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M. Butterfly Play by David Henry Hwang Literature Essay

M. Butterfly is a remarkable play that conveys a story of a French diplomat who has fallen in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer. The writer of the play, David Henry Hwang, found inspiration for his literary piece in a real story of an international espionage and opera Madame Butterfly of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Hwang was the first Asian-American dramatist who depicted Asian guests in America as educators. This presentation shows the audience the cross-dressing of a spy Song who attempts to cure Western world of gender and ethnic stereotypes. One of the major tasks of Asian-American dramatist was to accurately demonstrate the Asian in America without cultural biases and cliché in his play M. Butterfly. Thus, Hwang’s play dispels exotic myths about Asian identity, preconceived notions of male and female, and prejudiced view of Occident and Orient. Therefore, in M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang depicted Asian-American affair to underline Western prejudices towards Asia, and, at the same time, debunk this stereotyped vision through the use of the particular story, structure, characters, scenic and costume design, movement, sound, and lighting.

In the romantic tragedy M. Butterfly, Hwang portrayed an essentially problematic story of love affair of the opera singer and a French diplomat, who significantly represented a stereotypical view of Asia. It is based on the real story of the notorious Chinese-French spy scandal which took place during the Vietnam War in the 60s of the last century. Portraying an international espionage, Hwang’s play can be regarded not only in a theatrical perspective, but also in political and cultural ones. Indeed, Hwang’s dramatic literary piece brings a story of Rene Gallimard who is bored with routine life and clumsy with women. Being in the age of 65, shamed and imprisoned, Gallimard contemplates on the events of his past that led to this misery and notorious international scandal. The man is a French diplomat who becomes an easy prey to the charms of beautiful Song Liling – a Chinese opera singer who embodies Gallimard’s imagination of exotic oriental feminine sexuality. Due to Western stereotypes, Asian men were regarded as feminized and powerless males. Thus, Hwang’s pretty ironic depiction of a role-change through the female artist, who is actually a Chinese spy who destroys life of the protagonist of the play, debunks the myth of Orientalism. Furthermore, Asian-American affair of Gallimard and Song Liling lasts for twenty years, and during their relationships a man passes different diplomatic secrets to his lover. Eventually, love and passionate feelings to Chinese opera diva darkens Gallimard’s mind, and this frivolity costs him a downfall and imprisonment. Thereby, Hwang’s play parodies and breaks the myth of a submissive, domestic, and obedient Asian woman.

Moreover, Hwang’s intention to ridicule Western prejudices towards Asia can be observed through the structure of M. Butterfly. In the article “Back to illusion: An analysis on the mutual stereotype between East and West in M. Butterfly,” Shih-Chun Lin divided the play into three parts. In the first part, Gallimard becomes acquainted with Song Liling who performs the opera Madame Butterfly. The vision of the Oriental woman in the opera, especially her spirit of sacrifice attracts Gallimard. Thus, it evokes a willingness a French man to dominate over Song: “I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man” (Hwang, 1989). The misinterpretation and misunderstanding of Eastern culture would cost a big price to Rene Gallimard. In the second part, Gallimard retells his past in a small prison in Paris. It should be noted that such construction of the play may confuse the audience with the feeling of realities – how Gallimard has returned from the performance of Madame Butterfly, how he succeeds in turning his passionate fantasies with Song into reality, and how their relationships proved to be false to both of them. The third fold is Gallimard’s awareness of the visionary past that has seemed pretty real to him. The protagonist’s final realization that he was betrayed by his own vision of the perfect Oriental woman who to his mind could sacrifice everything for him metaphorically destroyed the stereotyped interpretation of the Southern world. Thereby, Gallimard experienced disillusionment of his past life and deceptive nature of true love that was only his imagination.

A Chinese artist and a French diplomat are two characters who stand out in the play. At the same time, the love affair between these two heroes can be considered a fundamental aspect in the deconstruction of the Orient and the Other. In the play, the principal male hero Rene Gallimard represents Western world, whereas Song Liling is a portrayal of pretty different to it Eastern culture. Being married rather for pragmatic reasons than for deep feelings, Gallimard still seeks for love of a beautiful woman who will be completely attached to him. The readiness to accept a Chinese opera diva as a woman due to Gallimard’s sexual tensions is a natural thing. However, the principal character is not aware that the object of his affections is actually a man.

Gallimard misunderstood Song Ling to be a woman because of his perception of Asian man as a feminized person. Thus, Gallimard’s Western stereotyped attitudes concerning Asia lay in the basis of his relationship with Song. Furthermore, Gallimard’s prejudiced view of Asian women as passive and subservient females allows Song to be his lover and live as his wife without any suspicions or threats to be discovered as a man. Moreover, Song plays his part and pretends to fit Gallimard’s vision of the modest Oriental woman because the audience must “believe that Gallimard was seduced by a man disguised as a woman” (Shimakawa, 2002, p. 123). At the same time, Song Liling, being physiologically a man, is forced to live and act as a woman for more than twenty years in order to succeed and debunk biases concerning his native country. Combination of realism and vivid theatricality furthers the play to the most intense and exciting point when exhausted Rene Gallimard dressed as a woman commits suicide by thrusting his heart with a dagger, which also fits the West’s prejudiced attitude to Asian manner of death. Therefore, Gallimard’s misinterpretation of Eastern culture becomes his fatal mistake.

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Scenic design also has an important task in the play because it not only provides a visual representation of Asia, but also depicts Western misinterpretation of the East. Theatrically, compared to the real story and Puccini’s opera, the main action is moved from Japan to China. Moreover, elements of Japanese kabuki theater, as well as Chinese Beijing Opera had been appropriated as they were components of a monolithic culture rather than two independent civilizations. It should be noted that Asian immigrants have been traditionally viewed as newcomers from China or Japan, which is in accordance with the Western vision that all Asian people look the same. At the same time, the scenic design of the play remains marvelous – Song Liling goes down a semicircular ramp originally invented by Eiko Ishioka for Broadway’s first production and used in the later ones (Shimakawa, 2002, p. 122).

The spectacular entrance of a Chinese opera diva is a reminder of kabuki’s hanamichi – a passage that begins from the left side and lies across the whole stage. There also can be observed one more loan from the tradition of kabuki – kurogo – stage assistants dressed in black. For example, kurogo assisted Song during the transformation into a man. Kurogo is also observed in Gallimard in the final scene, “dancers bring the wash basin to him and helped him make up his face” (Hwang, 1989, p. 92). Thus, mixing of Chinese and Japanese cultures only strengthens Western misinterpretation of the East world.

As for the costume design of M. Butterfly, it possesses a message of a typical Western confusion and ignorance of Asia. At the beginning of the play, a Chinese opera diva wears traditional Chinese clothes, but when she appears for the second time on the stage, she is dressed as the Japanese geisha Butterfly (Hwang, 1989, p. 10). Thus, the unnoticed cross-dressing of Song Liling underlines Gallimard’s ignorance of Asia. Moreover, Song wears kimono outfit that is a traditional Japanese costume. For example, when Song directly refers to the audience announcing her soon transformation on the stage, the artist removes the makeup, takes off a wig and kimono, and appears before the eyes of the viewer as a man in Armani suit (Hwang, 1989, p. 80). Furthermore, the makeup of female characters in M. Butterfly is pretty typical to Beijing Opera – a whitened face with a special powder, black eyebrows, and rouge surrounding the eyes as well as the cheeks. Thereby, the makeup together with kimono demonstrate disjointed cultural elements in Hwang’s play that furthers Gallimard’s confusion of Asian cultures by mixing of Japanese and Chinese cultural elements. This Gallimard’s ignorance on the East can be observed in his own worlds, “There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in chong sams and kimomos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils” (Hwang, 1989, p. 91). Thus, juxtaposition of Japanese kabuki theatre and Chinese Beijing Opera is a significant aspect of Gallimard’s and, metaphorically, Western ignorance of Asia.

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In M. Butterfly, movement as well as gesture not only expand the essence of characters and represent delicate and at the same time strict nature of Asia, but also contrast two worlds – the West and the East. For instance, Song’s “fluid movement over and between defined spaces on the stage” at the beginning of Hwang’s play charms the viewer (Shimakawa, 2002, p. 122). Such elegant and slow movement leads the audience in the atmosphere of the East world where life flows slowly and quietly. In addition to this, the act two of M. Butterfly is more dynamic and filled with movements than the other two. The position of characters on the stage is also important. For example, in the act two, scene two, Song is wriggling at Gallimard’s feet (Hwang, 1989, p. 43), whereas in scene five they change their positions – a French diplomat appears in a more submissive pose when he is lying on the lap of his lover (Hwang, 1989, p. 49). This change of positions depicts Song’s power over Gallimard that the artist has gradually obtained. Metaphorically, it symbolizes a Western man who was tempted by delicate beauty of the modest Oriental woman, and thus becomes a victim of his own stereotypes. Therefore, Song’s gestures and movements represent his eventual predominance over Gallimard, and thus over Westernized delusions.

At the same time, sound in Hwang’s play emphasizes Western unfamiliarity with Asian culture and indifference to its tradition. For instance, when the viewer meets Song Liling for the first time, she is dancing to Chinese music that gradually flows into motifs of the Love Duet from Puccini’s masterpiece (Hwang, 1989, p. 1). Gallimard, as well as the audience is unaware of changing nature of the music because it seems unimportant to them – Asian beautiful woman performing on the stage becomes more entertaining. It should be noted that, compared to the act one and three, the act two is more fascinating. During the act, the play unfolds musical parallels that dramatize its philosophical concepts and themes. The original music in combination with great costumes of characters and their movements and gestures create a ritual reversal of Song’s and Gallimard’s identities. In addition to this, lighting design also had its significance in representation of exquisite nature of Asian world, as well as condemned Western stereotyped view of the East. Moreover, nowadays mobile technology allows lighting the stage in order to involve the viewer into the theatrical storytelling. Thus, delicate lighting was displayed in a way to show the viewer every emotion of the hero. It can be assumed that the lighting in M. Butterfly was one of the components of the play depiction aimed to portray Western stereotypes about the exotic East. Therefore, together with sound, lighting in Hwang’s play was aimed to seduce, astonish, and mislead the audience with such a fascinating story of Western prejudiced view of Asia that despite all biases remains strong and powerful.

Additionally, M. Butterfly can be considered a powerful message of Asian strong and stable culture to the Western world. Based on a real story of international espionage and inspired by Puccini’s opera, Hwang’s play remains topical throughout the centuries. The tension between the delicate feminine depiction of Asia and masculine power of the Western world collapsed in M. Butterfly. Being stereotyped for many years, Asian culture challenges the West and breaks all stereotypes and biases towards its weakness and feminized nature.
Therefore, Hwang’s remarkable play destroys the myth of the modest Oriental woman as well as portrayal of powerless Asia through the story, structure, characters, scenic and costume design, movement, sound, and lighting. The Asian American dramatist opens new recently unknown Asia to the viewer – strong, able to stand up for itself, seductive, but at the same time tricky and astonishing. Demonstrating Western stereotypes towards Asian world, Hwang at the same time shows its strength to resist all prejudices and delusions.

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