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Reviewed by:
  • The Theatre of David Henry Hwang by Esther Kim Lee
  • Deborah Ross (bio)
Esther Kim Lee. The Theatre of David Henry Hwang. Methuen Drama Critical Companions Series. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Pp. x + 207. $29.95 paper, $94.00 cloth.

Like the other volumes in the Critical Companions Series, this study is pitched to appeal to a broad range of readers, providing various kinds of contexts—biographical, historical, and theoretical—for understanding the work of an “important” figure in theatre. Lee describes Hwang’s development as a playwright, summarizing and interpreting his plays from the first, written when the author was a senior at Stanford in 1979, right through to his latest, scheduled for publication in May 2017. The volume also contains essays by Josephine Lee, Dan Bacalzo, and Daphne Lei, each providing a more detailed analysis of an individual work. It closes with an extremely useful chronology of Hwang’s life and writings, including lesser known projects to which he contributed, such as libretti for stage and film musicals. Readers who chiefly know Hwang as the author of M. Butterfly will be surprised by the size and scope of his contribution to American theatre and the global reach of his latest work. [End Page 419]

Lee’s study is scrupulously researched: she interviewed Hwang personally in 2015 and is fully informed about statements he has made about his plays in prefaces and conversations with journalists. The sequencing of the chapters, described in the introduction, reflects phases in his development, drawn in part from his commentary, in part from her own sharp analysis. These are phases in his struggle to honor his ethnic heritage while avoiding marginalization as an Asian-American writer. Chapter 1, “The Trilogy of Chinese America: Magic Realism and the Californian Cool,” presents three early plays—FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, and Family Devotions—that she believes carried him from his first, “assimilationist” phase, with its exploration of Asian “self-loathing,” into his second, “isolationist-nationalist” phase, in which he began a sometimes uneasy relationship with the Asian-American theatre movement of the late 1970s (12, 22). Here Lee also points out the seeds of themes and techniques that would come to fruition in his later, better-known works: creative use of autobiography and family history; blending of realism and the fantastic; meta-theatrical breaking of the fourth wall; the use of masks and faces as metaphors for the performance of race and gender; music and dance as structural elements; parallel, contrasting opening and closing scenes; and ambiguous endings that invite multiple interpretations.

This “isolationist” phase continues in chapter 2, “Beyond Chinese America: Love, Death and Resurrection,” in which Lee discusses four lesser known plays written between 1981 and 1988. The “beyond” refers to Hwang’s desire, while staying within the broad subject of Asian-American identity formation, to move beyond semi-autobiographical explorations of the Chinese immigrant experience. As Japanese popular culture was starting to catch on in the West, he chose to draw upon traditional Japanese story and theatre for two one-acts: The Sound of a Voice and The House of Sleeping Beauties. The end of this period saw Hwang attempting to establish himself as not only an Asian-American playwright but also as a disciple of Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, and Pirandello. Rich Relations, a non-ethnic, American family drama, failed with audiences and critics—largely, by Lee’s account, due to their inability to recognize and appreciate the author’s satiric intentions.

Not surprisingly, given this series’ focus on “important” theatrical figures, these first two chapters are mainly a prelude to the discussion of the work that chiefly earned Hwang’s inclusion: M. Butterfly, the subject of Lee’s third chapter. This play belongs to the phase Lee calls “multicultural,” in part because this time Hwang succeeded in writing from a non-Asian protagonist’s point of view (50). Lee quite handily summarizes the play, situates it among the “culture wars” of the 1980s, and notes several critical approaches to its analysis in the years that followed its 1988 premiere. The stature Hwang achieved from winning the Tony Award for M. Butterfly set expectations for his next work uncomfortably high...


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pp. 419-422
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