David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly

February 22, 2010 at 10:02 am (Multicultural Lit)

I have to start off by saying I loved this play. One of the things that I was very interested in is how relevant the issues and critiques raised by the play still felt, twenty years after its first performance.  I think some of Hwang’s critiques, particularly those involving orientalism seem like old hat, particularly to an academic audience, there are other critiques that are much more subtle that make this play age well, where other plays, particularly issues plays (I’m particularly thinking Angel in America here) show their age at every turn. One of the things that I think make Hwang’s play so ageless is that it doesn’t do a straight reading of anything. Any time you think you might be on solid footing with a topic, there’s a twist and your perspective changes. I think possibly the most interesting thing that Hwang does for me is his critique of what we might call Western denialism. I think even in the late 80’s and the early 90’s Hwang’s use of Said and critique of the orientalist tendancies of western culture would be familiar to a western audience, but no one in the audience wants to admit that they have these feelings. However, I would be willing to bet that same educated, western audience is at least familiar enough with the music of Madame Butterfly that they recognize the famous songs, otherwise the use of the music would lose the majority of the effect. At the point where the music is working in its role in the play, one is forced to admit to an enjoyment of this opera, which on reflection is incredibly Orientalizing and racist.

There is a similar type of critique going on here with gender and sexuality I think. We all like to say that we are open-minded, at least typically in a liberal, academic setting, but we’re all also sucked into our curiousity about the sex lives of these two men. If Song Liling had truely been a women, this story wouldn’t have been half as interesting and sensational, and the focus of the newspaper story that inspired the play would have probably been directed exclusively at the act of espionage, rather than including the details of the sexual affair. This kind of curiosity provides the same kind of realization as the question of race does in the example above. When the reader or viewer realizes that they too are waiting for the details of how a man could have been sleeping with another man for twenty years and never realizing it, we are drawn into an examination of our own feelings about gender and sexuality.

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