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M. Butterfly

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Based on a true story that stunned the world, M. Butterfly opens in the cramped prison cell where diplomat Rene Gallimard is being held captive by the French government - and by his own illusions. In the darkness of his cell he recalls a time when desire seemed to give him wings. A time when Song Liling, the beautiful Chinese diva, touched him with a love as vivid, as seductive - and as elusive - as a butterfly. How could he have known, then, that his ideal woman was, in fact, a spy for the Chinese government - and a man disguised as a woman? What inspired Hwang to write the play, and most importantly, what do the real life Song and Butterfly have to say about what really happened?

M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang is set in several different places and time periods. It begins in the present, in Gallimard's prison cell in Paris. Gallimard is the former French diplomat who has been imprisoned for treason, and as he tells his story, the scenes flashback from locations in Beijing, China, from 1960 to 1970 to locations in Paris from 1966 to the present.

However, Hwang was not the first person to pen the story. The original story came about in 1898 when John Luther Long was inspired by his sister's chance meeting with the real Butterfly's grown son. Not long after, the short story Madame Butterfly, appeared in the Century Magazine. According to his sister Butterfly's 'husband' had been a British merchant, and her attempted suicide had failed. (origins, 1)

David Belasco, the Broadway legend and writer, later wrote the one-act play Madame Butterfly which premiered March 5, 1900 at the Herald Square Theater in New York to great success. Apart from beginning at the point when Pinkerton has already been gone two years, the play closely follows the story of Long's original. However, Belasco believed there would be more drama if Butterfly succeeded in killing herself. Then Pinkerton would arrive in time to remorsefully cradle the dying body. Adelaide is renamed Kate. Belasco also took a big theatrical risk by taking fourteen minutes for Butterfly to stand stationary waiting for Pinkerton as a lighting effect showed the passing of the night. It was a success. (origins, 2)

Later in the same year Belasco's play was presented in London at the Duke of York's Theatre, this time on the program with Jerome K. Jerome's Miss Nobbs. Puccini was in London for the premiere of Tosca at Covent Garden and saw the play on opening night. Even without fully understanding the dialogue, Puccini was so moved by the play he immediately knew he wanted to create an opera of the story and rushed backstage to meet Belasco. Puccini's first version of the opera failed at La Scala in 1904, but a revised version was successful the same year, the version that we hear today, one of the most frequently produced operas in the entire repertory. As an opera, Madame Butterfly is a staple of even the most innovative opera houses and has been seen practically everywhere opera can be seen. Each director has placed his or her own mark to put on it. (origins, 2)

In Hwang's version he touches on themes such as: East vs. West, man vs. woman, sexuality, power relations, race, gender, class, stereotypes, fantasy, etc. Hwang set out to write a play that would deconstruct the race and gender stereotypes that the West has adopted in its dealings with Eastern culture. First, he had to show these stereotypes in operation. Negative Western images of the Chinese occur frequently throughout the play. Gallimard complains that the Chinese are arrogant, a view which he learned in Paris, where, according to him, it is a common belief.

M. Butterfly is one of the most celebrated of recent American plays, and the first by an Asian-American to win universal acclaim. It was first produced in 1988 and won numerous awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year, the New York Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Broadway play, and the John Gassner Award for the season's outstanding new playwright. M. Butterfly enjoyed a popular run on Broadway and when it moved to London's Shaftsbury Theatre in 1989 it broke all box office records in the first week. In his version the Westerner is once again French and it is he who takes his life as the only honorable escape from public betrayal.

In the past 15 years, David Henry Hwang has written more than a dozen plays and screenplays'. Born in Los Angeles to a banker and a professor of piano, both of whom are Chinese immigrants, Hwang has said that when he was young, he regarded his Chinese ancestry as "a minor detail, like having red hair,"(qtd in "early years") but later added that the combination of wanting to delve in Chinese and Chinese-American history for artistic reasons and being exposed to an active third-world consciousness movement" was what started to get him interested in his roots while in college. He graduated from Stanford University in 1979 with a B.A. in English, and briefly taught high school before attending the Yale School of Drama in 1980 and 1981. (Hwang, David Henry: A Literary Biography, "early years")

Aside from playwriting, Hwang has also worked as a theatre director, and has written a number of screenplays including M.Butterfly and Golden Gate. He also made a preliminary adaptation of Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet.

A critic writing for Time Magazine stated that "the final scene of M.Butterfly, when the agony of one soul finally takes precedence over broad-ranging commentary, is among the most forceful in the history of the American theater.... Hwang has the potential to become the first important dramatist of American public life since Arthur Miller, and maybe the best of them all." (Hwang, David Henry: A Literary Biography, "early years")

Hwang feels that writing is "a search for authenticity", and for two years, Hwang stopped writing. "I hit a period of writer's block and I looked at my work and some of it had more dragons and gongs and stuff, and some of those seemed to be more popular. I was wondering if I was repackaging old stereotypes in more intellectually hip forms."

Authenticity is an extremely heated debate among Asian-Americans and among people in general. The most common criticism an Asian-American author hears is that his or her work reinforces stereotypes. M. Butterfly was criticized for reinforcing the stereotype of Asian men being effeminate. (Hwang, David Henry: 1994 William L. Abramowitz Guest Lecturer, MIT, 15 April 1994)

When asked why Hwang wrote M. Butterfly, he replied, "In some sense, M. Butterfly allowed me to explore the very issues of authenticity which had caused the writer's block. I created a French diplomat who was caught up ill all Orientalist



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