"M. Butterfly" is the ostensibly true story of a French diplomat who carries on a 17-year affair with a bewitching Chinese opera star, only to discover that she is not only a spy, but also a man. The play, rooted in... [more]
"M. Butterfly" is the ostensibly true story of a French diplomat who carries on a 17-year affair with a bewitching Chinese opera star, only to discover that she is not only a spy, but also a man. The play, rooted in a tabloid headline and realized in a retelling of Puccini's famous "Madam Butterfly," is a perfect example of author David Henry Hwang's concerns with layered identity. Throughout his playwriting career, Hwang has constantly milled these ever-present issues to form an oeuvre that is itself beautifully multi-layered.
Hwang first used art to address Asian American identity, class, and family legacy when he was ten. Fearing the death of his ailing grandmother, Hwang's family recorded her memories of their history (which included Asian and fundamentalist Christian backgrounds). Young David's 90-page novel, based on her memories, would influence much of his future work and supply the storyline for his 1998 play, "Golden Child." Though Hwang's work wrestles with cultural identity, it would be reductive to pigeonhole it as Asian American literature. Hwang's very specific cultural locality is testament to the intricate variation inherent in any perceptible cultural difference.
Hwang won an Obie Award in 1980 for his first play, "F.O.B." ("Fresh off the Boat"), and a Tony in 1988 for "M. Butterfly." Hwang is the first Asian American to win a Tony. But though these honors have made strides for Asian American artists, Hwang is reluctant to be seen as a definitively Asian American voice:
"I think I've probably become an old-fashioned '60s integrationist. I've become rather anti-nationalistic and anti-separatist in my middle age. I'm in a mixed marriage and I have a biracial child. In my earlier years I agreed with the nationalistic argument that one shouldn't be assimilated, that it is pathetic to try to mimic the white man. At this point in my life I would say that the argument against assimilation wrongly assumes that culture is static. It doesn't make any sense to me; culture is what people create at any given time, culture lives and changes."
A versatile, genre-hopping writer (he has written a screenplay for Scorsese and a libretto for Philip Glass), Hwang specializes in mining various Asian-American issues with vastly different results. He tends to shape universal theatrical themes with an Asian American twist, admitting, "I've been a pretty blatant thief in modeling various plays on work by other playwrights." His interests stretch from impassioned political history ("The Dance and the Railroad") to dubious cultural stereotypes (a revival of "Flower Drum Song"), but Hwang always conveys the dramatic essence of conflicted humanity. "I've found that the more culturally specific you are, the more universal the work is. There's no conflict between wanting to reach a large audience and being particular and culturally accurate." [show less]