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Reviewed by:
  • M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
  • Esther Kim Lee
M. BUTTERFLY. By David Henry Hwang. Directed by Julie Taymor. Cort Theatre, New York City. November 4, 2017.

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is one of the most famous plays of the theatre canon. It has been included in anthologies, syllabi, and discussions of race, Orientalism, sexuality, gender, and performance. Its New York premiere in March 1988 was an instant hit and ran for 777 performances, a record number at the time. Hwang received the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988 and went on to become the most visible Asian American playwright internationally. When it was announced that the play would be revived on Broadway in fall 2017 and be directed by Julie Taymor, there was much anticipation over how Hwang and Taymor would reinterpret the play for twenty-first-century audiences. In 1988, the play generated much controversy over how a man can be deceived into falling in love with another man who pretends to be a woman. How could he not know? Many audience members, in shock, would ask the question while leaving the theatre. In 2017, such a question was not as shocking as it was in 1988, partly because many advancements have been made in understanding how sexual identity is fluid and performative. The scandalousness of the original production had worn off after almost thirty years, and it was no longer surprising to see the scenes in the play that made the 1988 audience gasp and shudder.

Hwang may have felt that he needed to update the play and make it more relevant to the 2017 audience, or perhaps he wanted to tell a different story in the revival. He rewrote parts of the play and changed the relationship between the two main characters. The original play was based on a New York Times article about a French diplomat who had an affair with a Chinese opera singer for twenty years. He claimed that he thought the singer, who turned out to be a spy, was a woman. For the original play, Hwang deliberately did not do further research of the actual people and chose to imagine how their relationship could have been possible. For the revival, he reversed his position and included what he discovered about the real French diplomat and the Chinese opera singer.

I took my undergraduate class on Asian American theatre at the University of Maryland on a field trip to New York City to see the play, and all of my twenty-five students and I sat eagerly to find out how it had been changed. Before seeing the play I stayed away from reviews, because I did not want to know in advance about the changes that Hwang made. The surprise came early, when the gender pronoun used for the Chinese opera singer was monsieur, not mademoiselle. My students and I looked at one another in confusion, and by the intermission we agreed that the layering of gender identity was made even more complex in the rewrites. The opera singer was a woman onstage though a man offstage, but s/he was actually a woman raised as a man.

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Jin Ha and Company in M. Butterfly. (Photo: Matthew Murphy.)

In directing the revival, Taymor compared the play to a Chinese puzzle and wanted to highlight the layers of identity, deception, and relationships. The set design by Paul Steinberg utilized large panels to represent the puzzle-like element of the play. The panels were manually moved by stagehands and folded up and down to reveal different images. Taymor stated in interviews that she did not want to use any of the cutting-edge technology that she, as the director of The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is most known for. Perhaps because of [End Page 560] her reputation, the manual movements of the panels and the bareness of the set were unexpected. Hwang’s play is about the theatricality of identity, and metatheatricality is key to its staging. The fourth wall is frequently broken, and at one moment Gallimard, the protagonist (played by British actor Clive Owen...


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