Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
It is hardly surprising that M. Butterfly has proved a fertile ground for feminist critics. The play is a relentless indictment of the way men, driven by inherited, male-created cultural patterns, behave towards women. There is something deeply disturbing about Gallimard's psychology when it comes to his relations with women, and one doesn't need to be a feminist to notice it. Let's take just two examples. Every time he visits Renee, the young woman with whom he has an affair, he is excited by the knowledge that he is inflicting suffering on Song, who, Gallimard believes, is aware of his unfaithfulness. He imagines Song crying, alone and without comfort, and says, "It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee.’’ Gallimard had earlier demonstrated his cruelty in his refusal to make contact with Song, even when he knew she had a right to expect him to do so. This deliberate withdrawal also excited him: "I felt for the first time that rush of power—the absolute power of a man.’’
The implication in both cases is that a man who is in the grip of a culturally determined romantic and sexual fantasy will seek to shore up his own fragile sense of identity by mistreating a woman. Women must suffer because men are weak. This is hardly a pretty picture, and it is made even less savory by the fact that the playwright links sexism with politics and imperialism. For example, Renee offers the opinion that the male aggression that erupts in wars is caused by the same kind of sexual insecurity and feelings of inferiority that are the dark elements in Gallimard's own psychological make-up.
Nor is the indictment of male-female relations confined to Western culture. Hwang also has Chinese society in his sights. Song complains that women are kept down in Chinese society and denied an education, the implication being that a man is threatened by a woman who may know as much as he does. Later, Song asks Chin why it is that in Chinese opera, all the women's parts are played by men. Then he answers his own question: "Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.’’ In other words, women behave in ways that are culturally prescribed, and those who prescribe their conduct are men.
In the light of all this, it is clear why a feminist critic such as Chalsa Loo can refer to the play as a ‘‘revenge fantasy.’’ As she comments in her essay, ‘‘M. Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective," "Women who have felt the sting of male abandonment and betrayal silently rise in applause as Butterfly's death is avenged. Gallimard, the cad, gets his due: he is betrayed, humiliated, and made miserable.’’
And yet the play is also much more than a revenge fantasy, because it suggests that the stereotypical perceptions that lead to the tragedy are socially constructed; they are not inherent in the nature of things. And if something is a human, cultural construct, it can also be deconstructed and something else constructed in its place. Hwang himself, in ‘‘A Conversation With David Henry Hwang,’’ has described his play as ‘‘an attempt to debunk the stereotypes completely by mixing them up and confusing them so much that they really become inapplicable in any meaningful sense.’’
The audience feels this demolition of stereotypical roles of race and gender most acutely in the immediate aftermath of the play, when the lights on stage dim and applause has not yet begun to fill the theatre. The play is over, but its effects linger in the mind. It is as if all the unconsciously imbibed, unexamined expectations of gender roles have been tossed up in the air like a pack of cards, and they have not yet landed to form a new pattern. There is a kind of imaginative space present in the collective mind of the audience, which is for a few moments free of the props, short cuts, and lazy conveniences that the human mind normally uses to classify its experience and confirm its prejudices. It is in this imaginative space that everyone in the audience is free to restructure their perceptions "from the common and equal ground we share as human beings,'' as Hwang put it in his Afterword to the published edition of the play.
The aesthetic response to the play, then, includes the shattering of what Western, and also, to an extent, Eastern culture has conditioned people to believe regarding race and gender roles. Does it also shatter the myth of romantic love that is also so prevalent in the Western mind? Many would say that it does—after all, look what happens to Gallimard—but is it also possible that nestling somewhere alongside all the punctured balloons of Western male imperialism, the aesthetic response to M. Butterfly includes a sense, in spite of everything that would seem to contradict it, of a transforming vision of love? Or is that deconstructed too?
Few critics have seen the play primarily as a love story. Perhaps in part this is because Hwang seems more interested in playing with the ideas that underlie the drama than in exploring the emotional states of the characters. There is little in the relationship between Gallimard and Song, for example, that would explain why Gallimard regards Song as the ‘‘Perfect Woman.’’ Nor are the complexities of Gallimard's own emotions, as his relationship with Song deepens, fully explored.
However, there is no reason to doubt that Gallimard does indeed experience a genuine love for Song. And at the time he first fully conceives this love, Gallimard's character undergoes a marked transformation. This occurs well before the final, dramatic reversal of roles at the end of the play. The change begins in Act 2, scene 7, when Gallimard approaches Song seeking only to dominate him/her sexually. Gallimard is completely caught up in the idea that he is the arrogant Pinkerton in Puccini's Madame Butterfly. But then something unexpected happens:
At the time, I only knew that I was seeing Pinkerton stalking towards his Butterfly, ready to reward her love with his lecherous hands. The image sickened me, pulled me to my knees, so I was crawling towards her like a worm. By the time I reached her, Pinkerton ... had vanished from my heart. To be replaced by something new, something unnatural, that flew in the face of all I'd learned in the world—something very close to love.
Instead of forcing Song to strip and overpowering her, Gallimard asks for forgiveness. He is a different man now, embarking on new psychic terrain, and perhaps he now wins back some of the sympathy from the audience that his callous behavior up to that point has forfeited.
It is from this point on that Gallimard, although he does not yet realize it, starts to become Butterfly, in that he loves unthinkingly, wholly, unconditionally, no matter what the circumstances. Of course he is deluded, and nowhere in the play is it made clear exactly why or how he fails to realize that the object of his love is a male spy. And his acceptance that the baby Song presents him with is his own makes him look, to say the least, foolish. But Gallimard is at least now a fool for love, not the arrogant seducer he once fancied himself to be. Love has ensnared him, in exactly the way that Madame Butterfly in Puccini's opera had feared. She confesses to Pinkerton she has heard that in the United States, if a man catches a butterfly, "he' ll pierce its heart with a needle/ And then leave it to perish!’’ Gallimard alludes to this when he first embarks on his cruel behavior towards Song: ‘‘Had I, too, caught a butterfly who would writhe on a needle?’’ Now, in love, Gallimard has himself become the butterfly. Interestingly, in Western literature the butterfly is a traditional symbol of transformation, of the liberation of the human spirit from the fetters that bind it. Although Hwang utilizes Puccini's reversal of the traditional meaning, the more usual symbolism will surface later. Gallimard will indeed undergo a transformation.
This transformation comes in the final scene of the play. In spite of the shattering revelation that he has been deceived and betrayed by a man masquerading as a woman, Gallimard cannot shake the vision of love that he had. The romantic love for a particular individual, unable to jump the gender barrier, may have died, but the ideal of love lives on. As he begins his physical transformation into Madame Butterfly, Gallimard finally acknowledges that it is time to face the truth about Song:
And the truth demands a sacrifice. For mistakes made over the course of a lifetime. My mistakes were simple and absolute—the man I loved was a cad, a bounder. He deserved nothing but a kick in the behind, and instead I gave him ... all my love. Yes—love. Why not admit it all? That was my undoing, wasn't it? Love warped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face.
As he dons the Butterfly wig, Gallimard reaffirms his belief in his original vision of love, but this time it is fortified by his own experience and suffering:
I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to a sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.
As he continues his physical transformation, Gallimard realizes that the very love he longed for he has found, not in another but in himself. He does not need any more to search for a Butterfly, for he is Butterfly. He has lived his own ideal. His own fate is proof that the vision is real. With this self-knowledge and insight, Gallimard rises at the last to the stature of a tragic hero, and Hwang invests the scene with great dramatic and emotional power.
The impression of noble sacrifice (‘‘Death with honor is better than life ... life with dishonor,’’ Gallimard says, quoting Madame Butterfly), the playing of the Love Duet from Madame Butterfly rather than the music of the death scene, and the dignity of the dancers who lay the dying Gallimard "reverently on the floor,'' all combine to create this final, moving moment. Of course, many may feel that Gallimard dies while still in the grip of a dangerous romantic illusion. Others may feel that in its own peculiar way, this moment is indeed an affirmation of a kind of transcendent, absolute vision of love, and hear in the background echoes of the deaths of other famous lovers in the Western tradition, such as Antony for his Cleopatra, Romeo for his Juliet.
The final moment in this play, however, belongs not to Gallimard but to the romantic antitype, namely Song, who is seen staring at the dead Gallimard, coolly smoking a cigarette and uttering the words ‘‘Butterfly? Butterfly?’’ The vision of love is juxtaposed with its antithesis; the myth of romantic fulfillment is deconstructed even in the moment that it reaches its most powerful expression.
So the answer to the question posed earlier—whether the aesthetic response to the play includes the sense of a transforming vision of love—is both yes and no. The dead Gallimard is proof of the power of the romantic imagination to create for itself the form of its deepest desire; the living Song is proof that in this harsh and unforgiving world, even that may not be enough.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Bryan Aubrey, Ph.D., has published many articles on literature and drama.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2618
David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly is loosely based on a true story about a French diplomat who lived for twenty years as the lover of a person he thought was a Chinese female actress but who was in fact a Chinese male spy. In his fictionalized story of love and espionage, based on this incident, Hwang's play focuses on the theme of Western male fantasies about "Oriental" (Asian) women. The theme of fantasy is focused on the Frenchman Rene Gallimard's perception of Song Liling as ‘‘The Perfect Woman.’’ In his "Afterword" to the published play, David Hwang explains that, having heard about the true story on which the play he later wrote was based, he "concluded that the diplomat must have fallen in love, not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype.’’ Hwang goes on to explain that this "stereotype" is that of the "exotic," submissive "Oriental'' woman, as portrayed in the famous Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly.
The motif of dream and fantasy is first invoked through Gallimard's tongue-in-cheek description of his life in a French prison, following his conviction for treason: "When I want to eat, I'm marched off to the dining room ... When I want to sleep, the light bulb turns itself off—the work of fairies. It's an enchanted space I occupy.’’ In this description, however, he symbolically characterizes his relationship to Song Liling, a relationship based on his own personal fantasies of what ‘‘The Perfect Woman'' is like, a relationship in which he occupied "an enchanted space'' of his own imagination. Addressing the audience, Gallimard claims that, "I have known, and been loved by ... the Perfect Woman.’’ At the point when he makes this statement, Gallimard has already learned that his "Perfect Woman'' was in fact a man; by insisting that Song was nonetheless ‘‘the Perfect Woman,’’ he emphasizes the extent to which she was, to him, a fantasy of a woman all along.
Hwang's play thus begins with a portrayal of Gallimard's early perceptions of women, which are derived from the many images of pin-up girls he saw in pornographic magazines. Hwang here establishes that, from youth, Gallimard's relationship to women is purely that of fantasy images, as he has next to no experience with real women. Gallimard compares the character Madame Butterfly in Puccini's opera, who insists that she is not worth the few cents he paid for her, to the images of women in "girlie magazines'': ‘‘In real life, women who put their total worth at less than sixty-six cents are quite hard to find. The closest we come is in the pages of these magazines ... For three or four dollars, you get seven or eight women.’’ Hwang makes a strong feminist statement here by implying that the pleasure for a man in paying for a fantasy image of a woman is not so much sexual, as one of power. Gallimard explains that, when he first saw such magazines, at the age of twelve, ‘‘my body shook. Not with lust—no, with power. Here were women—a shelfful—who would do exactly as I wanted.’’ The images of women in ‘‘girlie magazines’’ suggest to the man that ‘‘You can do whatever you want.’’
When Gallimard meets Song, she points out to him directly that the opera Madame Butterfly is an expression of a standard fantasy that Western culture holds about Eastern culture: ‘‘It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.’’ Later, as he is walking her home, Song again makes the observation that she represents to him a white male fantasy of a woman: ‘‘We have always held a certain fascination for you Caucasian men, have we not?'' Later, Song points out the extent to which a "Perfect Woman’’ is a creation of the male mind, a construction of a male fantasy which has little or nothing to do with real women. She comments that the reason the roles of women in the Peking Opera are always played by men is that, ‘‘only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.’’ The truth of this statement is confirmed when, even after Gallimard learns that Song was a man all along, he asserts that, "in China, I once loved, and was loved by, very simply, the Perfect Woman.’’ Again, the implication is that the "Perfect Woman'' does not need to be a woman at all, but simply an image which conforms to a man's fantasy.
The fantasy motif includes not just Gallimard's perceptions of Song, but also the appearance of his school friend Marc in his imagination and his dreams. Marc, who appears as a ‘‘formless spirit,’’ encourages Gallimard to pursue Song by pointing out that she can be used like a ‘‘girlie magazine,’’ or a sex symbol from the movies, to fulfill his fantasies of sexual power: ‘‘All your life you've waited for a beautiful girl who would lay down for you ... And you see them in magazines and you see them in movies. And you wonder, what's wrong with me? Will anyone beautiful ever want me?’’ Marc himself functions for Gallimard as a fantasy figure who gives him permission to live out his fantasies. Gallimard even compares the figure of Marc, as he appears in a dream, to the Italian movie star and sex symbol Sophia Lauren: ‘‘Other people, I've been told, have dreams where angels appear. Or dragons, or Sophia Lauren in a towel. In my dream, Marc from school appeared.’’ Marc represents the cultural influences that encourage men to view women as sexual objects who can be purchased for the purpose of male pleasure. In Gallimard's dream, Marc refers to Gallimard's imminent conquest in the form of Song to ‘‘picking exotic women off trees''—as if women were merely pieces of fruit, to be taken and consumed, rather than individuals. Marc then reminds Gallimard of a woman named Isabelle, whom Marc apparently either paid or otherwise convinced to have sex with Gallimard, his "first experience.''
Gallimard even begins to perceive "God'' and the spiritual world as a justification for using Song as a means of acting on his fantasies of a love affair with ‘‘the Perfect Woman.’’ At first, however, Gallimard's conscience tells him that his affair with Song is "evil." When he believes, for a moment, that he is about to be fired from his job as a diplomat, Gallimard says, ‘‘Just as I feared! God has seen my evil heart—" But, after he learns that, in fact, he has been given a promotion, he comes to believe that God "understands," and even desires that women be placed in the sexual service of men: ‘‘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.’’
Once Gallimard has established an affair with Song, he further pursues women who can be used to fulfill the fantasies evoked by the "picture perfect'' images of "those girls in magazines.'' He describes Renee, a young woman with whom he has his "first extra-extramarital affair,’’ as ‘‘picture perfect. With a body like those girls in the magazines. If I put a tissue paper over my eyes, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.’’
The theme of fantasy and the imagination in the play is central to the question of how it could have been that Gallimard lived with Song for twenty years without discovering that "she'' was actually a man. Gallimard speculates about the power of the imagination to shape and maintain a fantasy that brings "happiness.'' When he requests of Song that she allow him to see her completely naked, she takes the risk of offering to allow him to undress her—but he chooses not to at the last moment. From his cell, in retrospect, Gallimard reflects, "Did I not undress her because I knew, somewhere deep down, what I would find? Perhaps. Happiness is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect it.’’ Gallimard later comments on the extent to which his imagination was able to maintain the fantasy of Song as his "Butterfly," even as he sat in the witness box in men's clothing, confessing to his deception; even with the truth right before his very eyes, Gallimard states that, ‘‘even in this moment my mind remains agile, flip-flopping like a man on a trampoline.’’
After Gallimard is fired from his position as a French diplomat in China, he returns to France with his wife Helga. Years later, Song appears at his home in France, having been sent by Chinese authorities to continue spying activities through him. As Gallimard narrates this part of his story to the audience, Song enters onstage. Although he now knows the "truth" about Song, Gallimard continues to see her in his imagination as his idea of "the Perfect Woman.’’ When he sees her onstage, unable to let go of this Perfect Woman in his mind's eye, he says, "My imagination is hell.'' Song then begins to tell the audience of her arrival in France, but Gallimard argues with her that he prefers to remember how they "embraced" their final evening together in China. When Song insists that the story move on, Gallimard argues that, since she is a figment of his imagination, she has to "do what I say!’’ because ‘‘I'm conjuring you up in my mind!’’ Song, however, responds that, now that Gallimard knows the "truth" about her, he can no longer completely control her, even as a fantasy figure; she tells him, "No matter what your eyes tell you, you can't ignore the truth. You already know too much.’’
During the court proceedings in which Gallimard is on trial for spying, the judge asks Song to explain how he was able to conceal from Gallimard the fact that he was a man. Song's response indicates that, as he learned from his mother, who was a prostitute, it is easy to fool a man into believing in his own fantasies because "Men always believe what they want to hear. So a girl can tell the most obnoxious lies and the guys will believe them every time— 'This is my first time'—'That's the biggest I've ever seen'—" Furthermore, Song explains that the West has always imagined itself to be masculine in relation to the East, which it imagines to be feminine. Therefore, Song explains, it was not difficult for an Asian man to convince a Western man that he is a woman—because, in the eyes of the Western world, the stereotypical "Orient'' is already seen as feminine. Furthermore, Song explains, the West holds a stereotype of "Oriental'' women as submissive, and so imagines the East to be both feminine and submissive to the West. Song points out that, "You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That's why you say they make the best wives.’’ The judge then questions Song as to why this would make it "possible" to "fool" Gallimard into thinking he was a woman. Song responds by pointing out that Gallimard was only able to perceive Song as a "fantasy,'' and therefore allowed his imagination to project onto her his image of the "Perfect Woman'': "because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman.’’ Finally, Song explains that, because the West never sees the East as anything but feminine and submissive, then, ‘‘being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.’’
In the final scenes of the play, the Song of Gallimard's imagination becomes confrontational toward him—he no longer passively submits to Gallimard's fantasy image of him as the ‘‘Perfect Woman.’’ Instead, Song challenges Gallimard with the intention of undressing completely and revealing his manhood. At this point, it is as if Gallimard's imagination can no longer cooperate with his fantasy. As Song begins to undress, against Gallimard's wishes, he protests: ‘‘You're only in my mind! All this is in my mind! I order you to stop! To stop!’’ Gallimard then admits to Song that, "I know what you are ... A—a man.’’ But Song replies ‘‘You don't really believe that.’’ Gallimard then admits that, at some level, he knew the truth, but wished to postpone the unveiling of that truth in order to maintain his fantasy of Song as the Perfect Woman. He explains ‘‘I knew all the time somewhere that my happiness was temporary, my love a deception. But my mind kept the knowledge at bay. To make the wait bearable.’’ Gallimard goes on to assert that what he loved in Song was ‘‘a perfect lie,’’ a fantasy in which s/he was ‘‘playing a part.’’
Gallimard comes to realize that what he loved was not a woman, but a male fantasy of a woman: ‘‘I'm a man who loved a woman created by a man.'' Furthermore, Gallimard realizes that no "true" woman could ever live up to this male fantasy of a Perfect Woman, because ‘‘Everything else—simply falls short.’’ He concludes that he prefers such fantasies as he derived from ‘‘girlie magazines’’ to the truth: ‘‘I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.’’
Having lived for twenty years with someone he imagined was the Perfect Woman, Gallimard says of himself ‘‘I am pure imagination,’’ and that he in fact prefers the realm of imagination to that of reality, for ‘‘in my imagination I will remain.’’ Having been presented with the incontrovertible truth of Song's masculinity, Gallimard chooses to return to "the world of fantasy'' in which he first met Song. In these stereotyped fantasies of Eastern culture, the "Orient'' is a realm of "perfect'' women, who willingly submit to the dominance of men, and willingly cater to the needs of men—women, in short, who satisfy traditional male fantasies: "There is a vision of the Orient that I have. 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.’’ Gallimard goes on to describe this fantasy "vision" which he had projected onto Song: ‘‘I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.’’
Hwang's play presents a feminist perspective on the nature of male fantasies of the ‘‘Perfect Woman.’’ He also addresses the issue of racial stereotyping of Asian culture as feminine and Asian women as embodying male fantasies of submissiveness and subservience. In the Afterword to the play, Hwang explains that, ‘‘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.’’ Hwang characterizes Gallimard as a man who prefers to live in a fantasy world of his imagination in which such a ‘‘Perfect Woman’’ loves him, rather than living in the realm of truth and reality.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3025
Being Asian-American has always been David Henry Hwang's stock in trade. Since the fall of 1978, when he wrote his first play, F.O.B., as a Stanford undergraduate and saw it open less than two years later at the prestigious New York Public Theater, the playwright has created a large and provocative body of work out of his highly charged sense of cultural identity.
Best known for M. Butterfly, the 1998 Tony-winning play of sexual deceit and romantic delusion that tapped into the troubled East-West history of race, ideology and alienation, Hwang has made his crucial theme the immigrant experience, a topic that has been at the heart of American theater in one way or another for nearly a century.
He's at it again with his latest play, Golden Child, a bittersweet memory piece based on his own family's history. But this time, it may be that he has written with more deeply felt emotion and, with the exception of M. Butterfly, more intellectual engagement than ever.
Directed by James Lapine, Golden Child has its world premiere at the Public on Nov. 17, a co-production with South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it. After closing in New York on Dec. 1, the show will transfer to the SCR Mainstage in Costa Mesa, opening Jan. 10.
"I wanted to write something detailed and less directly political than before,’’ Hwang says of the new play. "I sort of used Chekhov as my example. But I didn't necessarily know I was going to write about my family history.''
Golden Child begins with a taxi ride from Manhattan that takes us back to China of a century ago, before arriving at Kennedy Airport. Unlike most of the writer's plays, which generally have two main figures, this one has a handful.
It tells the story of the taxi passenger's great-grandfather, Tieng-Bin, a widely traveled, well-to-do merchant with three wives. He returns to China from a trip to the Philippines with a British church missionary who converts him to Christianity. Although the encounter between East and West is rather comical at first, the consequences are tragic for the great-grandfather as well as his wives and a beloved daughter, who turns out to be the passenger's maternal grandmother.
Sitting in a corner of the Time Cafe, a vast bistro on Lafayette Street down the block from the Public, Hwang has come from a rehearsal for Golden Child, where he left Lapine working on sound cues.
"One of the reasons for writing this play had to do with the fact that I've rejected Christianity,’’ Hwang said. ‘‘When you're raised with a Christian fundamentalist mind-set, as I was, in order to free yourself from it you have to find something equally fundamentalist. I'm trying to take a more humanistic, complex view of how it is that my family came to the point it did in religion.
"To some extent—and this is really something I've developed more in rewrites—the story of Tieng-Bin is the story of somebody who's been raised in a Confucian tradition, which is very rigid and fundamentalist itself. Freeing himself from that, he has to find a new big stick to beat down the old big stick. Fundamentalism begets fundamentalism. I'm trying to transcend the rigidity and reactiveness that I needed, too, at a certain point in my life to become my own person.’’
Now 39, on the cusp of middle age, when writers are inclined to turn inward, it seems only natural for Hwang to explore his family's roots in a serious way.
‘‘In some sense I feel like this is a play I've been writing since I was 10, when I wrote a 'novel' from stories my grandmother told me,’’ he recounted. ‘‘It was fun to use the book as source material for something I'm doing now.’’
But making art of raw materials requires considerably more than a firsthand witness. In this case, his grandmother's stories only supplied the structure—that is to say, the plot of Golden Child. Although many events in the play mirror what he'd been told, Hwang said, he had to imagine the characters more thoroughly and invent new situations where there were gaps in his grandmother's narrative.
Hwang's mother, Dorothy, a pianist, was born in the Philippines after her family moved there from Amoy, a southern coastal town in China's Fukien province across the straits from Taiwan. She came to the United States in 1952 to study piano at USC, where she met her future husband at a dance for foreign students. But when the pair decided to marry, her wealthy family—it owned the entire Philippine General Motors franchise, among many other ventures—insisted that her fiancé convert to Christianity before they could wed.
Asked about the family's reaction to the revealing details in his plays, Hwang says he ‘‘tends to apprise them’’ of what to expect ‘‘because my parents go out of their way to see everything I've done. But I don't ask their permission to use what I want. They know my reaction: Sorry, I need that story.’’
Hwang's Shanghai-born father, Henry, came to the U.S. in 1948 and made his mark as a Los Angeles banker in 1974, when he founded the Far East National Bank. It was the first Asian-American federally chartered national bank in the country, and the playwright has served on the board of directors. He expresses mild astonishment when it's suggested that as a writer he might have been bored by the world of high finance.
‘‘Not necessarily!’’ he replied. ‘‘The bank is family business.’’ Indeed, Far East National, whose shares are publicly traded on the American Stock Exchange, has given Hwang a kind of financial security many writers long for. His family holds the largest block of stock; his father is chief policymaker; and the company recently announced its intent to merge with a Taiwanese bank, Sinopac, sending Far East National's stock higher.
Hwang has always strived to be self-reliant, however, and he hasn't done too poorly. He gained international renown and became a millionaire several times over on the strength of M. Butterfly. As of last year, the play had grossed $35 million in U.S. earnings alone. In addition to the original Broadway production, which ran for nearly two years (777 performances), it had three national tours, was a hit in London's West End and had major commercial outings in almost three dozen countries. However, the play has not had productions in China or France, which figure prominently in the plot.
Hwang was also unusually precocious. He came into his own with M. Butterfly at the age of 30, younger than Arthur Miller (33) with Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams (36) with A Streetcar Named Desire or Edward Albee (34) with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Like them, Hwang wrote many plays before getting to the top, including The Dance and the Railroad, The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice, to name just three. Yet he insists, as always, that he has learned more from his failures—Rich Relations, produced off-Broadway in 1986, for example, and most recently his disastrous 1994 Broadway flop Face Value, which lasted just eight preview performances and never opened— than he has from his successes.
‘‘A playwright has to have a right to fail,’’ he said philosophically, ‘‘otherwise you're not going to get the really good works.''
Hwang considers himself a "relatively quick'' writer but noted, ‘‘I've gotten slower as the years have gone by. I hope it's because I'm paying more attention.’’ He admitted, though, that writing became somewhat intimidating in the aftermath of M. Butterfly. Worldwide raves are a hard act to follow and he modestly said he doubts he'll ‘‘ever reach that peak again.’’
His first produced play, F.O.B. (the title stands for "fresh off the boat''), took him just three weeks to complete, he recalled.
‘‘It will always have a special place for me, because I wrote it before I knew how to do anything. As I get older, I find that craft is useful in the sense that it allows me to fix things more easily, to know where I'm going.
‘‘But when it comes to that first draft, it's almost as if you have to overcome your craft to be able to get back to the original impulse. Maybe that's why it takes me a bit longer, I'm trying not to be facile. For the first draft, I don't want to take advantage of the tricks I've learned along the way.''
Today, the once-divorced Hwang lives on the Upper West Side in a posh but sparely decorated apartment near Central Park with his second wife, Kathryn Layng, and their 8-month-old son, Noah.
Layng, an actress from Rockford, Ill., played the nurse for four seasons on the TV comedy-drama Doogie Howser, M.D. At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, she also played the brazen Renée in M. Butterfly, for nine months on Broadway; and she starred as the dominatrix in Hwang's kinky 1992 one-act, Bondage, set in an S&M parlor near Los Angeles (and produced for the Humana Festival by the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky).
Said Hwang: ‘‘I've reached a point in my life where I'm really happy. For me, the 1980s were about having a career; the 1990s are about having a life.’’
For all his domestic bliss, however, it's not as though he has chosen to ignore his career. If Golden Child is well-received both at the Public and SCR, ‘‘it's fair to say that Broadway is a possibility,’’ director Lapine said in a separate interview.
"Naturally, a lot will depend on the critics, but I think the play will be pretty popular,'' said Lapine, best known for his many prize-winning collaborations with Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, ‘‘Passion’’) and William Finn (Falsettos).
‘‘I was asked last spring about directing this,’’ Lapine said, ‘‘which was flattering, because I've always admired David's writing. But I ended up saying no because of another project. Then they called again in August, and I'm so glad they did. I don't get offers to direct a play I haven't written or isn't a classic. This is the first one I've done.
"I love that Golden Child is about a culture I didn't know. And David's a total doll to work with. Very, very flexible, intellectually stimulating. He's an enthusiast in a way, even though he can be as withdrawn as I am.’’
Late last month, Hwang traveled to Washington, where Golden Child received a $50,000 grant from the annual Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays—$10,000 to him and $40,000 to South Coast Rep for commissioning it and co-producing it.
Hwang says he owes a special debt to SCR—and particularly to its dramaturge Jerry Patch, who was one of his earliest advocates and who helped bring about the commission.
"Jerry is the first person who ever wrote me a letter of support from a real theater,'' the playwright explained. "This was when I went to the [Eugene O'Neill] Playwrights Center in Connecticut to develop F.O.B., before it got on at the Public. Jerry has no memory of the letter. But I treasured it. I still have it.’’
Patch, for his part, discounts any special foresight on his part.
"I thought his first play was terrific, though we couldn't do it. It knocked me out, and apparently I wrote the letter before we met. Then I met him at the O'Neill, and it was obvious by that point that he was the next thing going to happen. F.O.B. was out there.''
The late producer and Public founder Joseph Papp, for whom the theater is now named, was already interested in producing it and getting interested in Hwang's next play, The Dance and the Railroad.
Patch returned to South Coast and told its co-artistic directors, David Emmes and Martin Benson, about ‘‘this kid who had a 250 IQ or something and was, I thought, the smartest young artist I'd ever met. The kid had a mind like a trap.
"So Hwang drives down from Los Angeles one day in 1982, and Martin and David give him this big commission,’’ Patch recalled. ‘‘It was a few thousand bucks, but that was a lot for us at the time.
"I don't think Hwang really needed the money. He drove down in a Mercedes. But it meant something to him because he was very proud of the fact that he could make his own money.''
After writing several plays already committed to other theaters, Hwang spent the next five or so years on M. Butterfly, which was a commercial project from the outset. Then he wrote Face Value, which was unmistakably meant for a New York audience—it was a satire based on the well-publicized protests about the casting of Miss Saigon when it came to Broadway in 1991 with a white British star as the Eurasian lead (Jonathan Pryce, who had originated the role of the Engineer in London). It also portrayed the collective howl from Asian-American performers who objected to Miss Saigon stereotyping their community as pimps and whores.
Because of its commission, South Coast had a first look at Face Value, which its officials did only pro forma they say, taking a pass for reasons of diplomacy (Hwang's Broadway backers had dibs on the show) and dramatic art (the show would have been too big and expensive for their nonprofit theater).
But when Hwang's agent showed Golden Child to Emmes and Benson, they took it. "The plan was to start in Costa Mesa and then go to the Public,’’ Patch said. ‘‘The change had to do with Lapine's schedule. He had to stay in New York. Hwang really wanted him to direct, so we made the accommodation.''
Said Hwang: ‘‘They could have been hard-asses about it. But that's not their style, and I'm grateful it's not. I think they're happy. I'm happy. And I'm getting the production I want.’’
Certainly, he's getting an A-team capable of taking Golden Child all the way. Lapine has brought on Tony-winning designers Tony Straiges (set) and Richard Nelson (lighting), among others, and the cast includes the celebrated Chinese, British-trained actress Tsai Chin, who won a 1995 Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for a featured role in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior at the Doolittle and who played Auntie Lindo in the movie of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.
Between plays, moreover, Hwang has become a busy screenwriter. He's currently midway through the second draft of a script for a Jessica Lange picture at 20th Century Fox, based on a Russian film called Umbrellas for Newlyweds. He has also written screen adaptations of Possession, the A. S. Byatt novel, for Sydney Pollack, which hasn't been produced, and Dostoevski's The Idiot for Martin Scorcese.
"That's still a picture Marty intends to make,'' Hwang said. ‘‘I love working with him. What's so great is learning about film from him and getting paid for it.’’
Meanwhile, Hwang is working on another Scorsese project, Texas Guinan, a vehicle for Bette Midler, and he's done The Alienist for producer Scott Rudin, "which is somewhere at Paramount.''
Still, the playwright hasn't had great luck in Hollywood. The two scripts that have reached the screen came and went: 1994's Golden Gate, about an FBI agent (Matt Dillon) obsessed with the daughter (Joan Chen) of an accused Communist he'd hounded to death during the McCarthy era, and 1993's M. Butterfly, which starred Jeremy Irons and John Lone, and was directed by David Cronenberg.
"The Butterfly screenplay was rather impressionistic,’’ Hwang recalled. ‘‘My goal was to take some of the theatrical devices and find film equivalents. At the time David had just finished editing Naked Lunch, and I thought, 'Oh, he'll love this stuff.' But most of it didn't end up in the movie. He made something quite naturalistic.
"Movies are a director's medium, of course, and David's a great artist. He worked really hard; he had his own vision of the piece. It was just slightly different from mine. Let's leave it at that.’’
A trained musician who played classical violin throughout his youth and later turned to jazz, Hwang also spends some of his time working on operas. He wrote the libretto for composer Philip Glass' science-fiction music drama 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, which premiered in Vienna in 1988 and toured the world. He also wrote the libretto for The Voyage (again with a score by Glass) on commission from the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered at the Met in a colossal 1992 production to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America.
And he's about to begin the libretto of a Bright Sheng chamber opera, The Silver River, on commission from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where it is scheduled to open next July.
Pondering the future—the national elections were on his mind—Hwang surveyed the Time Cafe with its homey decor put together from different American decades and picked at his half-eaten gourmet pizza.
‘‘We don't listen when it comes to race and culture in this country,'' he said. "We go in with our minds made up, and then we try to batter the other side with our opinions. The situation becomes either confrontational or nonsensical. There's no receptiveness, whether it's a white male complaining about reverse racism or an American Indian complaining about the Atlanta Braves.
"We strive for order in our lives, for constancy, for something to believe in,’’ he continued. ‘‘But human experience is contradictory. In fact, our lives are a horrid tangle of ambivalences, self-delusions, accidents. In part that's what Golden Child is about. The attraction of any sort of fundamentalist ideology, whether it's ethnic, political or religious, is this need to have some certainty, so you can say, 'This is an unalterable truth. If I can hang my hat on this, my life will make more sense.'
"But finally all those fundamentalist efforts are doomed to fail, because life is never that simple. Face it, life is inherently complex.’’
Source: Jan Herman, ‘‘M. as in Metamorphosis,’’ in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vol. 3, November 3, 1996, pp. 6-7,71.