must conclude the reasons for the popularity of the plays will be found in the second alternative.

If Hwang sought to locate a new potential vision for Asianness suspended in tension between the stereotypical and his jarringly contemporary reality, then the characters he deploys to do so are of crucial importance. Unfortunately, they often seem to subvert his stated intention. For example, the specifically Asian technical aspects of Hwang's M. Butterfly, the kurogo, serve not as characters but rather exist as mere voiceless presences who silently move stage properties about the acting area. Matters get worse as Asian characters are given voice. Comrade Chan (and the other characters played by the same actor) is perhaps even more stereotypical and cartoonish than the worst of the nineteenth-century stereotypes. Chan serves as a sort of caricature of the stereotype whose “jarring” language alienates.

With the traditional stereotype thus disfigured and in place, the character of Song Liling is of paramount significance, because it is out of the tension between this role and the stereotype that a new, hoped-for vision of Chineseness or Asianness will emerge. And it is here that Hwang's project disintegrates, for he offers at best another disfigured stereotype. Because racial and sexual confusion are collapsed into one character, Song Liling exists as a vehicle of massive self-doubt. S/he claims to be working as a spy for the state but admits that he enjoys the life of a transvestite. While s/he stands in for the role of the victimized Chinese character, the claim is made false when his manipulation of Gallimard is revealed through the role reversal at the end of the play. Accordingly, s/he finally comes across as little more than a disfigured transvestite version of the infamous Chinese “dragon lady” prostitute stereotype.7 After proudly revealing his manhood to Gallimard, s/he covers up with great embarrassment when his Armani slacks are tossed offstage. This pattern of subversion establishes not an articulation of Asian desire but rather affirms a nefarious complicity with Anglo-American desire in its constitution of otherness, both sexual and racial. Moreover, with the displacement of the action into the neutralized alien space of France, the author deflects any need for consideration of actual race relations in America. Within this confused indeterminate site at the intersection of race and gender, only obvious questions can be apprehended. As audiences leave the theatre, racial/sexual identity is not an issue; rather, most spectators are simply incredulous at how for twenty years Gallimard could have confused Song's rectum for a woman's vagina.

Gotanda also uses what could be called “jarring” contemporary language to demythologize stereotypical portrayals of Asianness which are fixed in the first scene of Yankee Dawg You Die. He successfully contrasts the attitudes of the two actors confronting the imperatives of working in an industry which is essentially racist. Vincent Chang is revealed to be a Japanese man pretending to be Chinese to gain employment, but the clear linkage between racial disguise and economic imperative makes such deception acceptable. Indeed, it serves to emphasize the handicaps under which Asian American performers must work. Difficulties for the audience arise when it becomes evident that Vincent is gay and that he is obviously ashamed of it. In light of the recent gains made by America's gay/lesbian liberation movement, this race and gender ambivalence is almost enough to crush the unwitting Chinese/Japanese/closet gay into the space of aporia, subverting the most positive aspects of the play before it. Between the cinematic stereotype and this disfigured Chinese actor, little space exists for a new “real” Asian American. It is suggested that Bradley, too, will succumb to Chang's fate. Indeed, before the end of the play the once-radical Bradley has already accepted stereotypical roles, had a nose job, and been warned that within thirty-five years he may be just like “Chinese” actor Vincent Chang (60).

Clearly, the stage characters which both Hwang and Gotanda deploy to replace the earlier stereotypical portrayals are most problematic. In tension with traditional portrayals, their positions create the site for a new Asian stage presence. Unfortunately, at this site for the emergent new image of Asianness, the figures self-destruct at the very moment of their representation, leaving behind only newly disfigured traces. By interrogating David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die, one can see the genesis of a new representational strategy, one in which the words offer a clear indictment of the cultural hegemony of the West, while the characters empowered to represent and speak on behalf of the Chinese or Asianness are laughable and grossly disfigured. Thus marginalized, desexed, and made faceless, these Asian characters constitute no threat to Anglo-American sensibilities. Instead, these figures provide a good evening's entertainment and then float as exotic Orientalist fetishes articulating Anglo-American desire now doubly displaced into the new order of stereotypical representations created by Asian Americans.

Most troubling is the possibility that this rupture at the site of representation could be strategic, intentional, a complicitous commodification, a way of exploiting a jarringly contemporary Orient in a manner quite common in the fashion industry. In a public forum such as the theatre, writers must ultimately seek validation in the marketplace. The market being appealed to is clearly Anglo-American.

The popular acceptance of these disfigured Chinese characters, despite their Asian American authorship, does not signify an assimilation of the Chinese or Asianness into the American mainstream but rather a mere repositioning of their marginality, and the creation of new “play” figures for the West. It would appear that both writers have fallen into the trap of complicity which Martin Luther King had admonished against: it seems that while their mouths say no their eyes say yes.8

Although both Hwang and Gotanda seem cognizant of the problem, they have nonetheless created representations which, because they incorporate recognizably racist aspects of earlier stereotypes, fail to discredit the validity of those stereotypes. In both cases the long-standing history of the stereotype emerges as dominant in the face of failed attempts at subversion.

The possibility that such productions are intentionally in complicity not only with the market economy but also with the imperialist gaze is very troubling. David Henry Hwang's The Sound of a Voice (1983), a somewhat cinematic yet sensitive treatment of difficult interactions between a man and a woman, would seem an almost perfect vehicle for showing Asians working through a relationship on the same level as late twentieth-century white America. For reasons which are unclear, the author chose to make the play exotic, replete with Orientalist touches, exotic costumes, peculiar actions, meaningful silences, artfully arranged flowers. Hwang's FOB (1981), written while the author was still a college student, features a conflict between a thoroughly Americanized “ABC” (American-Born Chinese) and a recently arrived “FOB.” The “ABC” Dale provides the following definition of the “FOB”:

F-O-B. Fresh Off the Boat. F.O.B. What words can you think of that characterize the FOB? Clumsy, ugly, greasy FOB. Loud, stupid, four-eyed FOB. Big feet. Horny. Like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Very Good. A literary reference. High-water pants. Floods, to be exact. Someone you wouldn't want your sister to marry. If you are a sister, someone you wouldn't want to marry. That assumes we're talking about boy FOBs, of course. But girl FOBs aren't really as … FOBish. Boy FOBs are the worst, the … pits. They are the sworn enemies … of all ABC girls. Before an ABC girl will be seen on Friday night with a boy FOB in Westwood, she would rather burn off her face. … FOBs can be found in great numbers almost anyplace you happen to be, but there are some locations where they cluster in particularly large swarms. Community colleges, Chinese-club discos, Asian Sororities, Asian Fraternities, Oriental churches, shopping malls, and of course, BEE GEE concerts. How can you spot an FOB? Look out! If you can't answer that, you might be one.9

An Anglo-American audience witnesses the establishment of a new order of stereotype, authenticated by its Asian American authorship, in which Chinese Americans overtly disfigure their own. The list of characteristics which Dale ascribes to the FOB bear a striking resemblance to the museumlike list of fetishized aspects of difference employed by Anglo-American writers during the nineteenth century to theatrically stereotype the Chinese.10 There is no denying the existence of such tensions between different generations of Chinese American immigrant populations, and similar tensions exist between parents and children. However, this stage conflict exists within a context at once fascinating and alienating. It could be said that such conflicts in immigrant American life are universal and therefore inherently interesting. And indeed this was the case in nineteenth-century American theatre where, for example, loutish Italian immigrant representations were laughed off the stage by assimilated Italian Americans attending the theatre. There exists, however, a crucial difference. During the nineteenth century, the stage representation of the boorish, newly arrived Italian immigrant served as a socializing agent, at once allowing the recently assimilated immigrant to claim his new Americanness while denying any connection with the awkward stage representation.

In FOB, the conflict between the two factions becomes itself the subject, and the stage seems to offer to Anglo-America an amusing, anthropologically authentic view of an internecine Chinese American conflict. Further, the periodic transformations of Steve, the FOB character, into the romantically exotic Gwan Gung warrior mythologize the play. Thus, Western audiences can remain comfortably alienated without feeling compelled to engage any of the real social issues that are raised. This is typical of the anthropological gaze. An Asian American acquaintance once confided that she enjoyed American gangster and cowboy movies because she found it amusing to watch white America killing itself off.

The degree to which Chinese American audiences, and Asian American audiences in general, have been subjugated by the dominant culture's representational strategies can be seen in Asian American film productions such as C. Y. Lee's musical Flower Drum Song (1961) and Arthur Dong's Forbidden City (1989). While Lee's musical was clearly fashioned to cater to Anglo-American expectations, Forbidden City displays the depth to which this complicitous desire permeates the Asian American consciousness. Produced to show an alternative to the stereotyped reading of Asian American life, Forbidden City offers an examination of “the nation's outstanding Oriental nightclub” of 1939 in San Francisco. This commodified Forbidden City was established in the exotic tourist enclave of Chinatown to exploit sailors on leave, and featured scantily clad Asian American women constituted as willing objects of the gaze. Combining recently filmed interviews with archival footage of acts from the Chinatown nightclub, the film sets out to dispel the notion that Chinese could not sing and dance: “I've heard people say, ‘Do Chinese dance? They don't have any rhythm. They have got terrible legs. I think they're bow legged.’” The film suggests that those Chinese Americans who performed at the Forbidden City nightclub could indeed dance and sing, but with a few exceptions, they were generally inferior to the real American product. Most disheartening is the overwhelming sense that those interviewed truly wished to be represented in the stereotypical forms into which Anglo-America had cast Asian America. These Asian American voices, then, along with those of many before them, seem to further validate the now almost anthropologically authenticated view of Chinese America and Asian America in general.

Perhaps the most awkward case is the one of B. D. Wong, an award-winning actor for his portrayal of Song Liling in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. After their work on the Broadway hit, Wong and Hwang became highly visible critics of Asian stereotyping. They were among some of the most outspoken critics of the casting choices surrounding the New York production of Miss Saigon (1989). Joining others in the Asian American community, they argued for the casting of more Asian Americans in Miss Saigon. The producers themselves have advertised Miss Saigon as an updated adaptation of Madama Butterfly, the very piece which Hwang's play attacks as racist. Accordingly, it seems ironic to say the least that the Asian American community should be lobbying for greater complicity in such a racist production. After failing to convince the producer to alter any of the casting choices, Wong moved on to his next project, a film role in the recently released Mystery Date (1991) in which he plays a Mr. Loo, a stereotypical, squawking Chinese mobster. Given validation by such outspoken critics, these anthropologically achieved stereotypes appear entrenched.

This self-subverting Asian American tendency to reinscribe the touristic stereotype ultimately exposes the success of a strategy of exhaustion, in which the victims—in spite of their best intentions and their complaints that their representations have been disfigured by Anglo-America—remain victims. Unfortunately, the dominant culture is not inclined to change, while the Asian American agents who are in a position to effect change have already capitulated. Until more overtly aggressive strategies are employed, it seems Chinese America must remain an exotic Orientalist fetish, a willing souvenir for America's dreams of empire.


  1. For detailed treatment, see Donald M. Lowe, History of Bourgeois Perception.

  2. M. Butterfly premiered on 10 February 1988 at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., and opened in New York City on Broadway on 20 March 1988 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. All references to the playscript are from the first publication of the play, which appeared as an insert (with independent internal pagination) between pages 32 and 33 of American Theatre (July/August 1988).

  3. Philip Kan Gotanda, “Yankee Dawg You Die,” typescript provided by the Wisdom Bridge Theatre Company of Chicago, which produced the piece during the fall of 1988.

  4. David Savran, In Their Own Words, p. 127.

  5. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York: New American Library, 1989), p. 95.

  6. Gerard Raymond, “Smashing Stereotypes,” Theatre Week (11 April 1988), p. 8. See also Savran, pp. 117-131.

  7. For a treatment of this stereotype as it developed in the American cinema, see Tajima, “Lotus Blossoms Don't Bleed: Images of Asian Women,” in Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women, pp. 308-317.

  8. It is interesting to note that in responding to “leftist element[s], which might accuse me of selling out,” Hwang has said, “I think the [Chinese American] community by and large is very success oriented and is more likely to embrace one of their own on the basis of having got to Broadway, no matter what the play was—as long as it was not horribly critical of the Chinese-American community.” Raymond, p. 8.

  9. David Henry Hwang, FOB, in FOB and The House of Sleeping Beauties, p. 13.

  10. See, for example, Arthur H. Smith, Chinese Characteristics.

Robert Cooperman (essay date 1995)

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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 experiments with a mixture of Western theatrical techniques, Chinese opera and theater, and Japanese Noh theatrical styles.]


Arguably the most important play in terms of challenging the political/social/cultural identities of the West over the last decade is David Henry Hwang's award-winning M. Butterfly (1988). Aside from being good theatre—the fictional dramatization of a particularly shocking true case involving a Chinese transvestite/spy and her/his twenty-year love affair with a male French diplomat—the play very plainly forces its Western audience to contend with Eastern stereotypes involving sexual orientation, gender, and culture, especially those stereotypes promulgated by the myth of Orientalism.1 The political ramifications of Hwang's uncomfortably penetrating probe into the Western psyche are obvious, and there exists any number of studies and interviews which spell out, from various perspectives, the very problems which Hwang presents to us, as well as the efficacy of his attempt. However, M. Butterfly also represents the culmination (to this point) of a career which has made the Eastern-Western conflict a leit motif. M. Butterfly is simply the most obvious and politically blatant example of this recurring theme.

Most if not all discussions of M. Butterfly are characterized by a particularly hostile look at the polarizations confronted in the play.2 Such treatment undoubtedly stems from Hwang's own invitation, for the play pulls no punches in its treatment of Gallimard, whose Genet-like dream of sexual fantasy and domination represents, for some, Western typecasting which is both sinister and oppressive: “It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it?,” Song Liling asks Gallimard, “The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (17). Such sexual and cultural power struggles lead one, according to James S. Moy, inevitably to the conclusion that “Hwang's indictment of the West is clear” (51). Moy's view seems to start with the basic premise, taken from the plot and characterizations of the play, that the West (particularly America) is an intolerant, ignorant, and oppressive society. While no honest Westerner could possibly deny the racism and sexism that has characterized much of our history, it may be a bit of a stretch, however, to position Gallimard as the all-purpose Westerner. It may be, given the circumstances of the actual case, that he is nothing more than an all-purpose fool.

Still, the accusatory finger which M. Butterfly points toward an imperialistic West cannot be heedlessly dismissed. Since the play has in many respects come to define what Hwang is all about as a writer and thinker, it becomes increasingly easy to place him squarely in the camp of the Easterner victimized by Western oppression. His much-publicized remarks concerning the casting of Miss Saigon do nothing to dispel this opinion.3 The fact is, though, that Hwang may be more balanced toward the West than his critics assume he is (or than M. Butterfly and the Miss Saigon conflict reveal). If one steps from under the M. Butterfly cloud and focuses instead on the nearly decade of work which preceded it, it is possible to see the emergence of a different, less commercial, and more culturally optimistic David Hwang.

If we trace Hwang's evolution as an artist we will see that his pre-M. Butterfly plays have been primarily concerned with a more positive—and ultimately constructive—view of Western society vis a vis the East. While Asian characters with genuine and understandable hostility toward Westerners still populate plays such as FOB (1979) and The Dance and the Railroad (1981), there also exists an element of integration, a theatrical meeting of the minds, which serves to dispel somewhat the stereotypical notion that the West is hopelessly prejudiced against alien cultures. These early works usually point fewer accusatory fingers at the West than those implied by M. Butterfly, and strive for a theatrical expression wherein the stage becomes a great cultural equalizer. Hwang's technique in these Asian-Western mergers is never as conspicuous as in M. Butterfly, often involving a carefully orchestrated blend of diverse theatrical styles. The results are plays which offer more subtle political commentary than M. Butterfly, and which advance the cause of cultural pluralism through staging and spectacle even while their individual plots tend to despair at such idealism. Plays such as FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions (1981), The House of Sleeping Beauties (1983), and The Sound of a Voice (1983) represent Hwang's continuing, and usually successful, attempt to create “new theatrical statements”4 and to use the stage as an arena for demonstrating not only what drives cultures apart, but for suggesting how the theatre can bring cultures together.


Hwang's first venture into the world of playwriting, FOB, has a fascinating performance history. The play introduces three characters who represent various stages of Chinese immigration to the West: Dale, a second-generation American of Chinese descent; Grace, a first-generation Chinese American; and Steve, the FOB—the Chinese newcomer. The action takes place in a Chinese restaurant in California and the play's main conflict involves Dale's hostility toward Steve and the battle for the soul of Grace who resides with equal comfort in both Steve's world of Chinese ancestry and Dale's world of total Westernization. Written when Hwang was a senior at Stanford University, the play was first performed in Stanford's Okada House dormitory with Hwang himself directing. Having little directorial experience, Hwang encountered staging problems, particularly in the scenes where Grace takes on the persona of Fa Mu Lan and Steve becomes Gwan Gung.5 Hwang's original staging for his characters involved “a ritualistic kind of Sam Shepardy vein where there was just a lot of triangular placements of the three characters with some sort of ritual movement.” By the time the play was accepted into the O'Neill Playwrights Conference later in 1979, director Robert Ackerman suggested Chinese Opera forms as the solution to Hwang's admittedly awkward staging. When FOB moved to New York's Public Theatre (June 1980), the Chinese Opera staging was designed by director Mako and actor John Lone (portraying Steve) who had studied Chinese Opera earlier in his career. The staging of FOB, then, evolved from a generic sort of ritualism orchestrated by Hwang, to the very culture-specific Chinese Opera style incorporated by practitioners of the art.

For Hwang, this new blocking served two important purposes: it solved his general staging problem, and it “helped to reinforce in form what [he] was trying to do in … content.” Since the play deals with both the clash and the merger of cultures—clearly embodied in various degrees by the three characters—its final staging ingeniously imitated its thematic design. The play's problem is that Hwang, as in M. Butterfly, invites his audience to focus its attention on the Asian-Western conflicts at the expense of the cultural mergers that he is advocating with equal conviction. The play's title clearly draws attention to Steve and all the cultural baggage that his character represents, while the antagonistic Dale opens and closes the play with the exact same prejudiced opinion of an FOB:

F-O-B. Fresh Off the Boat, FOB. Clumsy, ugly, greasy FOB. Loud, stupid, four-eyed FOB. Big feet. Horny. Like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. F-O-B. Fresh Off the Boat. FOB.


It is in the character of Grace that cultures can successfully merge for she accepts both Steve and Dale and, when feeding Steve at the conclusion of the second act, offers a touching (and sexually charged) counterpoint to Dale's narrow-minded description:

Your hands … are beautiful. Lift it to your mouth. Your mouth … is beautiful. Bite it with your teeth. Your teeth … are beautiful. Crush it with your tongue. Your tongue … is beautiful. Slide it down your throat. Your throat … is beautiful.
Our hands are beautiful.
(She holds hers next to his.)


This scene satisfies Western theatrical expectations by symbolizing, primarily in words, character motivation tied directly to a comprehensible narrative. Hwang has orchestrated the action to this point so that the uniting of Grace and Steve seems understandable and expected. Indeed, in terms of plot construction FOB moves with the surety of a conventional well-made play. It is when Grace and Steve embody their respective fictional/mythological counterparts that a different staging is required. As Hwang's experience as a director taught him, however, “different” did not necessarily mean “modern.” His own choice of a type of generic ritualism (a la Sam Shepard) proved ineffective, but the traditional Chinese opera form supplied the needed missing element (thematically as well as in practical theatre terms) so that the dream-like battle between Fa Mu Lan and Gwan Gung could be integrated into the proceedings without disturbing the essential oneness of Hwang's Western narrative.

Hwang's stage directions, even when incorporating specific Chinese Opera forms, retain the pluralistic nature of his play. He carefully allows both Eastern and Western culture to occupy the stage at the same time; never does Chinese Opera overshadow Western theatrical practices, but rather blends slowly and effortlessly with them. Late in Act Two when the characters play a game of “Group Story,” “the LIGHTS HAVE DIMMED, throwing shadows on the stage. GRACE will strike two pots together to indicate each speaker change and the ritual will gradually take on elements of Chinese opera” (42). Of these elements, it is probable that the Opera's high-pitched, stylized chanting was discarded, but the clanging of the pots to simulate instruments which have no counterpart in the West was included without strenuous demand on the audience's imagination; because the action takes place in a restaurant, it is not inconceivable that Grace would find pots to clang. Similarly, while there is no way for the actors to appear in the traditional stylized costumes of the Chinese Opera, they are “costumed” in conventional Western garb for characters of their age and sex (or, in Steve's case, a “stylish summer outfit” which reflects his attempt to fit in with his perception of American culture). In terms of set, the ritualistic movements which made their way into the Public Theatre production were enacted on a characteristically Western box set, described as “The back room of a small Chinese restaurant in Torrence, California. Single table, with tablecloth; various chairs, supplies” (8). Unlike those of the Chinese Opera, the actors in this production did not necessarily stand out as colorful contrasts to a drab and nearly-bare stage.6 And, while Chinese Opera staging forces audience attention on stylized movement, never do the characters in FOB who partake of such movement cease to continue to use that most Western of stage conventions: dialogue. In short, Western staging practices were a constant, serving as a comfortable reference point for an audience generally unfamiliar with Eastern theatrical customs.

Hwang's experience with FOB led him to experiment even further with Chinese Opera. The Dance and the Railroad represents for Hwang “a much more conscious attempt to try to blend [Eastern and Western] forms.” The play involves two ChinaMan railroad workers, Lone and Ma,7 working on the transcontinental railroad in 1867. Although a strike by the workers provides historical background and forwards the plot, it is the relationship between Lone, the practitioner of Chinese Opera, and Ma, who wants Lone to teach him the art, which dominates the play.

The Dance and the Railroad explores the Eastern/Western conflict as much as FOB, but once again Hwang develops a parallel theme of Asian/Western mergers through staging and spectacle. The play's first four scenes build up to a climactic fifth (and final) scene where a “mock-Chinese-opera is staged” (78). Compared with FOB, however, The Dance and the Railroad retains much more of its Asian roots; whereas the former play is basically a Western drama of identity with Chinese Opera “special effects,” the latter concerns the creation and staging of a Chinese Opera so that by its final scene the play becomes a much more authentic opera than that of the climactic scene in FOB. Aside from the use of gongs, this opera includes singing, symbolic poses (“MA strikes a submissive pose to LONE”), metaphorical characterizations (“LONE becomes the mountain”), and ritualistic dancing (“MA does a dance of labor; MA and the MOUNTAIN do a battle dance”). The dialogue of this scene is more stylized than its FOB counterpart and significantly lacks the intrusive (yet comical) interruptions of Dale who acts the role of the puzzled Westerner when Grace and Steve do “battle.” The Dance and the Railroad offers no such comfortable reference point for its audience:

This mountain is clever. But why shouldn't it be? It's fighting for its life, like we fight for ours.
(The MOUNTAIN picks up a stick. MA and the MOUNTAIN do a battle dance. Dance ends.)
This mountain not only defends itself—it also attacks. It turns our strength against us.
(LONE does MA's labor dance, while MA plants explosives in midair. Dance ends.)
This mountain has survived for millions of years. Its wisdom is immense.
(LONE and MA begin a second battle dance. This one ends with them working the battle sticks together. LONE breaks away, does a warrior strut.)
I am a white devil! Listen to my stupid language: “Wha che doo doo blah blah.”


Lone's “white devil” speech is particularly important in terms of the subject matter of this opera, and by extension, this play. Traditionally, Chinese opera plots are valued far less than movement, rhyme, meter, and musical effect, and A. C. Scott remarks that “a [Chinese Opera] plot read as narrative in itself appears colourless and may seem banal” (38). In addition, plots are almost exclusively taken from classical Chinese literature and legends. However, the plot of Hwang's Chinese Opera is strictly American. Lone and Ma's creation is the story of the ChinaMan railroad worker who came to America seeking opportunity but was given hard labor on the transcontinental line instead. It depicts their strike—a true historical event—and celebrates their victory. The mountain which Lone portrays is a representation of the “Gold Mountain,” the Chinese nickname for the United States.8 Far from being colorless and banal, the plot of this opera dramatizes the theme of the play and easily fits into Western conceptions of dramatic narrative for it is based on the narrative that is history, specifically American history. In short, Hwang has devised a Chinese Opera based on American subjects, allowing the on-stage appropriation by the West of a strictly Eastern form. This appropriation becomes the play's comfort device—a way for Western audiences to accept alien traditions. While the subject matter and political commentary of The Dance and the Railroad is as damning as that of M. Butterfly, Hwang nevertheless uses the stage to reconcile the East-West conflict. Once again he demonstrates that cultures can merge successfully to tell a story in the theatre.


With Family Devotions, Hwang explores yet another American subject: the family. The play concerns an extended family in Bel Air, California eagerly awaiting the arrival of Di-gou, a relative who is a resident of the People's Republic of China. On hand are Di-gou's older sisters, Ama and Popo; Popo's daughter Hannah, her husband Robert, and son Chester; and Hannah's cousin Joanne, her husband Wilbur, and daughter Jenny. Like M. Butterfly, Family Devotions contains a number of political concerns, but the East/West conflict can hardly be considered one of them because the West has clearly won, a fact exemplified by the opening stage directions: “As the curtain rises, we see a single spotlight on an old Chinese face and hear Chinese music or chanting. Suddenly, the music becomes modern-day funk or rock’n’ roll” (92). The play suggests that total assimilation by Asians into the American way of life (as Dale represents in FOB) is destructive mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Attacks on the West abound in Family Devotions. Hwang's set description calls for an ostentatious display of wealth: “Everywhere is glass—glass roof, glass walls” (92). Robert and Wilbur are buffoonish capitalists, with Wilbur boasting about his “collection of tax shelters” (109), and Robert throwing food on the floor and stomping on it as a means of “showing Di-gou American ways” (118). Ama and Popo are fundamentalist Christians who stage a revivalist-type meeting for Di-gou's return (complete with a neon cross), culminating in a bizarre ritual in which they attempt to rid their brother of his “Communist demon” by tieing him to a table and beating him. During this exorcism “the barbecue bursts into flames [and] DI-GOU, holding onto CHESTER, begins speaking in tongues” (141).

Despite his sudden proficiency for ancient languages, Di-gou is, by contrast with Ama and Popo especially, soft-spoken and rational throughout the proceedings. As a representative of the rich and ancient culture lost by his siblings, Di-gou's main purpose is to save Chester from the fate of his parents and to impart on him the traditions which have been destroyed by the Westernization of his family. His plan appears successful for it is Chester who translates Di-gou's babbling into a stylized, rhythmical poetry, not unlike that of the Chinese Opera conceived and performed by Lone and Ma:

A human sound. A cry in my sleep. Looking up and seeing a fire. A fire and See-goh-poh. See-goh-poh is naked. Naked and screaming. Screaming with legs spread so far apart. So far that a mouth opens up. A mouth between her legs.


Chester also takes the on-stage position at the conclusion of the play that Di-gou occupied at the beginning; the stage directions note that “the shape of CHESTER's face begins to change” (146). Chester remains the last hope for an Asian family in desperate need of re-acculturation with its roots.

In terms of staging and spectacle, Family Devotions does not achieve the cultural mergers which characterize its predecessors. Chinese Opera is weakly alluded to via the aforementioned poetic recitation as well as a “ritualistic battle” similar to those in FOB and The Dance and the Railroad. But the battle of Family Devotions is more Western than Eastern in terms of theatrical conventions; it involves words and stories and thus is more in line with Western courtroom drama than Eastern symbolic theatre. Still, Ama challenges Di-gou to a showdown which recalls the contests between Fa Mu Lan and Gwan Gung and between Ma and Lone (as the mountain): “Are you willing to match your stories against ours?” (142).

These fleeting nods to Asian theatrical convention are not enough to make the case for a true East/West merger in Family Devotions. As a family drama, the play is typical American theatrical fare and as such is not particularly compelling nor original (despite exploding barbecues). However, Hwang does experiment with cultural pluralism by plugging Asian characters into the standard Caucasian American family equation. Such racial and cultural experimentation, forced unapologetically into the play, may be too much for Western audiences to grapple with. It is notable that, except for the basic narrative structure, Hwang does not work in any “comfort devices” in Family Devotions as he did in FOB and The Dance and the Railroad, and the playwright concedes that the play is among his more poorly received. “The general public,” Hwang says, “seems not exactly to know where to put the idea of just an Asian-American family as an American family.”9 But whether the general public accepts this family or not, the play suffers from a negativity against the West which is never balanced by the mergers which provided positive cultural counterpoints in FOB and The Dance and the Railroad.


Hwang's “Japanese” plays, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice, represent the playwright's desire to work with “contemporary avant-garde models from Asia.” Regarding this point in his career, Hwang admits to being “a little tired of swimming in the same political waters as the first few plays,” yet the attempt at theatrical and cultural mergers remains, although pursued from a new, more pluralistic perspective. Both plays have been compared to Japanese Noh theatre,10 but this time Hwang is not shaping Asian theatre around Western subject matter as he did in his earlier work. Instead, these plays show the playwright experimenting with a form which greatly interests him and with which he feels no compulsion to provide Western audiences with comfortable reference points—a practice he began with Family Devotions.

The comparison with Noh plays is not particularly accurate for Hwang's Japanese plays do not employ even the most elemental characteristics of the art form: there are no chanted lines, no concluding dances, no chorus, no orchestra, and no grandiose costumes. In addition, the plays break with Noh tradition by allowing female performers onstage. The plays (esp. House) do incorporate some traditional Western conventions, however, such as character motivation and psychological development. And, while Noh plays are “not essentially storytelling,” Hwang's plays rely heavily on narrative (Brockett 261). Despite these characteristics, the plays do contain an exoticism which seems to compel Western critics erroneously to label them “Noh.”

The House of Sleeping Beauties is based on the similarly-titled novelette by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata who committed suicide in 1972. The play concerns Kawabata's arrival at an odd brothel run by a Woman who allows her male patrons to sleep (literally) with her beautiful girls who have been drugged with a sleeping potion. At first, Kawabata claims to be simply curious about the goings-on at the Woman's house, but he quickly becomes a steady customer, demanding to be put deeper and deeper in a state of sleep in order to forget his haunting memories and suicidal thoughts. Kawabata and the Woman also develop a special relationship as she nurtures him and, in a scene reminiscent of the transformation scene of M. Butterfly,goes to her desk, takes out a makeup kit [, and] … powders her face completely white,” transforming herself into one of her own beauties (172). After several months of visitations, Kawabata begs to be given a lethal dose of a drug which ends his life. The play ends as well with the poignant pieta image of the Woman lovingly stroking Kawabata's hair.

The Sound of a Voice is a modern-day medieval romance about a Man on a quest who meets a reclusive Woman living in the forest. Their relationship develops over the course of nine scenes, culminating in the departure of the Man and the suicide of the lonely Woman. The play employs elements which could be said to be “Eastern”—scenes without words, stylized sword play, symbolic movement and props—but these techniques are equally at home in Samuel Beckett's universe, and the play further includes such Beckettian touches as the longing for companionship and human contact (“The sound of a human voice,” says the Woman, “the simplest thing to find, and the hardest to hold on to.” 208), aborted suicides, alienation and loneliness, a general sense of timelessness coupled with the constant threat of the end of time, despair at old age, and an Artaudian belief in the limitations of words to express thought: “Words are too inefficient. It takes hundreds of words to describe a single act of caring. With hundreds of acts, words become irrelevant” (191). In addition, Hwang's dialogue often utilizes Beckettian minimalism:

I'm sorry?
(He brings over the two halves of the mosquito to show her.)
I hit it—chop!


Coupled with the Krapp-like Kawabata12 of The House of Sleeping Beauties, the Japanese plays owe as much to Beckett and his effect on Western drama than they do to any figure of Japanese letters or to any particular Japanese theatrical form.

These brief descriptions also demonstrate that Hwang has truly forsaken the political climate of his earlier work. The House of Sleeping Beauties is about the tender relationship between an elderly man and woman and the approach of death; The Sound of a Voice about loneliness and lost youth. Hwang says both plays are about “tragic love” (“Introduction” xii). However one chooses to describe the themes of these plays, it is clear that they are not about culture against culture, race against race, nor even man versus woman. Hwang has moved away from the specificity of Chinatown restaurants and FOBs, away from the historical figures of the transcontinental railroad, away from the condemnation of American materialism, and toward more universal themes and nationless characters (no one figure in either play is defined solely by his/her Japanese heritage). Conflicts are solved without cultural finger-pointing. Rather, both plays end in that most human of endings—death. As such the merger of Japanese characters and Western narrative combine to create pluralistic theatre at home in both worlds, with both sets of conventions, and not belonging strictly to either. Unlike the earlier plays where Chinese conventions were inserted into the texts for thematic reasons, the Japanese plays rely on a shared sense of what it means to be human. That they accomplish this with a seamless blend of Western and Eastern forms is testimony to the success of Hwang's theatrical experimentation. Prior to M. Butterfly, the “Japanese” plays (an unfortunate label) are David Hwang's crowning achievement for their structure captures the cultural pluralism that our idealistic society dreams about.


What then had led David Henry Hwang back to his earlier political playground and M. Butterfly, where East and West are once again in conflict and the polarizations of the two cultures spelled out anew? A large part of the answer may simply involve the impulse which motivated Hwang to work with Chinese Opera, the American family, and avant-garde Japanese literature: the desire to challenge himself as well as his audience, and to create what he calls “new theatrical statements.” These statements are best expressed through Hwang's cultural and theatrical experimentation, but like all experiments there is a significant risk involved. For Hwang, that risk is the acceptance of his work by an audience reared almost exclusively on Western theatrical conventions (as Hwang himself was when he began his career). The poor reception of Family Devotions demonstrates the dangers of a style which often walks the precarious theatrical line between total theatre and theatrical gimmickry. Such gimmicks, though, reflect the work of a writer who strives for thematic (and frequently cultural) cohesion rather than impressive stage effects.

Family Devotions aside, the addition of Chinese Opera staging and the atmospheric other-worldliness of the Japanese plays also run the danger of being dismissed as just so much Eastern exoticism by an Asian-American author who emphasizes “Asian.” Hwang admits to being unaffected by this potential problem:

I wasn't really worried about that so much. … I think that two things made me feel that [the addition of Eastern conventions] would probably be accessible to a Western audience, or at least interesting to them. One was … [my] training … with writers who were interested in pursuing different forms of theatrical ritual. The summer I spent in '78 at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival working with Sam Shepard and Irene Fornes and Murray Mednick and those writers really was largely about trying to create new theatrical statements, new types of total theatre. … And second, I think I felt it would be interesting because I found it interesting.

It is Hwang's implied faith in Western audiences and their ability to accept “new types of total theatre” which has given him the impetus to create challenging plays which force us to come to grips with our own national consciousness and its goal of a truly pluralistic society. That these plays are overshadowed (critically as well as in popular culture) by M. Butterfly—which also forces Western audiences to examine their national consciousness—does not take away from the fact that the plays which preceded Hwang's Tony Award-winning commercial hit treat the stage as a true melting pot of cultures, traditions, and theatrical conventions. It is a mistake, then, to think that Hwang emphasizes “Asian” when so much about his early work is distinctly and idealistically “American.”


  1. Hwang discusses the myth of Orientalism (as defined by scholar Edward Said) in an article entitled “People Like Us.” The Guardian 21 April 1989: 31.

  2. See Janet V. Haedicke “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly: The Eye on the Wing.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 7.1 (Fall 1992): 27-44; James S. Moy “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 48-56; Kent Neely “Intimacy or Cruel Love: Displacing the Other by Self Assertion.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5.2 (Spring 1991): 167-173; Robert Skloot “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33 (1990): 59-66.

  3. In July of 1990 Hwang and actor B. D. Wong asked Actors Equity to reject producer Cameron Mackintosh's request to allow British actor Jonathan Pryce to recreate his role as a Eurasian in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Hwang's contention was that an Asian-American play the role, and his letter to Equity prompted the cancellation of the musical (which had a $25 million advance sale). Eventually Mackintosh and Equity came to an agreement and the show opened with Pryce in the role.

  4. This phrase, as well as the various comments by Hwang quoted throughout this essay, are taken from my telephone interview with him, October 25, 1993.

  5. As Hwang explains in his “Playwright's Notes” to FOB, Fa Mu Lan is a character from Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. Gwan Gung, from Frank Chin's Gee, Pop!, is the god of fighters and writers.

  6. The cast list for the New York Public production does call for a number of on-stage presences: two Stage Managers and a Musician. To a Western audience on-stage assistants may seem intrusive and diverting, but such presences are common practice in the Chinese Opera where on-stage musicians and stagehands are distinguished from the actors by means of their plain dress. Given that the actors of FOB wear no stylized costumes, and that Western audiences are not conditioned to ignore on-stage presences no matter how differently (or plainly) they are dressed, it is unclear just how the stage managers and musicians were used in the production. The published script does not offer specific instructions to those who share the stage with Dale, Steve, and Grace.

  7. Hwang named the characters of this play after John Lone and Tzi Ma, both of whom appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater production of FOB. Lone and Ma originated their roles in The Dance and the Railroad at the Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theater (March 1981) and at the Public Theater (July 1981).

  8. Scott notes that “sometimes actors who had gone abroad [like Lone] returned to China once again to act, when the words ‘returned from the Mountain of Gold’ were printed on the programme under their names” (7).

  9. Hwang's experience with Family Devotions led to Rich Relations (1986) which he admits is as autobiographical as the former play, but deals solely with Caucasians. This play was also poorly received.

  10. See Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang 32.

  11. Similar scenes appear throughout Hwang's work, most notably FOB. See FOB and Other Plays 45.

  12. Both Krapp and Kawabata, old men when we meet them, share a sense of mortality, regret, possible impotency, are haunted by their past and frustrated by their present. Also, both insist on recording the details of their frustration: Krapp on tape, Kawabata in writing.

Works Cited

Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.

Hwang, David Henry. The Dance and the Railroad. FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume Books, 1990. 53-86.

———. Family Devotions. FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume Books, 1990. 87-146.

———. FOB. FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume Books, 1990. 1-50.

———. The House of Sleeping Beauties. FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume Books, 1990. 148-182.

———. “Introduction.” FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume Books, 1990. x-xv.

———. M. Butterfly. New York: NAL, 1988.

———. The Sound of a Voice. FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume Books, 1990. 183-209.

Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 48-56.

Scott, A. C. An Introduction to the Chinese Theatre. Yokohama, Japan: General Printing Co., Ltd., 1958.

Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang. Western Writers Series 90. Idaho: Boise State UP, 1989.

Vera Jiji (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4968

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 assumptions reexamined, all associations redefined. The rules that governed behavior in the last era are crumbling, but those of the time to come have yet to be written. And there is a struggle brewing over the shape of these changing words, a struggle that begins here now, in our hearts, in our shuttered rooms, in the lightning decisions that appear from nowhere.

—Mark, in David Henry Hwang's Bondage

Believing that “All rituals and behavior are ruled by the desire for power,” David Henry Hwang's plays often deal with the ruling force of power as manifested in a variety of sadomasochistic sexual partnerships.1 Many of his plays, like Bondage, involve only two characters.2 Others, most notably, M. Butterfly, involve complex couplings.3 We will see that, throughout the range of his plays, Hwang is trying to convey a fairly consistent view of the “struggle that begins here now, in our hearts.” When he portrays the sadomasochistic power games people play, he would seem to be seeking to unsettle the audience, to make them reflect upon dehumanizing relationships. In an interview, Hwang notes:

[T]he core impulse [is] to dehumanize the other … the structure of a lot of my plays is you have these two people and one appears to be stronger and turns out to be weaker in the end. … It seems to me there is a power struggle in many relationships. So there does come the question of who is going to be dominant and who is going to be suppressed.4

Realizing the relationship of misogyny to racism and imperialism, Hwang says of M. Butterfly, “I discovered the relationship of the ‘isms’: racism, sexism, imperialism. These are all part of the same impulse to downgrade ‘the other,’ that person who is different from oneself.”5

That Hwang has had to struggle with his own sexism becomes evident in his dramas. In an interview given after the success of M. Butterfly, he concedes:

One thing [I discovered about myself when writing Butterfly] for example, is that I found the degree to which, as a man, I'm able to identify with Gallimard and the pleasure he takes in feeling that he has power over a beautiful and desirable woman. I don't think I could have written that character as convincingly if I had not been able to draw on some part of myself which feels that way. This is not something I have worked a good part of my life to combat. Nonetheless, before you can completely combat something, you have to acknowledge the degree to which it exists.6

Despite an attempt to make the audience see that “by degrading others, we degrade ourselves,” in many of Hwang's dramas a pattern emerges that casts the degraded female as the stereotypical, destructive Medusa.7 As he portrays sexual domination in male/female relationships, showing the male characters trying to cope with their fear of the females' power and sexuality, Hwang demonstrates that dire consequences always follow. While this choice of plot structure could offer a chance to explore male fear of the so-called “weaker sex,” Hwang tends to depict his male characters as victims turned to stone by the Medusa's gaze. A quick tour through his plays will reveal his use of this myth, involving a paradigm of the sudden death of the Medusa's victim.

In his first play, FOB (1979), while Hwang attempts to break down stereotypes, he does not fully succeed.8 Here he creates a protagonist, Grace, who is simultaneously a modern Chinese American, and Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior created by Maxine Hong Kingston. However, although FOB satirizes Chinese American stereotypes about “FOBs” (Chinese who are “fresh off the boat”), and gives Grace the power to fight back when attacked, it does not critique other sexist stereotypes. Even though Grace is attracted to Steve, she teases and manipulates him. She brings another man on stage so the two can compete for her attention: who has the fanciest car? who can give her a better evening's entertainment? The snakes on the medusa's head begin their threatening dance. Hwang has gone out of his way to identify himself with the woman warrior character, but he cannot quite free Grace to behave as a woman warrior might.

In Family Devotions (1981) we meet a Chinese American family in various stages of assimilation.9 The old man Di-Gou is: “born and raised and still a resident of. … China” while his two sisters, Ama and Popo, were “born in China, emigrating to the Philippines and then to America” (90). Chester and Jenny are Ama and Popo's American-born grown grandchildren. During the play's climax, the visiting grand-uncle, Di-Gou, is forced to tell the truth about the trip he took in China with his unmarried aunt, See-goh-poh, when he was only seven years old. He saw her give birth to a child but kept her secret. Her continuing trips allowed her to “see China” and her illegitimate child and to remain sexually active while Ama and Popo, her nieces, believed that she was an evangelist converting “five hundred or more.” When they are forced to listen to Di-gou's account of the truth about the unconventional sex life of their long deceased, unmarried aunt, the two sisters of Di-gou collapse and die onstage.

We will never believe this! (She collapses back into her chair, closes her eyes.)
(Jenny, Chester … and Di-Gou stare at the two inert forms.)
Jenny! Jenny!
(Jenny goes to Chester's side.)
… [Hwang's elisions]
Once again. Once again my pleas are useless. But now—this is the last time. I have given all I own. (Popo and Ama have died.)


(To Chester.) Let go of me! Get away! … I don't understand this, but whatever it is, it's ugly and it's awful and it causes people to die and I don't want to have anything to do with it.


What is the “it” here that kills the grandmothers? See-Goh-poh's sexual activity? The scandal it might have engendered? Clearly, something in this story is so disturbing to Hwang that even if one takes account of the fact that the play is not structured entirely within realistic conventions, the death of the grandmothers still seems both literally and psychologically incredible. What is clear, however, is that Hwang is concerned with a pattern that depicts death as the result of female sexuality. The grandmothers are turned to stone and Jenny sees the ugliness of the Medusa.

In the 1983 play The House of Sleeping Beauties, based on a text by Yasunari Kawabata, Hwang again takes a work dealing mainly with sexual activity and adds two new onstage deaths to the source.10 Both Kawabata's novelette and Hwang's play deal with the visits of an elderly man to a whorehouse which caters exclusively to the elderly, supplying them with beautiful young girls who are so deeply drugged that they surrender control completely to their customers. (Note here, as in M. Butterfly, the men's need to feel completely in control of the sexual experience.) In the novelette, one of the girls dies from an overdose of her sleeping medication. However, in Hwang's play, that offstage death is followed by the onstage suicides of both the elderly male protagonist and the Madame to whom he has left his large fortune. Here, the question of scandal (will the man reveal the existence of the establishment?) is raised and then laid aside as insignificant. Instead, the focus is on Kawabata's changing reactions to his visits to the “House.” At first he enjoys the visits, but soon his thoughts turn to suicide. He asks the Madame to serve him the tea he has just laced with poison. At first reluctant, she grants his wish and he dies onstage. She strokes his hair, sings, and swallows the remaining tea as the play ends.

Although the death of the old man is sufficiently motivated, how are we to accept the Madame's role in his suicide? And her death? When Kawabata has just made her wealthy, what motivates her death unless it is a desire to join the man she has come to care for? Only if we invoke the myth (here played without irony) of the self-sacrificing woman who loves a man enough to die for (or with) him, can we make any sense out of the denouement. If we don't buy into that myth, we may feel that Hwang has killed off his Madame for insufficient cause. Or again, we may be faced with the inevitability of the death that must come from the gaze of the Medusa, who is the other face of the “sleeping beauties.”

Another female suicide takes place in the two-character play, The Sound of a Voice, which was produced along with The House of Sleeping Beauties in 1983.11 Here a warrior visits the isolated home of a lonely woman who is rumored to be a witch. The woman treats her visitor with exquisite courtesy, feeding him magnificently, displaying many charms (she plays the flute expertly), and behaving with becoming modesty and self-effacement in order to build up his self-esteem. In an early scene when she asks his name, he offers, “How about, ‘Man Who Fears Woman’?” Her reply, “That name is much too common” (189), sounds more like Hwang talking to himself than like the characters talking to each other. When the woman begs the man to remain with her, he decides to move in and finds himself unexpectedly attracted to her. Admitting that she has mysterious powers, she tells the man, “I create a world which is outside the realm you know” (191).

Even though her powers are deployed to make him happy, they upset him. Practicing his swordsmanship, he asks her if she has ever used one, and when she admits she has, he forces her to show him what she can do, at which point she out-parries him. Although she apologizes: “I'm so embarrassed. My skills—they're so—inappropriate. I look like a man” (200), he is clearly shaken by her “self-taught” abilities. Now they speak more openly—he, of the rumors that she is a beautiful witch who kills her lovers and turns them into cut flowers that don't wilt (an onstage prop)—she, of the ridiculous nature of the rumors. “You say that I imprison hearts in these flowers? … So kill me. If you came here to destroy a witch, kill me now. I can't stand to have it [a visitor leaving] happen again” (203). Promising not to leave, he prepares to do so, and when she refuses to keep him by force, he walks offstage, after which she hangs herself. As the audience watches her dangle, the man returns almost immediately as if prepared to stay. Finding her dead, he sits and tries to play her flute while the flower petals swirl around her hanging body.

Lonely, she had wanted only “the sound of [his] voice.” But he could neither kill her nor live with her. She has to kill herself to resolve the situation. At the same time that Hwang offers a critique in this drama of the stereotyping of the woman as a witch, the woman's willingness to hang herself when love goes wrong feeds into another stereotype. Hwang gives her this speech:

All visitors [want to leave] … there are boundaries outside of which visitors do not want to see me step. Only who knows what those boundaries are? Not I. … And one day, inevitably, you step outside the lines. The visitor knows. You don't. You didn't know that you'd done anything different. You thought it was just another part of you. The visitor sneaks away. The next day, you learn that you had stepped outside his heart. I'm afraid you've seen too much.


It is difficult to believe that this sophisticated woman would nevertheless be so stupid as to defeat the man in the military exercise without understanding that she must lose him thereafter. Hwang wants to instruct us by presenting characters whose lives end tragically because of traditional gender expectations, but he fails sufficiently to challenge the sexist stereotypes he presents; instead, he romanticizes the hanging of his heroine.

Hwang addressed this issue in his interview with Bensussen, saying:

One of the problems I have with Sound of a Voice (in which a man leaves a woman he feels has defeated him, and returns to find she's hung herself) is that it runs the risk of being guilty of the sin it tries to condemn. If you have a woman being oppressed by a man it can be very appealing to look at, especially if you're a guy.


Apparently sensitive to the charge that he had used “a cliché type of exploitation” in The Sound of a Voice, Hwang felt freer to depict sexual oppression in M. Butterfly because he was dealing with male/male, not male/female exploitation. He tells Bensussen:

But if you have a man being oppressed by a man who thinks he's a woman then I think it's much more subversive. I get a certain glee out of it. I'm always pleased when we can undermine an audience's expectations.


In his preoccupation with sexual stereotypes and with the way in which issues of control dominate sexual relationships, Hwang's dramas parallel the ideas of psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, who focuses in The Bonds of Love not only on the male subject and his anxieties and fantasies, but also on the dynamics that develop universally between the subject and the Other.12 In the development of all paired relationships, Benjamin sees control, not sexuality, as the central issue. Sadomasochism occurs, then, almost as a matter of course. Discussing the development of sadistic and masochistic personalities, Benjamin points out:

The hypothetical self presented by Hegel and Freud does not want to recognize the other. … He gives up omnipotence only when he has no other choice. … Since the subject cannot accept his dependency on someone he cannot control, the solution is to subjugate and enslave the other. … The primary consequence of the inability to reconcile dependence, then, is the transformation of need for the other into domination of him.


Precisely. Although Benjamin generally refers to the dominant partner as “he” and the subordinate as “she,” placing the sex roles in their cultural context, showing how the male's need to break away from the mother creates a different developmental pattern than does the girl's need to identify with the female parent, she also allows for a reversal of these predominant sex roles as women liberate themselves and move into the market place. Hence, she would probably not be surprised that the pattern of domination and control in M. Butterfly in the scenes between René Gallimard, the American diplomat, and Song, the male spy who impersonates a female to ensnare Gallimard, is handled as if Hwang were dealing with a heterosexual couple. How “normal” or ordinary Gallimard's little games seem! But as we see René's character develop, we realize that Hwang is underlining over and over what Benjamin describes; a man who has never been able to “accept his dependency on someone he cannot control” (54).

When the play opens in the French prison cell where Gallimard is languishing after Song's exposure, already his inability to control how others see him is central. “Night after night,” he search[es] for a new ending, “one which will redeem my honor” (9-10). He pleads with the audience, flattering them, imagining, “you—my ideal audience—who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy me.” Why? Because “I have known, and been loved by … the Perfect Woman” (9), Song Liling, the embodiment of Cio-Cio San, that is, the selfless, masochistic woman who always obeys.

The stereotypes from the opera that gives the drama its title, Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San, thematically dominate this play. But unable to act unselfconsciously like Pinkerton, Gallimard nevertheless identifies strongly with him, as he describes Butterfly.

She arrives with all her possessions in the folds of her sleeves, lays them all out, for her man to do with as he pleases. Even her life itself—she bows her head as she whispers that she's not even worth the hundred yen he paid for her. … [D]on't we who are men sigh with hope? We, who are not handsome, nor brave, nor powerful, yet somehow believe, like Pinkerton, that we deserve a Butterfly.


As if Hwang needs to underline the point further, he has Gallimard take the audience into his past, describing his adolescence, when he chooses to absorb himself not with real girls at a party but with dirty pictures, with “women—a shelfful—who would do exactly as I wanted” (14), his body shaking “[n]ot with lust—no, with power” (14). When he stops seeing Song for a while, he feels “the absolute power of a man” (28). And when Song avoids the stripping that would end the disguise, he reflects, “All he wants is for her to submit” (48).

The introduction of another love interest in act 2, a student significantly named Renée (another device to show the narcissistic nature of René Gallimard's love interests), not only complicates the plot but also intensifies Gallimard's need to deepen his sense of control. A clue to the nature of the sadism involved here lies in Benjamin's discussion of The Story of O:

[T]he story is driven forward by the dialectic of control. Since a slave who is completely dominated loses the quality of being able to give recognition, the struggle to possess her must be prolonged. … She must acquiesce in ever deeper humiliation … and she must will her submission ever anew.


Since Song had accepted Gallimard's domination from the beginning of the affair, Hwang said, “I wondered whether at some point in the relationship, after a couple of years when the initial lust had waned, something would have happened to provide the impetus for the relationship to continue.”13

The dramatic and human irony, of course, lies in Song's betrayal, the image of the Medusa that lies beneath the image of submission: Song, after all, was not only a spy but a man. Destroyed by this “snake in the grass”—one recalls the snakes on the Medusa's head—Gallimard chooses to kill himself. Like so many other victims of love in Hwang's plays, the great aunts in Family Devotions, the elderly protagonists of The House of Sleeping Beauties, and the spirit/witch in Sound of a Voice, Gallimard must die. Becoming the masochistic victim necessary to the existence of his sadistic fantasy, Gallimard turns himself into the Butterfly he yearned for; he carries out the fantasy that there are “women who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth” (68).

The audience has the interesting option of empathizing with the suicide, giving in to their own sadomasochistic yearnings for a love so strong it defies the desire for life, and, in another part of the psyche, recognizing the pathos of that choice. We can play both violator and victim at once. As Benjamin says, “The drama of reversible violator and victim displaces the tension of interaction with the other” (71). One may, however, view Gallimard's suicide as an alternative to his recognition of the repressed: his repressed knowledge, obliquely referred to only slightly in speech, of his desire to be a woman, to be soft, to yield control to the other.

Despite, then, the editorializing in the text that seeks to make it a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly,” since the opera “contained a wealth of sexist and racist clichés,” Hwang's misogyny emerges in the play's underlying premises and actions that betray fear and dislike of self-actualizing women.14 Song does give mocking testimony to the judge at his trial about men who believe that “a woman can't think for herself” and about men who “always believe what they want to hear, so a girl can tell the most obnoxious lies and the guys will believe them every time” (61). But despite the way the irony of the text makes Gallimard a pathetic fool, the audience's sympathies are drawn to him throughout rather than to Song, no matter how clever his lines are.

Nowhere in M. Butterfly is there a female character who is other than a caricature. Renée, the American student, is an outrageous stereotype.15 Bored, she asks whether Gallimard wants to “fool around” before she even knows his name. Afterward, wearing only a towel, she explains her theory of history:

There's so much fuss we make about [weenies]. Like, I think the reason we fight wars is because we wear clothes. Because no one knows—between the men, I mean, who has the biggest … And that's what we call a civilized society. The whole world run by a bunch of men with pricks the size of pins.


How can one take such a speech seriously after Renée has just spouted clichés about the good sex she has had with Gallimard?

Gallimard's wife, Helga, has no more dimension than Renée. She is made to look ridiculous; described as having “grown up with criminals and kangaroos,” her desire for a child appears only as a plot device, originating in the “real-life” version of the story. Given little opportunity to earn the audience's sympathy, her singing when she parodies the death scene in Madame Butterfly is ridiculously bad, and she further earns the audience's scorn by wanting to remain in the marriage even though she knows Gallimard does not love her.

Song Liling's character, however, is the most absurd of the play's caricatures. James S. Moy calls her “a disfigured transvestite version of the infamous Chinese ‘dragon lady’ prostitute stereotype”16 Totally narcissistic, Song, as Hwang develops the character, cares only to be adored by Gallimard, trying to seduce him even after the trial, when Gallimard understands the depth of his treachery. As the “perfect” woman, Song is an absolute liar and masterful manipulator but is also, as are all “weak” women, totally besotted by love. One can only conjecture that the willingness of many members of the audience to be fooled by Song's performance of womanhood and their sympathetic identification with Gallimard's shocked discovery involves us, women as well as men, in the culturally taught fantasy of the perfect woman, who submits beautifully to a man. Would Song have been the perfect woman if only he had been the biological real goods? Alternating with the critique of the male gender fantasy—Song's explanation that the roles of women in the Peking Opera are played by men because only a man knows how a perfect woman behaves—is the romantic embodiment of the fantasy in Gallimard's assumption of the role of that Butterfly who is its symbol.17

Hwang's attempts to overcome his own ambivalence are clear in his 1992 one-act drama, Bondage. Here he seeks a gaze that will not be that of the Medusa as phallic woman, so that the man may live and love. In this play Mark and “dominatrix,” Terri (here the woman is the dominant one), are “in a fantasy bondage parlor,” both their faces and bodies fully covered to disguise their identities completely. As they go through a number of “scripts” in which their identities are changed, each time they play with racial and ethnic stereotypes. For example:

What am I today?
Today—you're a man. A Chinese man.



Why were you in such a strong position?
Well, I was—a blonde!
And why was I in such a weak one?
Oh, c'mon—you were … an Oriental man. Easy target.


Reiterating a familiar point, Terri suggests, “You're afraid of any woman unless you're sure you've got her under control!” Exploring this less as a given of gender than as a construct, Terri concludes:

And so, I learned what it feels like to be a man. To labor breathlessly accumulating power while all the time it's dawning how tiring, what a burden. … And driven by your need, you slowly destroy yourself. (She starts to remove her gloves).


By disrobing, Terri symbolically yields power to Mark. He, in turn, when invited to remove her hood, removes his own instead, answering her overture with his unmasking. Eventually, now that Terri has led the way, she and Mark stand exposed to each other's gazes. He is Asian, she is Caucasian, but they confess their love, “determined to move beyond the world of fantasy” (91). The play ends not with a kiss or a clinch, as we might have expected in an earlier age, but more tentatively with Mark touching Terri's hair as they gaze at each other's faces. No Medusa here.

Jessica Benjamin's discussion of intersubjectivity posits the possibility of the subject arriving at a relationship not with an “object,” as classic psychoanalytic vocabulary puts it, but as one subject relating to another subject.18 Hwang approaches the depiction of such a relationship, going beyond the suicides of the earlier plays to arrive at the metaphoric and physical unmasking that leaves both characters vulnerable at the end of Bondage.

Notwithstanding its optimistic ending, in Bondage we still find the stereotypes of the prostitute with the heart of gold and the male who is characterized by his fear of women (85). Bondage ends where a playwright, not restrained by the age-old war between the sexes and old cultural binds, might begin. Perhaps Hwang is not much less bewildered than his character, Mark, and his career best illustrates how difficult it is for a modern American male to defeat the forces of misogyny that “struggle … in our hearts” and minds.


  1. Robert Skloot, “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang,” Modern Drama 33 (1990): 62.

  2. David Henry Hwang, Bondage, in Best American Short Plays: 1992-93, ed. Howard Stein and Glenn Young (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1993).

  3. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly, (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988).

  4. Quoted in Melia Bensussen, “The Playwright of Power,” The West Side Spirit, 16 Jan. 1989: 14.

  5. Quoted in Mervin P. Antonio, “Personal Discoveries,” Prologue to a Program. November 1991, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 11.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Hwang, quoted in Bensussen, “Playwright,” 3.

  8. David Henry Hwang, FOB, in FOB and Other Plays (New York: New American Library, 1990).

  9. David Henry Hwang, Family Devotions, in FOB and Other Plays (New York: New American Library, 1990).

  10. David Henry Hwang, The House of Sleeping Beauties, in FOB and Other Plays (New York: New American Library, 1990).

  11. David Henry Hwang, The Sound of a Voice, in FOB and Other Plays (New York: New American Library, 1990).

  12. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

  13. Quoted in John Louis DiGaetani, “An Interview with David Henry Hwang,” The Drama Review 33.3 (1989): 148.

  14. David Henry Hwang, “Afterward,” M. Butterfly, 86.

  15. John DiGaetani suggests that “[t]he fact that you have a real woman who acts ‘masculine’ and a man who acts ‘feminine,’ is the ultimate irony” (148).

  16. James S. Moy, “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality On the American Stage,” Theatre Journal 42.1 (1990): 54.

  17. The extremely contradictory nature of the reviews of M. Butterfly no doubt are a result of the text's ambivalence about women and male fantasy. At least eight of eleven reviewers who wrote about it favorably also mentioned the play's feminist theme. One reviewer said it “encapsulates giant themes of feminism and imperialism” (William A. Henry III, “Politics and Strange Bedfellows,” rev. of M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, Time 4 Apr.; repr. in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, ed. Joan Marlowe and Betty Blake, 49.4, 1988: 338), while another reported it was “really about our seemingly limitless capacity for self-delusion, narcissism, imperialism and sexism” (David Patrick Stearns, “Intriguing, touching M. Butterfly,” rev. of M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, USA Today 21 March 1985; repr. in Marlowe and Blake, ed. New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 334). But writing in Newsday, Linda Winer seems to have caught on to the work's ambivalence, protesting its “heavyhanded underestimation of the male psyche” and noting that “For all the drama's external complexities, its insides are surprisingly naive and simplistic” (“An Exotic Broadway ‘Butterfly, ‘” rev. of M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, Newsday, 21 March 1988; repr. in Marlowe and Blake, ed. New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 336), a conclusion echoed by Gabrielle Cody, in “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth,” Theater 20.2 (Spring 1989): 24-27, who accuses Hwang of making “René's flippant naivete the play's central ideology rather than its target” (25).

  18. Benjamin writes that “the balance within the self depends upon mutual recognition between self and other. And mutual recognition is perhaps the most vulnerable point in the process of differentiation. … In order to exist for oneself, one has to exist for an other. It would seem there is no way out of this dependency” (53). Earlier on, she had stated that “the ideal ‘resolution’ of the paradox of recognition is for it to continue as a constant tension. … [T]he decisive problem remains recognizing the other. Establishing myself means winning the recognition of the other, and this, in turn, means I must finally acknowledge the other as existing for himself and not just for me. … Only by deepening our understanding of this paradox can we broaden our picture of human development to include not only the separation but also the meeting of minds—a picture in which the bird's flight is always in two directions” (36).

David Henry Hwang (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2034

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 account for the fact that he had never seen his “girlfriend” naked, was quoted as saying, “I thought she was very modest. I thought it was a Chinese custom.”

Now, I am aware that this is not a Chinese custom, that Asian women are no more shy with their lovers than are women of the West. I am also aware, however, that Bouriscot's assumption was consistent with a certain stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, blushing flowers. I therefore concluded that the diplomat must have fallen in love, not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype. I also inferred that, to the extent the Chinese spy encouraged these misperceptions, he must have played up to and exploited this image of the Oriental woman as demure and submissive. (In general, by the way, we prefer the term “Asian” to “Oriental,” in the same way “Black” is superior to “Negro.” I use the term “Oriental” specifically to denote an exotic or imperialistic view of the East.)

I suspected there was a play here. I purposely refrained from further research, for I was not interested in writing docudrama. Frankly, I didn't want the “truth” to interfere with my own speculations. I told Stuart Ostrow, a producer with whom I'd worked before, that I envisioned the story as a musical. I remember going so far as to speculate that it could be some “great Madame Butterfly-like tragedy.” Stuart was very intrigued, and encouraged me with some early funding.

Before I can begin writing, I must “break the back of the story,” and find some angle which compels me to set pen to paper. I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard one afternoon, and asked myself, “What did Bouriscot think he was getting in this Chinese actress?” The answer came to me clearly: “He probably thought he had found Madame Butterfly.”

The idea of doing a deconstructivist Madame Butterfly immediately appealed to me. This, despite the fact that I didn't even know the plot of the opera! I knew Butterfly only as a cultural stereotype; speaking of an Asian woman, we would sometimes say, “She's pulling a Butterfly,” which meant playing the submissive Oriental number. Yet, I felt convinced that the libretto would include yet another lotus blossom pining away for a cruel Caucasian man, and dying for her love. Such a story has become too much of a cliché not to be included in the archetypal East-West romance that started it all. Sure enough, when I purchased the record, I discovered it contained a wealth of sexist and racist clichés, reaffirming my faith in Western culture.

Very soon after, I came up with the basic “arc” of my play: the Frenchman fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and his lover is Butterfly. By the end of the piece, he realizes that it is he who has been Butterfly, in that the Frenchman has been duped by love; the Chinese spy, who exploited that love, is therefore the real Pinkerton. I wrote a proposal to Stuart Ostrow, who found it very exciting. (On the night of the Tony Awards, Stuart produced my original two-page treatment, and we were gratified to see that it was, indeed, the play I eventually wrote.)

I wrote a play, rather than a musical, because, having “broken the back” of the story, I wanted to start immediately and not be hampered by the lengthy process of collaboration. I would like to think, however, that the play has retained many of its musical roots. So Monsieur Butterfly was completed in six weeks between September and mid-October, 1986. My wife, Ophelia, thought Monsieur Butterfly too obvious a title, and suggested I abbreviate it in the French fashion. Hence, M. Butterfly, far more mysterious and ambiguous, was the result.

I sent the play to Stuart Ostrow as a courtesy, assuming he would not be interested in producing what had become a straight play. Instead, he flew out to Los Angeles immediately for script conferences. Coming from a background in the not-for-profit theater, I suggested that we develop the work at a regional institution. Stuart, nothing if not bold, argued for bringing it directly to Broadway.

It was also Stuart who suggested John Dexter to direct. I had known Dexter's work only by its formidable reputation. Stuart sent the script to John, who called back the next day, saying it was the best play he'd read in twenty years. Naturally, this predisposed me to like him a great deal. We met in December in New York. Not long after, we persuaded Eiko Ishioka to design our sets and costumes. I had admired her work from afar ever since, as a college student, I had seen her poster for Apocalypse Now in Japan. By January, 1987, Stuart had optioned M. Butterfly, Dexter was signed to direct, and the normally sloth-like pace of commercial theater had been given a considerable prod.

On January 4, 1988, we commenced rehearsals. I was very pleased that John Lithgow had agreed to play the French diplomat, whom I named Rene Gallimard. Throughout his tenure with us, Lithgow was every inch the center of our company, intelligent and professional, passionate and generous. B. D. Wong was forced to endure a five-month audition period before we selected him to play Song Liling. Watching B. D.'s growth was one of the joys of the rehearsal process, as he constantly attained higher levels of performance. It became clear that we had been fortunate enough to put together a company with not only great talent, but also wonderful camaraderie.

As for Dexter, I have never worked with a director more respectful of text and bold in the uses of theatricality. On the first day of rehearsal, the actors were given movement and speech drills. Then Dexter asked that everyone not required at rehearsal leave the room. A week later, we returned for an amazingly thorough run-through. It was not until that day that I first heard my play read, a note I direct at many regional theaters who “develop” a script to death.

We opened in Washington, D.C., at the National Theatre, where West Side Story and Amadeus had premiered. On the morning after opening night, most of the reviews were glowing, except for The Washington Post. Throughout our run in Washington, Stuart never pressured us to make the play more “commercial” in reaction to that review. We all simply concluded that the gentleman was possibly insecure about his own sexual orientation and therefore found the play threatening. And we continued our work.

Once we opened in New York, the play found a life of its own. I suppose the most gratifying thing for me is that we had never compromised to be more “Broadway”; we simply did the work we thought best. That our endeavor should be rewarded to the degree it has is one of those all-too-rare instances when one's own perception and that of the world are in agreement.

Many people have subsequently asked me about the “ideas” behind the play. From our first preview in Washington, I have been pleased that people leaving the theater were talking not only about the sexual, but also the political, issues raised by the work.

From my point of view, the “impossible” story of a Frenchman duped by a Chinese man masquerading as a woman always seemed perfectly explicable; given the degree of misunderstanding between men and women and also between East and West, it seemed inevitable that a mistake of this magnitude would one day take place.

Gay friends have told me of a derogatory term used in their community: “Rice Queen”—a gay Caucasian man primarily attracted to Asians. In these relationships, the Asian virtually always plays the role of the “woman”; the Rice Queen, culturally and sexually, is the “man.” This pattern of relationships had become so codified that, until recently, it was considered unnatural for gay Asians to date one another. Such men would be taunted with a phrase which implied they were lesbians.

Similarly, heterosexual Asians have long been aware of “Yellow Fever”—Caucasian men with a fetish for exotic Oriental women. I have often heard it said that “Oriental women make the best wives.” (Rarely is this heard from the mouths of Asian men, incidentally.) This mythology is exploited by the Oriental mail-order bride trade which has flourished over the past decade. American men can now send away for catalogues of “obedient, domesticated” Asian women looking for husbands. Anyone who believes such stereotypes are a thing of the past need look no further than Manhattan cable television, which advertises call girls from “the exotic east, where men are king; obedient girls, trained in the art of pleasure.”

In these appeals, we see issues of racism and sexism intersect. The catalogues and TV spots appeal to a strain in men which desires to reject Western women for what they have become—independent, assertive, self-possessed—in favor of a more reactionary model—the pre-feminist, domesticated geisha girl.

That the Oriental woman is penultimately feminine does not of course imply that she is always “good.” For every Madonna there is a whore; for every lotus blossom there is also a dragon lady. In popular culture, “good” Asian women are those who serve the White protagonist in his battle against her own people, often sleeping with him in the process. Stallone's Rambo II, Cimino's Year of the Dragon, Clavell's Shogun, Van Lustbader's The Ninja are all familiar examples.

Now our considerations of race and sex intersect the issue of imperialism. For this formula—good natives serve Whites, bad natives rebel—is consistent with the mentality of colonialism. Because they are submissive and obedient, good natives of both sexes necessarily take on “feminine” characteristics in a colonialist world. Gunga Din's unfailing devotion to his British master, for instance, is not so far removed from Butterfly's slavish faith in Pinkerton.

It is reasonable to assume that influences and attitudes so pervasively displayed in popular culture might also influence our policymakers as they consider the world. The neo-Colonialist notion that good elements of a native society, like a good woman, desire submission to the masculine West speaks precisely to the heart of our foreign policy blunders in Asia and elsewhere.

For instance, Frances Fitzgerald wrote in Fire in the Lake, “The idea that the United States could not master the problems of a country as small and underdeveloped as Vietnam did not occur to Johnson as a possibility.” Here, as in so many other cases, by dehumanizing the enemy, we dehumanize ourselves. We become the Rice Queens of realpolitik.

M. Butterfly has sometimes been regarded as an anti-American play, a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, of women by men. Quite to the contrary, I consider it a plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception, to deal with one another truthfully for our mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings.

For the myths of the East, the myths of the West, the myths of men, and the myths of women—these have so saturated our consciousness that truthful contact between nations and lovers can only be the result of heroic effort. Those who prefer to bypass the work involved will remain in a world of surfaces, misperceptions running rampant. This is, to me, the convenient world in which the French diplomat and the Chinese spy lived. This is why, after twenty years, he had learned nothing at all about his lover, not even the truth of his sex.

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

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6118

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 for “fresh off the boat”), which explores the tensions within and between recent and assimilated Chinese immigrants. F.O.B. won an Obie when it moved to New York in 1980 and since then many of Hwang's plays, including The Dance of the Railroad (1981), Family Devotions (1981), The Sound of a Voice (1983), The House of Sleeping Beauties (1983), Rich Relations (1986), M. Butterfly (1988), and Bondage (1992), have addressed issues of individual identity, group identity, and as he explains in this interview, fluidity of identity. Hwang's most famous play, his Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, exposes Western attitudes toward Asia by deconstructing one of the most powerful and seductive images of the Orient, Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly. Far more than contributions to ethnic theater, Hwang's plays provide brilliant and complex analyses of the politics of race, gender, class, and sexuality.

The following interview took place on September 7, 1996, a few months before his most recent play, Golden Child, opened in New York.

[Lyons]: You've written in many styles and many kinds of plays. Do you see anything linking all your work? What about the issue of identity? Autonomy and community?

[Hwang]: It's probably true that all my work in some sense confronts the issue of fluidity of identity and explores the idea that who we are is the result of circumstance, the result of things that are not necessarily inherent but instead come out of our interaction with our contacts. Many of the plays suggest that if the contact changes, the individual becomes a different person, so to speak. Much of my work is about Asian-Americans, but even in the plays that aren't, you can trace that theme of fluidity of identity. The notion of community vs. the individual is interesting; it's not an idea I've really thought of before in relation to my work. As an Asian-American whose parents are immigrants, one of the dilemmas I feel most strongly in my own life is trying to figure out that issue. I was raised with a mentality that was concerned with group identity and about doing things for the group. But I was also raised as an American, which is essentially about individual identity. So I know that personally the issue of the individual vs. community has been a struggle for me, so it would not be surprising if that came through one way or another in my plays. But it's not actually a theme I've ever set down and traced through.

Do you tend to look back at your body of work and see aspects that you didn't see earlier?

If I compare writing plays to raising children (perhaps I'm inclined to that analogy since my wife and I have an infant!), I'd say that while you're in the process, there's not a lot of time or inclination to reflect on how your parenting style has changed while raising different children. Rather than look back, I'm more interested in focusing on what's next.

How does your interest in fluidity of identity relate to the current notion of the self as theater or self as performer?

In many of my plays there is at least one character playing some role, whether it's a predetermined role that exists in literature like Gallimard playing Pinkerton in M. Butterfly or Steve in F.O.B. playing Gwan Gung. The characters take on various mythologies and try to find themselves in relation to those mythologies, almost as if the search for identity is so difficult and complex that it is easier to hang your hat on a preestablished identity and try to have that become you or you become that thing.

Some critics have said that many of your plays can be seen as confrontations between two opposing forces or two opposing characters in which the seemingly weaker one triumphs. Do you agree?

Most of my plays do have an ideological duality to them; M. Butterfly has a series of them. Golden Child, my most recent play, is a real change—it's my first real ensemble play. But I don't think it is always the case that my plays follow the pattern of the weaker one triumphing over the stronger like Pinter's servant becoming the master. In The Dance and the Railroad, for instance, it's more an issue of the two characters trading positions. But the two positions are not defined relative to one another in terms of power in the same way Pinkerton and Butterfly are defined. Switching places is a very common aspect of my work, and I've been conscious of that when I set out to write them. Golden Child develops the Chinese vs. Christian theme that was in Family Devotions and Rich Relations. I'm not entirely satisfied with those plays; this is my attempt to trace back the roots of the Chinese/Christian conflict. It's about my great-grandfather who converted to Christianity in China in the 20s and the effects of his conversion on his three wives. The conversion obviously created a conflict, so in a sense Golden Child ends up being an ensemble piece about the opposition between Christianity and ancestor worship in terms of dualities.

So the big change with the new play is that it's an ensemble piece?

I think there are four good female roles and one strong male role and that the characters are more developed than in my earlier plays. About four or five years ago I decided that I had developed my ability to write plays with interesting structures and interesting ideas but that I hadn't paid enough attention to the detail that gives characters full human richness. So with this play I consciously set out to be more Chekhovian.

Years ago you said, “I'm not interested in subtext or subtleties. I'm more interested in creating layers of a structure that have reverberations, one upon the other.” Is your new play a kind of repudiation of that earlier position?

Yes, I'm trying to make up for what I now perceive as a certain deficiency in my work. I want to continue to grow as a writer, and character complexity is the area I have consciously been focusing on.

Elsewhere you've said that “except for a little more equal opportunities in theater” you were “loath to set out an aesthetic or political agenda” for other people. Do you have an aesthetic or political agenda for yourself?

Because I work with Asian themes and material I've become involved in various cultural debates like the Miss Saigon controversy that you can call a debate over multiculturalism or political correctness, depending on how you look at it. I think I've probably become an old-fashioned 60s integrationist. I've become rather antinationalistic and antiseparatist in my middle age. I'm in a mixed marriage and I have a biracial child. In my earlier years I agreed with the nationalistic argument that one shouldn't be assimilated, that it is pathetic to try to mimic the white man. At this point in my life I would say that the argument against assimilation wrongly assumes that culture is static. It doesn't make any sense to me; culture is what people create at any given time, culture lives and changes. So I think it's accurate to say that while society is going to change me, I am also going to change society. In a model of dynamic assimilation we're constantly moving to create culture, and this I think essentially has been the history of America with the exception of certain groups that have not been included. To expand on the model of dynamic assimilation and to include all the excluded groups is perhaps my personal political agenda these days.

Your own political thinking has gone through three stages: an early, unquestioning assimilationist position, then a stage of isolationism and nationalism, and now your current thinking about dynamic assimilation. Do you think young writers have to repeat the same three stages?

People are always going to have to work through issues, the question is what they have to work through. And that has a lot to do with the particular context of your time. When I was in college it was the birth of the isolationist/nationalist period, and that was the car I got into to begin this journey. Nowadays it seems to me college-age people recognize the importance of race but also see that it is not the whole picture. That seems to me to be a different place from which to start than it was in the 70s.

A critic has said that you have “the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller.” Do you see yourself as a dramatist of American public life?

I don't see my work as consciously pursuing public themes like Tony Kushner's. I'm more caught up in my own perhaps self-indulgent personal journey. My own journey happens to have a public dimension to it in that it deals with some of the issues that the country is involved in right now. But I don't approach it from that direction; my personal concerns happen to spill over into the public arena.

The characters in your first play F.O.B. were in their twenties, that is, around your own age. Has it gotten easier to write about older characters as you've gotten older yourself?

Because my work is personal, the plays tend to focus on characters that are about the same age I am. Even the great-grandfather who is the center of Golden Child is about the age I am now. The real problem is different. For example at this point in my life, if someone asked me to work on something that involved high school kids I'd have a problem. I don't know what it is to be a high school kid in the 1990s.

Your plays have been quite sympathetic to women characters and aware of sexism and gender issues. Any idea why?

I grew up with a lot of strong women. One of the funny things about being Chinese-American is that everyone else believes that Asian women are submissive and defer to men. My mom and aunt were both exceptions to that, and if everybody is an exception, then clearly something is wrong with the general rule. Traditional Chinese culture is really oppressive towards women; at the same time, growing up in a Chinese family, experientially you feel you are part of a matriarchy. I don't think Chinese women are victimized by their oppressive circumstances; I think they figure out a way to survive powerfully within those conditions. I grew up in a fundamentalist background; it was something I had to rebel against and get out of. Because of that I have been really sensitive to any kind of fundamentalism and have a kind of instinctive recoil. It seemed to me that if I was going to write about Asian characters and try to affirm their value vis-à-vis white culture, I would have to look at the entire picture, which involved me as a man trying to regard women with the same respect I would like white culture to regard me. It has never made sense to me to separate racism and sexism. Maybe that's the explanation for what you flatteringly call my sensitivity to women and gender issues.

In The Dance and the Railroad Lone says about the workers, “They are dead. Their muscles work only because the white man forces them. I live because I can still force my muscles to work for me.” I thought that was a very powerful statement about the desire for autonomy and metaphorically spoke about many of your characters' desire to have their minds working for themselves rather than being controlled by cultural forces or other people's ideas.

The characters are often clinging for security to a certain identity based on a stereotype or literary archetype and simultaneously trying to go past them to something that is more personal and individual. In act 3, scene 2 of M. Butterfly when Song disrobes, Song is really trying to say, “Look at me, get past the make-up, get past the archetype. You were in love with me.” Now Song is doing that for somewhat egotistical reasons, but he is trying to get to something personal.

Some of your plays such as Family Devotions and Rich Relations seem concerned with American materialism and class. Do you consider class and materialism central concerns in your work?

I think I've chickened out a bit on the issue of class and race. The English are obsessed with class; we Americans are obsessed with race. Race and racism have allowed white society to perceive itself as classless, because it is classless in relation to the black underclass.

As an Asian I've had to deal with racism, but it's qualitatively different from what African-Americans face; it's more like anti-Semitism. That puts me in a strange position in dealing with class, because as an Asian American I can't transcend my race but I can transcend my class. I am upwardly mobile in a way that is difficult for African-Americans. In Rich Relations and Family Devotions obsession with class status seems to be part of Christianity; the characters who are interested in Christianity are also very interested in material status. I think that functions to some extent as a critique of the religion and exposes some of the hypocrisy. In a lot of my plays, including F.O.B., a desire to be upwardly mobile dovetails with abandonment of cultural roots, and so desire for status turns out to be a signpost of general abandonment of principles.

In one of your introductions you talk about F.O.B., The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions as your trilogy on Chinese-America. Do they represent three stages—F.O.B. as a repudiation of self-hatred; The Dance and the Railroad as a positive embrace of ignored aspects of a culture's history and cultural forms; and Family Devotions as a complicated grappling with the issues of the past, tradition, and remembering?

I agree with your characterization of F.O.B. and The Dance and the Railroad. I'm not entirely happy with Family Devotions. It sets out some questions, but I don't know that it's really able to answer those questions, so I can't talk about it with the same assurance.

You dedicated Family Devotions to Sam Shepard among others. Any special reason?

I started writing it at the Area Playwrights Workshop he was giving; the exercise was to create a set and then create the characters who lived in that set. That's where I wrote the first two or three pages of Family Devotions and then I just kept on writing. So partially the dedication is a response to his inspiration, but I also think there are some similarities between my play and Buried Child. I've been a pretty blatant thief in modeling various plays on work by other playwrights. For example, The Dance and the Railroad is modeled on True West. And M. Butterfly is the Shaffer model.

And your new play?

Probably, The Three Sisters. I guess it's the three wives now! And in terms of its being a memory play with a narrator it's like The Glass Menagerie. In The Glass Menagerie the narrator plays himself at a younger point in his life, whereas in my play the narrator plays his own great-grandfather in the scenes from the 20s.

Do the three generations of Family Devotions represent your reading of the typical Chinese-American immigrant pattern—the first generation is tied to the past whether a false sense of the past or not, the second generation repudiates the past and accepts American values, and the third generation tries to come to some accommodation with the past and with America?

I think that's a pretty general sociological pattern for most American immigrant groups, but my own personal pattern is more complicated because I am not actually third generation. Even though my parents were immigrants, they chose to assimilate to a large extent—so they were like the first two generations in a way. My whole personal political development is largely a reaction to the fact that my parents did assimilate. If they had been more traditional and tied to the root culture, I would probably be a completely different person.

In recent years you've written screen plays as well as plays. Can you talk a bit about your career as a screen writer?

Since M. Butterfly my play output has been quite slim. I think that's because I was living in L.A. and writing screen plays. Now that I'm living back in New York I feel like I have a better balance between my playwriting life and my screenwriting life.

Do you take your film writing as seriously as you do your plays?

It's hard not to take film writing less seriously because it's so easy to lose control of a film script. Pictures get changed when they come out and others don't even get made. So much of the process is out of your hands as a writer. I appreciate L.A. as a way to support my family and to have something to do between play ideas, to keep my muscles going, but because I have some control over my plays I can't help but take them more seriously.

Was your decision to move back to New York related to the fact that you grew up in the L.A. area and your family is there, and a need to define yourself as a separate person?

Possibly, but I really think my desire not to live in L.A. has less to do with my family and more to do with trying not to get caught up in film writing.

I understand that in high school you were a musician and star debater. Do you think those early interests have affected you as a playwright?

Music really helps in terms of developing structure and dramatic growth, and jazz in particular helps with theatrical improvisation. As a jazz musician you get used to peaks and valleys and tensions—and these same things occur in theater which, like music, is a time art. And my early interest in debate no doubt contributed to my theatrical interest in the opposition of ideas and the interplay of ideas in many plays.

Years ago you said that you felt the best education for a playwright is to see and read all the plays one can. My question is, what do you think the value of seeing a play is as opposed to reading a play?

Seeing a play is always better because theater is meant to be seen. In a way, reading a play is a substitute for seeing it in the same way looking at a photograph of a building substitutes for studying the actual building.

That brings me to the issue of interpretation—do you think a director's responsibility is to try to embody the playwright's vision or to provide the best evening of theater, even if it means altering a text?

With a new play it seems important that the director try to convey the vision of the playwright. But with my own work, after a play is established, on the record so to speak, I'm actually curious to see what other people can do with it. There have been all sorts of odd productions of M. Butterfly around the world. In that context, I'm providing a kind of raw material and then the director shapes the clay into a vessel that interests him or her. And I find it interesting to see what else can be derived from the work.

You've said Maria Irene Fornes was one of the best teachers on earth. What made her so? And has what she taught you influenced how you teach other younger playwrights?

I've always been comfortable with my intellectual side and skittish with my emotional side. Emotional repression is part of my legacy as Chinese. And Irene's insistence on unlocking that and on giving a lot of freedom irrespective of formal structures was extremely useful to me. Through her exercises, and Sam's to some extent, I was able to access my subconscious in a way that enabled me to give life to my characters. I don't teach very often, but when I do, I teach out of that school as well. The way to find out whether you are a writer has to do with what happens when you start to access your subconscious.

Do you remember any exercises in particular?

One I like is a written version of that old acting exercise in which you sit there and say everything that's happening to you right at that moment—“I hear the air conditioner, I see that white wall. …” That's the first half of the exercise. In the second half you have to pick a literary or historical character in a particular time and place and write those sensations from inside that character's mind. Ideally what you end up with is a monologue something like that boy's in The Curse of the Starving Classes when he talks about hearing his father come home. That's an exercise I give a lot and I think I made that one up myself.

You were unusually successful as a playwright at a very young age. How do you think that early success has affected you?

The good part is that early on I was inoculated against success and failure. I've had the taste of success off-Broadway and a taste of failure off-Broadway and writer's block and all those things. In the last seven or eight years a lot of those same things have been replicated on a larger scale, on Broadway. My early success and very mixed career allow me not to get too excited about any of these things, to recognize the ebb and flow of a career and to know that you have successes and failures. On the down side, an M. Butterfly-size success is a relatively rare thing in the theater, but there is always the desire to equal or top that. That kind of success can't be planned for or even aspired to really, but the desire is probably always there.

You've been something of a spokesman for the Asian-American community. Do you find that a burden, an opportunity, or some combination of the two?

Different times it's been both. One part I reject is the idea of being what I call the Official Asian-American, the assumption that I or Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston or any one person can give everyone else a quick primer on what it is that Asians feel. Obviously any person can only speak for himself or herself. But if my visibility can be useful to illuminate or contribute to a social conversation, then I am satisfied with having the opportunity and responsibility.

At one time you said that you felt pressure from both sides of the Asian-American community. From the right for airing dirty laundry in public, and from the left for being too “whited out.” Has that changed over the years?

Pressure from the right has eased off because of the success of M. Butterfly—it's something like “If the whites like you, we have to like you too.” Some leftist people have accused M. Butterfly of perpetuating negative notions about Asians, male emasculation for instance. Some people are unhappy that I have this Asian guy on stage in a dress for two acts. And certainly I've been criticized for inappropriate use of Chinese mythology. Nobody likes to be criticized, but the debate over my plays seems to be useful for the Asian-American community. It allows Asian-American audiences to define themselves in relation to a particular artist by either rejecting or accepting that person's vision. They can say, “I like The Joy Luck Club but I don't like David's work” or vice versa. My work like Amy Tan's or Maxine's can be used as a way of thinking about Asian-American culture. And those kinds of comparisons are useful to undermine the notion of the Official Asian-American voice.

Your mother's family were born-again Christians and you had a fundamentalist background. When did you leave those beliefs behind? And was it wrenching for you?

It was during my sophomore year of college and, yes, it was very difficult. Being an ex-fundamentalist is like being an ex-Catholic. There's a lot of guilt involved and on some level you fear you're going to hell. On the other hand I have to say that breaking away was one of the things I'm most proud of in my life. It really was something I had to do to get my muscles to work for me. But because my family was monolithically Christian, I thought it would separate me from my family forever.

Was your rejection of Christianity related to the idea of Christianity as a tool of white imperialism?

In retrospect I might be able to justify it on that level, but the real reason for leaving was much more personal. It was the rejection of a kind of fundamentalist mindset. The rejection of the idea that there is immutable truth that needs to be reached and then preserved. For the same reason I am opposed to the idea of an immutable Asian-American identity. My rejection of fundamentalist thought parallels my belief in fluid identity.

Years ago you said that the most exciting professional moment of your life was when you got the call from the O'Neill Theater saying they wanted to put on F.O.B. Did the day M. Butterfly won the Tony and One Thousand Airplanes had its first trial performance surpass that?

That was a big day! But the thing that is so striking about the O'Neill acceptance is that the hardest thing is to get your foot in the door. Once you do that, you may or may not get a Tony, but all things are possible. And nothing is possible until the door is open. Moreover, the O'Neill acceptance was a huge surprise, because so many plays are submitted and so few are chosen, whereas with the Tony there are only five nominees, so I had a 20٪ chance.

Can you talk about your work on the film version of M. Butterfly?

I tried to find cinematic equivalents for the stage devices, but none of that made it into the actual movie. The movie is simply naturalistic.

Was that a great disappointment?

As a playwright I'm used to having my words be somewhat sacrosanct, but what happened with the film was pretty typical for a screenwriter. Whether the film would have been more successful if the director had followed my suggestions, who knows?

Can you talk about the influence of Maxine Hong Kingston and Woman Warrior on you and your work?

It was reading Woman Warrior that made me feel that I could find my own voice. As an Asian-American, she was the first author who spoke in a voice that seemed special, directly related to me. Before reading her work, I didn't think it was possible to write about my own parochial concerns; they didn't seem to have a place in literature as such. I really credit her with enabling me to believe my own concerns could be made into literature.

More than many playwrights, you've incorporated music and dance into your work. Are you still interested in total theater?

I am definitely still interested, but right now with Golden Child I set myself the challenge of trying to move an audience just with my words. I grew up with a kind of disdain for naturalism and kitchen sink plays, but seeing The Heiress was a real revelation to me. Golden Child has a slightly odd bookend structure and there's doubling in the play, but basically the body of it is a fairly naturalistic play set in China in 1923.

Early in your career you seemed interested in the importance of holding on to one's cultural traditions but of late you seem concerned with the idea that traditional societies were based on political and social ideas that are not attractive to you. Do you think you feel a conflict between honoring the past and progressive ideas?

That's one of the things Golden Child is about in fact—how to interact with the past in such a way as to make it useful to us now. Neither ignoring the past nor idealizing the past is useful in trying to better oneself or one's society. And how can we look at the past realistically since we don't know what really happened. We can only try to interpret the past through the filter of our current perspective. In Golden Child family history functions in the same way as scripture, or mythology, or literature. It's only important as it is able to be interactive and reinterpreted by people who are alive. That's the way the ghosts of the past serve us.

Doesn't your belief in the importance of reinterpretation go back to your rejection of fundamentalist thought? It seems to me the impulse of fundamentalism is to resist the possibility of reinterpretation.

Yeah, that's a very good point. Golden Child suggests there is no objective knowledge of history and that each generation searches for its own truths.

I understand you directed the original performance of F.O.B. and also a revival of that play put on after M. Butterfly. How do you feel about directing, and what was it like going back to your early work?

It had a kind of nice, nostalgic quality about it. It's interesting to revisit yourself at an earlier point in your life. To some extent Golden Child is also that because the source material is a novel that I wrote when I was ten. This early novel was kind of the official version of my family history and Golden Child is like a revisionist version. F.O.B. has a special place in my heart, whether for sentimental or more substantive reasons I'm not sure. It still speaks to me, and it is nice to feel some kind of unity between different aspects of myself at different times—although that does somewhat belie the notion that identity is completely fluid.

So your first literary work was a novel not a play. Does the novel as a form still interest you?

The time required to write a novel is daunting to me. And I like the interface between the solitude of writing and the social aspect of being in production. There's a nice tension in that for me.

Talking about Bondage you've remarked about the need to acknowledge ethnic differences and at the same time to be willing to go past them to “the human essence” and to “essential universal humanity.” I agree, but what would you say to those who insist there is no human essence or essential universal humanity—that those words are just codes for privileged white males?

As much as we've been talking about fluidity of identity and social construction of the self, I feel that there is something more, something we all share, something beneath all that.

Do you begin a play with a character or an idea or a scene?

Different plays develop from different seeds, but in general I like to know where I'm starting and where I'm ending. I like to think of writing a play as taking a roadtrip. I know I'm going from New York to Chicago; the fun part is finding the road to Chicago.

Do you think in terms of scenes?

Not much except right before I get to one. I generally just write from the beginning to the end. I write a scene, it ends and then I have to take an imaginative leap and ask, “What chunk of the road is this next area going to cover?” And then it becomes a scene. But it's not a question of laying out the scenes before I start.

Albee has said, “A first-rate play exists completely on the page and is never improved by production. It is only proved by production.” Do you agree, and what is your attitude toward production?

At certain points in some of my plays I'm writing a blueprint, an invitation for the director to collaborate with me. For example, when Song takes off her make-up between Act II and III in M. Butterfly, that's an opportunity for the director to do a cadenza.

Some playwrights have said they see playwriting as creative and acting as interpretive. Do you see it that way?

I think both are creative and interpretive. A lot of my work is interested in interpretation, and when an actor interprets or creates a role he or she is going through the same process that I went through writing. So I don't see a big difference.

Has an actor ever revealed an aspect of one of your characters you were unaware of?

While I can't think of an example right now, I'm sure it happens all the time. Just because I wrote a play doesn't mean I think I'm the final authority on what this work is about. I wrote it, but that doesn't mean I understand it better than anybody else. A good play like life itself is a matter of interpretation. When someone has a new interpretation of the work that feels right, then I learn something about the work and presumably something about myself.

Do you see yourself as writing for a particular audience? Do you think of audience at all?

My primary audience of course is myself. In terms of secondary audiences, I am interested in speaking to as many people as possible. Which because I am Asian-American can be misinterpreted to mean, “He wants to write for White people.” I want to reach as many people as possible—Asian, White, Black, whatever. My object is to communicate.

Do you feel a need to make Asian or Asian-American references clear to a non-Asian-American audience?

I've found that the more culturally specific you are, the more universal the work is. There's no conflict between wanting to reach a large audience and being particular and culturally accurate.

Do you think there's a sort of canon of great modern plays or modern American plays and if so, what's included? Or put it another way, if you were teaching a course on modern theater, which plays would you teach?

I think one of the reasons I don't teach is that I don't want to deal with that question. Tony Kushner is teaching a class at NYU called “Plays That Have Influenced Me” or something like that. I'd be comfortable being subjective like that, and I can tell you what plays have influenced me and which plays I really like, but the idea of a canon implies something definitive.

Let's say Tony backs out and David leaps in.

Well, if we're talking about plays since 1960 there's The Birthday Party, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Look Back in Anger, Amadeus. I'm thinking of a lot of Brits. Tooth of Crime and Buried Child, Glengarry GlenRoss and Joe Turner, even though it's not August Wilson's most successful play. Those are the plays that come to mind immediately.

What's on your mind for the future?

My next work may be a musical. For contractual reasons I can't say more than that, now. In terms of issues or themes, I'm interested in exploring masculinity, especially for Asian men. There's a strange double bind that I describe in Bondage in which Asian men are perceived as wimps but also as oppressive sexists. So they have the disadvantages of being macho and none of the advantages. In the past because of my desire to be sensitive to feminist issues I haven't affirmed masculinity, which as a construct can be pretty oppressive. I remember being at a conference at which someone said we really need more Asian James Bonds. To me that represents assimilation in the worst sense of the word. What interests me is exploring a way to affirm masculinity that does not rely on oppression.

David Henry Hwang (essay date 1998)

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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 thirty years ago in the mind of a ten-year-old child.

Golden Child is inspired by the story of my great-grandfather, who converted to Christianity in China around the turn of the century. The play reimagines the wrenching changes he set into motion, which forever changed the world of his three wives (Chinese society of that era was polygamous) and one of his daughters. That daughter is based on my maternal grandmother. Decades after the world of Golden Child had passed into history, when I was a ten-year-old American boy, that same grandmother fell gravely ill. I knew her as the only person of her generation who remembered our family history, and I feared that with her passing, the lore of our ancestors would be lost. As an American boy, growing up in Southern California, these stories somehow seemed very important to me, so I asked my parents if I could spend my summer vacation in the city of Cebu in the Philippines, where she was living at the time. They agreed, and I embarked with my “Ama” upon the collection of what we might now call oral histories. When I returned to Los Angeles, I compiled the tape-recorded information into a ninety-page “novel” on the history of my family, which I titled Only Three Generations, after the Chinese proverb: “The wealth of a Chinese family lasts only three generations.” This document was duly Xeroxed and distributed to my relatives, who showered it with excellent reviews.

Almost three decades later, in early 1995, I returned to my manuscript as a middle-aged man, and began to collaborate with my ten-year-old self to create a new play. At ten, could I have known that my adult self would one day return to this work? Probably not. But something at that young age did compel me to record these stories, to ensure that my life as an American would exist in a context more real and human than the “Charlie Chans” or “Fu Manchus” I saw on television or in the movies.

My first draft of Golden Child was completed that June. Several months later, I heard the piece read for the first time at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, which had commissioned the work. I learned that, though the germ of a good play lay somewhere within, the text was too wordy. Furthermore, its structure, which juxtaposed scenes of pre-Revolutionary China with monologues by a contemporary figure recounting memories of his grandmother, felt awkward and unwieldy. The impact of the Chinese scenes vastly outweighed that of the contemporary character's speeches.

In the summer of 1996, I workshopped Golden Child in Breadloaf, Vermont, the summer home of Providence's Trinity Repertory Company, where I am Artist-in-Residence under the Pew/TCG National Artist Residency Program. Working with actors (including Tsai Chin and Julyana Soelistyo, who have remained on this journey since its inception), I pared down the contemporary monologues and hacked away at the excess dialogue.

South Coast Repertory agreed to present Golden Child as a co-production with The Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, which had premiered my first four plays under the leadership of the late Joseph Papp. During rehearsals at the Public, in the fall of 1996, I came to rely on the unerring theatrical instincts of director James Lapine, a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author himself, who contributed ideas for some of the play's best moments, and whose notes, I conceded to my growing irritation, were almost always correct. We added scenes, turned the contemporary monologues into a framing device for the central historical story and continued to trim excess verbiage.

Golden Child opened at the Public to mixed-to-favorable reviews. Producer Benjamin Mordecai stepped in and encouraged us to continue working on the play, culling whatever we found useful from the notices, with an eye toward bringing the show to Broadway. For the play's next incarnation, again at South Coast Repertory, James and I turned the contemporary monologues into short bookend scenes and worked on replacing historical explanation with dramatic action. In search of these moments, I returned to my original text and came upon a scene involving my great-grandfather's decision to unbind my grandmother's feet, reversing a centuries-old tradition which had turned women into cripples in the name of feminine beauty. Such a moment had only been talked about but not dramatized in the Public production.

Suddenly, Tiong-Yee stomped over to his eldest daughter and ripped the bindings off her feet. His wife lowered her head and answered in as straight a tone as she could manage, “Don't you care about your daughters? Don't you want them to marry someday? No person of fine class would marry a girl whose feet are not bound. You must bind the feet of girls so that they will not grow, and they shall be pretty with their tiny new feet.”

Tiong-Yee's rebuttal was strong: “This is a new century. These are new times. My daughters will be educated—they will go to school, learn to read and write, just like a man—maybe even go to college. I have seen many things in my trips over the seas. I have talked to and even made friends with these white Western people. The times are changing—even you will see one day. Is that clear?”

As a child, such courage on the part of my great-grandfather seemed natural and uncomplicated. As an adult, however, I could not help but reflect upon the ambivalence he must have felt in breaking with tradition, knowing he was risking the future of his children, and would be criticized for his actions. In a beautiful sequence suggested by James, Tiong-Yee (renamed Tieng-Bin in the play) must struggle with his senior wife, and then with the ghosts of his own ancestors, in order to unbind the feet of his daughters.

At the play's next stop, Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, we perhaps misstepped. The tone of Golden Child ranges from humorous to tragic. James had long stressed to me the importance of striking a balance in which the comedy does not compromise the show's more serious conclusion. I, however, had consistently pushed him to emphasize the laughs, and at this venue I got my wish. The result was too glib and shallow, our second-act tribulations unearned. Our producers decided to postpone our return to New York until the following season.

The entire time we worked on the play, I questioned whether I, an American, could authentically recreate the world of Old China. Several of my earlier works had been staged in the island republic of Singapore, one of the few places in Asia where an English-language work can reach a large native audience. I liked the idea of a Broadway-bound work trying-out in Asia rather than a more conventional American or English venue. In December 1997, we began rehearsals for a stop at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, the next leg on our final push toward Broadway. In the interim, I had rethought the character of the male patriarch as an older man, whose decision to change would be more difficult, and whose fall might carry greater weight. With this in mind, we recast several roles to assemble our Broadway-bound cast, which now included the great classical actor Randall Duk Kim, with whom I had wanted to work all my life.

We were received with great warmth and excitement in Singapore; literally not an empty seat was available for our entire run. As the child of immigrants, I felt a particular pride in the response of the Singaporean Chinese, many of whom told me that the work had caused them to rediscover their own ancestral histories. Whatever Golden Child's eventual fate back in the States, I knew I would always cherish the way this work had touched an audience in Asia. Still there was more work to be done. Returning to the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, we continued to rework the framing scenes and clarify the male lead's reasons for converting to Christianity, as well as his relationships with his wives.

Looking back upon the twists and turns of this journey, I sometimes see it as an American playwright's act of ancestor worship. If we look at traditional ancestor worship from a psychological standpoint, we may regard it as self-exploration—the living inventing both sides of altar conversations to keep the dead alive. Undoubtedly, returning to this material allowed me to invent many sides of numerous conversations, and to remember my forebears the way I know best: upon the stage. I also agree, however, that plays are like children, which at some point must be let go to find their own way in the world. So with the premiere of Golden Child, I simultaneously claim and release my ancestors, until perhaps some future point when I may need to call upon them again, to travel together down another road.

Robert L. King (review date spring 1989)

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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 New York Times account appears:

A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity. …

Mr. Bouriscot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Mr. Shi, whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman.

Hwang's artistic conceit—to enlarge this account through parallels to Puccini's Madame Butterfly—opens this story of an East/West meeting to treatment through the range of theatrical techniques available to opera and drama. M. Butterfly uses them all and uses them resourcefully: movement, dance, music, lighting, costume, character, episode, color. The first words of the play are the last words of the opera, “Butterfly, Butterfly,” but before the French diplomat, Gallimard, speaks them, the space above and behind his cell presents his ideal love, Song, in first a traditional Chinese dance with appropriate accompaniment and then in another dance to the Love Duet from Puccini. B. D. Wong's disciplined performance as Song, from stylized dancing to mincing steps, in the costume of Chinese opera or dressed like Anna May Wong, constantly enacts the exotic as a role; the audience applauds the fulfillment of its prejudices. As Hwang puts it in his author's notes: “It seems to me more subversive to present this chinoiserie in its full glory, and then to question the reasons for the audience taking pleasure.” This comment usefully summarizes what the performance makes clear; Hwang does not dupe his audience so much as he allows it either to reach insights or to indulge its prejudices.

In the second scene, still very early in the play, Gallimard “with a flourish … directs our attention” to a scene which he watches with us, a scene in which people in a “chic-looking parlor” jokingly wonder how he could have mistaken his lover for a woman. The sophisticated people on stage and their too worldly but literal questions are exactly the wrong audience for a play about the social acceptance of sex roles and cultural stereotypes. In the next short scene, Gallimard addresses us directly: “I, Rene Gallimard, you see, I have known and been loved by … the Perfect Woman. … And I imagine you—my ideal audience—who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy me.” Hwang stands behind Gallimard much as Swift does behind his various personae; the clues for a proper reading are frequent and consistent. If we envy Gallimard, we are his ideal audience, but not Hwang's. If we raise questions on the biological level and ignore the cultural uses of sexual power, we are misled by a literal, self-congratulatory mentality.

Some parts of the play can be lifted out of context and still be meaningful, but even they are witty and invite reflection:

Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns that he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.

For the most part, though, M. Butterfly concentrates on and demonstrates theatricality for its worth as projection of a self, Gallimard's and Song's almost exclusively; dramatic technique does not create a facade to be penetrated and exposed to our satisfaction. There's no precious insider stuff here as in Eastern Standard. Hwang operates on a much higher level of dramatic intelligence—he represents representation and is generous in trusting us to evaluate what we delight in.

When M. Butterfly plays to our lower instincts, Hwang is teasing us into thought. As Gallimard, for example, fantasizes over a girlie magazine, a live centerfold type strips behind a scrim, and his dream is realized for our entertainment. This display makes graphic the point of a dramatized dream of Gallimard's, a dream in which his friend tells him, “We don't have to be respectful. We're foreign devils.” For Gallimard, the self-serving dream comes true when he replies to Song's hurt in the next scene with “What do you expect? I'm a foreign devil.” The power role he chooses constrains him, however, as Hwang suggests through inventive dramatic means, for the oriental panels that define Song's flat in one scene become part of Gallimard's cell in the next. The very stage props turn into metaphor when we see that the world Gallimard entered in the hope of dominating it comes to imprison him.

Between Acts II and III, Song changes in full view of the audience. He invites us to leave our seats, “to stretch your legs, enjoy a drink” (No one did at the performance I attended or at others I've heard about) while, seated facing front with the house lights up, he removes his make-up and becomes the male Song who will stand trial before the French court in the next scene. The audience applauds his transformation without knowing that it is prelude to two others, when Song as male strips naked to force Gallimard to acknowledge the truth about his fantasy, and when Gallimard puts on Butterfly make-up and costume before killing himself. As Song removes his clothes, Hwang keeps the focus on the dramatic use of costume:

What—what are you doing?
Helping you to see through my act.

Song's line operates as music and lights have; it cues us to become more thoughtful—to be his ideal audience and Hwang's. The ensuing climactic change, then, has been very thoughtfully prepared for: in his cell, Gallimard despairs over his announced goal of rewriting his story with us as collaborators, and he becomes what he fantasized to possess. Facing the audience but fixing his unblinking eyes on a non-existent mirror between us, David Dukes spread white paint across his cheeks with professional surety; he drew in the dark brows and became a Song/Butterfly. There was no literal mirror up to his nature; if anywhere, it was in our space, the place where responsibility for making false human images rests. This was a thrilling moment in which the would-be master begins to complete his story by becoming the slave, when the sexually and culturally insecure role-player succumbs to another's role, and when Hwang's artistry gives the audience its opportunity to see through things with new insight. Butterfly's suicide is deliberately anti-climactic. The final words are Song's from above; they turn Puccini's ending to irresolution and reverse the opening of M. Butterfly by returning us to the cultural confusions of our world: “Butterfly? Butterfly?”

We should be grateful that M. Butterfly played a Broadway house and sold out. Hwang took full advantage of the large stage: a long sweeping ramp came down from high above the stage floor and curved out toward us; uncompromising red, white and black served as background to the vivid costumes; huge decorative curtains of oriental birds were replaced by Maoist revolutionary ones; a Chinese band with traditional instruments performed on stage. With all the rich production values of a Broadway success at his disposal, Hwang raised questions of fundamental worth in the commercial theatre, and he did so in a play of great artistic integrity.

Janet V. Haedicke (essay date fall 1992)

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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 viewing not only this vehicle of validation but also the discomfort of my male companions before it; such self-confirming pleasure, however, gave way to a still-haunting response. Since reviews and the text itself should have excised any shock value from the climactic transformation of the Butterfly figure into a man, my gasp betrayed a complicity in representation which after-theatre conversation only confirmed. The males' admiration of B. D. Wong's body forced admission that I had hardly noticed his nakedness, a testimonial, unfortunately, not to a non-erotic gaze but to my own objectifying one. From a defiant female position of object-oppressed, I nonetheless had pleaded guilty to the Asian's onstage indictment of Western men: “And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (62).

This destabilization of my own gaze personalized the juncture of theory and theatre, prompting conviction that the recent intersection of feminism and postmodernism signifies more than an academic stance. M. Butterfly obviously begs for a feminist reading; yet an Anglo-American feminism grounded in sexual difference as paradigmatic opposition falters before this play. Since it marks my own epistemological shift1 and since Hwang criticism thus far seems to reflect that previous perspective, I hope to provide convincing argument that M. Butterfly represents not only cultural and gender binaries but also the representation, or the production, of those binaries. The play thus extends audience complicity from the Broadway theatre to the theatre of Western culture. A recognition of M. Butterfly as metatheatrical, metapsychological, metalinguistic, and, finally—if I can forgive even myself the term—meta-metaphysical locates the play's meaning not onstage, where critics have dwelled, but in that “field of perception” (Blau “Hysteria” 12) between play and spectator, that force-field whereon my own compass needles went haywire.

Resisting such dislocation, Robert Skloot formulates either/or choices for interpreting the play's “thematic (but not moral) ambiguity” (64). Although he notes the play's subversion of binary oppositions, Skloot writes of Hwang's “ultimate intention of pondering the possibilities of their reconciliation” (60). This notion of oneness through the union of opposites, the “androgynous fulfillment” (61) of the final suicide, which achieves “Gallimard's transformation into his cultural (and gender) opposite” (60), actually reinscribes the binary logic which M. Butterfly indicts. Skloot's often perceptive discussion of the play's cultural, gender, and theatrical politics seems bound by the same limitations as liberal feminism or misconstrued post-structuralism:2 inversions without displacements of binaries. Though he sees the play as Hwang's “version of ‘metadiscursive reflectiveness’” (59) which forces audience complicity, Skloot evades the problems of language, subjectivity, and spectatorship, subsuming audience perception under a presumably unitary “we.” His elision of the metatheatrical element as by now too “old-fashioned” to contain much surprise or risk (64) and his occlusion of “postmodern parlance” (62) lead Skloot to the refuge of authorial intentionality as meaning; citing Hwang, he concludes: “… I believe that M. Butterfly achieves its political objective ‘to fight the religion of the present in America’ by trying ‘to link imperialism, racism and sexism [in] a certain historical perspective’” (64). Yet, if the play fights only in representing and historicizing the present, which inevitably is to produce as well as to reproduce it, then its politics smack of the facile.

Thus Skloot's reading of the play as the transposition of oppositional paradigms cannot deflect such attacks as Gabrielle Cody's “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth” or James Moy's “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Phillip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese Marginality on the American Stage.” Pointing out that the rape mentality of imperialism is hardly a new idea, Cody finds Hwang's “effortless brand of liberalism” (24) hypocritical and the “seductive theatricality” disguising the “real play underneath”: “rather than examine the cultural and political circumstances that determine gendered behavior and make it easier to believe in than to challenge, [Hwang] concludes that male and female cannot be reconciled in one person” (27). Hence, the theatricalism that Skloot dismisses Cody targets as camouflage for Hwang's “rejection of human complexity in his characters” (27) and as intoxication of the audience.

Moy, conversely, faults Hwang for an over-determination of human complexity: “As racial and sexual confusion both dominate one character, Song Liling functions as a vehicle of massive self-doubt” (54). Thus the representation's “clear [verbal] indictment of the cultural hegemony of the West” (55) is subverted theatrically by “another disfigured stereotype” who fails to provide “a new, hoped-for vision of Chinese or Asian identity” (54). Disturbed that this representational rupture may signal an intentional capitulation to an Anglo-American marketplace, Moy dismisses Hwang's “anamorphic intersection of race and gender” (54) as defusing the issue of racial/sexual identity, which presumably can only be raised through a unified presence who signifies “an assimilation … into the American mainstream” (55). For its failure to present a consolidation and validation of identity, Moy, like Cody, denies the play the political progressiveness which Skloot descries.

In their emphasis on reconciliation, however, these critics share a common ground in insistent binarism and in the location of meaning (or lack thereof) solely in the text; such readings, positing a fixed subject/object relation to the play as well as a standard of unitary subjectivity, reproduce the very terms which M. Butterfly deconstructs. Further, it is through its maligned theatricalism that this “deconstructivist Madama Butterfly” (Hwang, Author's Notes 86) encourages political/cultural transformation and perhaps inadvertently achieves the political objective Skloot via Hwang specifies. Foregrounding its “iterability” (Derrida's “quasi-concept” of the structural possibility of repetition and alteration which I see permeating the play's structure),3 I cite Hwang's intent again: “to fight the religion of the present in America by trying to link imperialism, racism and sexism [in] a certain historical perspective.” Conceding to Cody that representation reproduces rather than fights, I shall focus on M. Butterfly's structure, reading “present in America” spatially as well as temporally. A challenge to the western metaphysics of presence, M. Butterfly not only represents “a certain historical perspective” but presents history as perspective, a theatre produced by and for the gaze. Extrinsically, the play foregrounds history as a field of fiction since Hwang based it on a two-paragraph New York Times story about Bernard Bouriscot. A French diplomat, Bouriscot was imprisoned in 1986 for passing information to his lover, Mr. Shi, a Chinese opera singer whom for twenty years Bouriscot mistook for a woman. Not wanting “the ‘truth’ to interfere with my own speculations” (Author's Notes 85), Hwang deliberately eschewed further research. Such emphasis on speculation—the specular eye/I which problematizes “truth”—pervades the play as the gaze continually intrudes on its “reality.”

I find encouragement for my argument in Hwang's own resistance to binary readings and his insistence on the defining dangers of the gaze:

M. Butterfly has sometimes been regarded as an anti-American play, a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, of women by men. Quite to the contrary, I consider it a plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception. …

(Afterword 100)

Hwang's emphasis on perception—like the foregrounding of language and humor—suggests parallels with Beckett, which make relevant Herbert Blau's comments on Beckett's dramaturgy: “It is this exercise of perception in the deconstruction of appearances which is the subject of expanding consciousness in the most abbreviated of Beckett's plays, which have always been about consciousness” (“Bloody Show” 14). Like Beckett, Hwang dramatizes “contortions to achieve self-presence in the living present” (15) as the play's narrative takes the form of Rene Gallimard's autobiographical narrative, itself a contortion to reconstruct a past contortion, a trope for specularity.

As Gallimard turns upstage to gaze upon Song and sigh “Butterfly, Butterfly …,” the play's opening situates him as a secondary spectator, a point of identification for the audience gaze. Yet immediately he disrupts the subject/present/presence illusion of realistic theatre by directly confronting the spectators with their own imprisonment in the illusion of a fixed position: “The limits of my cell are as such” (7). Hwang's stage directions—“With a flourish, Gallimard directs our attention” (8) to the subsequent scene of a Parisian party, where he is mockingly toasted (“Vive la différence” [9]—foreground Gallimard's life story as “always already” constructed much as Hwang has constructed Bouriscot's history. Gallimard directly forewarns the audience that the illusion of unmediated subjectivity constitutes performance and that the specular eye/I confuses theatre with history, history with truth, autobiography with the life:

Alone in this cell, I sit night after night, watching our story play through my head, always searching for a new ending, one which redeems my honor, where she returns at last to my arms. And I imagine you—my ideal audience—who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy me.


Of course, only the shared desire for an unequivocal gaze could sustain such identification and equate Gallimard's theatre with Hwang's. That the play's critics seem to do so testifies to the tenacity of such a gaze, a tenacity in character and in spectator which constitutes the play's tragic focus. As Gallimard turns on his tape recorder to produce the opening strains of “Madame Butterfly” over the house speakers, the theatre emerges as a cell of perception and culture as such a theatre.

Framing the representation of his own life with Puccini's representation, Gallimard directs and performs his version of Madame Butterfly, the parodic tone of which foreshadows the parallel parody of his “remembrance of things past.” Gallimard's Brechtian double-casting and reversal of type (himself as Pinkerton, his friend Marc as Sharpless, Song as Butterfly, and Chin as Suzuki) foregrounds the performance aspect of his own text. Further, the ironic intercutting (significant that film terms so readily come to mind) of Gallimard's impotent gazing at the pin-up girl, materialized from his girlie magazines, underscores not only the self-avowed irony of his role as Pinkerton, but the inadvertent irony of his narration. Though the voyeuristic male gaze may wield power, it delivers its eye/I to prison, not potency. In narrating his life into history and himself into death, Gallimard recreates the song he had created in Song, turning his voyeuristic gaze onto himself as object. Though Skloot notes the affinity of sexual and theatrical voyeur in the triumph of imagination over reality (64), Hwang's presentation continually subverts the “reality” of the representation, undermining such polarization. Skloot's “reality,” of course, is that Song is a man, but the play problematizes the term in its structural, paradigmatic, oppositional definition: male = West = subject = perceiver = power. To desire, like Gallimard, union with a female without or, like the spectator/critic, union of opposites within is to posit meaning in sexual difference as opposition, not difference.

Gallimard's recreation of 1904 Puccini dissolves to his memory of Song's recreation of Butterfly's death scene for Western diplomats in 1960 Beijing. By the time Song steps from this stage onto that of Gallimard's 1988 narration, Hwang has dramatized a play within a play within a play within a play. Such layers of [mis]perception continually displace the theatre of binaries—presence versus absence, reality versus illusion, perceiver versus perceived, subject versus object, male versus female—as an Italian recreation of a Japanese woman is recreated by a Chinese man recreated by a French man recreated by an Asian/American man. This “play” within the play dismantles the spectator's unitary gaze as Gallimard, through metaleptic plotting of the failure of fixed identity, attempts to perform another into existence. His play, not Hwang's, takes place on the Oedipal stage, site of the legacy of binarism in the form of unequivocally gendered subjectivity, which, for a male, requires definition against (M)Other. Gallimard's self-psychoanalysis emerges as comic theatre when, for example, Marc, playing a bureaucrat in the 1960 Beijing embassy, speaks in his own voice to reveal that he had scripted the sexual initiation of the effeminate adolescent Gallimard. In recalling in this imagined dialogue that “I was worried about my legs falling off” (29), Gallimard diagnoses his sadistic attraction to Song as a desperate attempt to preserve his legs or finalize the prescribed Oedipal resolution of male subjectivity through castration anxiety, a scenario perpetually played on the (M)Other's body.4

Thus not only Song's profession as actor, but his own Oedipal act enabled Gallimard to suppress sexual confusion through binary scripting. Though Song initially attacks the Western fantasy of “the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (18) and the conflation of Chinese and Japanese (“The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war, you know” [18]), Gallimard subsumes this political subversiveness with polarization: “It is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education” (25). Since binaries are inevitably hierarchical,5 Gallimard fixes his gaze—and the audience's—on the “Oriental” (a term which, Hwang points out, “denote[s] an exotic or imperialistic view of the East” [Author's Notes 85]) as emblem of the female scar of inferiority6 to privilege his pole (couldn't resist): “To us” he boasts, “Did you hear the way she talked about Western women? Much differently than the first night. She does—she feels inferior to them—and to me” (28). Having failed to convert a Western woman into a man-metaphor as directed by Marc, his projected super-ego, Gallimard successfully performs prescribed male subjectivity only when racial and cultural otherness bolster sexual superiority. Enforcing absence on Song for seven weeks, his psyche (and her letters “of shame”) creates a paradigmatic Other—a Butterfly—who will presumably establish him firmly as neither “a eunuch or a homosexual” (30), obliterating adolescent insecurity and marital sterility. When this power play results not in punishment but in a promotion to Vice-Consul, the Gallimard of 1960 exulted in masculinist power: “God who creates Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed—that God is a man. And he understands! At age thirty-nine, I was suddenly initiated into the way of the world” (32).

The Gallimard of 1988, perceptually and physically imprisoned by his reification of the Freudian scenario, still clings to its narrative of fixed subjectivity. Resisting another perspective in his projected script, Gallimard fights the entrance of Comrade Chin, Song's director as Marc was his, but is chided by Song: “Now, don't embarrass yourself” (38). After a parodic scene in which the 1960 Song receives directions from the Party, the 1988 Song patronizingly permits Gallimard, once Chin has gone, to “Please continue in your own fashion” (39). Such intrusions into Gallimard's remembrance increasingly betray its narrative of psychological causality as a representation. In claiming that Hwang reduces Gallimard's sexual ambiguity to a “safe dramatic icon” (25), Cody overlooks the fact that the psychological text, wherein sexual confusion is attributable to failed object relations, is Gallimard's, not Hwang's. Likewise, “Hwang's attraction to caricature over characterization” (Cody 25-6) is actually the disillusioned Gallimard's mocking, yet yearning for, his past narcissistic identity confirmed by otherness. Rather than resulting in a “perverse cancellation of thought” (Cody 26), the tone of caricature brings Hwang close once again to Beckett, who, as Blau notes, shared Proust's view of voluntary memory providing an image “as far removed from the real as … the caricature furnished by direct perception” (“Bloody Show” 13). I here venture a reminder that the name of Proust's publisher was Gallimard as a further cautionary signal against viewing the play as mimesis.

As Gallimard replays the psychoanalytic scripts of his history, Hwang plays the script of psychoanalysis as the history of the production of sexual difference as oppositional, gendered, and hierarchical rather than multiple, shifting, and heterogeneous. In a psycho/cultural system where difference constitutes meaning, there is nothing safe about ambiguous sexuality since vacillation of gender presupposes vacillation of subjectivity. Thus Rene Gallimard retreats from his “extra-extramarital affair” (43) with Renee, the Danish language student with a French name, because the difference in a silent e proves insufficient. Without the superiority of race, culture, and class to fortify that of gender, Gallimard's voyeuristic gaze falters: “Renee was picture perfect. With a body like those girls in the magazines. … And it was exciting to be with someone who wasn't afraid to be seen completely naked. But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too … masculine?”7 (43). Refusing to play absence to his presence, mediator to his desire, silence to his speech, lack to his phallus, Renee undermines the scopic reassurance of anatomical difference; her contemporary feminist assertiveness—sexual and linguistic—disrupts not only the Freudian biological but the Lacanian symbolic Oedipal scenario. On the problem of the penis, Renee declares:

But, like, it just hangs there. This little … flap of flesh. And there's so much fuss that we make about it. Like, I think the reason we fight wars is because we wear clothes. Because no one knows—between the men, I mean—who has the biggest … weenie. … But, see, it never really works, that's the problem. I mean, you conquer the country, or whatever, but you're still wearing clothes, so there's no way to prove absolutely whose is bigger or smaller. And that's what we call a civilized society.


Gallimard pronounces “not acceptable” (44) this mockery of the Lacanian phallus as universal signifier within the symbolic order, admitting that his potency with Renee sprang only from Butterfly's tears and silence. His determined perpetuation of the phallogocentric system, however, proves self-victimizing. Informed that his proposed script for the Vietnam theatre will be performed, “That the U.S. will allow the Vietnamese generals to stage a coup … and assassinate President Diem” (45, ellipsis original), Gallimard is also advised that he will be the scapegoat in the case of a bad finale. Attempting to reassert voyeuristic/linguistic dominance by demanding that Butterfly strip, Gallimard, revolted by the image of Pinkerton, relents and kneels before “her.” Yet, though he recalls that “love” triumphed over the male Western oppressor in him, Gallimard merely shifted from the voyeuristic to the fetishistic aspect of his self-conscious male gaze, over-valuing rather than devaluing woman to validate gendered identity.8

Still exalting this “love” as the reconciliation of opposites, the 1988 Gallimard scripts himself from this point in his text as a victim, projecting Song as director of his downfall. Still kneeling, he watches an intercut of Song's report to Comrade Chin, who warns “You're just gonna end up with rough notes” (48). Answering her own question as to why female Peking opera roles are played by men, Song boasts: “Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (49). Even this disillusionment projected into the past does not dissuade the Gallimard of the present from the lure of idealization and representation:

… I could forget all that betrayal in an instant, you know. If you'd just come back and become Butterfly again.
Fat chance. You're here in prison, rotting in a cell. And I'm on a plane, winging my way back to China. Your President pardoned me of our treason, you know.
Yes, I read about that.
Must make you feel … lower than shit.
But don't you, even a little bit, wish you were here with me?
I'm an artist, Rene. You were my greatest … acting challenge. (She laughs.) It doesn't matter how rotten I answer, does it? You still adore me. That's why I love you, Rene. (She points to us.) So—you were telling your audience about the night I announced I was pregnant.

(49, ellipses original)

The metatheatrical, metapsychological, and metalinguistic conjoin here, as they do throughout the play, to dramatize consciousness as perception. Embodying the castration anxiety on which both the Freudian and Lacanian Oedipal constructs are based, Gallimard, notwithstanding his turning the gaze on himself, clings tenaciously to binary positionality as phallus/tongue in the past and in his narrative of that past. In part, his misrecognition of Song's sex is attributable to linguistic reassurance of self-presence through oppositional absence: “But mostly we would talk. About my life. Perhaps there is nothing more rare than to find a woman who passionately listens” (40). Back in Paris in 1970 after being demoted, Gallimard is primed for acquiescence in Song's spy mission through his yearning for linguistic more than sexual power: “This is the ultimate cruelty, isn't it? That I can talk and talk and to anyone listening, it's only air” (58). Constituted in language, the characters as actors as characters employ words as weapons for self-presence, hoping to perform an identity into existence. Thus Hwang foregrounds the materiality of language and deconstructs the ideality of the logos in both the Broadway and the cultural theatre.

Finding the “butting up of unlikes … inherently theatrical” (Interview 148), Hwang states that he “made a very conscious choice to be American and use a lot of American slang” (152). This disjointedness is nowhere more off-putting than in the scene where Song is denounced by Comrade Chin, whose slang, like the upstage dancers' agit-prop mimicry of revolutionary violence and lampoon of the Chinese Opera, renders parodic the Cultural Revolution (as did Tiananmen Square the following year9): “Serve the Revolution? Bullshit! … Yeah, I knew what was going on! You two … homos! Homos! Homos!” (55). Such theatricalism in staging and language further deconstructs the binaries of the play's representation as the East—already divided racially into Japan, China, Vietnam—is divided also by gender and class. Hwang regards Chin's talking “like the crassest person on television” (Interview 148) as a paradoxically realistic reflection of her class in the Chinese social structure. Moreover, Chairman Mao, like the Western male God that Gallimard perceived, oversees another patriarchal system of prescribed exclusionary norms. In a 1970 commune, Chin, a masculinized woman, has license to denigrate Song, a feminized man: “Because what does the Chairman say? He tells us I'm now the smart one, you're now the nincompoop! … Then you go to France and be a pervert for Chairman Mao!” (55). M. Butterfly dismantles not only the opposition of East and West by insistence on internal division but also the transparency of language by repeated confrontation with its artifice. Gallimard and his audience must increasingly part ways, a severance of that identification requisite for the male gaze which is signalled by Gallimard's nostalgia for such retrospectively ironic comments as Song's “I don't know how to become another woman” (46).

Hwang deconstructs the theatre of psychological/linguistic/theatrical illusion most dramatically in “undramatizing” the play's climax. Between Acts II and III, Song flaunts his transvestism to the audience, who, unlike Gallimard, generally do not exit despite the invitation to do so:

… The change I'm going to make requires about five minutes. So I thought you might want to take this opportunity to stretch your legs, enjoy a drink, or listen to the musicians. I'll be here when you return, right where you left me. (Song goes to a mirror in front of which is a wash basin of water. She starts to remove her make-up as stagelights go to half and houselights come up.)


Gallimard's earlier entreaties to Song not to change (“You have to do what I say! I'm conjuring you up in my mind!” [59]) must reflect audience desire; the tenacity of his illusion, theirs. Otherwise, the palpable shock—my own gasp echoed in the house—remains inexplicable given the preparation for the “truth” in Gallimard's autobiographical text.

Cody finds Song's transformation into a man rendered “painfully devoid of meaning”: “We applaud the dexterous expertise of the actor rather than the significance of his transformation” (26). Yet the significance lies exactly in the theatricalism; and the meaning, in the space between on and off stage. The spectator prepared by Renee's clothes/culture connection, can perceive in this gestus the call to an “other” logic which “can lead us to complicate—distinctly—the logic of binary oppositions and to a certain use of the value of distinction attached to it” (Derrida 127). In her deconstruction of the engendering produced by the reading process, Mary Jacobus examines transvestism to establish a parallel between words and clothes as constitutive, citing Shoshana Felman:

if it is clothes alone, i.e., a cultural sign, an institution, which determine masculine and feminine and insure sexual opposition as an orderly, hierarchical polarity; if indeed clothes make the man—or the woman—are not sex roles as such, inherently, but travesties? Are not sex roles but travesties of the ambiguous complexity of real sexuality, of real sexual difference?


M. Butterfly thwarts the eye/I with recognition of this real sexual difference, this division, which paradoxically subverts the cultural divisiveness of gendered identity. Like the Balzac characters Felman reads, Song and Gallimard (who will assume the transvestism) “‘are thus but transvestisms of the other sex's deceptively unequivocal identity; that is, they are travesties of a travesty’” (cited by Jacobus 15). And whereas Balzac's text “‘could be viewed … as a rhetorical dramatization,’” Hwang's text is an actual dramatization as well as “‘a philosophical reflection on the constitutive relationship between transvestism and sexuality’” (Felman cited by Jacobus 15).

It is, then, fitting that the play's climax occurs outside the structure of representation since it is that very structure which Hwang puts into play in Derrida's sense of play as the “structurality of structure” (cited by Blau, “Bloody Show” 11). The “arrogant simplicity” (Cody 26) of Song's gender reversal belies the notion of a literal referent for a core gender identity, which emerges as but a representation. So deep-rooted is binary—ultimately hierarchical, thus misogynist—essentialism that it ironically underscores Cody's attack on Hwang's misogyny. Rather than view the transvestism as a theatricalization of a theatricalization, a travesty of a travesty, Cody objects to Hwang's subversion of the Onnagata/Kabuki (and Shakespearean) tradition of males portraying idealized women, which Hwang regards as “obscene” and “inherently sexist” (Interview 146). Cody overlooks the fact that Butterfly is not the idealized representation of a woman but Gallimard's retrospective representation of an idealized representation of a woman; frighteningly, even women resist, like Gallimard, the deconstruction of the “beauty and delicacy” (Cody 26) of the ideal—the creation of the Other: “But Wong deliberately plays Butterfly as a man-playing-at-being-a-woman, self-consciously endowing her with Gallimard's fantasy of how an Oriental woman should behave—the equivalent in the West, of third-rate transvestism” (Cody 26).

The transvestism is, of course, exactly the point; moreover, Hwang's excess, the “over-Orientalizing” as well as “over-feminizing” of Butterfly, works toward that end which Cody indicts: “Butterfly's culture is now implicated in her inauthenticity and exploited to maintain the male actor's female identity” (26). If this identity is maintained—for Gallimard, for the audience—despite its obvious inauthenticity, then all are exposed as complicit in psycho/sexual/cultural impersonations. Hwang, who finds the East equally “complicit in this dual form of cultural stereotyping” (Interview 141), calls into question a cultural stage on which identity is stabilized only through the creation—by subject and object—of oppositional otherness, which becomes a self-sustained illusion. M. Butterfly, rather than examining the causes of gendered behavior, as Cody demands, presents for deconstruction the very structure of gendered binaries, hence the structure of Western (and now possibly Eastern) metaphysics, which prescribes the “kind of perverse cancellation of thought” (26) of which Cody accuses the play.

Song's transformation into an Armani-(Puccini-) armored man earns him the present/presence speaking pole even in Gallimard's representation. Alone on stage, he displaces Gallimard's narration, recounting for a 1986 Paris courtroom his 1970 arrival in Paris “after four years on a fucking commune in Nowheresville, China” (60). Reduced to “blind groping” by the Party which sent him impoverished to “pollute [with his sexual perversion] the place where pollution begins—the West” (55), Song duped Rene into espionage for fifteen more years. Playing to the courtroom as theatre-double (“Tough Room” [61]), Song boasts of the ease of his role: “Okay, Rule One is: Men always believe what they want to hear.” (61), and “Rule Two: As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East—he's already confused. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East” (62). The desire for unequivocal identity to deflect confusion, full-presence to deflect fear of absence will emerge not only as Gallimard's, but as Song's and the audience's as well.

Assaulted aurally by music from Butterfly's “Death Scene,” which “blares” over the house speakers, the spectator is assaulted visually by Gallimard, the erstwhile gaze-point, the universal male signifier, crawling toward Song's discarded wig and kimono. Gallimard's mind “flip-flopping like a man on a trampoline” (63) reflects the spectator's gaze, destabilized before the crescendo of temporal, spatial, and gender displacements in the final two scenes. The 1988 Gallimard's “picture dissolves” (63) so that the 1986 Song, no longer Italian stereotype of Japanese but now French stereotype of Italian (“The type that prowls around discos with a gold medallion stinking of garlic” [63]), emerges from the witness box to reenact “her” 1960 emergence from the Peking opera stage: “Yes. You. White Man” (63). Though Gallimard claims to be “transported” (63) once again, he remains in 1988 form to resist Song's nostalgic recollections and sexual advances:

… Every night, you say you're going to strip, but then I beg you and you stop!
I guess tonight is different.
Why? Why should that be?
Maybe I've become frustrated. Maybe I'm saying “Look at me, you fool!” Or maybe I'm just feeling … sexy. (He is down to his briefs.)


Song's strip, confronting Gallimard with differences in biological sameness, effects a shift displaced years ago when his voyeuristic demand to strip gave way to a fetishistic “love.” His 1988 rejection of Song as a man and of his own relational homosexuality, betrays his love—and renders suspect all love—as a representation of the gaze, an illusion of the reconciliation of opposites which reinscribes opposition. Laughing at his waste of time on “just a man” (65), Gallimard replaces objectification of a woman with objectification of a man and derides Song's protests against such essentialism as “some kind of identity problem” (66). Able to recognize Song only through touching “like a blind man” (66), Gallimard reclaims a fixed gaze, a unitary eye/I position, by now scripting Song as homosexual to his heterosexual; echoing Comrade Chin, ostensibly his political opposite, he banishes Song through an equation of body with subjectivity: “and I don't want your body polluting the room!” (67). Such a script precludes the release of Song from song: “I'm a man who loved a woman created by a man. Everything else—simply falls short” (66).

Song's creation was actually Gallimard's and remains so as he rejects the projected Song's subversive possibilities. When Song expresses disappointment that Gallimard has not become “something more. More like … a woman.” (67, ellipsis original), it is not an uncloseted, unequivocal homosexual which Gallimard's runaway consciousness solicits but the shifting subjectivity that Song's “identity problem” reflects: “Men. You're like the rest of them. It's all in the way we dress … You really have so little imagination!” (67). The “we” here is not women but Woman—the position of otherness he shares as being Asian-in-the-West subsumes his maleness. Song is impelled by such division to imagine subjectivity beyond paradigmatic binaries, but his call for imagination is perverted by Gallimard's claim to reside in “pure imagination” (67) since purification reduces imagination to illusion.

It is this totalizing impulse which finalizes Gallimard's psychic imprisonment, for in self-consciously “choosing” illusion over reality, he evinces the ultimately theatrical binary misperception of such a choice, itself the quintessential illusion.10 In calcifying the oppositional perspective that choice implies, Gallimard resists the possibilities of autobiography which he had perceived; as a performative act, the constitution of subjectivity linguistically, Gallimard's life-writing offered transformation, the possibility of a subject determined by self-representation as well as cultural representation.11 Rather than imagining beyond the subject/object division of self-consciousness to a self-consciousness about self-consciousness, however, Gallimard remains imprisoned in a repetition compulsion, in the theatre of idealization: “I've played out the events of my life night after night, always searching for a new ending to my story, one where I leave this cell and return forever to my Butterfly's arms” (67-68). Positing the same oppositions within as he had without, “oppositions designed to save at least the concept of an ‘ideal purity’” (Derrida 115), Gallimard's fall into consciousness or division, unredeemed by the meta-conscious perception of difference and affirmation beyond negativity, proves fatal—the tragedy of the gaze: “It is a vision [of the Orient] that has become my life”(68). Mistaking the frame of representation for a mirror of reality, Gallimard perceives only either/or rather than both/and: “Love warped my judgement, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face … until I could look in the mirror and see nothing but … a woman” (68, ellipses original).

Since his love took no leap beyond representation's union of opposites, it can effect only an inversion of polarities, stopping short of “the point where the same demand of rigor [which sustains oppositional logic against empirical confusion] requires the structure of that logic to be transformed or complicated” (Derrida 123). Thus Gallimard reverses Song's disrobing to embody the travesty of a travesty, the perversion of a perversion in reappropriating the Butterfly masquerade. Re-entering Puccini's representation rather than linguistically extending his own or deferring his signature, Gallimard re-enacts the opera's finale with his ritual suicide. The irony of his final lines and of the blaring “Love Duet” indicts idealization as his act dramatizes the death call of history, the self-consuming consciousness:

The love of a Butterfly can withstand many things—unfaithfulness, loss, even abandonment. But how can it face the one sin that implies all others? The devastating knowledge that, underneath it all, the object of her love was nothing more, nothing less than … a man. (He sets the top of the knife against his body.) It is 1988. And I have found her at last. In a prison on the outskirts of Paris. My name is Rene Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly.

(68-69, ellipsis original)

Refusing to defer his desire for “plenitude … already inaccessible in perception or in intuition in general as the experience of a present content” (Derrida 121), Gallimard paradoxically inscribed his absence in the text by denying its inevitable structural possibility: “Is not the ‘pure realization of self-presence’ itself also death?” (Derrida 116).

Seemingly servicing our own nostalgia for unity, the play suggests circularity as Song's closing line echoes Gallimard's opening words: “Butterfly? Butterfly?” (69). But ellipses have yielded to question marks as this cigarette-smoking Song—no longer Gallimard's projection—assumes Pinkerton's position, foregrounding its precariousness and echoing audience instability. In a flood of gender, racial, cultural, and theatrical shifts, the spectator seeks vainly for grounding in a unitary eye/I, which has dissolved into the irreducible bisexuality of the gaze.12 Those who claw their way back to that illusory pinnacle of the male gaze, of gendered identity, of full-presence, upon leaving the theatre re-enter Gallimard's prison and risk his self-victimization. Not heeding Hwang's plea for the “heroic effort” of desaturating the consciousness of myth, they occlude connection in difference “between nations and lovers”: “Those who prefer to bypass the work involved will remain in a world of surfaces, misperceptions running rampant” (Afterward 100). Such work is deconstruction in the sense on which Derrida insists: “a practical analysis of what is called the parasite and of the axiomatics upon which its interpretation is based” (136). These “metaphysical axiomatics” Derrida questions (116), Hwang questions also. The tragedy of M. Butterfly, then, is the tragedy of the metaphysics of presence inscribed in psychology, in language, in theatre—the tragedy of the gaze. It is in this sense that the play is most radically political and on this political ground that postmodernism and feminism most productively intersect.13 Driven to this perceptual intersection, the spectator of M. Butterfly, gaze dismantled, subjectivity decentered, can perceive beyond the cultural representation of subjectivity through exclusion to the exigency of transformation through self-representation.

If today's audiences are, as Blau claims, “gathered around the most dubious values and exhausted illusions, like the barest fiction of remembered community” (“Hysteria” 10), then we are at least not practicing the exclusion that “community” presupposes and that M. Butterfly presents. As a “consciousness constructed” by the play, a “community of the question” (Blau, “Hysteria” 12, emphasis original),14 we can resist the closure of Gallimard's consciousness by heeding Derrida's call to defer, to differ, to experience “différence in presence” (137) and through such undecidability to be granted passage to “moral or political responsibility” (116). On that 1988 evening, I lost in the theatre my own script of white, western, heterosexual middle-class feminism and, with it, a posture of full-presence in an exclusionary feminist community. Cross-currents of racial, sexual, and class difference having shifted gendered ground, the community of opposition gave way to a community of the question. Playing with the play's play, I began then to write a life in the “concept of writing or of trace [which] perturbs every logic of opposition, every dialectic” (137). Trembling still from continental drifts reverberating in my own subjectivity, I nonetheless urge such life-writing to reprieve, if only fleetingly, the eye from I, from perceptual prison, to trace a butterfly on the wing.


  1. Teresa de Lauretis dates this shift away from the oppositional concept of sexual difference, which “keeps feminist thinking bound to the terms of Western patriarchy itself” (Technologies 1), to the early 1980s publications by feminists of color. Their critique of mainstream feminism prompted recognition of its complicity with ideology, especially the ideology of gender. De Lauretis's consequent assertion that “The construction of gender is the product and the process of both representation and self-representation” (9) plumbs the wellspring of Hwang's dramaturgy.

  2. Jill Dolan examines the limitations of the “identity politics” of liberal or cultural feminism, tracing the tensions in feminist drama criticism between this sociological focus and the theoretical (post-structuralist) focus of materialist feminism.

  3. The “alogical logic” of iterability provides, in its “identificatory” aspect, the possibility of idealization while it marks, in its “altering” aspect, the limit of idealization, “of all conceptual opposition” (Derrida 119).

  4. Mary Jacobus dismisses the castration complex as a retrospective representation to resolve the equally fictitious Oedipal complex: “castration anxiety leads the boy to see; … the ability to see sexual difference is his defense against an original undecidability” (113).

  5. Derrida repeatedly refers to the “hierarchical axiology” of western metaphysics, insisting that “it can hardly be denied that these value-oppositions constitute hierarchies, that they are posed and repeated as such by the very theory which claims to analyze, in all neutrality, their mere possibility” (71).

  6. Jacobus critiques the Freudian conclusion that women emerge from their assymmetrical trajectory through the Oedipal/castration complex psychically and socially scarred with inferiority (114).

  7. Gallimard's need for gender fixity reflects the widespread fear evidenced by the current backlash against feminism. Even Time's special issue on women defuses its focus by concluding with Sam Allis's portrayal of the “postfeminist male” as an angry, exhausted, confused “success object.” Allis reflects a frighteningly myopic middle-class perspective in ignoring the economic rather than psychological imperative which motivates women to work for $.65 for every male-earned $1.00: “If women don't like their jobs, they can, at least in theory, maintain legitimacy by going home and raising children” (81).

  8. In her 1975 conceptualization of the male as “bearer of the look,” Laura Mulvey postulated a gendered spectator position dictated by classical Hollywood cinema, which works through either voyeurism (devaluation) or fetishism (over-valuation) of women to counter castration anxiety. Subsequently, film and drama critics have too often canonized the fixity of this position, ignoring even Mulvey's modifications.

  9. A recent AP account of the long-delayed trials of the Chinese protest leaders underscores Hwang's notion of culture as theatre: the “trials are being carefully orchestrated. Top judges and prosecutors were selected … and their statements are pre-scripted” (“Student” 11A).

  10. Derrida refers to the consequences of such misperception in the political theatre: “No less dangerous (for instance, in politics) are those who wish to purify at all costs” (119).

  11. In postulating a non-Althusserian possibility for self-determination, de Lauretis states: “But the terms of a different construction of gender also exist, in the margins of hegemonic discourses. Posed from outside the heterosexual social contract, and inscribed in micropolitical practices, these terms can also have a part in the construction of gender, and their effects are rather at the ‘local’ level of resistances, in subjectivity and self-representation” (Technologies 18).

  12. Rejecting the notion of a male gaze as regressively grounded in the Lacanian opposition of phallus/presence to castration/lack, recent feminist film theory conceptualizes a bisexual, vacillating gaze, hence multiple subject/spectator positions. See de Lauretis's chapter “Desire in Narrative” in Alice Doesn't 103-57; Modleski's Introduction, 1-16; and Mulvey's essay “The Oedipus Myth: Beyond the Riddle of the Sphinx” in Visual and Other Pleasures 177-201. Though greatly influenced by feminist film criticism, feminist drama criticism generally elides this evolution and thereby limits itself to the passive spectator concept, which precludes resistant subjectivity and self-representation.

  13. I refer always to Derridean post-structuralism rather than to the American import, which increasingly tends toward an apoliticism and moral relativism overtly rejected by Derrida and self-negating for feminism. For a cogent recuperation of deconstruction from misapprehensions, see Norris, Introduction 1-48 and chapter 3, “Limited Think: how not to read Derrida,” 134-63. Recent attempts to posit cultural consequences of theory often cite feminism as an exemplary juncture of theory and politics. See, for example, Natoli, esp. p. 12. Since feminists cannot sacrifice the question of agency to the nominalist negativity so often (mis)taken for post-structuralism, feminist theorists offer some of the most promising formulations of subjectivity within a postmodern frame. De Lauretis addresses the tensions between the “critical negativity of [feminist] theory, and the affirmative positivity of its politics” (Technologies 26) while Alcoff affirms an identity in positionality, though she needlessly disassociates it from post-structuralism.

  14. I stand indebted to Bill Demastes, not only for braving with me Blau's treacherous turf but also for exemplifying infallibly the promise of a “community of the question.”

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” Signs 13 (1988): 405-36.

Allis, Sam. “What Do Men Really Want?” Women: The Road Ahead. Spec. issue of Time Fall 1990: 80-82.

Blau, Herbert. “The Bloody Show and The Eye of Prey: Beckett and Deconstruction.” Theatre Journal 39 (1987): 5-19.

———. “Hysteria, Crabs, Gospel, and Random Access: Ring Around the Audience.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 21.2 (Fall 1988): 7-21.

Cody, Gabrielle. “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth.” Theatre Yale 20.2 (1989): 24-27.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

———. Technologies of Gender. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988.

Dolan, Jill. “In Defense of the Discourse: Materialist Feminism, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism … and Theory.” TDR 33.3 (Fall 1989): 58-71.

Hwang, David Henry. Afterword. M. Butterfly. NY: Plume-NAL, 1986. 94-100.

———. Author's Notes. M. Butterfly. NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1988. 85-93.

———. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” By John Louis DiGaetani. TDR 33.3 (March 1989): 141-43.

———. M. Butterfly. NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1988.

Jacobus, Mary. Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism. NY: Columbia UP, 1986.

Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Film Theory. NY: Methuen 1988.

Moy, James. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 48-56.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

———. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.

Natoli, Joseph. “Prefacing Future(s)/Meditating on One Future.” Literary Theory's Future(s). Ed. Joseph Natoli. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1989.

Norris, Christopher. What's Wrong with Postmodernism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33 (March 1990): 59-66.

“Student Leader of Democratic Protest Goes on Trial in China.” News-Star [Monroe, LA] 24 Feb. 1991: 11A.

Angela Pao (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6462

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 and implications of the play. Asian Americans have been concerned primarily about the play's influence on Euroamerican perceptions of the Asian American community. While playwright David Henry Hwang conceived of his work as a critique of the racism, imperialism, and sexism implicit in East/West relations of the past two centuries, not all spectators and critics agree that his goals were effectively realized. William Wong, columnist for The Oakland Tribune and Asian Week, noted what seem to have been fairly characteristic reactions:

Asian Americans who've seen the play come away with varying feelings. One Asian American woman told me she was uplifted by its discussions of how men treat Asian women. Several Asian American men, however, criticize it for perpetuating a stereotype that Asian men are effeminate.1

Wong himself strongly felt that Frank Chin's plays “did a better job … of exposing a general audience to some uncompromising truths about Asian American culture.” He saw Hwang's work as falling somewhere in between the undiluted anger of Chin's Chickencoop Chinaman and Year of the Dragon and the “insipid, showy, stereotypic and patronizing personas” of past Broadway shows such as Flower Drum Song.

James S. Moy has also challenged M. Butterfly's effectiveness in dislodging entrenched stereotypes of Asians. He objects to Hwang's manner of portraying the Chinese characters, those of secondary stature as well as the central figure of Song Liling, the subversive male diva of Hwang's “deconstructivist Madama Butterfly.” Song is given the role of exposing the desires and interests that underlie Western conceptions of the “Orient” and “Oriental,” and recycles these (mis)conceptions to control and manipulate the prototypical Euroamerican character, René Gallimard. In Moy's opinion, however, Song fails as the new voice of Asia and Asian America and functions instead as “a vehicle of massive self-doubt,” embodying both racial and sexual confusion. In the final analysis, Moy concludes, Song “comes across as little more than a disfigured transvestite version of the infamous Chinese ‘dragon lady’ prostitute stereotype.” When Song is surrounded by a supporting cast of Asian characters who are “even more stereotypical and cartoonish than the worst of the nineteenth-century stereotypes,” Moy sees the “opportunity for [creating] a new Asian stage presence” evaporate as all of the Asian figures “self-destruct at the very moment of their representation, leaving behind only newly disfigured traces.”2

Reviewing the play for San Francisco-based Asian Week, Tamio Spiege, on the other hand, was readier than Wong or Moy to acknowledge Hwang's success in achieving his intended aims. Spiege praised Hwang for making “so many important points about the pristine condescension so pervasive in western ‘admiration’ of Asia, the personalization of imperialism, the projection of male and female roles in any society.”3

Whatever the terms of the controversy or the position of the writer, however, one factor has remained constant: whether Hwang's work is being celebrated for its effectiveness in breaking through the most persistent Western misconceptions and deceptions regarding the East, or denounced for its complicity in perpetuating such stereotypes, the underlying assumption that the meaning of the play is fixed by the text and/or production in and of itself remains the same. In actual fact, as with any cultural work, the meaning of the play, particularly on the most controversial points of interpretation, is determined at the moment of reception by various levels of contextualization. It is by examining these variations in interpretation as a function of contextualization that the cultural and therefore political and social significance of M. Butterfly can best be gauged.

The source material for this study consisted of a wide range of critical reviews appearing in over fifty American and British newspapers, magazines, and journals.4 These publications were addressed to readers representing a variety of socioeconomic strata, political affiliations and degrees of cultural or theatrical sophistication. While certainly a specialized form of professional discourse, critical opinion can nevertheless be privileged as a source with a wide-ranging impact given its status in Western society as an authoritative discourse. Furthermore, marketplace constraints operating in conjunction with the editorial mission governing a particular publication will foster the matching of a critic's views with those of the publication's readership. While there is no guarantee of a reproduction of response as far as the precise quality of reaction (e.g., positive or negative in the most general terms), critical opinion must necessarily provide a reliable indicator of the mode of reception applied by the publication's core readership—a mode which it will have had a central role in shaping. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu speaks of the realization of this desired match as a “correspondence between several relatively autonomous spaces—the space of the producers (playwrights and actors), the space of the critics (and through them the space of the daily and weekly press), and the space of audiences and readerships. …”5 Ideally, the critic of a particular publication, which is addressed to readers of a certain age, socio-economic bracket, educational background, cultural and intellectual sophistication, etc., will direct those readers to the productions which will best suit their tastes and fulfill their expectations for a satisfying session at the theatre. By the same token, the “good” critic will hopefully spare his or her readers the disagreeable experience and begrudged expenditures of a boring or frustrating evening or afternoon. Underlying the successful critic's recommendations must be a sympathetic identification with the reader/potential audience's notion(s) of the functions of the theatre, whether it be to provide immediate diversion, intellectual challenge, sensory stimulation, political or ideological affirmation, emotional engagement, social and cultural legitimation, or conceptual novelty.

The guidelines currently being followed for the content of a critical notice were set in the nineteenth century as both theatres and newspapers intended for a general public proliferated. From this time, it has been considered the theatre or drama critic's function to summarize the content or plot of the work; describe its main characters; place the work in the context of the author's production; situate the work in the tradition of its genre; offer comparisons with works on similar themes; evaluate the dramatic merit of the playscript, the performances, and material aspects of the production; and finally, recommend or discourage the reader's attendance. In the twentieth century, the commercial function of the professional drama critic may often overshadow his or her role as an educator of the theatre-going public; but as a glance at any current notice will show, the prescribed content of the reviews has undergone remarkably little change.

In the present era of theatrical experimentation, with its active mixing of media, forms and genres, the task of placing a piece in “the tradition of its genre” has become more complicated and more important than ever. The comprehension and appreciation of any work of art or literature depends upon the spectator or reader's ability to apply the appropriate protocols of viewing or reading to the work in question. These protocols are normally determined by generic conventions and the institutional practices that surround the production of a cultural work. As new forms evolve or unfamiliar ones are introduced to a group of theatre-goers, a competent critic must be able to indicate the appropriate protocols to the reader/spectator and certainly apply them to him- or herself. We should be able to assume that any contemporary American or European critic writing for a major publication has acquired a wide range of reading and viewing competencies, and is adept at exercising the different modes of reception and the reading competencies associated with the various realist and anti-realist forms of the Western theatrical tradition. Most, if not all, can also be expected to have at least an acquaintance of the major theatrical traditions of other cultures and societies, certainly those of the Far East which have had a strong influence on European and American theatre in the twentieth century.

The reviews which appeared following the New York première of M. Butterfly, however, show an astonishing and telling breakdown of these professional competencies on the part of a significant number of established critics. What I would like to suggest is that this breakdown of professionalism can ultimately be traced to the critic's inability to recognize a legitimate and coherent cultural narrative in Hwang's work. This, in turn, short-circuited the critic's ability to contextualize the work properly and fully and so apply the appropriate competencies or protocols of viewing. As a final consequence of the failure to engage appropriate competencies or protocols of reading, the production of meaning is blocked, the play fails to “make sense,” and is therefore pronounced unsuccessful.

I am using the concepts of “cultural narrative” or “narration” and “cultural competency” as they have been independently developed by French cultural critics and historians (notably Michel de Certeau, Roger Chartier and Jean-Marie Goulemot) and by various mass communications researchers. According to the model of cultural activity formulated by these scholars, each reader or spectator is defined in two respects. He or she is defined first in terms of a cultural “story” or “narrative” organized according to mental and sensorial schemas that reproduce the individual's impression of how sociocultural institutions and relations are organized and operate. These schemas are incorporated as an effect of various group affiliations (socioeconomic, religious, gender-based, ethnic, national, occupational, etc.). The incorporated cultural narrative is derived from all areas of lived experience and would account for divergent interpretations of the same social situation, fictional narrative, visual representation, and so forth. An active cultural subject is further defined in terms of a general “cultural competency,” which is actually the sum of particular competencies and memories associated with any given cultural practice. These competencies permit the activation of appropriate strategies for interpreting, decoding or negotiating the meaning of cultural and media products. While the cultural narrative or narration will of necessity be different for each social subject, a comparable cultural competency—as the memory of previous readings or viewings—is in theory accessible to every member of a society given equal exposure to the medium in question.6

In his “Author's Notes,” composed for the 1988 Dramatists Play Service edition of M. Butterfly, Hwang makes it clear that M. Butterfly was not conceived in a realistic mode and that he was not concerned with the naturalistic recreation of personal psychologies. Hwang first read about the affair between Bernard Bouriscot, a French diplomat stationed in Beijing, and Shi Pei-pu, a beautiful Chinese opera star, in a newspaper article. As it turned out, the actress/singer was not only a spy in the employ of the communist Chinese government, but a man. At this point, Hwang writes, “I purposely refrained from further research, for I was not interested in writing docu-drama. Frankly, I didn't want the ‘truth’ to interfere with my own speculations.”7

Originally, Hwang envisioned the story as a musical—hardly a form noted for complex characterizations and subtle narrative logic—and sees the final work as having “retained many of its musical roots.”8 While the idea for a musical was abandoned, the flexible structure of the modern musical form, its ambiguous frontiers between the realistic and the theatrical, and the particular suspension of disbelief it involves were highly compatible with Hwang's favored style of dramatic composition. In the final product, the bare basic facts of the Bouriscot incident and Hwang's own speculations were cast in the unique non-realistic mold that has characterized his previous work such as F.O.B., The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions. To his accustomed interspersing of naturalistic dialogue with expressionistic or fantastic sequences—a procedure that can be traced back to playwrights such as Georg Büchner, Strindberg and Ibsen—and episodic structure, Hwang adds elements of Asian theatre, drawn primarily from Chinese opera and Japanese kabuki.

The varied theatrical heritage of M. Butterfly was accurately identified by a few critics. Frank Rich of the New York Times describes M. Butterfly as “veer[ing] from American burlesque to Chinese opera to Pirandelian inversions of fiction and reality.”9 Writing for the London Guardian, Michael Billington recognized “elements of Japanese kabuki, Chinese opera and Brechtian alienation combined with a Royal Court textual clarity.”10 The critic reviewing M. Butterfly for Variety—one of the major trade papers for theatre, film and television—compared the fundamental move in Hwang's process of composition to that of Shakespeare, noting that “Hwang apparently borrowed only the broad factual outline of the yarn, and like Shakespeare from Plutarch has transmuted it into something wholly original.”11 Hwang's ability to effect this central and essential transmutation—a key aspect of artistic creation as it is understood in modern Western culture—was recognized on a more general level by other reviewers. William A. Henry III begins his Time magazine review of the play by addressing this question:

How does the artistic mind differ from the more prosaic kind? One clear indication is what can happen when an artist comes across a striking photograph, an intriguing anecdote or a quirkily suggestive newspaper story. Where another person might pause to ponder the knowns and unknowns in a literal way, the creative thinker typically explores events by reinventing them in his own head. Thus what starts out as unexplainable frequently evolves into the artist's central insight. What begins as an eccentric glimpse of others may become archetypally instructive about the human condition.12

Henry finishes by concluding that “Playwright David Henry Hwang epitomizes precisely this imaginative process in his brilliant M. Butterfly, which opened on Broadway last week.”

This explicit contextualization of Hwang's work within the classical Western theatrical tradition—which is unavoidably a significant part of the professional heritage of all American playwrights—is manifested in another fashion by the small number of critics who regarded and presented Hwang as an established artist with a professional history. Familiar with Hwang's previous off-Broadway work presented at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, these reviewers experienced M. Butterfly in terms of that context. John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor warned his readers that “‘M. Butterfly’ is not a play for all tastes,” but maintained that “as the latest satire on East-West relations by the Chinese-American author of such plays as F.O.B., The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions, it finds Hwang in lively form.”13 Edith Oliver of the New Yorker noted “… and not for the first time in reviewing Mr. Hwang—that it is almost impossible to indicate in synopsis the richness and resourcefulness of his plays and the steadiness of his complex plots.”14

Given the focus of Hwang's work up to and including M. Butterfly, any discussion of Hwang's earlier plays inevitably introduced yet another level or area of contextualization—that of Asian American arts and literature. In U.S. News and World Report, Miriam Horn provides the most thorough exploration of this context, identifying Hwang as “one of a number of Asian American artists who … examine the psychological underpinnings of discrimination and wrestle with the tension between assimilation into mainstream America and preservation of Old World tradition.”15 She marks the connection between “stereotypes of Asians that originated in the age of empire” and their present-day “less overt” manifestations. Horn extends the range of her contextualization into the social and political history of not only Asian but African Americans as well, noting similarities in theme in Hwang's F.O.B. and Spike Lee's School Daze, and finally considers Hwang's work in the larger frame of reference of race relations in America. It is worth noting that U.S. News and World Report explicitly contextualized this review by printing on the same page an inset article entitled “On campus, stereotypes persist.” This piece presented an encapsulated discussion of the current controversies over discriminatory admissions policies, the stereotypes of Asian American university students and the persistence of these stereotypes into the hierarchies of corporate business.16

This full or rich contextualization resulted in the application of appropriate protocols of reading as determined by cultural competencies—a process which coincides with the recognition of a relevant and coherent cultural narrative. The type of reading enabled by this full contextualization is exemplified in the review written by Gerald Weales for Commonweal magazine. Weales begins by firmly situating M. Butterfly in the context of Hwang's previous work:

In The Dance and the Railroad David Henry Hwang mixed Chinese opera and American history with such imagination and wit that the play established him in 1981 as an important new voice in American theater. Later that year, in Family Devotions, a “spiritual farce” by his own definition (New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988), Hwang proved so adept at broadly comic surfaces that some reviewers wrongly dismissed the play as an Asian-American sitcom. Now, in M. Butterfly, he has come to Broadway for the first time with a highly theatrical work displaying familiar Hwang devices and themes [my emphasis]. …17

Following a synopsis of the news story that inspired Hwang to write the play, Weales stresses that “M. Butterfly is far removed from the skeletal news story. It is Hwang's imaginative construction of characters and events, filtered through the memories, the prejudices, the longings, the dreams of the French diplomat, here called René Gallimard, and played as a very American French man by John Lithgow.”18 Most important, in addressing the questions of logic and common sense which troubled many critics and spectators—could two people be lovers and carry on a twenty-year love affair without being aware of the other person's true gender?—Weales finds the “explanation” which is in fact the central premise of the play:

… The only explanation for the diplomat's not knowing [that Song Liling was actually a man] is that he chose not to know anything that would interfere with his image of the ideal woman who loved him completely.19

Or, as Lydia Conway points out even more accurately:

What is revealing is not so much that Gallimard chooses to go on believing “she” is a woman, but that he thinks his lover's reluctance is typically Chinese. We see what lies behind stereotyping—that a particular belief flatters our own vanity and gives us a sense of power. The more the racial or sexual stereotype becomes two-dimensional, the more real and superior we feel.20

It is Hwang's interest in portraying this exceptional and interested capacity for self-delusion that undermines any “logic” that might be expected to exist at the most superficial levels of plot and character consistency.

The linear trajectory of chronological narrativization and progressive psychological revelation, and the naturalistic concerns that these structuring principles imply have been replaced by an alternative dramatic logic in M. Butterfly. The play must be read not as a linearly but as a paradigmatically constructed play. It can only be fully understood as a set of layered meanings constructed over or according to a central or key metaphorical figure—that of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This central dramatic structure and the logic of reading or viewing that it requires was clearly perceived by the critic who reviewed the play for Variety:

From this tantalizing material [the story of the French diplomat and the Peking opera star] Hwang has fashioned a multi-layered and technically complex play that fastens together and examines with sharp intelligence the struggle for dominance in sexual relationships and the cultural conflict between East and West.

Illuminating the play's argument is the central metaphor of the Puccini opera, which Hwang sees as a paradigm of Western bias in its romantic sentimentalization of Oriental docility and submissiveness.21

The identification of metaphor and paradigm as the key figures in M. Butterfly is critical to making sense of the play. If these figures are not recognized as the structures bearing meaning, the production of meaning is aborted.

All too commonly, however, reviewers persisted in reading the play as a work of psychological realism and traditional linear narrative coherence. Were it a question of interpretations by members of the general public, such confusion might well be attributed to and excused by the fact that the illusionistic branch of theatre, which is founded on linear narrative and psychological realism, continues to dominate Broadway drama. Even for professional critics, the institutional context of Broadway theatre might indeed have initially activated a realistic mode of reception. But the continued misapplication of this frame of reference by leading professionals and the consequent wholesale condemnations of M. Butterfly cannot be so easily comprehended or excused.

As I have already argued, the series of moves leading through the activation of a non-realistic mode of response to the interpretation of meanings contained in the central metaphors and paradigms of the play were contingent upon the critic's initial move to recognize Hwang as an American playwright—one working in the Western theatrical tradition and both drawing on and modifying that tradition. While this openness did not by any means guarantee an enthusiastic or even favorable evaluation, any positive assessment of the artistic merit of the play was predicated upon full contextualization. The failure to execute successfully the initial moves of appropriate contextualization, on the other hand, consistently led to a negative, if not outright hostile reception. Moira Hodgson typifies this reaction in her piece in The Nation. She complains that “False notes creep into the play from the start,” among other things objecting to the fact that “No effort is made to establish a hint of French colonial decadence.” She takes Hwang to task for never “get[ting] to the bottom of Gallimard's character” and “fail[ing] to make him convincing.”22 Hodgson missed the point that Gerald Weales got when he described Lithgow's Gallimard as “a very American French man” (see above). Interested in using the Madama Butterfly opera as a paradigm of East-West relations, Hwang has conflated nationalities on both sides: Song Liling is a Chinese opera star who plays a Japanese role and draws analogies with the situation of the Vietnamese; Gallimard is a French diplomat whose language and adolescent experiences are more commonly found in American high school locker rooms and college dormitories than any French setting. Far from reflecting shortcomings in his technique, these conflations are central to Hwang's purpose.

The most egregious example of such misreading occurs in the writing of John Simon the resident critic of New York magazine. Simon persisted in applying the protocols of reading and viewing that would properly adhere to a realistic text and mimetic production. His is a highly literal and linear reading, privileging psychological realism:

… Hwang is unwilling or unable to explore the deeper workings of the central relationship. For psychology, he often substitutes oneliners and posturing; for tormented poetry, angry rhetoric. On the political side, he tries to squeeze far too much mileage out of Madama Butterfly to convey male fantasies at the expense of submissive women, Occidental fantasies at the expense of a conquered Orient. But it doesn't really work, because René Gallimard and Song Liling keep reversing roles, with the passive Song often in active ascendance, exploiting Gallimard, yet in the end affirming his lasting love. It barely works on the personal level, much less the symbolic.

Unfortunately, potshots, sarcasms, double entendres … are no substitutes for making us care and leave with more understanding than we came with. This has much to do with authorial laziness. …23

Simon's designation of the constant role reversals of Gallimard and Song as a central deficiency in crafting provides a perfect illustration of his ability to “apprehend” but his failure to “comprehend.” These role reversals of Gallimard and Song are of course the very essence of the play, not a product of the “laziness” of the author as Simon would have it, but the carefully elected dramatic structure which was to convey the interworkings of delusion and power at various levels. This fact was not lost on the Variety critic for one who points out, “As the ambiguous title foreshadows, the play's very much about role reversal, sexual and cultural.” Oblivious to these interworkings, Simon concludes that Hwang is not only a “lazy” author, but one with a double-edged ax to grind:

The troubled relationship of East and West obsesses him. The son of affluent Chinese Americans, he has scores to settle with both America and the new China, the former for making him embarrassed about his ethnicity, the latter for repudiating his bourgeois status and Armani suits. Not quite in tune with either culture, he lets loose genuine indignation which gives the play what life it has.

In this all too familiar move to reduce a legitimate social, political and personal narrative of human experience into the grudge of a poorly adjusted individual, or perhaps more accurately, in his genuine inability to recognize the legitimacy or very existence of such a “cultural narrative,” Simon exhibits one of the most tenacious aspects of discrimination. The very language of Simon's opening sentence betrays the nature of the cultural blank exposed by his review. He begins by remarking, “There is a marvelous play in the true story underlying David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, but Hwang lets it slip through his fingers.” Unable to find a play he himself would or could have written in M. Butterfly, Simon has mistaken a deficiency in his competency as a reader for a deficiency in Hwang's competency as a writer.

This same inability to recognize or accept the fundamental narrative (or narratives)—which does not always coincide with the ostensible “plot” of M. Butterfly—has been manifested in a second prevalent objection. Negative reviews that denounced M. Butterfly for its violations of “logical” human behavior or the inconsistency and shallowness of psychological development almost invariably also failed to discern any coherence in the play as a whole. The result of Hwang's complex linking of themes of sexism and racism was seen as incoherent, if not actually chaotic. Leo Sauvage of the New Leader thought:

The playwright's embellishments are another matter. Hwang has tossed into his inverted Butterfly various political-historical allusions that are intended to modernize the 1904 libretto, but the result is a mere hodge-podge.24

In fact, however, this incoherence resulted from the reviewer's own inability to contribute the or an appropriate cultural rather than purely dramatic narrative without which the play makes little or no sense. As with any cultural work, the reader or spectator need not, of course, bring a complex of experience to his or her reading that will correspond perfectly to all the narrative layers the author constructed into the piece. In the case of M. Butterfly, a primary focus on questions of racism and imperialism, male/female relations or homosexual/heterosexual relations could equally well provide the necessary key narrative that would enable the viewer to make sense of the play as a whole.25

By the same token, recognition of one narrative did not guarantee similar acceptance of all the narratives. Whatever the objections of the critics and commentators cited at the beginning of this article—Asian American or writing for an Asian American publication—the legitimacy of the central ethnically or racially based narrative was never an issue. But consensus with regard to this aspect did not preclude contention over the effects and the very nature of the associated narratives concerned with gender issues.

What is most disturbing about the pattern revealed in these reviews—which must be considered as much a part of the “text” of M. Butterfly as the playscript or performance itself—is not by any means that the inability to recognize the central cultural narration motivating the action and the attendant failure to activate the appropriate competencies of reading resulted in negative reviews of Hwang's play. In fact, even positive, sympathetic reviews occasionally revealed contradictions which demonstrated the persistence of categories of thought and structures of language established by previous cultural representations of East Asian societies. Irene Backalenick, writing for the Westport News, described M. Butterfly as “a stunning experience” and marveled at the “many layers of experience” offered the viewer. She found “meanings within meanings within meanings.” Nevertheless, subsequent paragraphs indicate that the meaning of the play escaped her on at least one central point as she falls back on old conceptions and expressions traditionally applied to the Far East:

Playwright Hwang, himself a product of both Oriental and western cultures, incorporates both philosophies within his complex play. He uses the lovers' relationship in which the western man entertains fantasies of power and lust, to symbolize the east-west conflict. But ultimately in Hwang's play, it is the western world which is duped and conquered by the older, wiser culture.26

A critique of the common impulse triggered by Chinese subject matter and/or authorship, to speak in terms of ancient wisdom and “philosophies”—a more elevated manifestation of the equally common urge to use metaphors involving Chinese food27—is incorporated into Hwang's larger “deconstruction” of the network of signification that is “The Orient.” This dimension of Hwang's satire is brought out in the trial scene of the final act as Song Liling defines what she refers to as the West's “international rape mentality towards the East”:

… The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique.(28)

What is genuinely disturbing is that the nature and pattern of mis-readings recorded in the reviews of M. Butterfly replicate the paradigm for relations between the Asian American community (certainly beyond the first generation) and the majority European American society. The case of M. Butterfly exposes, in the realm of artistic activity, the most deep-seated barrier to full acceptance of Americans of Asian ancestry as Americans. This barrier takes the form of a denial of the shared cultural competencies, memories and experiences that constitute an identifiable culture. In overlooking the cultural competencies which Hwang and certainly all Asian Americans of the second generation and beyond share with New York drama critics, and focusing instead on very real differences in “cultural narrations,” John Simon and others were evincing an essentially racist view of national and cultural identity. This racist view or model of a national society demands that both cultural competencies and cultural narrations coincide. The ideal of a pluralistic society, on the other hand, accepts that cultural coherence lies in the shared acquired competencies, and allows variance in individual narrations which derive from ethnicity and race just as they do from socioeconomic status, occupational grouping, religious affiliation, geographical origin, and gender.

Nor is my own analysis of the case of M. Butterfly the outcome of an unwarranted ascription of motivations to John Simon and those in his camp—an interested and inappropriate imposition of my own cultural narration onto Simon's motivations and activities. Almost five months to the day after the première of M. Butterfly, there was a major cast change in the role of René Gallimard. This provided the occasion for John Simon to write a new review of M. Butterfly. This review amounts to a retraction of his initial unsparing condemnation of the play and playwright. Presumably, in the interim the appropriate context had been provided at least in part by the readings of more receptive or perceptive colleagues. Simon explains his own radical misreading (which even now he does not either fully recognize or admit) of the play in the following way:

… The first time round, I tended keenly to all sorts of other things. How well did the notorious, ludicrous, pathetic story transfer to the stage? How cleverly was it directed? How much did John Lithgow and B. D. Wong do for these unlikely lovers? How well does Wong manage to impersonate a woman? In the process, and especially while sharing in the shame and heartbreak of René Gallimard as embarrassingly well conveyed by Lithgow [my emphasis], I let the quality of the play slip out of my focus.29

What Simon is acknowledging in a rather roundabout way is the breakdown of his professional competency under the pressure of his discomfort at attending a play in which he as a European American male is the target of the author's criticism and ridicule.

In the light of the various transactions which have taken place in the critical material which helps define M. Butterfly as a cultural product, I believe that ultimately, the play must be credited for once again exposing the myth of an impartial or “purely artistic” judgement, and for introducing cultural authorities and therefore at least some members of the general public to one of the narratives of Asian American experience. Whatever the accommodations David Henry Hwang may have made to reach a Broadway stage and audience, whatever localized opportunities his play may afford segments of the audience to reinforce their stereotypes of Asians, in the end, the impact of the play must be gauged by the undeniable challenge it presented to the spectators' socially and culturally determined narrations of experience and their allied competencies as theatre-goers.


  1. William Wong, “Some mixed reviews for ‘M. Butterfly’,” The Oakland Tribune (August 3, 1988.)

  2. James S. Moy, “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage,” Theatre Journal, 42 (March 1990), 54.

  3. Tamio Spiege, “Hwang's ‘M. Butterfly’ Takes Flight on New York Stage,” review of M. Butterfly in Asian Week (April 1, 1988).

  4. In this article, I am primarily concerned with the American reception of M. Butterfly. My arguments concerning generic contextualization and protocols of viewing, however, can be applied equally well to either the American or British experience of the play. It therefore seemed valid to draw on both bodies of criticism to illustrate the points I wished to make regarding the need to situate Hwang's work in the context of a Western theatrical tradition. Where the discussion centers on sociocultural and historical context, only the American situation will be considered.

  5. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984), 234.

  6. See Roger Chartier, “Intellectual History or Socio-cultural History? The French Trajectories,” trans. Jane P. Kaplan, in Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives, ed. Dominick Lacapra and Steven Kaplan (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1984); Jean-Marie Goulemot, “De la lecture comme production de sens” in Pratiques de la lecture, ed. Roger Chartier, (Paris, France: Rivages, 1985); and Klaus Bruhn Jensen, “Qualitative Audience Research: Toward an Integrative Approach to Reception,” in Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (March 1987), 21-36.

    A particularly interesting illustration of this model of cultural activity is presented in an empirical study on the responses of various socio-cultural groups to the T.V. series Dallas. See Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes, “Once Upon a Time in Dallas,” in Intermedia 12:3 (May 1984), 28-32; Tamar Liebes, “Israelis of Moroccan Ethnicity Negotiate the Meaning of ‘Dallas,’” in Studies in Visual Communication 10:3 (summer 1984), 46-72.

  7. David Henry Hwang, “Author's Notes” for M. Butterfly (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988), 85.

  8. Ibid., 86.

  9. Frank Rich, “Plow and Butterfly: New Leads, New Light,” review of new cast of M. Butterfly in The New York Times (September 23, 1988).

  10. Michael Billington, review of London production of M. Butterfly in The Guardian (April 22, 1989).

  11. Review of M. Butterfly in Variety (March 23, 1988), 126.

  12. William A. Henry III, “Politics and Strange Bedfellows,” review of M. Butterfly in Time Magazine (April 4, 1988), 74.

  13. John Beaufort, “Puccini wouldn't recognize it,” review of M. Butterfly in The Christian Science Monitor (March 23, 1988).

  14. Edith Oliver, “Poor Butterfly,” review of M. Butterfly in The New Yorker (April 4, 1988), 74.

  15. Miriam Horn, “The Mesmerizing Power of Racial Myths,” review of M. Butterfly in U.S. News and World Report (March 28, 1988), 52.

  16. It is interesting to note that the British reviewers, applying their own “cultural narrative” to the play, never saw the East-West conflict in terms of domestic racial tensions. Instead, they were more likely to situate Hwang's play in the context of historical European imperialism, a perspective which is generally not emphasized in American reviews. The prominence of socialist, communist and other Marxist parties in European politics made British writers far more sensitive to and critical of Hwang's treatment of Communist China and Maoist doctrine. Among American critics, only Leo Sauvage, critic for the New Leader (April 18, 1988) deplored Hwang's “simple-minded” treatment of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution and pointed out historical inaccuracies regarding the French communist movement.

  17. Gerald Weales, “Madame B., from Puccini to Hwang,” review of M. Butterfly in Commonweal (April 22, 1988), 245-246.

  18. Ibid., 246.

  19. Ibid., 247.

  20. Lydia Conway, review of M. Butterfly in What's On (May 3, 1989).

  21. Review of M. Butterfly in Variety (March 23, 1988), 126.

  22. Moira Hodgson, review of M. Butterfly in The Nation (April 23, 1988), 577.

  23. John Simon, “Finding Your Song,” review of M. Butterfly in New York (April 11, 1988), 117.

  24. Sauvage, 22.

  25. For example, the review written by Terry Helbing for the New York Native (April 18, 1988), a publication addressed to the gay community, highlights a central theme that was not singled out in publications directed at a general readership. Helbing, however, is careful to avoid the distortion of meaning that follows upon the suppression of intertwined narrative lines, and reminds his readers to do the same. His review concludes with the following paragraph:

    Is M. Butterfly homophobic? On the surface, an upstanding, white male is persuaded to perform treasonous acts because of a possibly homosexual female impersonator, thus making gayness a threat to both masculinity and national security. But anyone who comes away from this play seeing only that has not gone below the surface of the piece. Hwang's play has far too many layers and proposes too many ideas and issues to stop there. The denial present in both characters raises fundamental questions about what it is to be male; this question, along with the play's other issues and the ensuing discussions among audience members, merit a chance to be heard on Broadway.

  26. Irene Backalenick, “A one-of-a-kind theatrical experience,” review of M. Butterfly in Westport News (April 22, 1988), 35.

  27. Reviews from Punch and New York offer a sampling of these comparisons. Rhoda Koenig of Punch (May 5, 1989) closed her notice by saying, “M. Butterfly is cocktail-party drama all right, and definitely catered by the Chinese: one hour later, you're hungry for a play. John Simon (New York, April 11, 1988) plays on the same adage in his concluding sentence, noting that “… unlike Chinese food, Hwang's play leaves you hungry for less—a better-thought-out and more penetratingly felt less.”

  28. David Henry Hwang, M Butterfly act three, scene 1 (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988), 62.

  29. John Simon, review of new cast of M. Butterfly in New York (October 24, 1988), 145-46.

Kathryn Remen (essay date fall 1994)

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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 productions tend to encourage their audiences to sit back and observe. Particularly on the Broadway stage, an audience comes with the expectation of entertainment without undue effort. The unsaid intention is to learn from the story, to watch and gather information about the characters, the plot, the themes, and to leave the theater with some distilled understanding, moral, or catharsis. If we apply Foucault's analysis of the prison system from his book Discipline and Punish, we begin to see that the theater and the prison operate in similar fashions with similar purposes: they are both “[architectures] … built … to render visible those who are inside … [architectures] that [operate] to transform individuals.”2

Both observational theater and punishment rely on a psychoanalytic privileging of knowledge. As members of the audience, we assume that we can gather enough information from the actions of the entrapped figure to come away with a better understanding of the internal workings of people.3 In this fashion, both the theater and the modern prison system attempt to “[function] … as an apparatus of knowledge” (Foucault, 126). Both institutions “[distribute] individuals in a space in which one might isolate them and map them” (144). The structure of the stage and the use of spot lighting isolate M. Butterfly's main character, René Gallimard, and allow the audience to “map” him without distractions. In such a situation, the only activity that the audience in the theater need perform is a close observation. They remain distant and removed, literally in the darkened house while the actors, the specimens of study, are under light.

M. Butterfly begins with this observational system. In many ways the play employs conservative theatrical elements that come from such mainstream modern dramatists as Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Miller. Like Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, M. Butterfly is a memory play with themes of illusion and reality, continual references to confinement, dramatic lighting and musical motifs for the characters; as in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and Arthur Miller's After the Fall, our narrator steps in and out of the action of the play, commenting on scenes and playing different characters. Rather than inferring that these similar elements are merely following in a tradition established by Hwang's predecessors, we can see them as intentionally deceptive devices. As an audience, we are lulled into passivity by seeing a form that is familiar. We believe that this will be a drama in which we know our role: we are in the theater to watch. Even if the audience is not aware of the subject matter of the play, as soon as we open the program we find the following:

A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity. … Mr. Bouriscot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Mr. Shi, whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman.

NY Times, May 11, 1986.

This notice informs us of an atypical content (especially when compared to the earlier mentioned plays), but any residual anxiety about the form following the subject matter and straying from traditional boundaries disappears as the play begins. Tom in The Glass Menagerie announces to the audience, “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”4 He establishes the play as one that comes from his memories, in which he is the narrator who will introduce us to the other characters and point out significant passages. Similarly, René Gallimard tells us, “Alone in this cell, I sit night after night, watching our story play through my head …” (Hwang, 4), He secures us in our observational mode by announcing that he has been searching for us, the “ideal audience—who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy [him]” (4). This invitation to “understand” him allows us to sit back and watch him take us through the story step by step, while we gather information and try to fulfill the task that he has placed before us.

But by the end of the play, and crucially the final scene in which Rene Gallimard commits ritual suicide, this observational mode disappears and Hwang replaces it with a system of theater and of punishment that directly implicates and involves the audience. We realize that Hwang intentionally employed the familiar elements to lull us into an accustomed passivity. Gallimard has been lying to us by making us believe that we will remain passive; he transforms the audience from passive observers into the main characters of the play and we leave the play with the burden of responsibility and a greater understanding of our involvement, as active participants in punishment. In analyzing the process of implicating the audience by drawing parallels with Foucault's study of punishment, we come to see that rather than leaving the play with a greater understanding of our interiors, we have witnessed and participated in the operation of power and resistance on physical bodies in a Foucauldian system.

Much of the criticism on M. Butterfly has focused merely on the plot and indeed the content of the story is such that it ought to incite interest. Most mainstream plays do not have a collection of “tabloid” topics such as cross-dressing, international intrigues, mistaken identity, and illicit homosexual affairs. However, critics who look only at the plot are allowing the sensational aspects of the plot to distract them from the theoretically radical structural effects of the play. Robert K. Martin and Robert Skloot only seem concerned with interpreting the play on the most basic level. Both have difficulty making sense of the ending of the play. In his interpretation, Martin goes so far as to reduce the final scene to the statement that “Gallimard, at the end is after all simply the dying queen.”5 Skloot at least seems to see the play as more than a case of cross-dressing, but his analysis remains firmly in a psychoanalytic understanding of Gallimard that leaves him confused with the ending: “Gallimard's transformation into Butterfly has several possible interpretations. … Is his suicide confessional transcendence or humiliating defeat? Has he accepted or rejected the woman in himself? Is one culture superior to another or merely different?”6 Skloot does not arrive at any conclusion and attempts to justify the ambiguities by saying that the unanswered questions make us think about our own interiors. Dorrine K. Kondo has a perspective that goes beyond Skoot's binary concerns. Her argument focuses on “the multiplicity of Asia and of women,” and her article is useful in understanding Hwang's condemnation of binary assumptions about “aesthetics and politics, the personal and the political, woman and man, East and West.”7 She shows how the webs and matrices of power relations operate on the specific characters' perceptions of self. Hwang's play tells a story that is both fabulous and based on a true incident, but his purpose for telling the story is not merely to serve as a news service and inform us of a bizarre case. Instead he appropriates Mr. Bouriscot's story for his own purpose: to discuss power and fantasies of dominance between different cultures. Kondo addresses how his Foucauldian understanding of power forms “identities”; I will discuss how these powers transform our theater from one of a traditional, observational arrangement into a spectacular theater of punishment that both involves and implicates the audience.

Foucault says that “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production” (194). This power has the authority to punish. As a French diplomat in China, Gallimard's initial mistaken understanding of power follows the liberal interpretation: he thinks that, because he adopts the Western, white male position, he has the power. He doesn't understand that the power is not fixed, that the resistance is mobile, and that the rules can and do change. He is so caught up in his fantasy of being a powerful exploiter, which depends on this basic and inadequate view of power, that he does not acknowledge any information that may challenge these beliefs.

Gallimard comes to the understanding of the Foucauldian definition of power by the end; this is how we explain his resistance to it. Gallimard, the narrator, has this understanding of power at the beginning but he plays along with the audience; he encourages us to believe that he has submitted to our gaze, that he has given in to the proscribed observational punishment. Only at the end does the audience realize that he has been showing us his mistaken view of power and that his current understanding not only exhibits a clear knowledge of Foucauldian power but also allows him to employ the best mode of resistance. If the force of law produces the possibility of resistance, then Gallimard is resisting and rebelling in the final scene. Here we realize that he has changed the game and the rules of the game, without the audience being ready for this or even aware that he can do this until his actions occur.

Song Liling has a clear knowledge of Foucauldian power from the moment she begins her deception.8 She understands that lying is the best form of resistance to a power intent on fact-collecting; by supplying that power with false facts, with lies that the observer would prefer to believe, Song changes the rules of the game. Song justifies her lies by explaining that Western eyes will never accept her oriental male body as a body with any power: “being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (Hwang, 83). By assuming another identity, she undermines the powers more effectively with lies than she could with truth. Song creates the character and information that Gallimard wants to read into his fantasy of dominance. She creates a body that is a lie and Gallimard falls in love with this body, not with the physical body underneath the lies.

Gallimard's ignorance helps to make Song's lies more effective. Though Gallimard is imprisoned for treason, a part of his “crime” is his misunderstanding of the body—of his own body and Song's body. Not only does Gallimard lack a biological understanding, he also ignores the historical, political, and geographical specificity of Song's body. Gallimard would have known that Song was a man if he had known some details about Chinese culture. In a particularly effective scene between Song and Comrade Chin, Song asks and answers her own question about “Why, in the Peking Opera, are all women's roles played by men? … only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (63). Song recognizes what Gallimard wants to see and, as an experienced actor, carries out the lie. Song's lies are so powerful as to make physical information virtually insignificant. While on trial, Song explains her sexual relationship with Gallimard: “he never saw me completely naked. … I did all the work. … I suppose he might have wondered why I was always on my stomach … it was my job to make him think I was a woman” (81-82). Only at the end of the play does Gallimard recognize Song's “job” and realize that he has loved and been manipulated by an impersonation, a collection of carefully coordinated lies. Gallimard's fantasy of how power operates, his adoption of a liberal definition of power, prevents him from recognizing his lover's physical body and from seeing his own body as a homosexual body.

At the end of the play, when Song strips before Gallimard and forces him to see the physical body, he responds by saying: “You showed me your true self. When all I loved was the lie” (89). Truth and knowledge create different bodies and in this realization Gallimard shows us the moment that he begins to understand a different system of power. He loves a different body from the one Song strips to show him because it is formed of truths that are different from those that he wants to believe.

As Song outwitted Gallimard, her observer, so Gallimard learns from this experience and employs similar deceptive techniques to outwit the audience, his observers. But before embarking on an explanation of how he lies to us, we must first clarify the audience's position in the punishment. The play begins with Gallimard in his cell in a prison on the outskirts of Paris; thus we instantly are introduced to a form of punishment and it is a punishment with which we are familiar. Punishment in our time is, as Foucault explains, a matter of observation. We do not expect any torture or inscription on the body of the condemned, only confinement and observation. Foucault fittingly describes the modern prison cell as “so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (Foucault, 200). In Hwang's play we see the cell as small theater, and the theater as a prison. Throughout the course of the play, Gallimard never leaves the stage.9 Thus, we are invited into his prison cell at the beginning of the play and we don't leave until he is dead. He is under continual scrutiny and all of his costume changes occur in direct lighting under the observer's eye. The breakdown of the action into short scenes parallels the observational form of punishment where “The ‘seriation’ of successive activities makes possible a whole investment of duration by power: the possibility of a detailed control and a regular intervention … in each moment of time” (160). Our “control” heightens the pressure and the punishment on Gallimard.

His only relief is to wander in his memories, but even here he is trapped. If discipline is a form of enclosure, then not only is he enclosed in his cell on the public space of the stage, he is also trapped by his memories and not fully able to control them. At the point when Song strips for him, Gallimard becomes an unwilling captive of his memories. He says, “once again, against my will, I am transported” (Hwang, 85). He tries to stop the reenactment of the scene and end the story when his love of “the Perfect Woman” is still intact. He says, “You're only in my mind! All this is in my mind! I order you! To stop!” (87), but Song does not stop.

Gallimard's mental mutiny tempts the audience to try to understand the workings of his mind. Foucault says that “The publicity of punishment must not have the physical effect of terror; it must open up a book to be read” (Foucault, 111). The audience is trying to read Gallimard through the exposure that his punishment provides. In the early scene at the cocktail party, the audience sees the public fascination with his story. The people who gossip on the stage act as a mirror of our own fascination. Gallimard's sexual “crime” has elevated him to something of a minor celebrity so that “In the world's smartest parlors” the people “say [his] name, as if it were some new dance” (Hwang, 2-3). They all want to know the secret to his story; they want an explanation of how he could have had an affair for twenty years and not known the real sex of his lover. This is the story that we came to the theater to see, but it is not the only story. Significantly, we never get a real answer to this question. The other story that we are watching is an enactment of punishment methods and the execution of and resistance to power.

As we can see by the fascination of the men and women in the cocktail party scene and by our own draw to the “tabloid” subject matter, what is occurring is a judgment of the soul of the condemned rather than the actual crime he committed (Foucault, 19). As Foucault says, this “introduction of the ‘biographical’ is important … [b]ecause it establishes the ‘criminal’ as existing before the crime and even outside it” (252). By attempting to see to the depths of Gallimard's soul we are ordering a “punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16).

The role of the audience early in the play is to remain removed as “anonymous and temporary observers” and to judge Gallimard (202). Our judgment of him rests on our views of “normality.” As observers and a part of the “carceral network,” the audience “[supports] … the normalizing power” (304). We objectify Gallimard to both learn about “Knowable man” and to try to “normalize” the criminal (305). We also heighten the inmate's “anxious awareness of being observed” (202). Immediately after the scene at the cocktail party, Gallimard announces his search, night after night, for an “ideal audience,” one who will “envy” him (Hwang, 4). In the observational mode of punishment this goal seems impossible; after all, one of the pre-stated purposes is to make him like everyone else, to destroy any uniqueness that may be enviable and “normalize” him. Only when we interpret the final scene as a spectacular form of resistance is this “envy” possible.

In the final scene of the play, Gallimard costumes himself as Butterfly and commits the Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku, which involves disemboweling oneself with a hara-kiri knife. Before he plunges the knife into his body he makes this announcement to his observers:

I have found her at last. In a prison on the outskirts of Paris. My name is René Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly.

(Hwang, 93)

In this action, Gallimard joins the Foucauldian world; in Discipline and Punish Foucault traces the evolution from spectacular to observational punishment. He uses specific and gory examples to show how punishment used to be unique, individual and specific to the crime that the criminal had committed. Modern observational punishment “automatizes and disindividualizes power” (Foucault, 202). Gallimard rebels by creating a punishment that suits the individual and the crime. His suicide follows the old form by making it into a punishment that is specific to his crime in ritual, costume, and penetration. The Japanese ritual disemboweling refers to his misunderstanding of the “Orient.” Though he was a diplomat in China, his fantasy involves a Japanese stereotype because he assumes that all Asians are the same. He dresses as Butterfly, his perfect “lotus blossom,” with the white Geisha make-up, a wig and kimono. Thus his surface presents the culture that he misunderstood while the Western, white man hides underneath. Just as he attempted to dominate Song, as Puccini's Pinkerton dominated Butterfly, the white man plunges the knife into the Oriental woman. Here, however, one character embodies both figures: the Western, white man dies along with the Oriental woman. This form of suicide involves penetration, and, in many countries, suicide, like sodomy, is illegal. Thus his “improper” penetration of his own body mimics his improper penetration of Song. Like Foucault's pre-eighteenth-century criminals, he tailors his punishment to his crime. In the public execution, “the body [produces] and [reproduces] the truth of the crime” (47). Gallimard can only reproduce this truth; earlier in the play we discover that he is most likely infertile. His wife, Helga, asks him to go to a doctor, and Gallimard, fearing this additional threat to his fragile manhood, refuses. One of the most brilliant elements of Song's deception occurs when she presents Gallimard with a child, thus enforcing his fantasy of being a powerful, fertile male. But at the end, Gallimard realizes that it is impossible for him to physically reproduce himself and he uses his body, the body that produced the crime, to reproduce the crime. He violates his bodily unity in a ritual fashion and with this ritual he tries to make his death more meaningful than his life has been.

The suicide, or execution, takes place in public, and in this way Gallimard also forces the audience back to an earlier form of punishment—from observation back to spectacle. As Foucault recounts, the public execution takes on “the intensity of [a festival]” with “sensual proximity” (216). Gallimard's death plays on the senses with music, costumes, special lighting and invocations of specific rituals. “The public execution formed part of the procedure that established the reality of what one punished”; it establishes truth and “[provides] the spectacle with … power” (56). He also enforces this past method of punishment by confessing before his death: “Through the confession, the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth” (38). Gallimard's final confession about fantasy and reality is his contribution to this “truth.” “Tonight” he says, “I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy” (Hwang, 90). In some ways, Gallimard's fantasy and his transformation into Puccini's Butterfly require the suicide. To follow through with the assumption of the stereotyped submissive Japanese woman he must kill himself for himself.

Gallimard's suicide is an effective form of resistance and is the climax of the play. If “Disciplinary punishment … [is] essentially corrective” (Foucault, 179), then Gallimard does not want to be corrected—he “chooses fantasy” over reality. Though officially he is being punished for treason and betraying the state, really he is being punished for the sexual “abnormality” and the mistake that allowed the treason to occur. He refuses to have his sexuality corrected. He would rather live and die in the world of fantasy where his sexuality, his dreams, and his desires can remain intact. He does not just fade away under observation; he transforms himself into a spectacle. Gallimard, by enacting a different form of punishment, creates a different type of body. The suicide is his reclamation of his body. Observation has tried to transform him into a docile, observable body and he is changing himself back. A key part of Gallimard's resistance is his refusal to be pliable raw material. He refuses the “training” of his body, the compartmentalization that the observers are attempting. He makes his body back into a fragile body, one that, he exhibits, is very capable of being broken.

Power never intended to bend Gallimard into a Butterfly, but the observation punishment was excessive. Every night he is on display for a new audience and he (unpredictably) rebels and refuses to be the ends and means of the functioning of power. Gallimard refuses to operate as “the lesson, the discourse, the decipherable sign, the representation of public morality” (Foucault, 110). He remains in-decipherable to the observers.

Gallimard's suicide/execution/resistance shows the audience how we have been duped. We realize that the punishment we have been a part of inflicting is inappropriate, thus he resists and his resistance is unpredictable. We don't expect our narrator to exit the play, to leave us alone at the end. The narrators in other plays such as The Glass Menagerie and Our Town do not die and leave us without a main character. Foucault explains that “In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people” (57). We replace Gallimard in the story: the play is not about his “bodily crimes” but about our involvement in a process of punishment. Though we know that Madame Butterfly in Puccini's opera does commit suicide, we don't expect Gallimard to do this because, until the last scene, we think that the name “M. Butterfly” applies to Song Liling, not to René Gallimard. We think that we know something that Gallimard does not—that who he thinks is Madame is actually Monsieur Butterfly. But he shows us how little we really know by assuming this name.

The audience also expects “a reasonable aesthetic of punishment” because “the law must appear to be a necessity of things, and power must act while concealing itself beneath the gentle force of nature” (106). The violent suicide displays the power of punishment. We are accustomed to carefully controlled and hidden forms of punishment that mask the violence against the body. Here the violence and the effects of power are not concealed, nor does his death seem “natural” because of the layers of disguise and impersonation that Gallimard has used to stage this spectacle. It is unnatural that the victim, the criminal and the executioner all are contained in one body.

Only at the end do we realize that the structure of the play has been a deception, that the ending will not follow the secure patterns that we are used to. Gallimard asked us to join in the observational mode and he has been lying to us. By unwittingly becoming “the main character,” we have to accept the burden of responsibility for what we have done, for the role we have been playing, for the objectification in which we are complicit. Earlier, Gallimard showed us how Song Liling fooled him and undermined his fantasy of power by a set of carefully constructed lies. So too has René Gallimard fooled us; he has employed the entire familiar structure of the observational theater to lull us into a complacent and falsely secure role and then, in his final destructive stroke of brilliance, he has transformed the system of punishment. As witnesses to the execution we are shocked and repulsed by the apparent “excessive” cruelty of the suicide/execution.

We think that our power relies on the technology of psychoanalytic observation and that it will yield some understanding or “enlightenment” for us. Instead Gallimard adopts a Kafkaesque form of punishment where the body of the criminal, by inscription, receives the enlightenment, not the observers. Our power doesn't work. It doesn't induce Gallimard to submit to it; he changes the punishment and denies the observers/punishers the observable subject. Because “the truth-power relation remains at the heart of all mechanisms of punishment” (55), in searching for the understanding that Gallimard invited us to seek at the beginning of the play, we have, almost unconsciously, aligned ourselves with the punishing powers. We want one “truth” or explanation from Gallimard, but we get another. We were fooled in thinking that observation would reveal a set of facts that would explain the affair and the “tabloid” topics. But Gallimard's self-imposed punishment offers another truth that does not answer the questions of the prior actions of his body and instead instructs us in the workings of mobile matrices of power.

Gallimard announced in the beginning that he was looking for an audience to envy him. He seems to know that he will never be able to accomplish this in a psychological method of punishment. Indeed we don't envy him for his fantasy, for loving the “Perfect Woman,” for becoming the “patron saint of the socially inept” (Hwang, 4). However, he has transformed us into the audience who envies or, at the very least, respects him for his resistance to power, for his ability to reclaim himself from our possessive gaze. Our theatre, which we believed was “a procedure … aimed at knowing, mastering and using” (Foucault, 143) has been proved ineffective, and we, the audience, also suffer from this inadequacy. Like the humbled and shamed Gallimard at the beginning of the play, we too have been tricked into seeing our own ignorance and incompetence.


  1. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York, 1989), 2. All subsequent references to this edition will appear (as “Hwang”) in parenthesis in the text.

  2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1979), 172. All subsequent references to this edition will appear in parenthesis in the text.

  3. I will use the pronoun “we” throughout the paper to refer to the audience and the readers; I include myself among the intended audience.

  4. Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, (New York, 1972), 29.

  5. Robert K. Martin, “Gender, Race, and the Colonial Body: Carson McCullers's Filipino Boy, and David Henry Hwang's Chinese Woman,” Canadian Review of American Studies 23:1 (Fall 1992), 95-106: 104.

  6. Robert Skloot, “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang,” Modern Drama 33:1 (March 1990), 64.

  7. Dorrine K. Kando, “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity,” Cultural Critique 16 (Fall 1990), 5-29: 28-29.

  8. Though it is difficult to select a pronoun to refer to Song, (perhaps “s/he” would be the most appropriate), for ease of reference in the scenes with both Song and Gallimard I have chosen the feminine “she.”

  9. The only exceptions occur when Song talks with Comrade Chin in Act Two, Scenes Five, Nine, and Ten. But this is not a real escape for Gallimard: Hwang makes it obvious that Gallimard is afraid of Chin and is hiding only from her aggressive presence, not from the audience's gaze. After Chin's exit, Gallimard peeks out from the wings and asks “Is she gone?” (Hwang, 49).

David L. Eng (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9027

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 for the tape recorder, the hot plate, and this charming coffee table.

When I want to eat, I'm marched off to the dining room—hot steaming slop appears on my plate. When I want to sleep, the light bulb turns itself off—the work of fairies. It's an enchanted space I occupy.

Rene Gallimard M. Butterfly1


The prison cell from which Rene Gallimard addresses us bears a striking resemblance to a closet. Slightly larger than the average run-of-the-mill walk in, the physical limits of Gallimard's fairy-like privacy are demarcated from the opening lines of David Henry Hwang's 1988 Tony Award-winning drama M. Butterfly. As the prison is meant to enclose, the closet is meant to conceal. While Gallimard praises this “enchanted space”2 for its putative ability to keep those bodies who would seek his autograph at bay, the closet offers him, more importantly, the protection of identity.

And beyond his opening confession as “least likely to be invited to a party”3 what alternate identity does Gallimard seek to hide from us? We could begin by pondering the epistemology of the closet. In her formidable treatise on queer subjectivity of the same name, Eve Sedgwick states that in accord with Foucault's demonstration:

… that modern Western culture has placed what it calls sexuality in a more and more distinctively privileged relation to our most prized constructs of individual identity, truth, and knowledge, it becomes truer and truer that the language of sexuality not only intersects with but transforms the other languages and relations by which we know.4

Positing sexuality as the privileged signifier of identity in modern Western epistemologies, Sedgwick's observations provide a preliminary starting point in our investigation of Gallimard's “alternate identity.” We begin by invoking questions of sexuality in M. Butterfly: what is the language of sexuality in the drama? How should we evaluate Gallimard and Song's sexual relationship?5 How does this relationship constitute and transform the terms of exchange by which we ultimately judge the value of the play?

These questions, germane for current critical commentaries and theatrical reviews generated by M. Butterfly, are notable for their collective sacrifice of issues relating to homosexuality. Focusing on the drama as a testimony to cultural misunderstanding and sexist ignorance on the part of the white man, the majority of readings are remarkably uniform in so far as they examine these issues of racism and sexism within the exclusive regime of a compulsive and compulsory heterosexuality.6

The concerted privileging in these critical analyses of an inveterate heterosexuality over the implicit and explicit residues of a queer sensibility motivating the play from Gallimard's opening lines restricts, then, like the prison cell, any useful implications of M. Butterfly for a gay antihomophobic politics. This elision is particularly damaging for the issue of race and homosexuality as they intersect in the figure of Song (and Gallimard's desire for Song) imputes additional consequences of a racist homophobia against the gay male of color—in this instance, the Asian and Asian American homosexual.7

In this analysis of M. Butterfly, I hope to offer a reading against which the homosexual can emerge unhindered, unhinged. By exposing a collusion of spaces—a collusion of interests—we will deconstruct the structure of Gallimard's closet, considering the motives behind its erection and vigilant maintenance. We will interrogate the sexual orientation of our narrating diplomat, consider his fantasmatic identifications with a queer subjectivity, and explore his racist investments in his orientalized vision of Song. We will, I hope, come to recognize that Gallimard's closet—the furtive space from which he professes his tale of “heterosexual” love gone awry—is a prison, literally and figuratively, allowing the former French consul to offer us a filtered vision of his aborted affair.


In The Language of Psycho-analysis, Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis chart the scene of desire through a mechanism of the human psyche they come to label as the “fantasmatic.” The fantasmatic gives shape to our lives as a “whole”8 for it articulates our unconscious fantasies, fantasies which not only impute coherence to our identity but also determine our libidinal object choice. We must keep in mind, however, that fantasies—as Freud reminds us—are ultimately less personal than culturally inscribed through collective group structures, most notably the Oedipus complex. Human subjectivity and desire, therefore, come more to reflect a repetition of past actions than a private and essentially unrepeatable domain of individual action and experience.9

The pioneering work of Judith Butler extends the arena of the fantasmatic to focus specifically upon queer subjectivity. Working with the presumption that every subject functions under collective fantasies as well as collective constraints—most strikingly the prohibition against homosexuality—Butler queries in Bodies That Matter:

When the threat of punishment wielded by that prohibition [against homosexuality] is too great, it may be that we desire someone who will keep us from ever seeing the desire for which we are punishable, and in attaching ourselves to that person, it may be that we effectively punish ourselves in advance and, indeed, generate desire in and through and for that self-punishment.10

In a society governed by compulsory heterosexuality, it comes as little surprise that homosexual desire is often reconfigured through heterosexual constructs. Gay desire often comes to be abjected and displaced by the notion of an advanced self-punishment purchased in exchange for a promise of sexual impunity.

Keeping Butler's concept of the fantasmatic as riven through by the interdictions of a homophobic society, I suggest that we must read Gallimard's detailed memories of the events leading up to his espionage trial not as a mere chronology of his frustrated love affair with Butterfly but rather as an extravagant example of fantasmatic constraint against homosexual desire. The fact that Song Liling is a man holds significance beyond the emphasis of Gallimard's orientalism, the perfunctory cultural arrogations that lead to his ostensible blunder concerning Song's anatomical sex. On a basic physical level, admittedly or not on the part of our narrating diplomat, Gallimard and Song have a homosexual affair.11 They are two males who repeatedly engage in the act of sodomy: “I let him put it up my ass!”12 confesses a beleaguered Song, “coming out,” under the farcical interrogations of Comrade Chin.

The construction of M. Butterfly, however, revolves around Gallimard's avowal of putative ignorance, an avowal that becomes crucial in so far as its efficacy is sanctioned and legitimated by the voice of the law: “Did Monsieur Gallimard know you were a man?”13 emerges as the central and obsessive question of the investigating judge, swinging the all-too-familiar juridical gavel. The answer to this inquisition is, of course, never fully established by the Chinese opera singer:

Just answer my question: did he know you were a man?
You know, Your Honor, I never asked.(14)

Is the Asian diva's response to the repeated query of the judge so enigmatic? While the construction of his Honor's question demands a simple “yes” or “no” answer, Song's reply, however ambiguous, does little to credit Gallimard's position of ignorance. Rather, the opera singer's retort undercuts the diplomat's avowal by refusing to give the corroboration that both Gallimard and the judge so desperately seek. The structure of Song's rhetoric—“You know … I never asked”—suggests the irrelevance of the question, its facile nature as articulated by the voice of the law: I never asked because it was unnecessary to ask. I never asked because the answer is obvious. What do you think?

Nevertheless, Gallimard's position of denial—his alignment with a compulsory system of heterosexuality—is privileged from the opening lines of the drama. The diplomat's contention that for the duration of his twenty-year affair he was “loved by ‘the Perfect Woman’”15 definitively answers the judge's final question, while establishing Gallimard's avowal of ignorance as the central premise of the drama. It is this premise that renders a “sexual disorientation” between the hetero- and homosexual into M. Butterfly, and it is this disjunction that demands a detailed interrogation of Gallimard's fantasmatic identifications with and against a queer subjectivity beyond the irrefutability of his and Song's sex and sexual practices as well as the facile inquiries of the investigating judge.

David Henry Hwang's Afterword to the drama offers a fruitful starting point for our investigation. Citing the important parallels between “Rice Queens” and “Yellow Fever,” the playwright states:

Gay friends have told me of a derogatory term used in their community: “Rice Queen”—a gay Caucasian man primarily attracted to Asians. In these relationships, the Asian virtually always plays the role of the “woman”; the Rice Queen, culturally and sexually, is the “man.” This pattern of relationships had become so codified that, until recently, it was considered unnatural for gay Asians to date one another. Such men would be taunted with a phrase that implied they were lesbians.

Similarly, heterosexual Asians have long been aware of “Yellow Fever”—Caucasian men with a fetish for Oriental women. I have often heard it said the “Oriental women make the best wives.” (Rarely is this heard from the mouths of Asian men, incidentally.) This mythology is exploited by the Oriental mail-order bride trade which has flourished over the past decade. American men can now send away for catalogues of “obedient, domesticated” Asian women looking for husbands.16

As described by Hwang, the concepts of “Rice Queen” and “Yellow Fever” are constructed along congruent paradigms of submission, the intersection of racism and sexism in heterosexual and homosexual economies respectively. This overlap is crucial for it definitively expands the common reading of Gallimard's heterosexual relationship with Song into the homosexual arena. The hyperfeminization of both the obedient “Oriental lady” and the effeminate gay Asian male (lesbians!), thus, renders every explicitly racist and misogynist remarks of the drama (e.g.: “It's true what they say about Oriental girls. They want to be treated bad!”17 “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself”18 the implicit double-edged efficacy of a racist homophobia as well.19

Thus, we can view Song Liling's appearance in drag not only as the figure of an inscrutable feminine and female Butterfly, but equally as the fulfillment of the Rice Queen's ultimate fantasy in which the gay Asian male literalizes the desired qualities of the effeminized oriental sissy. The potential of Song's transvestitism to be interpreted as a homosexual submission to the gay Gallimard's white male fantasy—the symptomatic Rice Queen—is read most productively against the diplomat's repressed adolescence and subsequent tenure at the French embassy.

Like all pubescent young men, the young Gallimard has his fair share of traumatic sexual encounters. However, the development of Gallimard's heterosexual desire is qualified both by his atypical reactions in these typical sexual scenarios as well as by a litany of stereotypical homosexual innuendoes throughout the drama—its campiness, Gallimard's affinity for musical opera. Gallimard's original meeting with Butterfly, as described by the boorish Marc, is certainly “monumental”20 when juxtaposed against the pubescent diplomat's long history of intimidation by and a general aversion to the opposite sex.

Faced with the opportunity for some healthy male-female adolescent frolics—an invitation by indefatigable Marc to his Marseille condominium—Gallimard's response is more than non-committal, fraught with homosexual anxiety:

Rene, we're a buncha of university guys goin' up to the woods. What are we going to do—talk philosophy?
Girls? Who said anything about girls?
Who cares? The point is, they come. On trucks. Packed in like sardines. The back flips open, babes hop out, we're ready to roll.
You mean, they just—?
Before you know it, every last one of them—they're stripped and splashing around my pool. There's no moon out, they can't see what's going on, their boobs are flapping, right? You close your eyes, reach out—it's grab bag, get it? Doesn't matter whose ass is between whose legs, whose teeth are sinking into who. You're just in there, going at it, eyes closed, on and on for as long as you can stand. (Pause.) Some fun, huh?
What happens in the morning?
In the morning, you're ready to talk some philosophy. (Beat.) So how 'bout it?
Marc, I can't … I'm afraid they'll say no—the girls. So I never ask.
You don't have to ask! That's the beauty—don't you see? They don't have to say yes. It's perfect for a guy like you, really.
You go ahead … I may come later.(21)

Gallimard's dismissal of Marc's invitation goes beyond the trauma of adolescent clumsiness and acne. Notice the diplomat's unequivocal terror (Girls? Who said anything about girls?) as soon as he learns that the homosocial gathering of a “buncha university guys” will be marred by the presence of flapping boobs. The Frenchman's identifications with an adolescent heterosexuality are far from developed; they are nonexistent. Presented with the perfect opportunity for unqualified sex—guaranteed acceptance, no looking, no rejection, a veritable “grab bag” by Marc's estimation—Gallimard's unorthodox panic makes sense only when read in light of a heterosexual abjection, a fear of not being able to perform, a fear of not wanting to perform: You go ahead … I may come later … I may come … I may or may not come out of the closet.

Heterosexual performance emerges as the central concern, the figure of the flaccid and uncooperative penis becoming primary. The young Gallimard's personal and private masturbatory fantasies are marked by his inability to “get it up,” even temporarily, for the female sex. The image of the closet is once again presented as the adolescent, quite literally, finds himself occupying this furtive space:

… I first discovered these magazines at my uncle's house. One day, as a boy of twelve. The first time I saw them in his closet … all lined up—my body shook. Not with lust—no, with power. Here were women—a shelfful—who would do exactly what I wanted.
I know you're watching me.
My throat … it's dry.
I leave my blinds open and the lights on.
I can't move.
I leave my blinds open and the lights on.
I'm shaking. My skin is hot, but my penis is soft. Why? …
I can't see you. You can do whatever you want.
I can't do a thing. Why?(22)

The circumstances of these two situations are equivalent in both cause and effect: unqualified acceptance by women (“You can do whatever you want”) greeted by a disturbing phallic inadequacy: the soft penis. However, in Gallimard's dirty magazine day dream the guaranteed privacy of the situation, the absence of direct social pressure, and the lack of immediate demands for performance are, perhaps, even a more reliable indicator of Gallimard's sexual disposition. The anxiety over sight in both passages should not be overlooked. Gallimard is over-wrought by the issue of vision: of seeing and not being seen, of being seen for what he really is. The picture of Gallimard's flaccid penis coupled with his final question, repeated twice—Why can't I do a thing?—reinforces a fantasmatic allegiance with the queer: Gallimard's object choice clearly lies in a different realm of desire.

A final example: the diplomat's “heterosexual” tryst with Renee, the assertive Danish coed. It is, of course, no accident that Renee shares the feminine version of Rene Gallimard's first name.23 The copula of the shared name immediately marks the presence of an imaginary other, a Lacanian imago, so to speak, meant to impute coherence onto Gallimard's identifications. Renee, most memorable for her aggressive interactions with the diplomat provides a liberated self-expressive image towards which Rene Gallimard can aspire, but never occupy.24

Renee's exchange with the diplomat in which she skillfully appropriates traditional signifier of phallic power, literally by seizing Gallimard's penis and figuratively by expounding on the conflation and slippage between anatomical “weenies” and their symbolic manifestations—wars, epic fiction, large buildings—throws normative concepts of heterosexual difference into radical question. Her explication on the pernicious penis is worth quoting at length:

Oh. Most girls don't call it a “weenie,” huh?
It sounds very—
Small, I know.
I was going to say “young.”
Yeah. Young, small, same thing. Most guys are pretty, uh, sensitive about that. Like you know, I had a boyfriend back home in Denmark. I got mad at him once and called him a little weeniehead. He got so mad! He said at least I should call him a great big weeniehead.
I suppose I just say “penis.”
Yeah. That's pretty clinical. There's “cock,” but that sounds like a chicken. And “prick” is painful, and “dick” is like you're talking about someone who's not in the room.
Yes. It's a … bigger problem than I imagined.
I—I think maybe it's because I really don't know what to do with them—that's why I call them “weenies.”
Well you did quite well with … mine.
Thanks, but I mean, really do with them. Like, okay, have you ever looked at one? I mean, really?
No, I suppose when it's part of you, you sort of take it for granted.
I guess. But, like, it just hangs there. This little … flap of flesh. And there's so much fuss that we make about it. Like, I think the reason we fight wars is because we wear clothes. Because no one knows—between the men, I mean—who has the bigger … weenie. So, if I'm a guy with a small one, I'm going to build a really big building or take over a really big piece of land or write a really long book so the other men don't know, right? But, see, it never really works, that's the problem. I mean, you conquer the country, or whatever, but you're still wearing clothes, so there's no way to prove absolutely whose is bigger or smaller. And that's what we call a civilized society. The whole world run by a bunch of men with pricks the size of pins. (She exits.)
(To us.) This was simply not acceptable.(25)

Gallimard's horrified reaction to the coed's incisive sartorial critique clearly lies in her unwelcomed incursion into the realm of the paternal metaphor. Renee is completely in charge: in bed she is dominant, quite literally “on top,” as Gallimard admits “you did quite well with … mine [his penis].” Outside the bedroom, she assumes a position of discursive authority, emasculating the tongue-tied diplomat by running verbal circles around him in conversation.

Renee is everything that Gallimard is not and what Gallimard wishes he could be in his most acute masculine day dreams of phallic plenitude: assertive, dominant, straight. Relegating the Frenchman to a position of powerlessness, she undercuts Gallimard's heterosexual presumption by assuming a macho subjectivity that installs him squarely on the side of lack. The diplomat's objections towards Renee revolve around the Oedipal trauma that her actions—“too uninhibited, too willing, too … masculine”26—trigger in his own libidinal psyche. The “unacceptability” of her actions, of course, resides in her sex as a female, her aggressive usurpation of phallic authority. If the given name that the two characters share marks a zone of unfulfilled desire on the part of Gallimard for discursive control, Renee's status as female other confounds this desire, while raising the possibility of its location outside the monopolizing realm of the symbolically heterosexual and masculine white body. Renee introduces a fantasmatic site of gender crossing and desire, a site that Gallimard finds himself, willingly or unwillingly, occupying as well.


“We were worried about you, Gallimard,” reveals an envious Toulon. “We thought you were the only one here without a secret. Now you go and find a lotus blossom … and top us all.”27 In one fell swoop, Manuel Toulon, corporate tool extraordinaire of the French Embassy, assuages his “worries”—his homophobic panic—while assuring himself of Gallimard's reassuring heterosexuality through his discovery of the “secret” of his own fantasies: the affair between the white man and the inscrutable oriental lotus blossom.

Thus, like all straight white males, by the virtue of his self-same body, Gallimard accedes into not only a gender but also a race privilege. His “secret” is really no secret at all, but a shared position of power within the phallic autocracy, monopolized by the likes of racist and sexist white men such as Toulon and vigilantly guarded by the likes of arrogant bureaucrats such as the judge pontificating under the voice of the law.28 While clearly deficient in the art of heterosexual identifications, Gallimard inhabits a colonial world in which the power privileges of white males are absolute, replicated and ensured by the workings of an ideological system through the inheritance of opportunity and rights according to race—white—and sex—straight male.

The diplomat's awareness and subsequent indoctrination into this old boys' network comes at an early age, perhaps, without full cognition of the sweeping extent of his vested power interests. In the earlier cited masturbatory fantasy passage, we witness not only the gradual development of Gallimard's homosexual orientation but additionally a concomitant induction into the Name of the Father.

Though Gallimard's reaction to the dirty magazines remains uncommon of pubescent heterosexual males—his penis remains soft—the diplomat's lack of physical arousal is accompanied by a entirely typical mental awareness of his agency as a white male. The “power” over women of which Gallimard speaks, the power to make “women … do exactly as I wanted,”29 is indicative of an incipient consciousness regarding the sweeping extents of paternal privilege.

The replication of this privilege is ensured by social institutions such as marriage contracts. The elder Gallimard exhibits a greater appreciation for these systems of power in arranging his marriage to the Australian Ambassador's daughter—the dowdy Helga—a marriage self-described as “practical” and lacking of any sexual affect:

I married a woman older than myself—Helga.
My father was ambassador to Australia. I grew up among criminals and kangaroos.
Hearing that brought me to the altar—(Helga exits.) where I took a vow renouncing love. No fantasy woman would ever want me, so, yes, I would settle for a quick leap up the career ladder. Passion, I banished, and in its place—practicality!(30)

The institution of marriage as the bastion of sanctioned heterosexuality is rendered a farce. Gallimard's explicit confessions of a frigid marriage are displaced by the collective demands of a larger ideological concern: the continuity of white masculine control.

The diplomat's indoctrination into the full-fledged practices of paternal privilege is, however, most strongly reinforced by the French Ambassador Manuel Toulon's (mis)recognition of his affair with Butterfly as a heterosexual relationship between the white man and oriental femme fatale. Gallimard quickly learns that a consummate adeptness in perverting his gender and race entitlements are swiftly awarded:

Humility won't be part of the job. You're going to coordinate the revamped intelligence division. Want to know a secret? A year ago, you would've been out. But the past few months, I don't know how it happened, you've become this new aggressive confident … thing. And they also tell me you get along with the Chinese. So I think you're a lucky man, Gallimard. Congratulations.
(They shake hands. Toulon exits. Party noises out. Gallimard stumbles across a darkened stage.)
Vice-consul? Impossible! As I stumbled out of the party, I saw it written across the sky: There is no God. Or, no—say that there is a God. But that God … understands. Of course! God who creates Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed—that God is a man. And he understands! At age thirty-nine, I was suddenly initiated into the way of the world.(31)

At age thirty-nine, Gallimard is a bit slow, albeit quite melodramatic. His full cognizance of white male privilege matures only under the tutelage of Toulon who encourages the diplomat's unconscionable abuse of Butterfly with improved material, social, and political gains. What, after all, is the all-powerful “thing” that Toulon attempts euphemistically to describe but the ever-present delegated symbol of male abuse—the white heterosexual penis as phallus?32

While the salacious Toulon's recognition of what seems to him to be an illicit heterosexual affair provides the necessary ingredients for Gallimard to feel “for the first time that rush of power—the absolute power of a man.”33 This power, of course, is predicated on a compulsory heterosexuality. Power and promotion within the white man's club do not tolerate difference. In refusing to relinquish this privilege, Gallimard's “secret” is not, then, his affair with Song Liling, the access of the colonizing white male to the oriental lotus blossom through a phallocentric and racist patriarchy that exalts his position over that of all others. The “secret,” of course, becomes how to hide difference in a society that demands absolute compliance—racial, social, economic, and sexual—compliance in the face of utter abjection. Thus, the central contradiction between Gallimard's sexual and political position of power as a gay white male is sutured through the erection and active maintenance of the closet. Gallimard's “secret” becomes the strident demarcation of a private and public sexual space through the strident demarcation of a private and public sexuality: to pass off his homosexual affair with Song Liling as a heterosexual tryst.

Commenting on the significant system of differences that arise over skin color within a homosexual economy, Earl Jackson, Jr. observes that:

[w]hite gay males occupy a peculiar position in a heterosexist society in that, as men (if they are not “out”), they potentially have full access to the very power mechanisms that repress them and their fellow “outsiders,” who cannot “pass,” white women and people of color of any sexual orientation. Furthermore, gay male sexuality is not simply condemned by the phallocratic order, but it is also sublimated, thematized, and fetishized in the phallocracy's own ambivalent and constitutive mythographies of the phallus and phallic primacy. While the “real” of gay male sex is demonized, the imaginary and symbolic configurations of the unisexuality assumed in phallocentrism, and sustained by the worship of the phallus in male dominant practices, finds an unwitting (and disavowed) allay in the gay male.34

Jackson's comments summarize well the psychological position of gay white males such as Gallimard who, by their sexual preference, may be disabled by one set of oppressions, but, in turn, by virtue of their race, have potential access to enabling positions of power. In the dominant old boy world of Ambassador Toulons, the figure of the homosexual is one of such overwhelming abjection that the option of “passing” afforded to gay white males becomes the alluring and reflexive choice of those who are not “out” of the closet. The “unwitting” complicity in an invasive phallocentric system among gay white men, thus, becomes a highly debatable issue, for the rewards of “passing” are overwhelming for the closet queen: full access to the abusive mechanisms of the old boy network.35

For Gallimard, the option to be positioned as the supremely inept heterosexual, consummately manipulated by the scheming oriental vixen and embarrassingly ridiculed by a homophobic public is a position preferable to that of an open acknowledgment of his true Rice Queen homosexuality and the subsequent consequences of violating this homosexual prohibition: ostracism from this world of privilege. This fact is validated by a weary Gallimard who, at the conclusion of M. Butterfly, admits that:

[i]n public, I have continued to deny that Song Liling is a man. This brings me headlines, and is a source of great embarrassment to my French colleagues, who can now be sent into a coughing fit by the mere mention of Chinese food. But alone, in my cell, I have long since faced the truth.36

The statement is Gallimard's closest admission to the homosexual nature of the relationship that he and Song Liling once shared. Living by his pledge to “turn somersaults” in order to protect his vested interests, Gallimard ensures his security by learning the parables of power well: he embraces the paternal privileges offered by “passing” to the gay white male. The zone in which Gallimard finds himself beyond passing reconciles his public “face” by allowing a continuity of condoned public sexual practices in alignment with the dominant political and symbolic discourse, a position that permits Gallimard, to put it somewhat inelegantly, “have his cake and eat it, too.”

When Song finally disrobes in Act Three of M. Butterfly, the morphological unveiling of the penis threatens to devastate the structure of Gallimard's closet, to expose at once the diplomat's heterosexual presumption and destroy his well-cultivated position of phallic control. Faced with the prohibited and abject territory of the homosexual, Gallimard viciously shifts the burden of sexual identity upon the shoulders of an unwitting Song in order to ensure the continuity of a sexual and political “face.” Manhandling the obstreperous diva, Gallimard attempts physically to remove Song from the area of his closet, while denying his attraction for the now male opera singer: “I think you must have some kind of identity problem,”37 he snips at Butterfly, demonizing the oriental position through the predictable but effective practice of Asian male effeminization.

The diplomat's tenuous maneuver, however, is neither with respite nor without sacrifice. Having no other options available to recoup Song's exposure of him, Gallimard, in a monumental move of self-delusion recedes into the compensatory world of the imaginary: “Get away from me!” he orders the disrobed Song. “Tonight I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.”38

But in order to commit and thus solidify his position with the Name of the Father, Gallimard must add an ironic twist to Puccini's orientalist dictum in Madama Butterfly requiring that “Death with honor / Is better than life / Life with dishonor.”39 Now that Song is publicly a man, Gallimard must become publicly the woman. Assuming the drag appearance of the earlier Butterfly, Gallimard “straightens” their relationship once again by returning to it to an “honorable” status quo male-female heterosexual union. It is an ironic transvesting act, for the price of this fantasmatic sartorial conversion is expensive: Gallimard must commit suicide, but he dies with his prison-closet structure intact and, more important, as an honorary member of the heterosexual global village.


Let us detour, for a brief moment, to Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. In this book, Sau-ling Wong, extrapolating from Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, troubles the alignment of “Necessity” and “Extravagance” with “work” and “play” as they apply to the Asian American and Asian American immigrant experience. The activity of play or art, Wong maintains, is “perceived as antithetical to self-justifyingly “serious” activities, which, in the Asian American context we have come to understand as the business of survival.”40 Yet, in her discussion of works by Hisaye Yamamoto, Wakako Yamauchi, and Frank Chin, Wong troubles this unproblematic division, as we witness numerous accounts of suppressed artistic activity demanding equal voice—“a return of the repressed.” In the final analysis, Wong asks, “[i]f play's imperative is so overpoweringly urgent, may it not be that play too is a need of survival—a Necessity, no less, only differently characterized and designated, and therefore customarily separated from work as if by an unbridgeable gulf?”41 “Necessity” and “Extravagance” are not isolatable terms; they are, indeed, concepts that circulate in a closed interdependent economy, contingent upon one another and deriving value and meaning through the tensions of their interplay.

In M. Butterfly, then, David Henry Hwang seems to bring the work-play antagonism of art to a more definitive conclusion if no more than by reinforcing the ultimately symbiotic nature of the two concepts.42 Hwang's resolution fuses the work-play antagonism of art onto an even higher level of existence in the figure of Butterfly: can we possibly separate Song the artist from Song the spy? Here, “Extravagance” in the form of performance art—acting—combines with “Necessity” in the form of espionage—spying: Acting as performing as spying.

The unity of “Necessity” and “Extravagance,” acting and spying in M. Butterfly—their circulation within a closed economy—traces itself along a historical continuum in which the material realities remain constant though the political climate often changes: the artistic skills used by Song Liling under the Communist Chinese regime to “trick” Gallimard find their roots in lessons learned from Song's prostitute mother during the Nationalist Chinese era. Addressing the judge during his espionage trial, Song states:

See my mother was a prostitute along the Bundt before the Revolution. And, uh, I think it's fair to say she learned a few things about Western men. So I borrowed her knowledge. In service to my country.43

Like mother, like son. The genealogy of Song's profession crosses not only generational and governmental boundaries—from Colonialist to Nationalist to Communist—but sexual boundaries as well, boundaries between the heterosexual and homosexual. If, indeed, we cannot detach the dual concepts of work and art in M. Butterfly, is it then possible to separate actively the homosexual from the heterosexual? Comrade Chin alludes to the impossibility of this separation: “Then you go to France and be a pervert for Chairman Mao!”44 she orders the imprisoned Chin, recognizing the confluence of Song's homosexuality with the economy of work and play that is wholly necessary for him to spy effectively.

Are not the homosexual and the heterosexual, then, in fact, two interdependent concepts circulating within a closed sexual economy similar to that of work and play, “Necessary” and “Extravagance”? The absence of critical commentaries surrounding this aspect of M. Butterfly would suggest not, focusing on the drama through the exclusive lens of a compulsive heterosexuality. In “The Straight Mind,” Monique Wittig proffers an explanation:

[L]esbianism, homosexuality, and the societies that we form cannot be thought of or spoken of, even though they have always existed. Thus, the straight mind continues to affirm that incest, and not homosexuality represents its major interdiction. Thus, when thought of by the straight mind, homosexuality is nothing more than heterosexuality.45

We must keep in mind, however, that the willing ignorance surrounding the homosexual elision described by Wittig is further complicated by the issue of race.

Though both Gallimard and Song may be gay, clearly, their rights and privileges as white homosexual and homosexual of color are not equal. Extrapolating from Hwang's discussion of rice queens, whose expectations of their Asian counterparts do not exceed beyond the boundaries of the feminine realm, various Asian American critics have railed at the common stereotypes imposed by a dominant white—and may I add homophobic—society that transforms the Asian woman into a hyper-feminine sex pot and always already sees the Asian male, gay or straight, as a feminized and sexless creature—the Charlie Chan sex syndrome.46 To return to an earlier observation in my essay, we must ask ourselves why Gallimard can shift the burden of sexual identity upon the shoulders of Song with his statement, “I think you must have some kind of identity problem.”47

The answer, of course, lies with a racist as well as homophobic explanation. The straight white mind cannot see Song Liling, whether in drag as a woman or in an Armani suit as a man, as a complete man, whose revelation in Act Three merits the recognition of a homosexual admission. If the Asian male, gay or straight, is, after all, sexless and wordless—already homosexualized of sorts—how can Gallimard's relationship with the opera singer exist at the level of same sex desire? As Richard Fung notes in “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn,” “the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there. And if Asian men have no sexuality, how can we have homosexuality?”48 Homosexuality is a “privilege” that the gay Asian male can never be granted—the “Extravagance” of an alternative sexual identity. Thus, in its most quotidian incarnation, Gallimard and Song's affair can only exist, in the straight mind of Wittig's homophobic audience, as a male-female union.

The playwright, however, also remains accountable. While I have argued that homosexuality is an intransigent facet of M. Butterfly, Hwang, in the final analysis, equivocates on the subject of gay sexuality. For instance, through an infelicitous displacement of homosexuality onto the figure of “modern” Chinese woman—the fanatical Comrade Chin sporting her dyke-ish haircut and butch clothing—Hwang conflates homophobia with misogyny (“What passes for a woman in modern China.”49 The ultimate representative of female as pure hysteria, Comrade Chin is the only consistent mouthpiece of a queer sensibility in the drama, the one character who overtly speaks the “truth” of Gallimard and Song's relationship:

Serve the revolution? Bullshit! You wore dresses! Don't tell me—I was there. I saw you! You and your white vice-consul! Stuck up there in your flat, living off the People's Treasury! Yeah, I knew what was going on! You two … homos! Homos! Homos!50

The alignment of Comrade Chin's politically dogmatic Communism (the Red scare) with her zealous pronouncements on homosexuality works to delegitimize the queer as a viable sexual choice. Thus, in accord with a homophobic mainstream, homosexuality comes again to be pathologically inserted into the world of the “Extravagant” and hysterical; heterosexuality—by default—comes again to rest complacently on the laurels of “Necessity” and the normatively sane.51

At the conclusion of the Afterword to M. Butterfly, Hwang's sexual politics are definitively summarized. Attempting to shift the reception of his play squarely into the arena of straight cultural politics, he states:

From my point of view, the “impossible” story of a Frenchman duped by a Chinese man masquerading as a woman always seemed perfectly explicable; given the degree of misunderstanding between men and women and also between East and West, it seemed inevitable that a mistake of this magnitude would one day take place.52

Why does the playwright choose to restrain the interpretative locus of the drama within a heterosexual economy—the “misunderstanding between men and women”—while suppressing the implicit and explicit issues of homosexuality that remain pervasive throughout the drama?

The answer to this question, I would argue, circles back to Wong's observations of the Asian American artist within an emerging minority discourse. It would seem that David Henry Hwang's insistence on heterosexuality at the expense of a legitimate queer sensibility in M. Butterfly exhibits an urgency on the playwright's part to validate his piece of Asian American literature solidly within the parameters and pressures of the dominant discourse—to carve a respectable position for himself within the established norms of a politically liberal—that is to say white and compulsory heterosexual audience.

Gallimard, whose sexual difference would be an intolerable thorn in the old boy network of the embassy, finds an interesting correlative in Hwang's predicament as the ethnic artist within a white bourgeois artistic tradition. Like many artists of color, Hwang finds himself in a double bind that Wong describes as the impulse to suppress or distort:

… all individual experiences that do not fit into white society's image of Chinese Americans. Honesty of artistic vision and acceptability by white readers thus become mutually exclusive, which poses a difficulty over and above the dilemma between artistic integrity and commercial success so familiar to the bourgeois writer.53

In restricting the interpretative locus of M. Butterfly, Hwang mimics “straight-minded” critics in his suppression of the homoerotics of the drama.54 Showing little tolerance for sexual difference by banishing homosexuality ultimately into the realm of the unmentionable, the suppression of the sexually “Extravagant” by Hwang in his play seems to become a move of “Necessity” for mainstream heterosexist commercial success and critical acceptance.

But if homosexuality lies in the realm of “Extravagance,” it is no more unnecessary than “Necessity” itself. The erasure of homosexuality from the arena of Asian American literature is finally limiting, denying both a rich artistic heteroglossia and a fecund political opportunity for Asian Americans to once again vex majority expectations of well-worn stereotypes. Indeed, as Eve Sedgwick notes, the alienation of individual authority to name one's own personal sexual desire at a time when sexual discourse “has been made expressive of the essence of both identity and knowledge … may represent the most intimate violence possible. … It is, of course, central to the modern history of homophobic oppression.”55 For the Asian American community, this is an intimate violence that carries the further imputations of disempowerment and fracturing within a community already besieged by multiple forms of racism. As Richard Fung observes, although “a motto for the lesbian and gay movements has been ‘we are everywhere,’ Asians are largely absent from the images produced by both the political and the commercial sectors of the mainstream gay and lesbian communities.”56

In “The Woman Warrior versus The Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American Critic Choose between Feminism and Heroism?” King-Kok Cheung argues that it is:

[p]recisely because the racist treatment of Asians has taken the peculiar form of sexism—in so far as the indignities suffered by men of Chinese descent are analogous to those traditionally suffered by women—we must refrain from seeking anti-feminist solutions to racism. To do otherwise reinforces not only patriarchy but also white supremacy.57

Extending Cheung's analysis beyond the bounds of an unspecified sexuality to focus specifically on the indignities suffered by men of Asian descent both gay and straight—for the paradigm of feminization transfers seamlessly between one and the other—we can only conclude that the need to refrain from seeking homophobic solutions to racism is as great an imperative as the need to “refrain from seeking anti-feminist solutions to racism.” To do otherwise poses great danger and denies even a compensatory subject position for the Asian American male, gay or straight, in white America.

In the final analysis, who in M. Butterfly is afforded the last laugh? Who is the ultimate artist and trickster figure, the queen in control? Is it the caustic Song whose provisional foray out of the paternal order is quickly suppressed by Gallimard's heterosexual conversion and homosexual abjection? Or is it Gallimard, the white Frenchman diplomat, whose flawless performance as the awkward straight lover subdues the oriental diva and assures us that all will be well in status quo sexual and racial politics?


  1. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York: Plume Books, 1988), 1-2.

  2. Ibid., 2.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 3.

  5. In “evaluating” Gallimard and Song's sexual relationship, I am aware that I run the risk of invoking certain essentializing notions around the categories of “gay white male” and “gay Asian (American) male.” Nevertheless, I believe this strategic move is worth taking, for while I am in sympathy with much of recent queer and feminist theory insisting upon the radical unknowability and unreliability of such categories as “sex,” “gender,” “race,” and “ethnicity,” in the gap between current post-structuralist theory and the contemporary historical, material context of what we familiarly call the “real world,” the subject positions of the Asian (American) gay and lesbian are still overwhelmingly untenable ones. Consequently, my assessment of Gallimard and Song's sexual relationship as a homosexual relationship as well as my subsequent reading of the power disparities resulting from this homosexual relationship is executed less as an essentializing imperative than as a means to recuperate not only a (homo)sexual but also a racial positioning for the gay Asian (American) male vis-à-vis dominant white society.

    See, for instance, Richard Fung's “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn” in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video (Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1991), 145-160. Also see King-Kok Cheung's “Coda” to Articulate Silences (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993).

  6. The reviews are too numerous to cite in their monolithic entirety. For instance, see Moira Hodgson's review in The Nation (April 23, 1988), 57; Leo Sauvage's review in New Leader (April 18, 1988), 22; John Simon's review in New York (April 11, 1988), 117; Gerald Weale's review in Commonweal (April 22, 1988), 245.

    See Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992) for an interesting reading of the drama through the figure of the transvestite.

  7. Like Sedgwick, Judith Butler makes many significant observations around the elision of homosexuality in her well-known critique of compulsory heterosexual culture found in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). However, while Sedgwick and Butler do gesture to race as a category that must be considered in its specificities along with any discussion of a gay and lesbian politics, both scholars, for the most part, situate their criticism within a canonically white philosophical and literary tradition.

    My discussion of M. Butterfly will use much of Sedgwick and Butler's theoretical foundations to extend the particularities and parameters of queer subjectivity as they intersect with a racialized Asian American literary and material history.

  8. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Norton, 1993), 317.

  9. Laplanche and Pontalis, “Fantasy and Origin of Sexuality” in Formations of Fantasy, eds. Victor Burgin, J. Donald, and Cora Kaplan (New York: Methuen, 1986), 5-34.

  10. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits ofSex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 100.

  11. I must emphasize that I take the coincidence of anatomical form less as an epistemological ground for homosexual subjectivity than as a starting point for my investigation of Gallimard's fantasmatic identifications. As we are aware, object choice is merely one of many resulting markers in the unconscious processes of sexual identification. See, for instance, Kaja Silverman's last chapter “A Woman's Soul Enclosed in a Man's Body: Femininity in Male Homosexuality” in Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992), 339-388.

  12. Hwang, 70.

  13. Ibid., 81.

  14. Ibid., 83.

  15. Ibid., 4.

  16. Ibid., 98.

  17. Ibid., 6.

  18. Ibid., 83. Emphasis in original.

  19. Anyone who believes such statements to be hyperbole or mere literary fiction need only to look at the recent Bay Area media controversy chronicled by the San Francisco Chronicle surrounding NAMBLA (The North American Man Boy Love Association), which illustrates the contemporaneousness and contemptuousness of the situation. Using public library space for meetings, NAMBLA agendas included the planning of pederastic field trips to Thailand in order to have sex with young male orphans. These “exploitation orphanages” were established and financed by NAMBLA—composed mainly of gay white members—for the exclusive purpose of these sexual excursions.

  20. Hwang, 24.

  21. Ibid., 8-9.

  22. Ibid., 10-12.

  23. It is also no accident, I think, that both the character of Renee and of the closet pinup girl are played by the same actress. This dispersal of two roles to one body underscores the pair's common psychic stake in their relationship to Gallimard's trajectory of fantasmatic desires.

  24. I gesture both to the early Lacan's discussions of the sense of self imputed to the infant in “The mirror stage” and “Aggressivity in psychoanalysis” Éscrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 1-7, 8-29; as well as to the later Lacan's discussions of the look and the gaze in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), 67-119. Renee not only provides an image for Gallimard to emulate but also thwarts his ability to identify with this image by parading her look as the authoritarian gaze of the phallic authority, a right normally apportioned to the normative white heterosexual male.

    See Kaja Silverman's arguments around the look and the gaze in chapter 3, “Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image,” of Male Subjectivity at the Margins, 125-156. Silverman delineates the various methods by which the male look has traditionally been conflated with the transcendental gaze of phallic authority as well as the ways in which this conflation continually fails to sustain itself.

  25. Hwang, 54-56. Emphasis in original.

  26. Ibid., 54. Emphasis in original.

  27. Ibid., 46.

  28. Like Renee and the closet pinup girl, the roles of Toulon and the judge are also played by a single actor, I would contend, for similar psychic emphasis.

  29. Hwang, 10.

  30. Ibid., 4.

  31. Ibid., 37-38.

  32. Psychoanalytic feminist criticism has, for many years, focused much of its attention on the slippage of anatomical penis and symbolic phallus. The disentangling of this conflation is imperative for it promises additional benefits for a gay and lesbian antihomophobic as well as an Asian American antiracist project.

    See “The Phallus Issue” 4:1 (Spring 1992), and “Gay and Lesbian Sexualities” 3:2 (Summer 1991); issues of Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, which approaches the penis/phallus debate from several theoretical and political perspectives.

  33. Hwang, 32.

  34. Earl Jackson, Jr., “Scandalous Subjects: Robert Gluck's Embodied Narratives,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3:2 (Summer 1991), 121-122.

  35. Jackie Goldsby has much to say about the topic of white gay male privilege as it impacts upon the realm of African American gay and lesbian politics. In her discussion of Robert Mapplethorpe's white racist photography, she summarizes: “Don't lay you hopes for freedom with a white boy—they've got too much to gain from the way things are to change anything for real.” See Goldsby's article “What It Means to Be Colored Me” in Out/Look (Summer 1990), 9-17.

    Kobena Mercer raises a similar point in his work on Mapplethorpe's oeuvre found in the How Do I Look anthology. See his “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary,” 169-210.

  36. Hwang, 92.

  37. Ibid., 88. Emphasis mine.

  38. Ibid., 90.

  39. Ibid., 15.

  40. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 166.

  41. Ibid., 189.

  42. See Wong's discussion in Reading Asian American Literature of “Necessity” and “Extravagance” in an earlier Hwang drama, The Dance and the Railroad (1981), 186-191.

  43. Hwang, 82.

  44. Ibid., 73. Emphasis in original.

  45. Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture, eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), 54-55.

  46. See Frank Chin's “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake” and the editors' “Introduction” (1989) in The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. (New York: Meridian, 1991), 1-92, xi-xvi; for a more detailed history and explanation of the sexual and racial politics that have been and are currently being debated within the Asian American community. The preface (1973) and introduction to the original Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong, eds. (New York: Anchor Books, 1975), ix-xx, 3-36; also provides a background history to the sexual anxieties and racial concerns of the same four editors sixteen years earlier.

  47. Hwang, 88.

  48. Richard Fung, “Looking for My Penis: The Exoticized Asian in Gay Video Porn,” in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video, eds. Bad Object Choices (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991),148.

  49. Hwang, 49. Emphasis mine.

  50. Ibid., 71-72.

  51. It is interesting to note that at the beginning of M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang inserts a preface that seems rather incongruous with the device of suspense so often found in drama. Quoting from a New York Times article dated May 11, 1986, Hwang cites a real-life espionage trial as the inspiration for M. Butterfly: “A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity … Mr. Bouriscot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Mr. Shi, whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman” (Playwright's Notes). By placing the truth of the former French diplomat and Chinese opera singer's relationship in the foreground, Hwang seems to shift the analysis of the viewer-reader-critic from the homosexual relationship that his two characters share to focus on the issues of the compulsory heterosexual mind: why didn't Gallimard know? How did Song pull it off? Prompted by Hwang, the straight mind justifies its own analysis over the aspects of the why and how of the issue, never entertaining the possibility of the did—that Gallimard did know, from the very beginning, Butterfly's true anatomical sex.

  52. Hwang, 98.

  53. Wong, 177.

  54. Here, it might be interesting to relate Homi Bhabha's concept of colonial mimicry to a domestic situation in which artists of color are coerced into imitative relationships with dominant aesthetic and political modes of production. See Bhabha's “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” in October 28 (Spring 1984) 125-133.

  55. Sedgwick, 26.

  56. Fung, 148.

    While I believe this statement is still true to a very large extent, the presence of queer Asian Americans within the gay and lesbian arts community is beginning to be felt more decisively within large metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. For instance, the 1993 Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals in both San Francisco and New York featured video works by several Asian American queer artists such as Quentin Lee, Pablo Bautista, and Ming Ma. In addition, the playwright Han Ong has written and produced several recent dramas in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    The Asian/Pacific American Journal (The APA Journal) published out of New York City, has devoted a recent issue to lesbian, gay, and bisexual writings by Asian American and Asian Pacific writers and poets. In addition, Jessica Hagedorn's new collection Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction hosts a significant gay and lesbian presence.

  57. King-kok Cheung, “The Woman Warrior versus The Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American Critic Choose between Feminism and Heroism?” in Conflicts in Feminism, eds. Marriane Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York: Routledge, 1990):244.

I would like to thank Sau-ling Wong, Anne McKnight, and Ella Spray, for their helpful comments on this essay, which is the expanded result of a paper I presented at the tenth annual Association for Asian American Studies Conference at Cornell University in June 1993.

Melanie C. Hawthorne (essay date winter 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4142

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 alternative name is just a shortened form of the full title (an abbreviation already in use among Rachilde's contemporaries). But, whereas the abbreviation “M” is read aloud as “monsieur,” in choosing to read the title as “Em Venus,” I realize that I am invoking David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly.2 These two fin-de-siècle texts—Rachilde's first published in 1884, Hwang's first performed in 1988—have much in common, and the metaleptic echo effected through the assimilation of the title “M. Venus” to M. Butterfly serves to underscore the continued interest in texts that play on gender ambiguity.

M. Butterfly is a late-twentieth-century play explicitly about orientalism, while Rachilde's late-nineteenth-century French novel is neither a play (though it was adapted for the stage at around the same time as M. Butterfly), nor as explicitly colonialist. In M. Butterfly, a diplomat falls in love with a Chinese opera singer while in China, has an extra-marital affair with “her,” fathers a child with “her,” and eventually divorces his wife and lives with “her.” In M. Venus, an aristocrat takes a working-class flower maker as a lover, then marries “her” before arranging for “her” to die. If the protagonist were a man, and the object of affection a woman in both cases, neither plot would have attracted the attention it did, but the Chinese opera singer is a man, while the French aristocrat is a woman. Both texts signal these plot twists through the gender ambiguity of their title.

Although M. Butterfly is “American,” it has a strong connection to French: it is based on a “true story,” the story of a minor French bureaucrat of working-class origins (like Rachilde's Jacques Silvert), an accountant attached to the Foreign Service named Bernard Boursicot, who in 1986 was sentenced to prison in France for passing information to the Chinese. What made this spying incident attract special attention (for example, in the New York Times, May 11, 1986), what brought it to the attention of David Henry Hwang, was that Boursicot's Chinese lover to whom he had passed the information was really a man whom Boursicot had mistaken for a woman for twenty years.

Much of the information about this story of an accountable accountant only became available after the initial performance and publication of M. Butterfly, when People magazine journalist Joyce Wadler published her full-length account of the story in 1993.3 Here she told the story of Boursicot, his Chinese lover Shi Pei Pu, and their putative son Shi Du Du,4 whose existence made possible the “voodoo,” the charm that kept Boursicot coming back to Shi Pei Pu. Most of the events recounted in Wadler's book pre-dated M. Butterfly (by 1988, when the play was first performed, Boursicot was once again a free man—he had been pardoned after serving four years of the six-year sentence), but the “real story” was not widely known at the time M. Butterfly made its impact. The author, David Hwang, chose to resist knowing more about the case than the outline gleaned from the Times, and deliberately avoided trying to reduce the play to the “true story.”5

The sources of “M. Venus” may be a little harder to trace, but in at least one version of its composition, Rachilde claimed that it too was based on a true story, her own. In a private letter dated 1896, she claimed that the plot of Monsieur Vénus was based on her own love affair with a secretary to a local politician. The young man was effeminate and, we are given to understand from the letter, homosexual, hence the gender role confusions that mark the novel.

Questions about sex and gender role are the most obvious point of comparison between “M. Venus” and M. Butterfly. Even the titles of these two works pose a similar enigma that the reader is invited to solve through reading.6 In the case of Monsieur Vénus, the riddle is fairly clear: “monsieur” is a male-marked form of address while “venus” refers to a feminine stereotype, a goddess, and not just any female deity but perhaps the most feminine of the classical pantheon, the goddess of love. Conjoining these two referents—“monsieur” and “venus”—poses an enigma: who is being referred to by this name? What in the world corresponds to such a creature, part male, part goddess of love? Is it the female but cross-dressing heroine Raoule de Vénérande, whose name even evokes that of Venus? Or is it the working-class man, Jacques Silvert, who is feminized both by his profession as a flower maker and through the role he assumes as Raoule's lover, a position coded as feminine through his passivity?

In the case of M. Butterfly, there is a similar though perhaps less obvious ambiguity about the title. On the one hand, there is a clear invocation of Puccini's orientalist opera Madame Butterfly, which had its Belle Epoque première just two decades after the publication of Monsieur Vénus in 1904. In some ways, then, Boursicot's Chinese lover Shi Pei Pu is a modern day equivalent of Madame Butterfly, and Hwang's play explicitly explores these parallels. But of course the title of the play is not “Madame Butterfly” but “M. Butterfly,” which invites the reading—even if it is never explicitly read as—“Monsieur Butterfly.” While the substantive “butterfly” is not quite so heavily coded as feminine in western culture as “venus,” nevertheless there is sufficient cultural association with femininity—not the least thanks to Puccini—that this title too effects a gender blending. Hwang tells us in his “afterword” to the published version of the play that such an ambiguity was intentional: “My wife, Ophelia, thought Monsieur Butterfly too obvious a title, and suggested I abbreviate it in the French fashion. Hence, M. Butterfly, far more mysterious and ambiguous, was the result” (96). Frenchness, the “French fashion” of writing—though never saying—the letter “m” for “monsieur” here becomes the vehicle for mystery and femininity.

So M. Butterfly it became. But despite and because of the evasiveness of “m,” like Monsieur Vénus, M. Butterfly asks the reader (and here the experience of seeing the play performed for the first time differs from the experience of rereading the text) to speculate about the referent of the title. Surely, Madame Butterfly is a woman (surely!). So who or what is “Monsieur Butterfly”? Of course, by the end of the play, the reader has an answer: Madame Butterfly, the Japanese opera character, is Shi Pei Pu, the Chinese opera singer, and the abbreviation “M/monsieur” captures the ambivalence of the fact that beneath the feminine costume, the operatic figure of Madame Butterfly is really a man, as the Boursicot character in Hwang's play discovers.

But the play also frustrates this reading even as it offers it. For if Madame Butterfly is the “seduced and abandoned” one who commits suicide, then isn't it the Boursicot character—who in “real life” attempted suicide and in the play succeeds—who is “really” Madame Butterfly? Hwang acknowledges that this reversal was part of his intention when he summarizes the play's action. In his words,

the Frenchman fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and his lover is Butterfly. By the end of the piece, he realizes that it is he who has been Butterfly, in that the Frenchman has been duped by love; the Chinese spy, who exploited that love, is therefore the real Pinkerton.


In Hwang's formulation, the roles seem to be simply reversed (Shi Pei Pu is the “real” Pinkerton), but part of the challenge of M. Butterfly is that the play ultimately evades such reductions.

If M. Butterfly reverses the plot of “the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (17), so too does Monsieur Vénus. The submissive partner here is Jacques Silvert, while Raoule plays the “cruel white man.” But which one is “monsieur Vénus”? At first, Raoule seems to be Venus, masculinized as the monsieur by her cross-dressing, sexually aggressive behavior, and disposable income, but by the end of the novel it is Jacques who has become the object of a love cult. Raoule has an animated wax model made of him, evoking the so-called “anatomical venuses” used to teach medical students in the nineteenth century.7 Just as the anatomical models sometimes had real hair and were molded in suggestive poses, the wax mannequin incorporates relics of Jacques's body (hair, teeth, and nails) and is designed to receive Raoule's affection. M. Butterfly and “M. Venus” thus both use their title to evoke the theme of gender role confusion. The play and the novel both ask “who is the man here, who is the ‘monsieur,’ and are these the same thing?”

The other question both texts force us to ask is the prurient but endlessly fascinating “so what exactly do they do in bed?” Who does what to whom and how? In the case of “M. Venus” there is little “hard” evidence, but much speculation. According to Oscar Wilde's most authoritative biographer, Richard Ellmann, one of Wilde's friends (André Raffalovich) “was struck by Wilde's evident excitement over Rachilde's Monsieur Vénus, in which a lesbian dresses her lover as a man,”8 though it is hard to know if this plot summary should be attributed to Wilde, Raffalovich or Ellmann. Rachilde herself, in a published though highly unreliable source, suggested that it was the story of a woman having anal intercourse with a man using a dildo.9

In M. Butterfly the issue is barely addressed and the reader is left to imagine that the diplomat is the victim of his own desire to believe in the femininity of his lover. The diplomat in M. Butterfly is thus a willing victim, which satisfies to some extent the reader's incredulity, but that credulity is stretched once again if the reader turns to the information supplied in Wadler's “true account” for an explanation. Here the reader learns both that medical examination of Shi Pei Pu shows “no sign of surgery” and that “Pei Pu is and always has been a normal man” (14). Moreover, in this source Boursicot admits that, although he was sexually inexperienced with women when he first met Shi Pei Pu, he had previously had sex on a number of occasions with male schoolmates and other men, thus his claim to know the difference between vaginal and anal sex has some merit (Wadler, 60). Boursicot also denies that they had oral sex. In other words, the evidence of Wadler's book is that Boursicot maintained that he had heterosexual, vaginal sex with a man. Even the least sexually curious person may be forgiven for wondering how that may be possible. It may never be clear how exactly Boursicot screwed Shi Pei Pu, but it will always be clear how Pei Pu screwed Boursicot: “in the head,” as Boursicot ruefully reflects in Wadler's book (62). And in some ways, part of the similarity between M. Butterfly and “M. Venus” is that both texts also screw the reader's head.

But in addition to the gender ambivalence with which both texts play, there is another similarity between the two texts, a less obvious similarity which has to do with the two forms of colonialism at work in M. Butterfly.

On one level, M. Butterfly presents itself as being explicitly about orientalism. Partly this is through the invocation of Puccini's orientalist opera. The Boursicot character is easily taken in by the Chinese opera singer (as is the unprepared audience) because he expects Asian women to conform to the stereotype of Madame Butterfly. His racist orientalism blinds him to the possibility that things are other than they seem,10 and his sexism preps him to read the opera singer's behavior as feminine. As the Shi Pei Pu character says in the play: “when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (83).

But M. Butterfly also has a second set of colonialist assumptions of which the play itself remains unaware. These assumptions form a parallel to the orientalist expectations of the characters within the play. The clue to their operation is given in the “playwright's notes” which precede the text of the published play on an unnumbered page. Here, the reader finds a paragraph acknowledging that the play is based on a true story, but that “for purposes of dramatization, names have been changed.” Indeed they have been changed—more than the play knows—and with dramatic effect, for in quoting from the New York Times, the name of the main character is changed from “Boursicot” to “Bouriscot.” The text of M. Butterfly which circulates publicly today corrects the impression that Boursicot is a “sicko” by corrupting his name.

Boursicot, Bouriscot, what's in a name, especially an unfamiliar, foreign one? But isn't this the point, in M. Butterfly, of naming a child Peepee? Names are important. The name of Boursicot's lover Shi Pei Pu, for example, is changed in Hwang's play into a song, Song Liling to be exact, perhaps a recognition of the importance of operatic song as subtext, perhaps also a tribute to that other orientalist figure and opera heroine, Carmen, whose name derives from the Latin for “song.”

The name changes, both accidental and intentional, point to the importance of “otherness,” a central element of orientalism and also a factor in Hwang's play both explicitly and implicitly. For, in writing his play, Hwang did not have access to Wadler's book, nor did he want to know more about the “true story” than the outline he borrowed from the Times. He chose instead to base the plot on a few details supplied by newspapers and supplemented this kernel from his own imagination. The result is that in M. Butterfly, Song Liling is a “he” whom the Boursicot character mistakes for a “she.” In Joyce Wadler's book we learn that the story was more complicated and that Boursicot was not duped in quite the same way. Shi Pei Pu appears to everyone—including Boursicot—as a man who dresses up as a woman as part of his Beijing opera act. The difference is that Shi Pei Pu “confides” in Boursicot—and only in Boursicot—that Shi is really a “she,” a woman forced to pretend to be a “he” in daily life because of pressure on his mother to produce a son. In Boursicot's mind, Shi was really a “she” passing as a “he” who dressed up as a “she” on the stage. Paradoxically, it was when cross-dressing that Shi Pei Pu revealed her true sex, or so Boursicot believed. But, as Wadler puts it, a few days after Boursicot's arrest on spying charges, “no one is certain what Shi is” (12). In M. Butterfly, it is the Boursicot character's colonialist ignorance of Chinese culture, specifically of the conventions of Beijing opera, which make confusion possible. In “real life,” however, Boursicot is not mistaken in quite the same way. While still subject to colonialist readers of the “other”—it is, after all, the western belief in the paramount importance of male children in China which makes Shi Pei Pu's story plausible—Boursicot knows that men dress up as women in opera. He is not as naive as his counterpart in M. Butterfly, and not as colonialist in such a simple and simplistic way. In Paris, Shi Pei Pu's masculinity was not a secret. He dressed as a man and everyone thought he was a man. He starred in a television show and lectured on Beijing opera and gave performances which entailed cross dressing, but the public knew, or thought it knew, that this was only a man passing as a woman. Only Boursicot knew, or thought he knew, that Shi Pei Pu was a woman passing as a man passing as a woman. As is often the case in scandal, the secret was not the thing which was hidden but the thing which everyone knew. The scandal, it turns out, is that Shi Pei Pu is a man passing as a man.

So there is a way in which M. Butterfly is a colonialist text in a way it does not realize, and that colonialism has as much to do with late-twentieth-century American world cultural dominance as it has to do with nineteenth-century European colonialist attitudes toward Asia.

This unconscious colonialism is evident from the very first words of the play (I am excluding the prefatory material already referred to above). The first words of Act I, scene 1 of M. Butterfly are stage directions beginning with the words “M. Gallimard” (1). Until now, I have avoided mentioning this name, referring instead to “the Boursicot character” in Hwang's play. For it seems to me of great significance that “Gallimard” is the name Hwang gives his main protagonist, and the name has everything to do with the representation of Frenchness in M. Butterfly, Frenchness which, it will be recalled, is the vehicle for mystery and femininity. For “Gallimard” is to Americans a quintessentially French name, the name found on those quintessentially French books with the off-white cover outlined and titled in red clutched by all aspiring existentialists (that quintessential French philosophy). I believe that it is the American view of Frenchness embodied and reborn in René Gallimard that constitutes the colonialist subtext and makes the play possible. Gallimard's mistake—reduced in the play to mistaking a man for a woman—seems so egregious that for American audiences it could only happen to someone else, an “other.” And what delicious irony that Gallimard should be a member of that nation of world-renowned lovers. M. Butterfly is a very classical tragedy, for though class may be déclassé in late twentieth-century America, the audience instinctively understands that the higher the hero's position, the more tragic his fall.

Forget that Boursicot's French peers found his story equally incredible—they teased that he was “an accountant who could not count”—and forget that in French culture the claim of a diplomat to be a woman raised as a man had a well-known precedent in the Chevalier d'Eon.11 For an American audience, “those crazy French” believe anything. The proof, as all of North America knows, is that they are convinced Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, and that they idolize intellectuals who make patently absurd claims such as “the Gulf War did not take place.” Only such a credulous nation could produce a man who believed a man was a woman even after having sex with him. The Frenchness of this fable is even preserved in Joyce Wadler's book, the title of which I have also refrained from mentioning (except in footnotes) until now: it is called Liaison, the title evoking both Frenchness in general and Dangerous Liaisons in particular, with its evocative mix of sexual danger and politics.

In certain ways, then, M. Butterfly lays bare not only the mechanisms of the social construction of gender, it also constructs (not just reconstructs) fin-de-siècle colonialism from the Belle Epoque era of Madame Butterfly. Boursicot was not ignorant of the conventions of Beijing opera, but in the imagination of late-twentieth-century North America, he becomes such a figure of colonialism because this seems to be the only explanation of how such a mistake could happen.

M. Butterfly uses a role reversal of Puccini's opera to indict western colonialism, but Liaison shows that there are at least three butterfly stories at work, only two of which find their way into Hwang's play. One is, of course, Madame Butterfly, in which the woman Butterfly is the victim of western orientalism. In the second butterfly story, a staple of Beijing opera, both a man and a woman are butterflies. It is a story Shi Pei Pu tells Boursicot as a way of hinting at his “true” sex as a woman. Part Yentl, part Romeo and Juliet, the story tells of a woman who dresses up as a boy in order to get an education denied her sex and ends up falling in love with a classmate and telling him her secret. When her parents try to force her to marry another, the classmate kills himself. Unable to live without him, the heroine commits suicide too, and both souls are turned into butterflies so that they can finally be together.

While this second, romantic, butterfly story is incorporated into M. Butterfly, the third butterfly story which figures in Boursicot's story and in Liaison but not M. Butterfly is one in which butterflies are symbols of machismo. This third kind of butterfly is the complete antithesis of Madame Butterfly, the story one of survival and gritty reality, not death and romanticism. The Boursicot who dabbled in diplomacy and spying was also tempted by a career as an adventurer and explorer, and one of his role models was the macho French “papillon,” a convict whose autobiography became a best-selling book and film (like Boursicot's). This “Mr. Papillon”—or “M. Butterfly”—reveals the macho side of Boursicot's character, the side he explored while exploring the Amazon in Brazil between stints at the French embassy in China. This is the kind of butterfly Boursicot saw himself as, but it is precisely this image of Boursicot which is suppressed when he is transformed into René Gallimard.

In M. Butterfly, despite the ambiguity of the title, it is Madame Butterfly not Monsieur Papillon who dominates the plot. The western orientalist narrative is deployed by the Chinese opera singer against the would-be colonialist who is duped not because he believes the story but because in resisting the role of Pinkerton he becomes a victim of a different mode of cultural dominance.


  1. A song made famous by Marlene Dietrich in one of her gender-bending roles. Boursicot compares Shi Pei Pu's sexual performance to Marlene Dietrich: “He was closing so well the legs, becoming Marlene Dietrich, and I was not asking more” (Liaison, 60).

  2. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York: Plume, 1989).

  3. Some articles based on this material appeared in People magazine before the publication of Joyce Wadler's book, Liaison: The Real Story of the Affair that Inspired “M. Butterfly” (London: Penguin, 1993), and were available to critics such as Marjorie Barber, who drew on the material in her analysis of M. Butterfly in Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993).

  4. Shi Du Du's analog in Hwang's play is named Peepee, and the western reading of such names is addressed in the play.

  5. On the one hand, there were good aesthetic reasons for this, but there were also economic incentives having to do with invasion of privacy. Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu both ended up bringing legal suits against the play and won the right to royalties after out-of-court settlements. Boursicot also negotiated rights to royalties from Wadler's book in return for his cooperation in its redaction.

  6. I am using “enigma” here in the sense that Barthes uses it in S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), that is, a question used to drive the plot. The reader is motivated to read by the desire to solve such riddles posed by the text.

  7. See Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking, 1990) for illustrations and discussion of these. Rachilde may well have seen such wax mannequins. She claims in Face à la peur that she was once sexually harassed by a prominent member of the scientific community, and doctors who provide girls with sexual knowledge are a staple of her fiction (La Marquise de Sade, for example).

  8. Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Knopf, 1988), 282.

  9. Rachilde reportedly told this to the police when she applied for official permission to cross dress in 1884. See Auriant, Souvenirs sur Madame Rachilde (n.p.: A l'Ecart, 1989).

  10. Marjorie Garber, for example, has shown in Vested Interests, how his ignorance of Chinese culture (specifically, the fact that it is customary for men to play women's roles in Chinese opera) makes him vulnerable to deception because he assumes that Song is a woman.

  11. The Chevalier d'Eon was a diplomat who served the French monarchy in the eighteenth century. His “true” sex as a man, finally established only posthumously, came as a shock to his most intimate companions. See Gary Kates, Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

Andrew Shin (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5663

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 Proposition 209 repealed the use of racial quotas in college admissions, resulting in an immediate and drastic reduction in the freshmen enrollment of African American and Hispanic American students at California's major universities. Ward Connerly, who spearheaded the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, has recently suggested sitting in on ethnic studies courses at Berkeley to determine whether they indeed promote racial and ethnic awareness or in fact foment radical separatism among students.1 Ironically, Connerly's neoconservative meliorism ignores the brief history of ethnic studies programs, which emerged from the anti-war protest to challenge traditional constructions of American history that elided the contributions of ethnic minorities.

This reaction against ethnic studies coincides with the emergence of the newest thing in lit crit/cultural studies: whiteness studies. Whiteness studies purports to denaturalize whiteness by incorporating a constructivist perspective and unmasking the ideological parameters of whiteness: to make visible an invisible norm. The best studies within the genre, such as David Roediger's, suggest how the working class in the nineteenth century constructed itself as white in relation to a racial other, emphasizing the constitutive reliance of the mainstream on the marginal. In this view, the whitening of an ethnicized working class occurs through a master-slave dialectic sustained politically by working-class resistance to pro-abolition alliances and through cultural forms such as blackface minstrelsy. (See Roediger, Wages; Lott, Love; and Ignatiev.) Paradoxically, various genealogies locate the inception of whiteness studies in the very period when challenges to a normative whiteness coalesced: second-wave feminism assumed an arguably self-conscious turn when women of color questioned its white, middle-class perspective (see Frankenberg, White Women 2-3); and, to some extent, the advent of whiteness studies can be attributed to ethnic studies traditionally conceived, which distinguishes the experiences of those ethnic groups subject to racialization, emphasizing the power differentials that obtain among diverse ethnicities in a nation of ethnics. It must be stressed, however, that the cultural nationalist ethos of ethnic studies was very much a response to the racialization—and racist treatment—of ethnic groups based on phenotype.

But the prominence of whiteness studies at this historical conjuncture raises as many questions as it answers because in some forms it is disturbingly indistinguishable from mainstream studies and can be readily accommodated to a rubric that, by virtue of reclaiming the margin, recenters whiteness as the primary object of study, along with an attendant realignment of institutional power and resources.2 But whether we identify its emergence in second-wave feminism's self-conscious swerve, or as a reaction formation to exclusionary ethnic programs, whiteness studies becomes a defence of the status quo when it loses its critical self-consciousness, whether conjoined with feminist, queer, or postcolonial discourses. An analysis of whiteness, however, converges in salutary ways with these very discourses—specifically in the context of paradigms of masquerade, mimicry, and the butch-femme couple—in the work of David Henry Hwang, to which I now turn.

Celebrated since its premiere on February 10, 1988 at the National Theatre in Washington D.C., David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly has been a cynosure for cultural debate on race and sexuality; less well known is Hwang's 1994 screenplay Golden Gate, dismissed in most accounts as a commercial and critical failure. Indeed discussions of Hwang's work focus on M. Butterfly, a drama that its detractors have variously stigmatized as misogynist, homophobic, and chauvinistic about the West.3 That this work has come under such vituperative scrutiny is hardly surprising given the demands of Asian American audiences for positive images of Asian Americans. This is merely another instance in a venerable tradition of conflict over the representation of ethnicity; consider, for example, the debates over the uses of the protest novel; Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint; the representation of masculinity in ethnic women's fiction of the 1980s; and, most recently, the depiction of Filipino sexuality in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging.4

But if we consider M. Butterfly in conjunction with an analysis of Golden Gate, Hwang's condemnation of Western masculinity emerges powerfully, identifying him as a critic, rather than a celebrant, of Western culture. Both works dislocate moral and sexual agency from a normative white male body and offer provocations to postcolonial and queer discourses by reconceiving notions of acting and imposture. M. Butterfly turns upon the masquerade, generally aligned with feminist and lesbian discussions of cultural subversion, which, by generating a distance between the woman and her image, installs her within the semiotic system as subject rather than object. But in the tragedy's gay context, playing the woman does not prove liberatory, and the masquerade's capacity for contestation is paralyzed. Golden Gate relocates Fanonian mimicry, the classic account of Europe's relationship to its colonies, from the third world to Hoover's America: whereas in Fanon, the native can never close the gap between himself and the colonial power he emulates, a conative situation that renders his pursuit of agency farcical, in Golden Gate this incommensurability constitutes the necessary condition for the creation of an American social conscience.

The psychoanalytic tradition of masquerade began with Joan Riviere's conception of womanliness as reaction formation in the aftermath of the intellectual woman's theft of masculinity. Mary Ann Doane, in an influential article, reslants the masquerade, giving it a subversive, feminist alignment by introducing the notion of artifice and performance: “The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade's resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness … as, precisely, imagistic” (25).5 Sue-Ellen Case, in a later essay, further wrests the feminist subject from biology and resituates her in the butch-femme couple who “constantly seduce[s] the sign system, through flirtation and inconstancy into the light fondle of artifice” (295). But in the gay realm of M. Butterfly the liberatory promptings of performance and artifice reach an impasse because the success of this project hinges on a contract between partners that is not available to the gay couple manqué.

Unlike Doane and Case, Frantz Fanon theorizes performance as dystopic insofar as it presupposes a lack that must be concealed: the colonized subject mistakes European agency for empowerment, imitating the colonial authority, an activity that exacerbates the gap he would close and ends in humiliation and neurosis.6 Hwang dramatizes the incongruity of performance as the traumatic inception of conscience: in Golden Gate the recent Asian immigrant provides the ego-ideal, not, however, in the sense that Chinese national life is presented as superior to that of America. Rather, the Chinese union organizer embodies the American norm, for he upholds the democratic values which are traduced by America's indigenous citizens, in this case, FBI agents. The incommensurability between Kevin Walker, the virile G-man, and the Asian immigrant he tragically emulates gives Walker a praiseworthy, rather than comic, incompleteness.

Both M. Butterfly and Golden Gate dismantle the sexual mythology informing Orientalism, deconstructing the oppositions that structure the worlds of East and West. Hwang's works do not simply elaborate these poststructuralist moves; each addresses a specific historical context: M. Butterfly interprets the Vietnam era through the metaphor of the gay male body, while Golden Gate dramatizes McCarthyism in terms of Asian American masculinity and homosocial desire. These works criticize the sexual and ethical construction of Western masculinity through the deviance of two white principals who challenge the cultural roles available to them. The French diplomat's fantasy of the perfect Oriental woman mediates homosexual desire in the face of pervasive homophobia, masking the wish to be the woman with the more acceptable desire for possession. Similarly, the FBI agent refuses the imperatives of his office, assuming the role of the Chinese American labor organizer whom he has destroyed, thus constructing his identity according to an ethical standard in violent opposition to Hoover and McCarthyism. Rather than offering positive images of Asian Americans, a virtually impossible task given the competing demands of various audiences, Hwang turns Orientalism against the West's own interests, opening up a world of proliferating masks in which two white men reinvent themselves by donning the personae of the East. Hwang thus invests the image with greater importance than the symbol, the realm of custom, convention, law.

M. Butterfly reverses Giovanni Puccini's 1904 adaptation of David Belasco in order to analyze the psychosexual drama underlying the enigmatic twenty-year affair between Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat stationed in Beijing, and Shi Peipu, a Chinese opera singer and spy, an interval during which Boursicot claims not to have known that his lover was a man.7 Puccini's Madame Butterfly dramatizes the beauty and self-sacrifice of Cio-Cio San, the devoted Japanese woman who waits three years for her American husband and commits ritual suicide upon discovering that he has taken an American wife.8 Hwang's play adapts the real-life drama of Boursicot and Shi Peipu to reinterpret one of the West's most enduring tales of sentimental racism. Most critics of M. Butterfly adopt some version of psychoanalytic poststructuralism in reading it as a critique of Orientalism, an inversion of Puccini in which the French diplomat assumes the role of Butterfly and commits seppuku, a reception that Hwang's own characterization of the play as a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” both predicts and elicits.9

Two recent Asian American scholars have faulted this approach as imbricated in racism and homophobia. James Moy, one of the play's more acute critics, observes that Hwang's deconstruction fails because, in inverting the cultural positioning of the characters, Rene Gallimard and Song Liling, the tragedy inadequately displaces the very Orientalist stereotypes it seeks to dismantle, reproducing Asian characters who are “laughable and grossly disfigured … now doubly displaced into the new order of stereotypical representations created by Asian-Americans” (“Repositioning” 55); whether this strategy is unwitting or collusive with the demands of an Anglo-American marketplace remains in question. Quentin Lee, however, criticizes Moy's desire for positive images of Asian Americans as an example of what he terms Occidentalism—the celebration of Western masculinity as heterosexual mastery—a prejudice that he attributes to Hwang as well: such an argument inflects Song Liling's final incarnation in a Giorgio Armani suit as an obeisance to these norms.10 Lee wants the field of Asian American representation to be elastic and expansive enough to accommodate articulations of gay Asian American desire; however, Moy and other conscientious ethnic critics might characterize this position as reactionary inasmuch as it can play into, rather than contest, the feminizing rhetoric of Orientalism. Because both camps insist on making Song Liling representative of Asian American men, they censure Hwang's cultural politics as pernicious.

Moy and Lee's observations foreground the complexity of representing Asian American identity according to notions of appropriate role models. An identity politics that strives for a eugenics of representation is doomed to fail because every positive image calls to mind the stereotype it seeks to correct; moreover, the very desire to delimit the field of representation bespeaks both arrogance and a poverty of imagination, suggesting its imbrication in discourses of ethnic and racial authenticity. I argue, instead, that M. Butterfly does not confront Orientalist stereotypes so much as indirectly renovate them by exposing the sexual and ethical limitations of Western masculinity as traditionally conceived: that is, Hwang writes as a Westerner with an interest in the East. He does not valorize Western masculinity as a model to be imitated; rather, in dramatizing Rene Gallimard's failed construction of a gay identity through the stereotype of an Asian woman, the mask of a gay Asian opera singer in Communist China, he exposes the prison-house of heterosexism.

Moy inadvertently identifies the most important level of dramatic signification: “As audiences leave the theater, then, racial/sexual identity is not an issue; rather, most are simply incredulous at how for twenty years Gallimard could have confused Song's rectum for a vagina” (“Repositioning” 54). The audience's incredulity justly assumes centrality, for Gallimard's confusion articulates the values of a culture that deems gay sexuality impermissible. Hwang's “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” thus reads as a palimpsest of repressed homoeroticism, elaborating the construction of a marginalized sexuality that must go unrecognized. Given his acculturation in a national heterosexism, Gallimard's fascination with Butterfly defends against the perception of his homosexuality: mimetic desire, the wish to be the perfect woman, converges with Orientalism, for the fantasy invokes an ideal in Butterfly; a Western woman would not be adequate to this desire as evidenced by Gallimard's interaction with Renee, the Danish student with whom he has an affair. Even as he welcomes Renee's lack of inhibition, likening her to the women in the girlie magazines as “picture perfect,” he muses, “But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too … masculine?” (54). Later, Gallimard confirms that Renee is not his real object of desire, but simply the instrument through which he exercises mastery over Butterfly: “I kept up our affair … because of Butterfly. … It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee” (56). Feminist autonomy, with its elision of fear, shame, and submissiveness, has desecrated Western womanhood.11

Hwang introduces the notion of misrecognition early on, as Gallimard, in the aftermath of standing trial for treason, observes several Parisians discussing his sexual faux pas:

MAN 1:
He never touched her with his hands?
MAN 2:
Perhaps he did, and simply misidentified the equipment. A compelling case for sex education in the schools.
To protect the National Security—the Church can't argue with that.
MAN 1:
That's impossible! How could he not know?
MAN 2:
Simple ignorance.
MAN 1:
For twenty years?
MAN 2:
Time flies when you're being stupid.
MAN 1:
That's impossible! How could he not know?
Well, I thought the French were ladies' men.
MAN 2:
It seems Monsieur Gallimard was overly anxious to live up to his national reputation.


Gallimard's humiliation in the face of this public discussion of his sexuality throws into high relief the difference in the assumptions of Western masculinity and Orientalist fantasy, a difference theatrically enacted through dissonant musical styles as well as in the contrast between the brightly-lit space of the parlor and the penumbral prison with its Orientalist decor symbolizing Gallimard's fantasy life. As Gallimard muses, “It's an enchanted space I occupy. The French—we know how to run a prison” (2). But this enchanted space does not simply confine and closet: it discloses the assimilation of Gallimard's erotic identity to a tragic fairy tale, tragic because ultimately he cannot disenchant himself into material social practice. The theatrical manipulation of lights emphasizes Gallimard's retrospection as scopophilic fantasy, rather than social performance. The interlocutors offer a post-mortem on Gallimard's folly, identifying the coercive structure of French sexual politics at the same time that they highlight the possible reinflection of these stereotypes: in their language game to be a ladies' man assumes heterosexual practices, but the play will begin to open up a different register of meaning: being a ladies' man comes to signify a gay man who articulates his sexuality by identifying with a woman's body.

Hwang dramatizes Gallimard's sexual identity through an accretion of details, from Gallimard's youthful induction into the world of sex to his affair with Song Liling. For instance, Gallimard's memory of discovering his uncle's “girlie magazines”: “The first time I saw them in his closet … all lined up—my body shook. Not with lust—no, with power. Here were women—a shelfful—who would do exactly as I wanted” (10). But Hwang problematizes the notion of power: Gallimard's “version of Madame Butterfly” (9) reveals that he is aroused by a fantasy of inhabitation rather than possession, an orientation indicated by the semantic ambiguity of the “as” in the phrase “do exactly as I wanted”; however, he cannot give voice to this wish because the magazine's displays are rampantly heterosexual, offering an unsuitable mise en scène for his fantasy life. His “hot skin,” suggestive of erotic investment in masquerade, and his “soft penis” are the disjunctive symptoms of a fantasy constructed to deflect recognition of homosexual desire in the face of its very expression.

Later, Gallimard's memory of his first actual sexual encounter, orchestrated by a schoolfriend Marc, reinforces the sleight of dreamwork:

My arms were pinned to the dirt.
She loved the superior position. A girl ahead of her time.
I looked up, and there was this woman … bouncing up and down on my loins.
Screaming, right?
Screaming … and pounding my butt up and down into the Dirt. … And in the middle of this, the leaves were getting into my mouth, my legs were losing circulation, I thought, ‘God. So this is it?’


Gallimard clearly occupies the feminine position in this parody of a woman's sexual initiation as the passive, sexually disenfranchised partner; however, not only are the partners' respective positions important, but also the material reality of their bodies: copulating with a woman stimulates Gallimard's homosexual fantasy because it so completely disguises it, even from himself. Marc's query, “You didn't have a good time?”, and Gallimard's stuttering, overemphatic reply, “No, that's not what I—I had a great time! … Yeah. Really … I did” (33-34), merely reinforce Gallimard's reluctant participation in a heterosexual economy. The encounter both stimulates and safeguards the homosexual fantasy of assimilating himself to a woman's body through which Gallimard constructs a gay identity for himself, but it also accentuates the humiliation western culture attributes to the woman's posture and body: “pounding my butt up and down into the dirt … the leaves were getting into my mouth, my legs were losing circulation” (33). Gallimard's revelation, “So this is it?” (33), underscores the problem of his womanly investiture: masquerade, based on donning the female body, differs from the material performance of costume and gesture elaborated by Doane and Case, for its fundamentalism returns Gallimard to the contiguity of image and body (with the attendant accrual of shame) that the masquerade was designed to contest. Hence Gallimard's flight into the reaction formation of Western manhood.

Gallimard's virile display depends on exaggerating gender stereotypes; hence he assumes a masterful role in relation to Song as expressed in the metaphor, “I began to wonder: had I, too, caught a butterfly who would writhe on a needle?” (32), and his virtuosity elicits Song's gift of “shame” (35): more than conventional modesty, shame testifies to female masochism. Even more interesting, however, is Gallimard's interpretation of “friendship”: “Better, but I don't like the way she calls me ‘friend.’ When a woman calls a man her ‘friend,’ she's calling him a eunuch or a homosexual” (35). Gallimard's victory in the arena of sexual politics gains him the admiration and envy of his colleagues and immediately advances his career, for, shortly thereafter, the French ambassador promotes him to vice-consul, a position from which he can exert his newfound mastery on French foreign policy in Vietnam.

Gallimard's unconscious masquerade rouses a compensatory military adventurism, for buoyed by his conquest of Butterfly, he interprets Dien Bien Phu and the loss of Indochina as a failure of French will, suggesting that “[t]he Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power … Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (45-46), a judgment that aligns the Vietnamese with female masochism and draws invidious comparisons between French and American virility. In truth, though, the artful Song has manipulated the French diplomat from the start, transmitting strategic information teased from the unwitting Gallimard to the Communist government in China. Here, the masquerade seems to fortify gender and ethnocentric stereotypes: Song engages in espionage through a familiar combination of feminine and national guile to facilitate Chinese power, a project in keeping with the West's paranoid construction of Oriental treachery and inscrutability to achieve China's international domination. It must be emphasized, however, that this representation of Song is an element of Gallimard's fantasy.

Gallimard here enacts gender, as Judith Butler puts it, “a corporeal style, an ‘act’ … both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ itself carries the double-meaning of ‘dramatic’ and ‘non-referential.’”12 Gallimard's mimic identity is realized in the mirror: “alone, in my cell, I have long since faced the truth. … Love warped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face … until I could look in the mirror and see nothing but … a woman” (92). Ultimately, Gallimard identifies himself with the shame of the image, being unable to capitalize on the artifice of masquerade, unlike Song, who associates womanliness with the freedom of imagination, performativity, and non-referentiality. Where Song acts out his homoerotic impulses by repeatedly reinventing himself through drag—a necessary strategy for a gay Asian man subject to the double bind of Orientalism and a homophobic culture—for Gallimard, recognition of the feminine nature of his desires repulses him and prefaces self-annihilation: “The love of a Butterfly can withstand many things—unfaithfulness, loss, even abandonment. But how can it face the one sin that implies all others? The devastating knowledge that, underneath it all, the object of her love was nothing more, nothing less than … a man” (92). Deprived of the fetishistic fantasy that enabled him to express his femininity and sensuality covertly, characteristics degrading to Western men, Gallimard comes face to face with his homosexuality. In assuming the caparison of Butterfly, Gallimard acknowledges the truth, but in literalizing desire through drag, he loses the fantasy: all that remains to him is the queen, the grotesquery of an aging French man in garish makeup.

In this ritual suicide, James Moy simply sees another enactment of an Asian man dying on the Western stage, a trope in which Asian American “racial desire” is disturbingly implicated: “it is clear that in the popular consciousness Asianness has fled from the real into the realm of representational desire. Unfortunately … the representational Asia carries with it a requirement of self-destruction. Indeed … only through its death, or representational self-effacement, does Asia become real for Western audiences” (“The Death of Asia” 356).13 But Moy's reduction of M. Butterfly to an Asian death drive fails to acknowledge its reinscription of the uncanny in the West. Where Moy interprets Gallimard's suicide as an Asian death, I reverse this reading: Gallimard kills himself, as a white man, because he can no longer defend against knowledge of his homosexuality in the homophobic West.

M. Butterfly thus dramatizes the disclosure of queer identity through feminine performance, an emphasis that thinkers such as Leo Bersani have decried, for whom theories of performativity elide queer identities by softpedaling a defining sexual preference: “in rejecting the essentializing identities derived from sexual preference, they mount a resistance to homophobia in which the agent of resistance has been erased: there is no longer any homosexual subject to oppose the homophobic subject” (Homos 56). In his view, theories of queer sexuality that resist specific articulations of desire undermine the possibility of a radical politics based on a specific sexuality. For Bersani, the “dead seriousness of the gay commitment to machismo” leads to the “potential for loving identification with the gay man's enemies” and the paradox of an object-choice whose lineaments are familiarly masculine: “a fantasy-luxury that is at once inevitable and no longer permissible” (“Is the Rectum” 208). In M. Butterfly Gallimard experiences precisely this aporia because he refuses the liberatory possibilities of masquerade: in his hands, masquerade degenerates into camp, a form of parody that derides femininity in asserting the gay man's masculinity. Gallimard's death thus challenges the “reabsorption of gay male identity into the canons of masculinity” (Michasiw 168) and suggests a revaluation of feminist insights in the elaboration of a gay aesthetic.14


  1. See Lavilla, “Connerly.” Ling-chi Wang, the Chair of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, has suggested merging ethnic studies with American studies. See Walsh.

  2. Two recent anthologies address this issue in different ways: Roediger's Black on White focuses on black writers' interpretation of whiteness; Frankenberg's Displacing Whiteness encompasses a multiethnic range of writers. Two journals have recently published special white issues, The Minnesota Review and Transition. All the contributors to the White issue of Transition are black, except for Walter Benn Michaels, whose piece argues that anti-essentialism is merely another essentialism, and seems to have been included as an example of white scholarly condescension. For an incisive critique of Michaels's views as elaborated in an earlier study, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, see Lott's “The New Cosmopolitanism,” 121-27. Bhabha suggests that this “blizzard of ‘whiteness’ studies cannot be understood without being situated in the precarious balance between old left and cultural left, between the national and the cosmopolitan, selfishness and sadism” (“The White Stuff” 24).

  3. Hwang's very success has garnered his work significant criticism from scholars of Asian American literature, much of it specifically focused on the representation of Asian America in M. Butterfly, ranging from suggestions alleging Hwang's politically reactionary misappropriation of Chinese mythology to Orientalism, misogyny, and homophobia. These views are represented by Chin; Moy, “David Henry Hwang's”; Cody; and Quentin Lee.

  4. Set in Hawaii, Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging dramatizes a Filipino Japanese man's rape of his nieces and sodomy of a Japanese American youth. At the 1998 annual Association for Asian American Studies Conference in Oahu, the Filipino American Studies Caucus initiated a successful resolution to rescind the Association's literary award to the Japanese American author. In the aftermath of the decision, many board members resigned, citing fears over personal liability. Interestingly, virtually all the discussants in Hawaii ignored the fact that the character is part Japanese. See Lavilla, “Book” and Yamanaka's response in Tanner (17).

  5. See Doane's response to commentaries on “Film and the Masquerade.”

  6. See Fanon, especially chapters 1, 4, and 6. Since Fanon, who argued that mimicry is the inevitable outcome of ideological assimilation, leading racial others to the alienating impasse of simply emulating or failing to measure up to the colonizer's values, debates about colonial mimicry have focused on its uses for cultural autonomy. See Irigaray, 338-44; and Bhabha, “Of Mimicry.” For a discussion of M. Butterfly in the context of postcolonial theories of mimicry, see Josephine Lee, 105-20.

  7. The story first broke in The New York Times, 11 May 1986. For a good summary, including interviews with the principals, see Wadler.

  8. Belasco's one-act play, which enjoyed a five-year run in New York City, was itself an adaptation of Long's short story that appeared in Century Magazine in 1898. Eaton's popular A Japanese Nightingale (1901), was adapted for the stage and performed in New York to compete with the Belasco play. An Anglo-Chinese Eurasian, Eaton wrote under the fictional Japanese pseudonym Onoto Watanna to capitalize on the prevailing cult of japonisme. For a useful overview of the inception and transformations of the Butterfly story from Pierre Loti to Hwang, see Lye 269-70..

  9. Hwang's own characterization, “Afterword,” M. Butterfly, 95. All references to the play will be to this edition, incorporated hereafter parenthetically in the text. See Skloot, Kondo, and Kehde.

  10. Quentin Lee and Eng are among the first to interpret M. Butterfly specifically as a narrative of homosexuality: Lee situates his reading in what he uncharitably calls an “outing” of Hwang (52); Eng attempts to establish a dialogue between Asian America and queer theory (131-52). Moy's characterization of characters from M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die as “disfigured” (55) assumes a certain homophobic tinge, insofar as Song Liling and Vincent Chang, the Japanese man masquerading as a Chinese actor in Yankee Dawg, are gay.

  11. A comparison with Barthes's S/Z, which decodes Balzac's novel, Sarrasine, is especially instructive here. The immediate difference between Gallimard falling in love with a transvestite and Sarrasine's attraction to the castrato La Zambinella is obviated by the realization that in both cases anatomy hardly matters: Gallimard and Sarrasine love what they fantasize. Barthes's denaturalizing of the readerly—we do not read, we re-read—can be invoked to emphasize the always already imbrication of Gallimard's fantasy formation in cultural codes, here expressed as a form of Orientalism. For an insightful comparison of the two works, see Garber.

  12. Butler, 272-73. Gallimard here also exemplifies Garber's characterization of the transvestite as a figure who “functions simultaneously as a mark of gender undecidability and as an indication of category crisis” (“Phantoms,” 238). See also Sedgwick.

  13. Clement suggests that Cio-Cio San becomes Japanese by virtue of her theatrical death (58).

  14. Michasiw suggests D. A. Miller and Michael Moon's reabsorption in orthodox masculinity, witnessed in their recuperation of military metaphors in their critique of Susan Sontag, who, in their view, depoliticizes gay sexuality (164-68).

I wish to thank Barbara Judson for her incisive contributions to this essay.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. Preface by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bersani Leo. Homos. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

———. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October 43 (1987): 197-222.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” October 28 (Spring 1984): 125-33.

———. “The White Stuff.” Artforum (1998): 21-24.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 270-82.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 294-306.

Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake.” The Big AIIIEEEEE! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Ed. Jeffery Paul Chan et al. New York: Meridian, 1991. 1-93.

Clement Catherine. Opera, Or the Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Cody, Gabrielle. “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth.” Theater 20.2 (1989): 24-27.

Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Eng, David. “In the Shadow of a Diva: Committing Homosexuality in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. Ed. Russell Leong. New York: Routledge, 1996. 131-52.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Frankenberg, Ruth, ed. Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

———. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1960.

Garber, Marjorie. “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism.” Nationalisms and Sexualities. Ed. Andrew Parker et al. New York: Routledge, 1992. 121-46; rpt. “Phantoms of the Opera: Actor, Diplomat, Transvestite, Spy.” Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992. 234-66.

Golden Gate.” Rev. of Golden Gate, by David Henry Hwang. Rolling Stone 10 February 1994: 53.

Hwang, David Henry. Golden Gate. Screenplay by David Henry Hwang. Dir. John Madden. Prod. Michael Brandman. Music by Elliott Goldenthal. Perf. Matt Dillon, Joan Chen, Bruno Kirby, Tzi Ma, and Stan Egi. American Playhouse, released by Samuel Goldwyn. 1994.

———. M. Butterfly. New York: Plume, 1989.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kaufman, Joanne. “Golden Gate.” Rev. of Golden Gate, by David Henry Hwang. People Weekly 7 February 1994: 23-24.

Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)Construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American.Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities. Ed. Peter Murphy. New York: New York UP, 1994. 241-54.

Kondo, Dorinne K. “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Cultural Critique 16 (Fall 1990): 5-29.

Lavilla, Stacy. “Book Award Fracas Leaves Group Hanging.” AsianWeek 16-22 July 1998, natl. ed.: 11.

———. “Connerly to Scrutinize Ethnic Studies.” AsianWeek 25 June-2 July 1998, natl. ed.: 8.

Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.

Lee, Quentin. “Between the Oriental and the Transvestite.” Found Object (Fall 1993): 45-59.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

———. “The New Cosmopolitanism.” Transition Issue 72 (Winter 1996): 108-35.

Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 260-89.

Maslin, Janet. “Chinatown Takes a Role As a Setting For Intrigue.” Rev. of Golden Gate, by David Henry Hwang. The New York Times 28 January 1994: C10.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man: Why Race Is Not a Social Construction.” Transition: An International Review 7.1 (73) (1998): 122-43.

———. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Michasiw, Kim. “Camp, Masculinity, Masquerade.” differences 6.2-3 (1994): 146-73.

The Minnesota Review, The White Issue ns 47 (1996).

Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42.1 (1990): 48-56.

———. “The Death of Asia on the American Field of Representation.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992. 349-58.

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin et al. New York: Routledge, 1986. 35-44.

Roediger, David, ed. Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken, 1998.

———. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991.

———. Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History. New York: Verso, 1994.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Socratic Raptures, Socratic Ruptures: Notes Toward Queer Performativity.” English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism. Ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz. New York: Routledge, 1993. 122-36.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33.1 (1990): 59-66.

Tanner, Mika. “The Real-Life Sequel to ‘Blu's Hanging.’” AsianWeek 6-12 Aug. 1998, natl. ed.: 17.

Transition: An International Review, The White Issue 73 (Spring 1998).

Wadler, Joyce. “For the First Time, The Real-Life Models for Broadway's M. Butterfly Tell of Their Very Strange Romance.” People Weekly 8 Aug. 1988: 88-98.

Walsh, Joan. “Cal's Academic Question.” AsianWeek 17-23 Sept. 1998, natl. ed.: 5.

Wantanna, Onoto. A Japanese Nightingale. Illus. Genjiro Yeto. New York: Harper, 1901.

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Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Blu's Hanging. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.

Criticism: Face Value (1993)

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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 change the actor's face, left little room for the metaphorical mask, let alone real masks onstage. Nowadays, although the literal use of real masks, or faces with masklike makeup, have become commonplace, the emphasis has shifted to the psychology of characters and the social and cultural groups they represent. Thirty years ago, Jean Genet, in his plays The Maids, The Balcony, and The Blacks, addressed issues of social, racial, and cultural identity most effectively by using theatre masks and other devices of theatrical multiple identities to shed light on people's true faces. Recently in the U.S., George C. Wolfe's highly theatrical and provocative The Colored Museum and Jelly's Last Jam clearly echo Genet's exploration of masks or faces. In 1993 this motif resonated in several theatrical works.

David Henry Hwang's 1988 M. Butterfly touched upon the issue—cultural misunderstanding associated with the misreading of the face/mask. M. Butterfly's huge success certainly whetted Hwang's appetite for the theatrical theme of face/mask/cultural identity that has interested him for years. In his much anticipated second Broadway play, Face Value (try-out at Boston's Colonial Theatre from 9-28 February 1993; Broadway preview closed before opening), he tackled the issue head on by not only putting “face” in the title, but also painting most of the characters' faces like masks to help make his point. The character, Bernard Sugarmann, a white actor played by Mark Linn-Baker, paints a yellow face on himself to play Fu Manchu in the play-within-a-play called “The Real Manchu.” Two white-supremacist professors come to kill the “gook,” thinking he is a real Asian. Asian actor Randall Lee (Dennis Dun) paints a white face on himself in order to get into the theatre unobserved and jump onto the stage to denounce the whites. In the process, “the blond” actress (Jane Krokawski) thinks he is white and falls in love with him. In the end, all but two characters—including three whites, one black, and two Asians—are coupled or recoupled as lovers across race lines. And all show up with yellow Fu Manchu faces in order to frustrate the two white supremacists who intend to murder the yellow-faced Fu Manchu onstage.

This simple plot summary makes this ending sound like a preaching for a color-blind utopia. Or, is it a mockery, especially since the play's entire premise is so unequivocally color-strict: the absurdity of casting a white actor in an Asian role. This is an undisguised dramatization of the controversial campaign against the casting of a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the lead in Miss Saigon, a campaign in which Hwang played an important role. Then how could he be serious in preaching, “We are a color-blind family”? The preachy tone at the end of Face Value is just the opposite of the satirical tone of the beginning.

But the play's real problem is not so much didacticism as it is a muddled conception of race relations. Both the color-strict premise and the color-blind ending represent the author's views quite strongly. It is obvious that Hwang and director Jerry Zaks deliberately gave Sugarmann a disgusting yellow face as Fu Manchu and Fu's play-within-a-play a dull and vulgar mise-en-scène—an even more extreme choice than the two stereotypical Chinese gamblers in Zaks's revival of Anything Goes at Lincoln Center Theatre five years prior. This staging of the Fu Manchu play, decidedly disappointing to those who expect something more subtle but nice, demonstrates why the Asian characters in Face Value strongly criticize white people's mistreatment of “yellow stuff.” On the other hand, the color-blind idea in the play is carried out so strenuously that it works only when the faces of different colors are masked or simply not seen. A black stage manager and a white producer fall into each other's arms because the power goes out leaving them alone in the dark thus obliterating their color differences. Similarly, Lee and “the blond” as well as Sugarmann and Lee's former Asian-American companion become lovers when their faces are painted. While these scenes may seem frivolous, the characters' heroic actions of putting on yellow faces/masks to save their colleague demonstrates that the human heart can transcend race; even though, this utopia is only attained during emergencies.

This is in fact the most promising motif in the play. If it was developed with less forced, farcical action and more substance, the logical conclusion could be a thematic reversal: a reexamination of the color-strict rhetoric that opens the play and that people usually take for granted. Moreover, this revelation may eventually make it acceptable for the white Sugarmann to play Fu Manchu or any other Asian role, and for Lee to play any white role, as long as they put on the right “face” so audiences won't be confused in discerning their roles. Apparently Hwang is not willing or ready to take this step, nor are most Americans, especially whites. The play stops short of this reflection, failing to present either the color-strict politics or the color-blind fantasy as the real conviction of the play's creators.

What do Hwang and Zaks believe? Zaks told an interviewer that “the script reminded him of his ongoing attempts to appreciate cultural differences” (Hartigan 1993:B6, italics added). But in the meantime his interpretation of the play was: “It's about the absurdity of making racial distinctions” (B1). Unfortunately, the play gives no clue as to how to differentiate “cultural differences” from “racial distinctions.” Similarly, another interviewer was impressed by the fact that “when [Hwang] talked about Face Value his voice had the zeal of an activist” (Kelly 1993a:29). Yet his play is not really an activist one, except for the beginning which is soon to be turned upside down. Hwang said in the same interview that he had been “trying to write a farce about mistaken racial identity as early as 1989” (29). Although Hwang recognizes white actor Jonathan Pryce's playing a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon and Sugarmann's playing Fu Manchu as completely wrong, he nonetheless puts into Face Value a great deal more mistaken identities that function positively because they let people ignore racial differences and discover what's underneath. Hwang is torn between his color-strict rhetoric and a color-blind vision while actually leaning towards the latter. Even as a major player in the Saigon dispute, Hwang clearly saw the other side of the story: “The issue of minority rights squared off against the issue of artistic freedom allowing a producer to cast who he wants” (in Kelly 1993a:29). Raised by well-off and determinedly Americanized immigrant parents who “never liked China that much” (29), Hwang is as cosmopolitan as any white American. He wrote his early plays exclusively about Chinese American life (even though he was not really that familiar with it) as a rebellion against his parents' wishes. But that phase has long passed. Unlike most American playwrights with a “minority” background, Hwang ventured into the all-white realm, although his exclusively white Rich Relations failed off-Broadway in 1985 and was quickly forgotten. But that did not push him back to writing all-Asian plays again. In fact, most of the projects he has since worked on, aside from M. Butterfly and Face Value, have been non-Asian related, for example, Philip Glass's operas 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and The Voyage and a movie adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. With Hwang's career profile in mind, it is not surprising to see a strong nonactivist, color-blind vision in his work. What is surprising is that at the same time he is an activist campaigning for Asian American actors' job opportunities. So far, he has not found a way to reconcile in his theatre work these two contradictory views.

It is not unusual for otherwise universalist writers to apply their talents to narrower political causes and thereby produce self-contradictory voices. A revealing parallel can be found in the writings of Edward Said, whose classic Orientalism (1979) greatly influenced M. Butterfly. Said is well known for his polemics against almost all Westerners' works about the Orient, often leading readers to think that he believes no Westerners can accurately portray the Oriental, a stance Said himself acknowledges (Marranca 1991:58). In his latest book Culture and Imperialism (1993) Said again harshly criticizes Western works for what he calls “misrepresentation” of the Orient, but surprisingly also enthusiastically advocates cross-cultural communication and categorically denies any “static notion” of cultural identity:

[… W]e begin to sense that old authority cannot simply be replaced by new authority, but that alignments made across borders, types, nations, and essences are rapidly coming into view, and it is those new alignments that now provoke and challenge the fundamentally static notion of identity that has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism.


Like Said, Hwang is better acquainted with Western culture than Eastern, and more a humanist with the vision of an intercultural community than an activist defending Hwang's ethnicity. But his particular ethnicity and the reality of cultural inequality make it almost impossible for him, or Said for that matter, to write simply as a color-blind humanist. Their commitments to the causes of their respective groups unavoidably put them in the position of spokesmen against Eurocentric domination. (M. Butterfly took a different approach, for which Hwang received some harsh criticism from the Asian community.) This dilemma could in fact prove a highly dramatic subject if dealt with upfront. But neither Said nor Hwang seems to acknowledge their dilemma. In Face Value it is hard to determine which author, the color-strict Hwang or the color-blind Hwang is expressing himself honestly. He may have thought that the less serious genre of farce could help him out of this dilemma. On the contrary, farce, which is supposed to be pungent and have a straightforward target, renders the complicated political and philosophical issues even more confusing. Like its masked characters, the play as a whole is so heavily masked that one can hardly find a true face present. What an irony for a play called Face Value.

Further Reading

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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, and the causes and effects of these changes.

Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American.” In Fictions in Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, pp. 241-54. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Surveys the erosion of the white male myth by regarding the gender roles and their effects on colonialism in Hwang's M. Butterfly and Greene's The Quiet American.

Kondo, Dorinne K. “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Cultural Critique, no. 16 (fall 1990): 5-29.

Argues that in M. Butterfly Hwang reconfigures traditional gender and cultural roles, thereby restructuring power, subverting stereotypes, and redefining self-realization.

Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, pp. 260-89. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Evaluates criticism of Hwang's M. Butterfly from a feminist perspective.

Ma, Ruiqi. “The Ideology of Cultural and Gender Misunderstanding in D. H. Hwang's M. Butterfly.Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 22, no. 4 (December 1996): 1053-63.

Contends that Hwang's inherent male perspective and his failure to create a strong, truly female character in M. Butterfly prove his non-objectivity concerning male/female power struggles and relationships.

Ma, Sheng-mei. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly: From Puccini to East/Western Androgyny.” Tamkang Review 21, no. 3 (spring 1991): 287-96.

Compares the characters Gallimard and Song in Hwang's M. Butterfly to Pinkerton and Cho-Cho-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Morris, Rosalind. “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Critique of Empire.” In Gender and Culture in Literature and Film East and West: Issues of Perception and Interpretation, edited by Nitaya Masavisut, George Simson, and Larry E. Smith, pp. 40-59. Honolulu: College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature, University of Hawaii and the East-West Center, 1994.

Examines the sexual roles and reversals in M. Butterfly, and discusses the reasons that, in Morris's judgment, the play is unsuccessful in overriding the stereotypes it claims to denounce.

Pao, Angela. “M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang.” In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida, pp. 200-08. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001.

Provides a brief biographical sketch about Hwang and background information about the plot and production of M. Butterfly.

Rabkin, Gerald. “The Sound of a Voice: David Hwang.” In Contemporary American Theatre, edited by Bruce King, pp. 94-117. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Examines the common themes of displacement, search for self-definition, and the dynamics of family relations in Hwang's plays.

Saal, Ilka. “Performance and Perception: Gender, Sexuality, and Culture in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Amerikastudien 43, no. 4 (1998): 629-44.

Observes that M. Butterfly investigates gender-based, sexual, and racial oppression and stereotypes, but ultimately merely restructures these negative aspects of society and does little to dispel them.

Shimakawa, Karen. “‘Who's to Say?’ or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in M. Butterfly.Theatre Journal 45, no. 3 (October 1993): 349-61.

Underscores Hwang's use of physical space and the blurred mental space between male/female, homosexual/heterosexual, and dominance/submissiveness to create new parameters for gender roles and cultural interaction.

Wilcoxon, Hardy C. “Chinese American Literature Beyond the Horizon.” New Literary History 27, no. 2 (spring 1996): 313-28.

Analyzes the effects that Asian-American writers have on fellow Asians by comparing response to Maxine Hong Kingston's The Warrior Woman, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, and Hwang's M. Butterfly.

Additional coverage of Hwang's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Asian American Literature; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 127, 132; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 76, 124; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 55; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 212, 228; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 4; Drama for Students, Vols. 11, 18; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. 4.

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David Henry Hwang Drama Analysis