David Henry Hwang (b. 1957)
Contributing Editor: James S. Moy
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Because M. Butterfly draws attention to the issue of western stereotyping of Asia, a discussion of the representational construction of "Asianness" in America can provide a useful platform for an inquiry into Hwang's development as a playwright. Begin by defining some of the stereotypes of Asianness, both male and female. Discussions of the "dragon lady," Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and the Asian houseboy stereotypes will prove useful. Film clips showing these constructions usually generate lively discussion. Some fruitful avenues of conversation might examine the tension between these stereotypical representations and the realities of late twentieth-century Asian life in America. And, indeed, to what extent do such stereotypes figure into the conduct of American international policy today?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Hwang attacks western stereotypes by refiguring the well-known Madama Butterfly theme. Using Brechtian devices that place the viewer in a position to critically evaluate the representations in his play, Hwang hopes to break the century-old butterfly myth of Asian submissiveness to western dominance.
A theatrical tour de force, M. Butterfly is a powerful indictment of white America's stereotyping of Asia. Still, the play leaves open the issue of just what images of Asianness are appropriate. Indeed, with a trans-vestite as the most important Asian figure, the play proves problematic in addressing this question.
M. Butterfly was originally intended for the Anglo-dominant culture audience that patronizes the Broadway theatre of New York City.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparisons with other works by Hwang (especially F. O. B., The Dance and the Railroad, and The Sound of a Voice) will lead to a deeper understanding of how his representations of Asianness interact with Anglo expectations of racial representation. In addition, comparison with plays by Frank Chin and Philip Kan Gotanda will provide insight into other Asians who have addressed some of the same issues.
Leong, Russell, ed. Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Centre, 1991.
Moy, James S. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.