|Written by||David Henry Hwang|
Renee and others
|Date premiered||March 20, 1988|
|Place premiered||Eugene O'Neill Theatre
New York City
|Subject||East/West cultural stereotypes|
|Setting||A Paris prison, 1988; recollections of Beijing and Paris|
The play premiered on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on March 20, 1988, closing after 777 performances on January 27, 1990. It was produced by Stuart Ostrow and directed by John Dexter with stars John Lithgow as Gallimard and BD Wong as Song Liling. David Dukes, Anthony Hopkins, Tony Randall, and John Rubinstein played Gallimard at various times during the original run. A highly unusual staging featuring Puccini's music and the Kazakh countertenor Erik Kurmangaliev in the title role was undertaken by Roman Viktyuk in Russia in 1990.
It is currently published by Plume and in an acting edition by Dramatists Play Service. An audio recording of the play was produced by L. A. Theatre Works, with Lithgow and Wong reprising their Broadway roles along with Margaret Cho.
The play was inspired by Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. The first act introduces the main character, Rene Gallimard, who is a civil servant attached to the French embassy in China. He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, who is actually a man masquerading as a woman. In traditional Beijing opera, females were banned from the stage; all female roles (dan) were played by males. The first act ends with Gallimard returning to France in shame and living alone after his wife, Helga, finds out about his affair with Song.
Act two begins with Song coming to France and resuming the affair with Gallimard. They stay together for 20 years until the truth is revealed, and Gallimard is convicted of treason and imprisoned. Unable to face the fact that his "perfect woman" is actually a man, that has been posing as a woman for 20 years to be able to spy, he retreats deep within himself and his memories. The action of the play is depicted as his disordered, distorted recollection of the events surrounding their affair.
The third act portrays Gallimard committing seppuku (also known as harakiri, ritual Japanese suicide through self-disembowelment) while Song watches and smokes a cigarette.
Gender Stereotypes and Orientalism
"The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. ...Basically, 'Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.' The West thinks of itself as masculine -- big guns, big industry, big money -- so the East is feminine -- weak, delicate, poor...but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom -- the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated -- because a woman can't think for herself. ...You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.” - Song (Act III, Scene I) .....
There exist two distinct binary stereotypes in the Orientalist fantasy: the Oriental female and the Western male. The Oriental female is stereotyped as an other who is both exotic and eager to be dominated while the Western male is stereotyped as deeply masculine- dominating and powerful. While masculinity is threatened by the Western women, it finds safety in the Oriental woman who does not question her role. David Henry Hwang subverts the two distinct stereotypes in M. Butterfly by portraying a reversal of roles. Gallimard relies solely on his idea of a traditional Eastern woman based upon Puccini's Madama Butterfly. His ignorance, which is deeply rooted in the Orientalist fantasy, causes him to fail to see Song for what she really is- a man. Song is able to create the illusion of the role of the Oriental female in order to gain access to classified information. While Gallimard believes that he is penetrating the exoticized Orient through his invasion of Song's space as the traditional subdued Asian female, it is unnoticed to him that his character has begun to follow the role of that which he seeks so desperately to claim. Song, who eventually reveals his true gender, does not display the typical characteristics of the Oriental male, but rather the characteristics of the Western male colonizer, placing him in a position of power. Simultaneously, Gallimard eventually meets his fate as the doomed "Butterfly"- he is emasculated and fully plays the role of the quintessential Asian woman. The change causes the West to become the spectacle rather than the East. The Orient exploits the West using tropes that were intended to oppress the former. However, the rejection of the truth of Song's gender suggests a bleeding of gender and ethnic lines. That the binary stereotypes may indeed be not so binary- the importance of the characters in Hwang's M. Butterfly is the ability to be fluid in fitting the gender stereotypes set forth by their ethnicities, neither is wholly male or wholly female despite their physical sex. This suggests the fluidity of constructs in the spectacle or performance- tropes set forth by set stereotypes can be broken down and mixed to reinscribe them.
Hwang is a master at creating gender ambiguity throughout his play, aided by his characters, and also his audience’s belief in stereotypes. Even the title plays with gender: where most people expect a “Madama” based on the Puccini opera, Hwang actually lets the “M.” hide the full “Monsieur” that he was originally planning. By building a foundation of the West as masculine and the East as feminine through his characters, Hwang builds expectations for his audience that he tears down with only Song’s sex. It takes Gallimard so long to see it because he had effectively blinded himself with his complete belief in stereotypes. It starts from the very beginning of his story: he chooses a Chinese woman as his mistress because he feels sexually inferior in Western society. But while Gallimard thinks he knows how the East and West function based on his knowledge of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, it is clear that Song is the one who has the better understanding of the East-West relationship, playing on Gallimard’s pre-conceived ideas to get information from him. Song uses the expected femininity of the East to his advantage – being able to hide his physical gender from Gallimard on the basis of modesty. Gallimard’s stereotypes do not stop with the Orient however, and his view of the West as a more masculine place is reaffirmed through his interaction with Western women, such as his wife, Helga, and Renee. While Gallimard lets his belief in stereotypes lead him throughout the play, it is ultimately “the body” that becomes “truth” by the end of the show. It is not until he sees Song’s naked body that he is forced to accept that the lie was just that, a lie. He thinks that presents him with the full truth, and prepares to commit suicide.
Awards and nominations
- 1988 Clarence Derwent Awards for Most Promising Male (Wong)
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Wong)
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play (John Dexter)
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Play
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Wong)
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play (John Dexter)
- 1988 John Gassner Award
- 1988 Outer Critics Circle Award
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play (Lithgow)
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka)
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design (Eiko Ishioka)
- 1988 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (Lithgow)
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design (Eiko Ishioka)
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka)
- 1988 Tony Award for Best Lighting Design (Andy Phillips)
- 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
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