(Image taken from Google)
M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
Why I Decided To Read It: One of the things I have been doing with this project is read plays that are not by white cis-hetero men. Because so much of canonical theatre (and most forms of art and media) is done by these men, I think it’s important to find other people’s point of view. As a society, we need to make an effort to understand everyone’s point of view for a multitude of reasons. I remembered David Henry Hwang mentioned when discussing modern theatre in one of my college classes, but we ultimately didn’t read one of his plays. However, I put him and specifically M. Butterfly in the back of my mind because I enjoy modern retellings or deconstructions of popular myths or pieces of media. I eventually fond the play at my local Half-Price Books (incidentally the same trip I found and bought Intimate Apparel) and decided to get it.
Summary: Stuckin a jail cell in 1988, French diplomat to China Rene Gallimard begins reliving his actions leading him to his current situation. Beginning in 1960, Gallimard vividly retells the tale of meeting his “ideal woman”, Chinese opera singer Song Liling. Gallimard considers Song his own Madame Butterfly- beautiful, submissive, and conservative yet sexual. They embark on a twenty year relationship where Gallimard passes his lover government secrets. But Song is not all that “she” seems. Song is actually a male Chinese spy feeding Gallimard’s sexist and racist desires to get information. So caught up in his fantasy, Gallimard has problems acknowledging the truth went it comes out. This psychologically deep play discusses what is love and examines the power fantasies that is so ingrained in Western culture.
Thoughts and Analysis: There is just so much to unpack for this play. There is of course the discussions of sexism and racism that is the main crux of the play. There is also its place in the theatrical canon, its relevancy today, and how companies choose to market the play. I would personally loved to have the opportunity to talk about this in a class because there is a lot to discuss.
It’s kind of amazing- in the horrifying way- how relevant this play still is today. Until I looked it up, I had no idea the play is being revived on Broadway right now, which seems fitting. It was written 30 years ago, but it still seems fresh because the racism and sexism still applies. Hwang masterfully dismantles how problematic many people in the West view Asian women: that they’re submissive and modest but sexy. It’s very much a power fantasy. You still see it today with white guys fetishizing Asian women through anime and other forms of media. It’s sexist because it’s denying women’s equality to men and it’s racist because it enforces ugly stereotypes that Asian people are weak and easy to dominate. This play calls that behavior out by deconstructing the opera Madame Butterfly. Gallimard is obsessed with the opera and Song uses that information to inform his actions. At times, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of what Gallimard was saying, but I think that’s the point.
I think M. Butterfly deserves a place in the larger theatrical canon for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s just a brilliant play. It’s well-written and thought out. As it is written by an Asian-American, it’s not a point-of-view we often get in theatre. It also marks a point in a change in American theatre. At this point in the 80s and into the 90s, we see a definite shift from realism or the avant-garde to a blend of the two. There’s a bit of realism, Brechtian techniques, and a sort of magical realism in here. This trend continues into the modern day.
There’s so much more worth discussing in this play, but I don’t have the space here to cover it all. What I do want to discuss is the marketing some companies do in promoting this play. I probably wouldn’t discuss this if I hadn’t watched some of the Broadway commercials. They don’t advertise who is playing Song and they emphasize the love story aspect of the play. I watched the trailer for the film version and it’s similar. I think it’s fascinating that the advertise on the stereotype and then subvert it in the play itself. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s interesting. I guess it depends if it’s intentional.
Favorite Character: Song is such an interesting character because there are so many motivations that we don’t know. They have to be decided by the actor and director.
Should You Read This?: Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s fascinating and covers issues that do not get enough discussion.
Final Thoughts: M. Butterfly is a modern classic that is worth the read.