I always find it fitting that, on the cusp of my high school graduation, I discovered the play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. Its story of an affair between a French diplomat and a male Chinese opera singer, who had successfully concealed his biological sex for twenty years during Mao-led China, opened up a whole line of questions that I didn’t know I had about the world. As a gay Asian American coming of age in a largely white suburb, the play forced me to ask: Why were prevailing ideas about what was Chinese or Western? What was male or female? What was appropriate versus inappropriate human desire? And, what were the murky paths through global human history that created these ideas?
I’m sure these provocative questions are a part of why M. Butterfly became such a lightning rod of Asian American theater in its 1988 Broadway debut, scoring two Asian American firsts at the Tonys for Hwang (Best Play) and B.D. Wong (Best Actor). What I’m less sure of is how exactly the piece has played to the audiences over the years, when it seems to be such a prickly indictment of the flowery depictions of Asia often found in theater. With its revival at the Cort Theater, a sleek production directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King, The Magic Flute) and starring Clive Owen (Children of Men, The Knick) and Broadway newcomer Jin Ha, M. Butterfly has lost none of this ambiguous unease. Hearing “Oriental” so casually uttered, for starters, isn’t exactly one’s idea of a post-Hamilton night on Broadway.
Set designer Paul Steinberg’s choice of a cold metallic aesthetic, filled with reflective surfaces, seems to invite the audience to contemplate the historical baggage that the play brings up. And nearly three decades on, there’s more than ever to think about — more than a few revolutions in queer visibility and rights as well as more than a few re-castings of China on the global stage, from Cold War isolationist, to newly open and growing country, to formidable superpower. In such an open-ended time when old ideas of cultural difference between East and West are certainly still around, but now colored by vastly transformed geopolitical power dynamics, Taymor seems content to invite the audience to sink into the odd tonal textures of the play, which stuns like a psychosexual espionage thriller at times, while eliciting the laughter of a farce at others.
It helps that this politically incorrect joke of a premise is based on an actual ripped-from the-headlines news item about former French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, here named René Gallimard, played by Owen. The punchline — that his lover Song Liling, played by Ha, is actually a man — is heard early on as gossip from a very mod party scene. (Loud costumes by Constance Hoffman do much to mine this story’s documentary quality.) Gallimard tells his story while imprisoned for passing intelligence to the Chinese Communist Party through Song, hoping to persuade the audience that he really was “loved by the perfect woman.” In an interesting addition, Taymor dramatizes this narrative frame as Gallimard’s literal prison cell. Soon, its walls prismatically part and morph into an unendingly generative series of panels, opaque and translucent, perhaps meant to evoke the layers of Gallimard’s psyche.
And his psyche is heavy stuff — the legacy of European colonialism of Asia and its attendant racist tropes and sexual fetishes about a submissive Far East. Predicting the more recent discourse around intersections between race and gender, Hwang’s creation of Gallimard took the critique of femininity in the modern world as a construction created for the pleasure of men further to incorporate the West’s history of exploiting and colonizing Asian nations and peoples. Gallimard’s Orientalism is all the more disturbing coming from the visage of Clive Owen, as oversized an A-lister as any. Perhaps sensing how this material may play to a more modern sensibility, both Taymor and Hwang make subtle alterations that turn much of M. Butterfly into a sex comedy of errors. Taymor plays moments like Gallimard’s boss being jealous of his “native mistress” for laughs. But the joke is on the ensemble of bumbling figures of European expat society, who seem clueless that their colonialist mentalities are costing them in their arrogant interventionist actions in Vietnam. In another moment, Hwang lays bare the limits of Gallimard’s racial fetishes when a young hippie trying out revolutionary chic introduces him to a radical worldview that includes Asian masculinity.
The lynchpin performance, particularly in the context of today’s debates of racist typecasting, is still that of Song, played seamlessly by Jin Ha. Like B.D. Wong and John Lone, in David Cronenberg’s film version, before him, Ha undergoes a steely transformation to inhabit a character that is itself a character, or is it? It’s an unbelievably loaded role for an Asian man, and all the more riveting for it. By the play’s close, a pat message about emasculation or gender identity remains hopelessly elusive. However, this revival includes yet another addition by Hwang, a tale that Song tells about his backstory, that less so clarifies the truth than gives his character the agency of a trans or gender-queer identity. More than anything, Ha plays a deeply flawed and contradictory person, at turns charismatic, pathetic, self-serving, and fierce. In Ha’s performance, Song feels like someone using the rules of gender and race to their own ends in desperate times.
With an actor at its heart, it’s no wonder that M. Butterfly also functions as a meta-commentary on the ontology of Western and Chinese opera that would make any theater studies buff’s day. As the title suggests, Hwang pastes Gallimard’s story over the famous opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini, like a bad makeup job. But it’s not merely Gallimard, whose worldview is so in the thrall of theater. Song’s world of communist China is fighting its own even fiercer ideological battles on the stage, shifting from folk opera traditions to socialist model operas. A series of minimalist vignettes, masterfully supervised by the organization, Chinese Theatre Works, pares down the representational weight each of these Chinese theater forms have in helping the Chinese people attempt to create their own aesthetics in their own self-image.
Ever since I started middle school and saw my first school musical South Pacific, a musical about American sailors in the South Pacific in WWII tackling their desires for the native people, I grew up wondering how Asian characters should and could be represented in the realm of theater and drama. While many are doing the important work to place characters of color in roles that liberate them from oppressive roles, the lure of Hwang’s piece seems to be that it tackles Asian stereotypes head-on through the hall of mirrors of theater. Thanks to Taymor’s dreamy touch, so much of M. Butterfly feels cinematic — the attention paid to sound design, Gallimard’s narration, and the montage of quick scenes that compress Gallimard’s story — and yet, M. Butterfly‘s most powerful draw is how it plays out the social and political experiment of theater, bringing private, illicit notions of race, gender, and sex to the cultured public arena, much as the main characters’ affairs were brought to judgment on the international stage.
M. Butterfly runs at the Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th Street through February 25, 2018. 2 hrs. and 20 mins. with intermission.
Alex Ho is a museum and after-school arts educator. He works at the Museum of Chinese in America and the Museum of the Moving Image.