Playwright David Henry Hwang is not aware of this, but as a journalist I have long looked up to him as an older brother type figure. That would be appropriate in the Chinese culture from which we both are descended, and even in the American culture to which each of us has assimilated. He is not only a bona fide writer; he is a commercially successful one. Hwang’s big hit, M. Butterfly, has been revived on Broadway with a touched-up script, directed by Julie Taymor of Lion King fame and Spiderman infamy, starring Clive Owen, the cerebral action hero in movies such as Children of Men and the BMW short ads. I saw it immediately, and I was impressed. What follows is an appreciation, not a proper review. Hwang and I have had maybe a half-dozen conversations since as a student a decade younger I invited him to speak on campus, and he told me as I drove him from the airport that his parents had wanted him to become a lawyer. We are friendly enough I would not presume to evaluate his work. His achievement deserves admiration though: he has expressed what many of us have thought halfway but not been able to put into words clearly. There is nobody else doing what he does.
A funny story about M. Butterfly with a spoiler alert, for it is impossible to discuss this play without ruining it. No doubt this occurred more than the once I witnessed. When the Tony winner had its initial run circa 1988, I saw it surrounded by folks who did not know the “based on a true story” angle, but were there to experience the magic of live theatre. At the dramatic reveal of the title character — she turns out to be a he, disrobed to eliminate doubt — a young patron seated behind me blurted out, “She’s a he!”
M. Butterfly, which cannot be reduced to a stunt, was inspired by the news that a French embassy attaché had carried on an affair with a Chinese opera singer, without being aware that she was a spy — and, what is a worse affront to straight masculine pride, a man. The defrauded diplomat maintained his ignorance if not innocence, up to the embarrassment of legal proceedings brought against them. His humiliation, in reality as in retelling, was representative. He and "she" symbolized East and West. They had no alternative.
Hwang stylized everything as a love story, respectful albeit not quite queer. As he has explained in interviews, he was addressing the issue of “intersectionality” before academics turned it into a fashion, that confluence of race, gender, nationalism, and sexual orientation. His title was a riff on the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, insisting how ridiculous a role reversal would be to audiences, Occidental and Oriental alike. Suppose a short, squat Japanese salaryman seduced the blonde gal who was engaged to marry an all-American hero, then abandoned her, and she yearned for her slant-eyed beau to come back, spurning her Caucasian suitor, ultimately sacrificing herself. The proposition would be implausible and absurd; it could be played only for crude comedy, not exquisite tragedy. The perfect woman, many have posited, is the one imagined by a man. That is, the perfect woman as defined by men is the stereotype. The dialogue states a thesis. Hwang suggests that it is the distortion of colonialism, tinged with more than a shade of ethnic chauvinism, that allowed the decent, insecure Rene Gallimard to be fooled. Essentially, he tricked himself. He saw an Asia that was, like the Asian, Song Liling, before him, submissive, for his taking. (Ironically, Hwang's political point appears to appeal to Asian Americans more than it does to Asian Asians, who have Old World sensibilities in these matters. Furthermore, as in the contemporary custom of casting a star to redeem the anti-Semitism of Merchant of Venice, it must be a white male bankable draw as the “lead” to put on M. Butterfly.)
The “meta” level of the play cannot be escaped. Hwang has framed it as a flashback. Owen as Gallimard breaks the fourth wall to acquaint the audience with his story. He wants it to be emphatically his story. He is in prison for his crimes. But he revels in memories of a romance to exceed any he could have expected.
This new version adds spectacle to scandal. A play usually is opened up in a movie. This play is opened up in its latest rendition. It is similar to Hwang’s Chinglish, which has been produced with one of the lavish sets that you marvel at for its technical accomplishment even as it illustrates the importance of background — in that show, the electrical outlets were accurate in the configuration of the plugs. Here, a series of screens open and close, and banners drop from the ceiling, described in what I hope Hwang rolled his eyes at, the effect of a “Chinese box.” (Note to the set designer: the screens might be weighted at the bottom to prevent the shakiness that distracts from the intended elegance.) They boast the budget for ballet dancers who, in bit roles, perform en pointe. Among the changes is the cringe inducing gory detail about the “how” of the charade. The union even brought forth a baby. The pregnancy was a plot point mirroring the outré history.
Yet M. Butterfly is all about context. It is about how we perceive one another in relationships that are more in our own minds, narcissistic and solipsistic. The disaster of deception lies not in how we fool others but how we dupe ourselves. Taymor deserves credit. She reportedly advised Hwang to rethink his female personalities.
Hwang has matured. He has reached twice the age he was when he premiered this piece. (He also survived an attack in New York City in which he was stabbed in the neck.) The people he portrays are fleshed out, not merely figures animated by their argument. The author has been willing to improve on himself. His Golden Child, which ran as part of a retrospective of his career at the Signature Theatre five years ago, similarly benefited from a rewrite. Hwang has done that service for others. He amended Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, the musical about Chinatown revues that mimicked the mainstream perfectly, by adding autonomy for the artists. His original M. Butterfly happened to have just closed in Baltimore. In one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” coincidences, its director met the French courier who was the model for his higher-ranked stage counterpart.
In this provocation, Owen has been preceded by John Litgow (much acclaimed for chemistry with his leading “lady”), Tony Randall (whom I saw), Jeremy Irons (in the unconvincing movie by David Cronenberg), and Anthony Hopkins (in London). He is more subdued than taciturn, the persona he typically has projected. The “female” lead is inhabited by Jin Ha. Brad Wong began his career as that persona, becoming “B.D.” in the credits to cover the secret. Some observers have objected to Ha as less effeminate than Wong. That disparagement, apparently prompted by Ha’s more angular chin, disregards the allure of our fantasies. To Gallimard’s eye, probably visible stubble would have been excused. The audience is requested to suspend disbelief.
Hwang is not alone as an Asian American who would dare a career in theatre. Frank Chin and Philip Kan Gotanda are his elders. There are a half-dozen, from Christopher Chen to Young Jean Lee, who have followed. Like Hwang, they have remade classics from the Kurosawa movie Rashomon to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These are no mimics.
But none have exceeded Hwang in M. Butterfly. Its themes are as timely now as a generation ago. They are all the more compelling.
Despite the disclaimer that I am not the ideal critic, I would like to be on the record with a rave. Although at least one audience member with whom I chatted had bought tickets sure she was about to see the 1904 Puccini crowd pleaser, I predict this rare speciman of lepidoptera will be at least as much a hit as the original. The rise of China assures that. People, meaning Westerners, want to comprehend what they must compete against.
That in a sense is what Hwang represents. As with the lady leaving the theatre who mentioned to me there were some songs that seemed to be missing, the point may be lost in the cliche that we all look alike. His message, in all its iterations, is Asian American, not Asian. It is akin to the man pretending to be the woman pretending to be a man. The playwright is the Asian American who cannot but be an American impersonating an Asian. That is hardly a criticism. It is a compliment. Perhaps the most noble American is the ideal of the Asian. He imagines that the dream can be real. Any of us can join this experiment in diversity and democracy. We can achieve equality through individuality. To the Asian the concept is risible. To the average American it is honored in the breach.
The potential to write your own life is what the leads, irrespective of their gender, testify to. They are not the shame of their respective nations. They are individuals constrained by circumstances. But they also are members of a movement more threatening to authority: the class of souls who are creative. They imagine, if in vain, a destiny different than what is assigned. We choose to collaborate in that illusion. Otherwise we, like they, are destroyed by what others force us to do. Who would not be sympathetic to the sentiment?