Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

New Theatrical Statements:
Asian-Western Mergers in the Early Plays of David Henry Hwang

Robert Cooperman


I

Arguably the most important play in terms of challenging the political/social/cultural identities of the West over the last decade is David Henry Hwang's award-winning M. Butterfly ( 1988). Aside from being good theatre--the fictional dramatization of a particularly shocking true case involving a Chinese transvestite/spy and her/his twenty-year love affair with a male French diplomat--the play very plainly forces its Western audience to contend with Eastern stereotypes involving sexual orientation, gender, and culture, especially those stereotypes promulgated by the myth of Orientalism.1 The political ramifications of Hwang's uncomfortably penetrating probe into the Western psyche are obvious, and there exists any number of studies and interviews which spell out, from various perspectives, the very problems which Hwang presents to us, as well as the efficacy of his attempt. However, M. Butterfly also represents the culmination (to this point) of a career which has made the Eastern-Western conflict a leit motif. M. Butterfly is simply the most obvious and politically blatant example of this recurring theme.

Most if not all discussions of M. Butterfly are characterized by a particularly hostile look at the polarizations confronted in the play.2 Such treatment undoubtedly stems from Hwang's own invitation, for the play pulls no punches in its treatment of Gallimard, whose Genet-like dream of sexual fantasy and domination represents, for some, Western typecasting which is both sinister and oppressive: "It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it?," Song Liling asks Gallimard, "The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man" (17). Such sexual and cultural power struggles lead one, according to James S. Moy, inevitably to the conclusion that " Hwang's indictment of the West is clear" (51). Moy's view seems to start with the basic premise, taken from the plot and characterizations of the play, that the West (particularly America) is an intolerant, ignorant, and oppressive society. While no honest Westerner could possibly deny the racism and sexism that has characterized much of our history, it may be a bit of a stretch, however, to position Gallimard as the all-purpose Westerner. It may be, given the circumstances of the actual case, that he is nothing more than an all-purpose fool.

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