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Reviewed by:
  • M. Butterflyby David Henry Hwang
  • Claudia Orenstein
M. Butterfly. By David Henry Hwang, directed by Julie Taymor. Court Theatre, New York. 15October 2017.

The 2017 Broadway revival of M. Butterflyis not just a restaging of the play, but the product of a close collaboration between playwright David Henry Hwang and director Julie Taymor to rethink this tale in relation to social, economic, and cultural shifts that have taken place since the show's first award-winning Broadway production in 1988. Importantly, it includes notable revisions to the script. On the one hand, the revisions are subtle. Although I have frequently taught the play, after seeing the new production, with the show fresh in my mind, I went to the New York Performing Arts Library and had to watch the archive tape of the original with careful attention to catch spots where revisions [End Page 490]had taken place, as most of the major elements remain the same. On the other hand, the new textual and directorial choices offer a very different view of the story of French diplomat Renee Gallimard and his twenty-year relationship with the Chinese Opera performer and spy Song Liling. The original production cast the case as a textbook example of Edward Said's orientalism in action, with a European character easily fooled for years by a conniving Chinese man into thinking he is a frail, submissive woman. The Frenchman's deeply ingrained cultural views of Asia readied him to be seduced by the mysterious charms of the East, and to see himself as the strong, domineering male figure in a relationship with a weak, feminized Asia, embodied in Song in disguise. By contrast, the new production offers subtler portraits of both its protagonists, and a more sensitive view into what shapes Song Liling's actions, bringing Song's own gender issues and the repressive context of the Cultural Revolution in China into play. As Taymor and Hwang explained at a talk about the show at the Asia Society of New York on 3 November 2017, their approach to revising the text took into consideration present public discussion and awareness of nonbinary genders, the growth of China as a superpower, and details about the true story of diplomat Bernard Bourisco and his lover Shi Pei Pu, which were not available to Hwang when he wrote the first version.

The story of the opera Madama Butterfly, with its Japanese heroine who kills herself after being forsaken by an American cad, formed a leitmotif to the original M. Butterfly, with references to it throughout the play. Although the revival also refers to the opera at the beginning and the end, and includes a small excerpt, it does not recapitulate this idea continually. Instead, it attempts to balance out the proposal of this Western love story with references to the Chinese opera Butterfly Lovers. In this tragic love story, which echoes some of the gender themes in M. Butterfly, a young woman, Zhu Yingtai, disguises herself as a man in order to study in the capital. She falls in love with Liang Shanbo, a young male scholar, who believes she is a boy. Their attachment grows so strong that they take an oath of brotherhood, but Liang never catches Zhu's hints that she is a woman. When Zhu's real gender finally is revealed to Liang, Zhu is already betrothed to a man her parents have chosen for her. Lang dies of heartbreak. On the day of Zhu's wedding, strong winds prevent the procession from moving past the graveyard. Liang's grave opens up and Zhu throws herself in. Their spirits, now a pair of butterflies, fly away together. When Gallimard (Clive Owen) first comes to visit Song (Jin Ha) at the Chinese opera, Butterfly Loversis the opera Song has performed and Song clarifies the story for him in the dressing room after the show. Butterfly Lovers [End Page 491]offers a Chinese version of an ideal love story to set against Gallimard's Western one, providing a view into Song's love fantasy, in which gender disguise is eventually overcome, leading to a final, true love union after death.



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