M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang Essay

Like any theatrical realism, the realism employed by Asian American dramatists must be thought of in terms of acts calculated to produce particular relationships between performer and audience, theatrical constructions designed to pass for a preexisting true or authentic life. Thus it is easy to imagine Asian Americans writing plays that satisfy the desire of a spectator to gaze upon and to know the “reality” of an exoticized Oriental Other. But to make this viewing paradigm self-conscious–to acknowledge openly the eye of the white spectator on the spectacle of the Asian–is to trouble its potential for voyeurism. David Henry Hwang does this in M. Butterfly, when his protagonist Gallimard explicitly tries to align the audience with the perspective of his “mind’s eye,” thus making us accomplices in his self-deceiving love for his exotic “butterfly.” Hwang play uses a presentational form of staging, incorporating opera and dance elements, a narrator (Gallimard), and characters who address the audience directly.

M. Butterfly was first produced at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., and later opened on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, directed by John Dexter. In 1988 it won a Tony Award for best Broadway play, the John Gassner Award for best American play, and the Drama Desk Award for best new play. In 1993 David Cronenberg directed a film version of M. Butterfly starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone.

In Hwangs’ M. Butterfly, the stereotypes of the play are self-consciously enacted by each of the characters; moreover, the entire play is structured as a reenactment in Gallimard’s imagination rather than a “true event,” thus ensuring that perspective is even further mediated. The Asian American body of the actor is by no means conflated with the stereotypical role of the submissive Butterfly character; rather, the fluidity with which Song changes character suggests enormous power, a hyperbolic playing that again complicates the equation of Oriental stereotype with Asian. And because the Asian character is given not only the most interesting role, but also mastery over the gullible Gallimard, there is an implied appeal to the Asian American spectator. Song’s slangy language in the play also seems to speak more directly and resonantly to an “insider” audience, answering directly some of the stereotypical assumptions about the Asian character. Song immediately throws cold water on Gallimard’s assumptions that his body can pass for a Japanese woman’s: “The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war, you know. But I gather such an irony is lost on you.” Song from the beginning dissects his own performance, outlining the terms that allow it to be Gallimard’s “favorite fantasy”:

“Song. Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner–ah!–you find it beautiful.


Gallimard. Yes . . . well . . . I see your point . . . (17)”

Inseparable from these strategies, however, is a disturbing emphasis on the attractiveness of the stereotype. M. Butterfly emphasizes the seductive possibilities of the stereotype, not only for Gallimard but also for Song and the other characters. It can be said that M. Butterfly is about the erotics of the stereotype, the fulfillment of desire through the performance of the image.

Examining the play as it parodies rather than perpetuates the stereotype yields perhaps the safest interpretation. The play does ridicule the stereotype of the Asian woman as a submissive butterfly who sacrifices herself for the cad Pinkerton, in the first-act summary of Puccini’s opera, Song’s clever commentary, and the ironic staging of the first sexual encounter between Song and Gallimard. However, these moments are themselves interspersed with a more straightforward, and more disturbing, playing of stereotype. The first rendition of the Butterfly story, when the characters lip-sync Puccini’s opera, is clearly hyperbolic. Gallimard translates the duet The Whole World Over: “The whole world over, the Yankee travels, casting his anchor wherever he wants. Life’s not worth living unless he can win the hearts of the fairest maidens, then hotfoot it off the premises ASAP.” Marc and Comrade Chin play their roles as Sharpless and Suzuki without enthusiasm; Chin’s version of covering the floor with flowers is to trudge onstage and drop a lone flower. But their humorous lack of enthusiasm for the illusion contrasts strongly with the intensity of Song’s acting. While the other characters openly exaggerate the highlights of Puccini, Song in his exaggerated role remains, for the moment, without irony.

Reading the play as a satirical reversal accounts for only particular moments of the play. Such a reading is itself unsettled by Gallimard’s asking for the audience’s sympathy as an “ideal audience” and by showing us the substance of his “mind’s eye”: the emphasis is on rendering his actions intelligible, not on dismissing him as stupid (Loo 177-180). Reading the play as a pure parody is also dislocated by the framing of Gallimard’s suicide as tragic. The play seems to demand not only some sympathy for Gallimard, but also that the spectators too experience the stereotype of the butterfly as a seductive theatrical experience as well as something that we hold out at arm’s length. Although M. Butterfly deconstructs stereotypes, it does so by evoking the power that the stereotype still wields.

From the critical point of view M. Butterfly can be thought of as a work that not only directly parodies its fictional, theatrical, and operatic forebears, but also, in its incessant imitation of those forebears, speaks to the relentless desire to see the stereotype recreated. The play explores how, for each of the characters, human desire and the formation of selfhood are rooted in stereotype. As we consider Gallimard’s encounters with Butterfly, and indeed the other characters’ location of desire in the stereotype, we become implicated in these desires through histrionic perception.

In its staging of multiple enactments, Hwang’s play overtly exposes the desperate need to stabilize the myth of what Song describes as the “submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.” Hwang’s play enacts these stereotypes not as a singular instance but as constant repetition, as seen in the imaginative fusion of recollection and fantasy by the imprisoned Gallimard: “Alone in this cell, I sit night after night, watching our story play through my head.” But each time Gallimard reproduces Butterfly and her Pinkerton, it is as a set of “identity effects” that, in their failure to be imitations–“almost the same but not quite”–mock the very situations that produce them. Song’s disruptive performances interrupt Gallimard’s ideal performance. Thus, until the end, when Gallimard himself takes on the role of the suicidal Butterfly, he can only fail in his attempts at reiteration.

The play stages many scenes of contact where bodies are figured as amorphous and sexual and racial boundaries are permeable. What is significant is how each of these moments incites the characters to project on one another and themselves an identifying difference; such moments are clearly filled with theatrical anxiety often signaled by humor. Gallimard’s story is traumatic because it reveals a threatening state of nondifferentiation. Early in the play, an assured, cosmopolitan trio at a cocktail party deride Gallimard’s gullibility, his inability to recognize what is to them obvious: la différence. Yet, because the remainder of the play revels in gender’s ambiguity rather than its obviousness, the three characters’ facile dismissal of Gallimard’s stupidity makes any complicity in their laughter more nervous than secure.

Hwang reiterates this anxiety when Gallimard revisits his youthful explorations of sexuality, first in turning down the fantasy of Marc’s orgy in which a bevy of females strip and engage in anonymous sex in a pool, and then in describing Isabelle as his first experience of sexual intercourse. Gallimard’s lack of desire in these encounters might have a number of explanations: his own insecurity, fear of aggressive females, and perhaps a closeted homosexual preference for the male body. But his disengagement is also linked to the description of these encounters as anonymous, impersonal, and lacking in difference. Marc’s orgy, where it “doesn’t matter whose ass is between whose legs, whose teeth are sinking into who,” suggests faceless encounters of undifferentiated skin meeting skin. His lack of interest in Isabelle seems related both to her being a more active partner and to her undirected sexuality: Marc agrees that she is a “lousy lay,” “there was a lot of energy there, but you never knew what she was doing with it.” Both encounters, while marked as heterosexual, nonetheless fail to differentiate between kinds of skin, and therefore, for Gallimard, are erotically lacking.

For Gallimard, sexual desire and the erotic are based on specific differentiation on the basis of both gender and race. His desire for Song CioCio-San is precisely a desire to see himself as powerful in relationship to the female; later in life Gallimard is also put off by Renee’s liberated sexuality and his wife’s suggestion that he is infertile. But it also relies on more than a touch of racial differentiation. This seems maintained in his response to the fantasy striptease of women in pornographic magazines. Power conflated with gender may be claimed in pornographic magazines: “[M]y body shook. Not with lust–no, with power. Here were women-a shelfful–who would do exactly as I wanted.” But even in this case, he loses his desire at the moment when she offers herself. Watching the imaginary woman, Gallimard gets a voyeuristic thrill, but at the same time he is impotent: “I can’t do a thing. Why?” With the stripper, Gallimard’s impotence suggests not only that he may be unable to take any sexual pleasure in women’s bodies (an explanation not consistent with other moments in the play), but also another explanation: that the stereotype of the submissive woman as Caucasian is not enough as a fulfilling fiction. When Gallimard later does find some sexual pleasure in Renee’s “picture perfect” body, he can only conceive of what he deems love in terms of the specific stereotype of Butterfly: a stereotype that is histrionic–fully embodied and live–instead of existing simply on paper, a relation of power fulfilled in all its colonial dimensions and contradictions. It is through the performance of this particularly loaded stereotype that he realizes himself. Gallimard conceives of his “perfect woman” as Oriental fetish, to cover his own fear of undifferentiation.

Both Song and Gallimard, it is suggested, are fully satisfied only by the stereotype. Song is thrilled to have his body serve as the fetish not only because he can dupe Gallimard, but because, as the play suggests, he himself realizes desire through playing this stereotype. Although Song suggests a moment of genuine transcendence, that sexual ecstasy might in fact dispense with those stereotypes that at first constituted sexual pleasure, he does not propose a means of articulating this relationship beyond “I am your Butterfly. Under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me.” Moreover, the play moves quickly past this moment of transcendence to the restaging of stereotypes. Gallimard insists on love as only constituted by the stereotype, even when it ceases to offer him the relative position of power. Again, his choice indicates the strength of his desire, the necessity of having a Butterfly figure as the complex displacement of anxiety. He rejects Song as male and insists instead on the Butterfly of his imagination, which, lacking Song, he can only enact himself. Gallimard’s half-laughing, half-sobbing response to Song’s undressing can be seen as a simultaneous realization and projection of his own lack, one that sets the stage for his own transformation into the self-eviscerating Butterfly.

The Butterfly myth, through its sexual and racial dimensions, thus doubly satisfies the fetishist. The body is fetishized in order to mark both the feminine and a racial “lack”; it is eviscerated in order to affirm the whole, coherent self of the white European male. But it is not only the stereotype of the passive female as Butterfly that satisfies fetishistic desire. The characters in fact mark one another and themselves in a number of ways. In the play, the enacted performances of many different stereotypes become inextricable from the process of desire. Playing the stereotype becomes both a means of disavowing one’s fears of symbolic castration and of marking the desirable differences of others.

All in all, Hwang’s play confronts rather than denies the pervasiveness of the stereotype, in a way that cannot simply be explained as brainwashing or self-hatred, or even fascinated horror. The best we can do for a positive reading of M. Butterfly may be to conclude that the play uses both repulsion and attraction in sometimes contradictory ways. Undoubtedly, Hwang’s play does not parody the stereotype in order to reveal a true, authentic self. Instead, “who I truly am” lies in the perfected playing of stereotype, the exaggeration of stereotype, or in the movement from one stereotype to another. In speaking about the play, Hwang both emphasizes his use of stereotypes and offers his version of what might be seen as the play’s hopeful message:

“M. Butterfly has sometimes been regarded as an anti-American play, a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, of women by men. Quite to the contrary, I consider it a plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception, to deal with one another truthfully for our mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings.” (afterword, M. Butterfly100)

















Works Cited


Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Loo, Chalsa. “M. Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective.” Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: An Asian Pacific American Perspective. Eds. Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, et al. Washington: Washington State UP, 1993. 177-180.