M. Butterfly David Henry Hwang
American playwright, screenwriter, and librettist.
The following entry provides criticism on Hwang's play M. Butterfly through 2003. See also David Henry Hwang Drama Criticism.
Hwang received the 1988 Antoinette Perry Award for M. Butterfly (1988), distinguishing him as the first Asian American to win a Tony. The play has been praised as a postmodern text that deconstructs preconceptions of race, gender, and sexuality in a postcolonial world. M. Butterfly focuses on the relationship between René Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, who is actually a man employed to pose as a woman in order to extract state secrets from Gallimard. During the course of the play, Gallimard does not realize that his lover is actually a man. In a 1993 interview with Marty Moss-Coane, Hwang commented, “Writing for me tends to be closely bound up in the exploration of my identity as an Asian American,” concluding, “To me to write well is to battle stereotypes. To write well is to create three-dimensional characters that seem human.” M. Butterfly was adapted as a film in 1993, directed by David Cronenberg. Like many of Hwang's works, the play seeks to examine connections between different groups in society and to explore issues of shifting identity.
Plot and Major Characters
M. Butterfly was inspired by an article Hwang read about the real-life 1986 scandal involving a French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, who for twenty years maintained a relationship with an international spy and Chinese opera singer, Shi Pei Pu, whom he believed to be a woman. Hwang recognized in this story basic elements of enduring Western stereotypes defining Asian men as feminized and disempowered. In his play, Hwang interweaves details from the Bouriscot story with plotlines from the Italian opera Madama Butterfly (1904), by Giacomo Puccini, in which a Japanese woman falls in love with an Englishman who eventually abandons her. In Hwang's play, a Chinese spy is ordered to present himself to Gallimard as a female opera diva, Song Liling. Gallimard first encounters Song on stage as she performs the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Gallimard is fooled into believing Liling is a woman, and develops a relationship with her, lasting several years. Subsequently, Gallimard abandons her and returns to his wife in France. Several years later, Liling is assigned to France to reestablish a relationship with Gallimard, who is now divorced from his wife. Liling is supplied with an Asian child to present to Gallimard as the result of their love affair. The ruse is successful, and Gallimard and Liling are reunited. After living with Liling as man and wife for over fifteen years, Gallimard is arrested and tried for espionage. He is accused of providing the Chinese government (via Liling) with French state secrets, such as American plans for increased troop strength in Vietnam, and other information that has passed through the French embassy. In a final scene, Gallimard, who is serving his sentence in a French prison, dresses in a wig and the garb of a traditional Chinese diva and stabs himself in the heart. This scene portrays a reversal of events as depicted in the Puccini opera, in which the Japanese woman kills herself in despair over her abandonment by her English lover.
M. Butterfly explores Western stereotypes concerning Asians and the preconceptions affecting national, racial, and East-West tensions and issues of gender and sexual identity. Hwang has described his play as a “deconstructivist” revision of Madama Butterfly, and critics have asserted that Hwang's dismantling of dominant Western notions of race and gender exposes these ideas to scathing critique. Hwang utilizes such postmodern theatrical techniques as nonlinear narrative, direct address to the audience, and unique staging to dramatize the intersecting discourses of race, gender, nation, and sexuality that infuse his play. On one level, the work functions as an examination of the phenomenon of “Orientalism,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of Western attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes regarding Asian people, cultures, and nations. In the play, Gallimard's willingness to accept Song as a woman is a natural extension of his perceptions of Asian men as feminized creatures. Further, Gallimard's stereotyping of Asian women as passive, subservient, and modest makes it possible for Song to live as his wife without being discovered as a man, despite the couple's intimate relationship. Gallimard's Western “colonial” attitudes concerning Asian culture are at the heart of his relationship with Song. Several critics have interpreted M. Butterfly as a condemnation of the East as well, stating that the work implies that the East played a complicit role in its own subjugation. The shifting of blame inherent in this interpretation has angered some Asian-American critics and activists, who denounce the suggestion of Eastern complicity as white-pleasing propaganda designed to conceal the real history of East-West relations. However, many commentators, and Hwang himself, have maintained that the play seeks to cut through layers of sexual and cultural misperception on both sides, and attempts to foster respectful relationships that are for the common good. In a different vein, M. Butterfly critiques traditional notions of gender by featuring a central character, Liling, who is biologically a man, but who succeeds in living as a woman for over twenty years. In the conclusion of the play, Gallimard dresses himself as a woman and commits suicide in a manner stereotypically associated with women—by stabbing his heart with a dagger. The ending has been interpreted by some critics as an assertion that gender is not necessarily an innate biological phenomenon, but a “socially constructed” identity which may be assumed by members of either sex.
M. Butterfly remains Hwang's greatest popular and critical success, and has sparked ongoing debate over its socio-political implications in regard to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationhood, and imperialism. Academics have embraced M. Butterfly as a postmodern text that aims to deconstruct received notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Critics of the play have typically fallen into two camps: those who applaud Hwang's deconstructive gender-bending text and his examination of East-West tensions, and those who argue that the play, while ostensibly critiquing Western stereotypes of Asians, ultimately reinforces those stereotypes. Robert Cooperman has stated that M. Butterfly is “[a]rguably the most important play in terms of challenging the political/social/cultural identities of the West over the last decade,” further saying that the work “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.” Many commentators have lauded Hwang's identification of Western stereotypes regarding Asians—both male and female—but other scholars have objected to Hwang's attempt at subversive discourse in M. Butterfly. For example, James S. Moy has argued that the play “is not an articulation of Asian desire; rather, it affirms a nefarious complicity with Anglo-American desire in its representation of otherness, both sexual and racial.” Other reviewers have agreed, asserting that by describing and reaffirming typical masculine Western notions, Hwang unintentionally reinvigorates the systems he intends to break down. Nevertheless, M. Butterfly has been celebrated and praised as a powerful metaphor for East-West political relations and as an astute examination of the assimilation of the Asian American into American culture.