David Hwang’s M. Butterfly has won several universal recognitions. It was produced in 1988 and since then it has won various awards such as the Tony Award for best play of the year, New York Drama Desk Award among others. The play revolves around a peculiar but true story of a French envoy that bore a twenty-year affair with a Chinese artist, without knowing that the partner was a man pretending to be a woman. He only learnt about the deception after he was accused by French government with treason.
David Hwang’s M. Butterfly is a breathtaking story which motivated the playwright’s imagination such that he integrates issues on a grand scale and at the same time, maintains humor in the drama (Gerard, 1988, para. 4). Hwang investigates the stereotypes that trigger and distort relationships between Eastern and Western civilization as well as men and women. The article will focus on a comparative study of the various reviews made on this play.
Comparative overviews of the Reviews
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A number of themes are evident in the play. Various people have reviewed this play while focusing on specific themes that interest them more. For instance, Frank Rich focuses on love, conflict and betrayal themes in the story. A twenty year long affair is such a long time to develop and nurture mutual trust between two partners. Using this scenario, Hwang illustrates the situation that exists among most of the family relationships in the civilized world.
The playwright opens up a revelation that helps to illustrate the conflict that exists between men as well as Eastern and Western cultures. Frank argues through the story, Hwang depicted the extent to which both western and eastern cultures held issues related with love and loyalty (RICH, 1988, para. 5). The French diplomat is left with a mixture of different feelings after he realizes that his partner was masquerading himself all that long. It hurts him the more after this affair renders him a victim of two major accusations, that of treason and a forced confession of homosexuality.
The conflict between the two cultures is expressed by the way the French diplomat feels betrayed by his ‘lover’. He is found to value loyalty and trust in a relationship, while on the other hand the Chinese opera diva has a totally different perspective towards such life aspects. For all the time they spent with his lover, he was a spy for the Chinese government besides living a life of pretense as a woman (RICH, 1988, para. 5). Furthermore, he betrays his spouse who is charged with treason after it is found out that he had passed some classified information about the government of France. As the story of the lovers’ affair unfolded, it was refracted through both plain and disguised satirical deconstructions of Liling, code named as “Madama Butterfly”.
Frank argues that whether the play conflicts or merges the Western and Eastern civilizations as well as men and women characters, it has been well blended into its content. The playwright’s start off point demonstrates how an icon like Madama Butterfly assumes sexist and racist roles to burden western men. The French believes that he can only attain real manhood by exercising power over a beautiful and compliant woman (RICH, 1988, para. 6). This makes him become a victim of being tricked by Song Liling’s pretense of a shrinking butterfly. It is worth noting that the playwright employs metaphorical illustration through the French diplomat, Gallimard, as an object to represent the condition of western foreign policies in Vietnam.
Another scholar, Janet Maslin, while reviewing this play, gives her opinion which follows a different perspective from other scholars. She proposes that theme of seduction is well elaborated in the play. From the beginning of the play, Gallimard represents a lot of inborn arrogance, which has both male and imperialist personality (MASLIN, 1993, para. 4). The way he complies to whatever happens around him presents his shaky, naive and weak character. Full capacity of self-delusion is well illustrated during the time when he dumbfounded watches Liling perform an extraordinary wan version of an item from “Madama Butterfly”.
Janet argues that the courtship that exists between Gillmard and Liling balances between political supremacy and sexual seduction. Gallimard begins to entertain an almost ridiculous fascination with the modest woman of his dreams. She proposes that Liling is a common seductress and therefore, it is a usual thing for her to do to her partner (MASLIN, 1993, para. 6). Furthermore, Mr. Lone’s masculine good stature fails to transform to the female personification as his flat male voice betrays him.
While on the screen, the “M. Butterfly” acts as a captivatingly brutal evaluation of love whose stress is shifted from the play’s rhetorical basics. As the story grows and the longing for this love assessment grows within the French diplomat, it becomes evident that it was actually a result of his imagination (MASLIN, 1993, para. 6). The playwright show how events turn out after the Frenchman realizes that he was tricked by his Asian lover. At first, he is deeply indulged by the desire and passion for his Asian lover. However, after it dawns on him that his lover had betrayed him, he declares to Liling that he was nothing like his “Butterfly”
Furthermore, Leah Frank explores themes of sexism and myths that are demonstrated in the play. It is actually unbelievable that the Frenchman can stay with his lover for twenty years and not discover his gender. The diplomat is outstanding in all ways that qualifies him to be a competent envoy. Nevertheless, it turns out unbelievable that this striking diplomat can become a socially incompetent and self-conscious. In fact, he becomes a victim of two allegations at the same time.
Another scholar, Alvin Klein suggests that this film is wealthy of dramatic imagination. The stereotyped manhunt for a perfect lady which conforms to the established model of submission offers a good platform for the film (KLEIN, 1994, para. 1). However, at the end of the play, the playwright predicts an exchange of masculine and feminine roles during the Puccini opera thereby bringing the film into a shocking dramatic climax. A French envoy indulges himself in a twenty year relationship with an Asian lover without discovering that the opera performer was a man and at the same time, a spy (KLEIN, THEATER, 1991, para. 3). The most intriguing thing about this play is that the whole film is a true story but the Playwright integrates it with his creativity to capture the attention of the viewer.
However, instances of implicit theater work such as Liling’s pretence as a man and Gallimard’s conversion to an undesirable self consciousness fails to deliver the intended message of surprise. There are various ironic points that are revealed as the story unfolds. For instance, Hwang tries to stress his ironic points of view such as how the nature and sincerity of complete love ends up to be. Furthermore, there is another aspect of irony that is evident in the film. It is based on the claim that is inclined to the definition of the western culture as more masculine whereas the Eastern culture as femininely dominated (KLEIN, THEATER, 1991, para. 5). Finally, another ironical point in the film arises when an Asian kills herself over the love of a Westerner.
Jeremy Gerard, a theater reporter for the New York Times considers artists such as David Hwang to be riding on the hyphen. This is because he is among the many artists who cross over into the conventional exchanges from the Western to Eastern civilizations (Gerard, 1988, para. 1). With its breathtaking leap, the play revolves around instances of nudity, and a reflection of interlinked Western and Eastern political and artistic grounds.
Jeremy Gerard proposes that the play has a story that challenges belief. He does not find a possibility of the Frenchman staying with his Asian lover for a period of twenty years without having established his gender status. As a mater of fact, the Opera artist had a son who she had supposedly claimed to belong to the French diplomat. Also, the process of conception of the child, his birth and even nursing as well as raising him is still very intriguing indeed.
The issues of race and racism as well as their impacts are well elaborated in the play. The playwright developed a play that would disband the race and gender labeling that had been generated and perpetuated by the Western cultures in its dealings with the Eastern cultures. First, Hwang illustrates the effect of these stereotypes while in usage in a real life situation. The Westerners are found to have a very negative impression on the Asian cultures as it is well expressed in various sections of the play (Wong, 2010, pg.194). For instance, the French diplomat complains that the Asians are arrogant, a belief which he learnt while in Paris, where he claims that, such beliefs are common. The French are found to look down upon the Chinese culture, arguing that the Chinese value their great ancient times as if age factor had some special connotation (Wong, 2010, pg.195). At one point, the French diplomat suggests that although he may be a resident in China, he could not mingle with the Chinese as if doing do would degrade him.
All these themes present the play as a great metaphor which explores the perception of Eastern civilization by the Westerners. It also helps to explain how constant romanticism can cloud and restrain this perception. Also, realism and explicit theatricality are incorporated in the play to present it in the best dramatic context.